Vergil's Aeneid, Books 2-3

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Laocoon and the Serpents

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 600 words.

Remember Laocoon? He was the one who immediately recognized the danger of the horse: "Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood, or it's been built as a machine to use against our walls, or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above, or it hides some other trick." Well now the Trojans are going to see a weird and horrifying event, which seems to confirm that Laocoon was wrong to doubt the horse: his punishment is brutal, and it seems to be an act of the goddess Minerva (Athena). This is a very strange moment in the poem: the Greeks and their agent Sinon are humans, but is it really true that the gods are involved here? I find this scene very weird and mysterious: what do you think?

Through these tricks and the skill of perjured Sinon, the thing was credited,
and we were trapped, by his wiliness, and false tears,
we, who were not conquered by Diomede, or Larissan Achilles,
nor by the ten years of war, nor those thousand ships.

Then something greater and more terrible befalls
us wretches, and stirs our unsuspecting souls.
Laocoon, chosen by lot as priest of Neptune,
was sacrificing a huge bull at the customary altar.
See, a pair of serpents with huge coils, snaking over the sea
from Tenedos through the tranquil deep (I shudder to tell it),
and heading for the shore side by side: their fronts lift high
over the tide, and their blood-red crests top the waves,
the rest of their body slides through the ocean behind,
and their huge backs arch in voluminous folds.
There's a roar from the foaming sea: now they reach the shore,
and with burning eyes suffused with blood and fire,
lick at their hissing jaws with flickering tongues.
Blanching at the sight we scatter. They move
on a set course towards Laocoon: and first each serpent
entwines the slender bodies of his two sons,
and biting at them, devours their wretched limbs:
then as he comes to their aid, weapons in hand, they seize him too,
and wreathe him in massive coils: now encircling his waist twice,
twice winding their scaly folds around his throat,
their high necks and heads tower above him.

He strains to burst the knots with his hands,
his sacred headband drenched in blood and dark venom,
while he sends terrible shouts up to the heavens,
like the bellowing of a bull that has fled wounded,
from the altar, shaking the useless axe from its neck.
But the serpent pair escape, slithering away to the high temple,
and seek the stronghold of fierce Pallas, to hide there
under the goddess's feet, and the circle of her shield.
Then in truth a strange terror steals through each shuddering heart,
and they say that Laocoon has justly suffered for his crime
in wounding the sacred oak-tree with his spear,
by hurling its wicked shaft into the trunk.

"Pull the statue to her house", they shout,
"and offer prayers to the goddess's divinity."

We breached the wall, and opened up the defences of the city.
All prepare themselves for the work and they set up wheels
allowing movement under its feet, and stretch hemp ropes
round its neck. That engine of fate mounts our walls
pregnant with armed men. Around it boys, and virgin girls,
sing sacred songs, and delight in touching their hands to the ropes:
Up it glides and rolls threateningly into the midst of the city.

O my country, O Ilium house of the gods, and you,
Trojan walls famous in war! Four times it sticks at the threshold
of the gates, and four times the weapons clash in its belly:
yet we press on regardless, blind with frenzy,
and site the accursed creature on top of our sacred citadel.
Even then Cassandra, who, by the god's decree, is never
to be believed by Trojans, reveals our future fate with her lips.
We unfortunate ones, for whom that day is our last,
clothe the gods' temples, throughout the city, with festive branches.
Meanwhile the heavens turn, and night rushes from the Ocean,
wrapping the earth, and sky, and the Myrmidons' tricks,
in its vast shadow: through the city the Trojans
fall silent: sleep enfolds their weary limbs.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what happened when the Trojan Laocoon was making a sacrifice on the seashore?
  • how was the death of Laocoon interpreted by the other Trojans?
  • what were the ominous signs as the Trojans brought the horse into the city?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Vergil's Aeneid (2002). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Vergil's Aeneid freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM