Where Does the Phrase "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" Come From?

Trojan Horse

The adage "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts is heard often, and is normally used to refer to an act of charity that masks a hidden destructive or hostile agenda. But it's not widely known that the phrase originates with a story from Greek mythology--specifically the story of the Trojan War, in which the Greeks, led by Agamemnon, sought to rescue Helen, who had been taken to Troy after falling in love with Paris. This tale forms the core of Homer's famous epic poem, The Illiad. 

The Episode of the Trojan Horse

We pick up the story at a point near the end of the ten-year long Trojan War. Since both the Greeks and the Trojans had gods on their sides, and since the greatest warriors for both sides were now dead, the sides were very evenly matched, with no sign that the war might end soon. Despair reigned on both sides. 

However, the Greeks had the cunning of Odysseus on their side. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, devised the idea of constructing a large horse to pose as a peace offering to the Trojans. When this Trojan Horse was left at the gates of Troy, the Trojans believed the Greeks had left it as a pious surrender gift as they sailed for home. Welcoming the gift, the Trojans opened their gates and wheeled the horse within their walls, little knowing the belly of the beast was filled with armed soldiers who would soon destroy their city. A celebratory victory festival ensued, and once the Trojans had fallen into a drunken slumber, the Greeks emerged from the horse and vanquished them. Greek cleverness won the day over Trojan warrior skill. 

How the Phrase Came into Use

The Roman Poet Virgil eventually coined the phrase "Be wary of Greeks bearing gifts," putting it into the mouth of the character Laocoon in the Aeneid, an epic retelling of the legend of the Trojan War. The Latin phrase is "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes," which literally translated means "I fear the Danaans [Greeks], even those bearing gifts," but it is usually translated in English as "Beware (or be wary) of Greeks bearing gifts." It is from Virgil's poetic retelling of the story that we get this well-known phrase. 

The adage is now used regularly as a warning when a supposed gift or act of virtue is thought to hold a hidden threat.

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Gill, N.S. "Where Does the Phrase "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" Come From?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/beware-of-greeks-bearing-gifts-origin-121368. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). Where Does the Phrase "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" Come From? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/beware-of-greeks-bearing-gifts-origin-121368 Gill, N.S. "Where Does the Phrase "Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts" Come From?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/beware-of-greeks-bearing-gifts-origin-121368 (accessed March 27, 2023).