The Man Who Almost Saved Troy: Who Was Laocoon?

The Trojan War could have ended differently if the Trojans had listened to Laocoon's desperate warning. Read on to learn about his tragic life and death.

Aug 8, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
laocoon el greco trojan horse troy
The procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo1, 1760, National Gallery, London; Laocoön, El Greco1, 1610-1614, National Gallery Of Art, Washington

 

Laocoon was a Trojan priest and seer of the god Poseidon whose tragic story was famously immortalized in the statue known as Laocoon and his Sons currently held at the Vatican Museums’ collection. In the final act of the legendary Trojan War, the Greek army, unable to penetrate the walls of Troy, resorted to a ruse. A legendary trick that would determine the course of the war. The Greeks built a giant wooden horse and pretended to leave their sieging positions. The Trojans believed that they had won and thought that the horse was an honorable gift left by their retreating enemies.

 

Little did they know that the effigy was hollow and filled with armed soldiers. Of all the Trojans, only one saw behind the dangerous farse. That was Laocoon.

 

Laocoon’s Warning

tiepolo building trojan horse painting
The building of the Trojan Horse, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1760, National Gallery, London

 

Laocoon warned his fellow Trojans not to celebrate before making sure that the Greeks had left. Cautious of the wooden horse, he shouted:

 

“O unhappy citizens, what madness? Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’ (Odysseus) reputation? 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: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.”
Virgil, Aeneid II.1-56

 

He then famously said:

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“Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts”

 

And Laocoon was right. But he would not get rewarded for it. In a desperate attempt to discover what was in the Trojan horse, Laocoon raised his spear and pierced its side. Virgil lyrically describes the scene:

 

The spear stuck quivering, and at the womb’s reverberation

the cavity rang hollow and gave out a groan.

And if the gods’ fate, if our minds, had not been ill-omened,

he’d have incited us to mar the Greeks hiding-place with steel:

Troy would still stand: and you, high tower of Priam would remain. 

Virgil, Aeneid II.1-56

 

Laocoon’s Punishment

el greco laocoon and his sons painting
Laocoön, El Greco, 1610-1614, National Gallery Of Art, Washington

 

Laocoon’s warning had failed. After ten years of war, the Trojans were so tired in both body and spirit that they were truly desperate for good news. The wooden horse was an obvious trick, but no one was willing to see behind it. No one was willing to listen to Laocoon’s whining. Just as everyone was getting overly optimistic, Laocoon almost convinced them that the struggle was not over. For this sin, divine punishment awaited. Besides, the Trojan War was never just a war between Greeks and Trojans. It was always a war of gods, and Laocoon had interfered with their plans. Depending on which account you read, it was Apollo or Athena that punished Laocoon. In Virgil’s Aeneid, it is the latter.

 

Right after Laocoon had pierced the side of the Trojan horse, he sacrificed a bull to Poseidon on behalf of the city. But then, two giant venomous serpents appeared from the sea. Rapidly, they advanced towards Laocoon, and within moments, they began biting and strangling him and his two sons who were standing beside him:

 

They [the serpents] move

on a set course towards Laocoön: 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. 

Virgil, Aeneid II.195-227

 

Even after the brutal death of Laocoon, the Trojans closed their eyes in front of the coming destruction. They misinterpreted Laocoon’s end, thinking it was punishment for disrespecting the gift of the Greeks and mistrusting Sinon, the Greek soldier who had been sent on an undercover mission to convince the Trojans that the horse was a gift.

 

Soaked in blood, the serpents left and hid inside Athena’s temple. For the Trojans, this was an obvious sign that they had to worship the goddess.

 

heil fall troy painting
The Fall of Troy by Daniel van Heil, 17th century, Private Collection

 

Laocoon’s suffering had been in vain. His fellow citizens had misinterpreted even his death. If they had taken a few moments to listen, they might have understood that Laocoon’s death was punishment for interfering with Athena’s plans. But they were blinded by their false optimism. It is not that they did not understand what was coming. They wanted to believe that their suffering was over. They desperately clung to the idea that things would get better, and they didn’t.

 

When the whole city was asleep after a night of revelry, Greek soldiers came out of the wooden horse and opened the gates of Troy. After ten years of sieging, the Greek army entered the city and wreaked havoc. This was the fall of Troy.

 

Alternative Versions Of The Story

laocoon head
Laocoon’s head, Wikimedia Commons

 

Homer never mentioned Laocoon. However, a series of other Greek and Roman poets offered varying accounts of his story.

 

So far, we explored Virgil’s version, but there are also multiple other retellings. The most important are those of Apollodorus, Quintus Smyrnaeus, Hyginus, Euphorion of Chalkis and the lost tragedy of Sophocles called Laocoon.

 

According to Apollodorus, Laocoon had intercourse with his wife inside the temple of Apollo. As a result, Apollo punished the Trojan priest with the two serpents. However, according to Euphorion, it was Poseidon’s temple that was desecrated by Laocoon and the ocean god, the one who ordered his death. Hyginus presents a third version in which Laocoon as a priest of Poseidon, was not allowed to be married. But Laocoon went against the rules, married, and had children. This greatly angered Poseidon leading to the priest’s well-known end.

 

Quintus Smyrrnaeus writes that when Laocoon begged the Trojans to burn the Trojan Horse, Athena first blinded him. When he insisted on arguing against the gift, she ordered the serpents to strangle Laocoon and his sons.

 

Laocoon And His Sons

laocoon and his sons sculpture vatican
Laocoon and his sons, Vatican Museums

 

If you ever took a class in Greek art, you must have certainly seen this sculpture. This is one of antiquity’s most famous artworks, the statue group called Laocoon and his sons.

 

It is an established, though still controversial, view that this artwork is the one described by the Roman writer Pliny (Natural History 36.4) as preferable to every other sculpture or painting produced. Pliny mentions three artists as its creators, all from the Greek island of Rhodes: Athenodoros, Agesander, and Polydorus. The statue is dated to the Hellenistic era, and many authors throughout history have considered it to be Greek art’s greatest sculpture.

 

Laocoon and his Sons, was buried under the earth for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1506. It was immediately identified as the sculpture that Pliny talked about and was moved to the Vatican by order of Pope Julius II. It remained there until today, inspiring generations upon generations of artists. The sculpture depicted the scene of Laocoon and his two sons’ death strangled and bitten by the two giant serpents. The expressiveness and movement of the figures rightfully earned it a place among the masterpieces of ancient art. The depiction of Laocoon’s unbearable pain and anguish at the moment of his death also inspired a series of thinkers who discussed ancient art and aesthetics.

 

The Sculpture Through The Eyes Of Winckelmann, Lessing, Goethe And Blake 

winckelmann painting
Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Raphael Mengs, c. 1777, Met Museum, New York

 

First, Johann Joachim Winckelmann expressed his admiration for the statue complex. Winckelmann, the father of Classical Archaeology, saw in Laocoon and his Sons a unique creative moment in which beauty met pain. He named the sculpture a true masterwork embodying his Classical Ideal described as of ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.’

 

Another German philosopher, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, wrote a whole book titled Laocoon. Even though the book’s first pages were devoted to a discussion of the sculpture, the true content was different. Lessing began by asking why Virgil’s Laocoon is screaming at the time of his death, but Laocoon, the statue, is barely opening his mouth. The answer to him was because visual and literary arts fundamentally differ in the way they present a story. As a result, the sculptor of Laocoon could not show him screaming because that would result in a less beautiful artwork. The sculptor shows a Laocoon who is horrified, tragic, and at the same time beautiful.

 

Another German, Johann Goethe, devoted an essay to the sculpture called Upon the Laocoon (1798). Goethe used the sculpture to express his admiration for Greek art while declaring Laocoon and his Sons its masterpiece.

 

william blake laocoon sculpture
Laocoon, William Blake, c. 1826-7, via the William Blake Archive

 

In c. 1815, William Blake revolted against a century of hymns in honor of Laocoon and the oppressive authority of the Greek Ideal, which Winckelmann, Lessing and Goethe had helped establish. Blake’s contribution to the debate was not literary but visual through a sketch that reinterpreted Laocoon as Jehovah and his sons as Satan and Adam.

 

This was not the last time Laocoon was discussed. Critics, artists, philosophers, historians keep coming back to Laocoon’s sculpture seeking inspiration, guidance, and aesthetic satisfaction.

 

Was Laocoon A Real Person?

brosamer laocoon print
Laocoön Troia, Hans Brosamer, 1538, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Laocoon in ancient literature, was a priest who went against the grain. Where everyone saw a gift, Laocoon saw danger. Laocoon faced the consequences of resisting blind optimism and remained critical of what appeared in front of him.

 

We have all been in Laocoon’s place at one time in our lives, seeing something differently, trying to convince someone that they are not estimating a situation correctly. However, I hope that no one was punished for this by being strangled by two giant serpents sent by the gods.

 

If you ask a historian if Laocoon lived in reality, you will probably get one of the following answers: “No” or “Probably not, but certainly not as portrayed by Virgil.” However, Laocoon was undoubtedly real. He lived in the songs and the art of the ancients. Through ancient literature and the famous sculpture, he lived in people’s imagination from antiquity until the present. Finally, he lived in the treatises of European thinkers and critics in the 18th and 19th centuries. And through all these, he remains alive today.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.