Book II - The Death of Laocoon

The scene of Laocoon’s death by savage snakes is a powerful passage from Book II of the Aeneid.

In ancient times, people worshipped several different gods rather than a single god, believing that each god or goddess had control over a certain aspect of life. Laocoon was the chief priest of Neptune in Troy, and so had devoted his life to praising the power that Neptune held over the sea and its bounty. Troy was said to have been a very wealthy nation, located on a strategic trading route at the Dardanelles near Gallipoli. Laocoon was a particularly important figure in Trojan society because his temple to Neptune was seen as bringing the city prosperity.

Study from the Antique, Robert Procter, 1900. This graphic work features the head of Laocoon, probably drawn from a cast of the sculpture 'Laocoon and his Sons'. UC/SFA/039, UC Art Collection.

Sometime shortly before 1000BC, Greece waged a war against Troy that lasted ten whole years, at the end of which Greece managed to defeat Troy with trickery. In an attempt to deceive the Trojans by making them think they had surrendered, the Greeks make a huge wooden horse out of some of their ships and concealed hundreds of soldiers within its hollow belly. They then hid the rest of their ships behind the nearby island of Tenedos, and sent one of their own, Sinon, to sell the lie and offer the huge horse to the Trojans as a gift.

The Aeneid tells the story of Troy from this point in time, recounting the tragic last day of the city as its people rejoice at the Greeks’ surrender, letting down their guard and celebrating with much wine. This ultimately leaves the Trojans unprepared for the Greeks’ early morning attack from the horse. No one except Laocoon questions the intention of the Greek gift. Laocoon tries to persuade the Trojans not to trust the Greeks. However, since they are exhausted by war they refuse to believe him, and in a moment of frustration, he drives a spear into the belly of the horse. It shudders momentarily, but not enough for the citizens to realise it is concealing more than just wood.

The following passage explains Laocoon’s distrust of the Greeks’ surrender in more detail, and then describes the murderous progress of the twin snakes as they glide across the sea from Tenedos to Troy to devour Laocoon and his sons. This fatal event is misconceived by the Trojans as a bloody omen and that ultimately sways the people of Troy to accept the infamous wooden horse within the walls of their city.

The passage encapsulates the theme of adversity within the Aeneid. It is important to note that Laocoon is slain by serpents of the sea who are creatures of Neptune, the very god he worships every day. This relates back to the theme of divine duplicity, and how trust in the good intention of these celestial powers can be tested. How could someone so devout receive such a terrible fate? It is a question that has troubled society since ancient times.

Laocoon’s tragic end has been retold in several forms of art. One particularly famous rendition is the marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons on display in the Vatican Museum. The University of Canterbury Art Collection also holds a drawing from the antique by Robert Proctor of Laocoon’s miserable expression.

Next: A Tale of Good Fortune