From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican

Laocoön (/lˈɒkˌɒn, -kəˌwɒn/;[1][2][a] Ancient Greek: Λαοκόων, romanizedLaokóōn, IPA: [laokóɔːn], gen.: Λαοκόοντος) is a figure in Greek and Roman mythology and the Epic Cycle. Laocoön is a Trojan priest. He and his two young sons are attacked by giant serpents, sent by the gods when Laocoön argued against bringing the Trojan horse into the city. The story of Laocoön has been the subject of numerous artists, both in ancient and in more contemporary times.


Laocoön was variously called as the son of Acoetes,[3] Antenor, or Poseidon;[4] or the son of Priam and Hecuba.[5] He had two sons.


Death of Laocoön from the Vatican Vergil

The most detailed description of Laocoön's grisly fate was provided by Quintus Smyrnaeus in Posthomerica, a later, literary version of events following the Iliad. According to Quintus, Laocoön begged the Trojans to set fire to the Trojan horse to ensure it was not a trick.

Athena, angry with him and the Trojans, shook the ground around Laocoön's feet and painfully blinded him. The Trojans, watching this unfold, assumed Laocoön was punished for the Trojans' mutilating and doubting Sinon, the undercover Greek soldier sent to convince the Trojans to let him and the horse inside their city walls. Thus, the Trojans wheeled the great wooden horse in. Laocoön did not give up trying to convince the Trojans to burn the horse.

According to one source, it was Athena who punished Laocoön even further, by sending two giant sea serpents to strangle and kill him and his two sons.[6] Another version of the story says that it was Poseidon who sent the sea serpents to kill them. And according to Apollodorus, it was Apollo who sent the two sea serpents, because Laocoön had insulted Apollo by having sex with his wife in front of his cult statue.[7]

Virgil used the story in the Aeneid. According to Virgil, Laocoön advised the Trojans not to receive the horse from the Greeks. They were taken in by the deceitful testimony of Sinon and disregarded Laocoön's advice. The enraged Laocoön threw his spear at the Horse in response.

Minerva then sent sea serpents to strangle Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, for his actions.

"Laocoön, ostensibly sacrificing a bull to Neptune on behalf of the city (lines 201 ff.), becomes himself the tragic victim, as the simile (lines 223–224) makes clear. In some sense, his death must be symbolic of the city as a whole ..." — S.V. Tracy (1987)[8](p 453)

According to the Hellenistic poet Euphorion of Chalcis, Laocoön was actually punished for procreating upon holy ground sacred to Poseidon; it was only unlucky timing that caused the Trojans to misinterpret his death as punishment for striking the horse with a spear, which they bring into the city with disastrous consequences.[b] The episode furnished the subject of Sophocles' lost tragedy, Laocoön.

In Aeneid, Virgil describes the circumstances of Laocoön's death:

from the Aeneid     English translation     tr. Dryden[9]
Ille simul manibus
tendit divellere nodos

perfusus sanie vittas

atroque veneno,

clamores simul horrendos

ad sidera tollit:

qualis mugitus, fugit

cum saucius aram

taurus et incertam

excussit cervice securim.
At the same time he stretched hands
forth to tear the knots

his fillets soaked with saliva

and black venom

at the same time he lifted horrendous

cries to heaven:

like the bellowing when fleeing

from the altar a wounded

bull and has shaken the

ill-aimed axe from its neck.
With both his hands
he labors at the knots;

His holy fillets

the blue venom blots;

His roaring fills

the flitting air around.

Thus, when an ox

receives a glancing wound,

He breaks his bands,

the fatal altar flies,

And with loud bellowings

breaks the yielding skies.

Classical descriptions[edit]

Laocoön and his sons attacked by serpents sent by Athena, fresco in Pompeii

The story of Laocoön is not mentioned by Homer, but it had been the subject of a tragedy, now lost, by Sophocles and was mentioned by other Greek writers, though the events around the attack by the serpents vary considerably. The most famous account of these is now in Virgil's Aeneid where Laocoön was a priest of Neptune (Poseidon), who was killed with both his sons after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear.[c]

Virgil gives Laocoön the famous line

"Equō nē crēdite, Teucrī / Quidquid id est, timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentēs"
[Do not trust the Horse, Trojans / Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.]

This quote is the source of the saying: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

In Sophocles, however, he was a priest of Apollo who should have been celibate, but had married. The serpents killed only the two sons, leaving Laocoön himself alive to suffer.[11] In other versions, he was killed for having committed an impiety by making love with his wife in the presence of a cult image in a sanctuary,[12] or simply making a sacrifice in the temple with his wife present.[13] In this second group of versions, the snakes were sent by Poseidon[14] and in the first by Poseidon and Athena, or Apollo, and the deaths were interpreted by the Trojans as proof that the horse was a sacred object. The two versions have rather different morals: Laocoön was either punished for doing wrong, or for being right.[15]

Later depictions[edit]

The death of Laocoön was famously depicted in a much-admired marble Laocoön and His Sons, attributed by Pliny the Elder to the Rhodian sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus, which stands in the Vatican Museums, Rome. Copies have been executed by various artists, notably Baccio Bandinelli. These show the complete sculpture (with conjectural reconstructions of the missing pieces) and are located in Rhodes, at the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and in front of the Archaeological Museum, Odesa, Ukraine, amongst others. Alexander Calder also designed a stabile which he called Laocoön in 1947; it's part of the Eli and Edyth Broad collection in Los Angeles.

The marble Laocoön provided the central image for Lessing's Laocoön, 1766, an aesthetic polemic directed against Winckelmann and the comte de Caylus. Daniel Albright reengages the role of the figure of Laocoön in aesthetic thought in his book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Literature, Music, and Other Arts.

In Hector Berlioz's 1863 opera Les Troyens, the death of Laocoön is a pivotal moment of the first act after Aeneas' entrance, sung by eight singers and a double choir ("ottetto et double chœur"). It begins with the verse "Châtiment effroyable" ("frightful punishment").

  • In addition to other literary references, John Barth employs a bust of Laocoön in his novella, The End of the Road.
  • The R.E.M. song "Laughing", on the band's debut album, Murmur (1983), references Laocoön, rendering him female ("Laocoön and her two sons");[16] they also reference Laocoön in the song "Harborcoat".
  • The comic book Asterix and the Laurel Wreath parodies statue's pose.
  • American author Joyce Carol Oates also references Laocoön in her 1989 novel American Appetites.
  • In Stave V of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843), Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning, "making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings".
  • Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly begins with an extensive analysis of the Laocoön story.
  • The American feminist poet and author Marge Piercy includes a poem titled "Laocoön is the name of the figure", in her collection Stone, Paper, Knife (1983), relating love lost and beginning.
  • John Steinbeck references Laocoön in his American literary classic East of Eden, referring to a picture of “Laocoön completely wrapped in snakes” when describing artwork hanging in classrooms at the Salinas schoolhouse.
  • Sinclair Lewis references Laocoön in his novel Arrowsmith, remarking of a family argument that "general composition [was] remarkably like the Laocoön."[17]
  • Postminimalist artist Eva Hesse named her first major freestanding sculpture—a tall wrapped framework with a tangle of cords—Laocoon (1966).[18]
  • Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov makes a passing mention of Laocoön is his novel on totalitarianism, Bend Sinister.



  1. ^ The double-dot diacritic over the next-to-last "o" is an English-language diaeresis, indicating that each of the two vowels should be sounded as a separate syllable. (It should not be confused with an umlaut, which would indicate a different sound to the vowel altogether.)
  2. ^ Euphorion's poem is lost, but Servius alludes to the lines in his scholia on the Aeneid.
  3. ^ According to Virgil:
    Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos;(2.101)
    two serpents were sent to Troy across the sea from the island of Tenedos, where the Greeks had temporarily camped.[10]

Classical sources[edit]

Compiled by Tracy,[8](p 452, note 3) which includes a fragmentary line possibly by Nicander:

  • Arctinus of Miletus. OCT Homer. 5.107.23.
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities. 1.48.2.
  • Gaius Julius Hyginus. Fabula. 135.
  • Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Satyricon. 89.
  • Maurus Servius Honoratus. on Aeneid. 2.201.
  • Apollodorus. Epitome. 5.18.
  • Quintus Smyrnaeus. Posthomerica. 12.445 ff.
  • John Tzetzes. Ad Lycophron. 347.


  1. ^ "Laocoön". Oxford Dictionaries UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. [permanent dead link] [dead link]
  2. ^ "Laocoön". Dictionary. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
  3. ^ Hyginus. Fabula. 135. Laocoon, son of Acoetes, brother of Anchises, and priest of Apollo ...
  4. ^ John Tzetzes. ad Lycophron. 347.
  5. ^ Peck, Harry Thurston, ed. (1898). "Laocoön". Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities – via Perseus project, Tufts University.
  6. ^ Quintus of Smyrna (2004). The Trojan Epic Posthomerica. Translated by James, Alan (Print ed.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  7. ^ Apollodorus. Epitome. E.5.18 – via Perseus project, Tufts University.
  8. ^ a b Tracy, S.V. (Autumn 1987). "Laocoon's guilt". The American Journal of Philology. 108 (3): 452–453. doi:10.2307/294668. JSTOR 294668.
  9. ^ Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Dryden, J. line 290.
  10. ^ Virgil. Aeneid. 2.199–227.
  11. ^ Smith, p 109; according to Hyginus, for one
  12. ^ according to Servius
  13. ^ Stewart, 85; this last in the commentary on Virgil of Maurus Servius Honoratus, citing Euphorion of Chalcis
  14. ^ Smith, William (1846). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Taylor and Walton. p. 776.
  15. ^ Boardman (1993) p 199
  16. ^ Hogan, Peter (1995). The Complete Guide to the Music of R.E.M. Omnibus Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-7119-4901-8.
  17. ^ Lewis, Sinclair. Arrowsmith. Project Gutenberg Australia.
  18. ^ Lippard, Lucy. Eva Hesse. Da Capo. p. 58.


  • Boardman, J., ed. (1993). The Oxford History of Classical Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-814386-9.
  • Gall, Dorothee; Wolkenhauer, Anja (hg) (30 November 2006). Laokoon in Literatur und Kunst. Symposions "Laokoon in Literatur und Kunst" vom 30 November 2006. (Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter) Beiträge zur Altertumskunde. Vol. 254. Bonn, DE: Universität Bonn (published 2009).
  • Smith, R.R.R., ed. (1991). Hellenistic Sculpture: A handbook. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500202494.

External links[edit]