The classic statue of Laocoon and his two sons being killed by two serpents is a significant icon of antiquity. It expresses multiple elements of ancient Greece and Rome in a way few other works do, in that the intensity of the action reflects the vividness of the Trojan War, as well as the complex interactions between the divine and humanity so essential to the classic legends and literature of the era.
It is, in no uncertain terms, a powerful work of art expressing a specific and crucial moment in the trajectory of the great conflict, as the perfection of its form adds beauty to a horrific scene. Other attributes aside, however, it is arguable that the statue most potently conveys a single idea fundamental to the ancient West. Laocoon represents fully the dangerous, if not often fatal, consequences of human interaction with the gods when humans go too far.
Laocoon is identified as having been created by the Rhodes sculptors although there is a doubt as to the actual date of its creation, which is placed at anywhere between 200 BCE To 60 CE. The statue is currently placed in the Museum Pio-Clementino of the Vatican.
Notwithstanding artists and dates, the work is one of the most readily recognized of all classical Western art, a reality at least partially due to the classical perfection of the statue. Carved in marble, the piece presents the attack of serpents on Laocoon and his sons, and in strikingly “living” manner; at the center is the father, agony on his face as a serpent sinks its fangs into his side. To his left is one son struggling with the coiled body of the snake, looking on his father’s pain, while to the right the other son appears to be in the process of being crushed by another serpent (Kleiner 140).
The brutal deaths of the three are then captured in the moments of the attack, just as it is conveyed that none will survive. True to classical Greek sculpture, all forms are rendered with physical precision, from the full bodies of the men to the tortured expressions of their faces.
As is obvious, this is a highly specific scene depicted, and it goes to a pivotal point in the Trojan War, which in turn relies on the identity of the father in history. While the presence of Laocoon exists in multiple references of antiquity, there is a dispute as to his actual role. Homer does not mention Laocoon at all. Virgil has him as a priest of Neptune, yet other classical sources identify him as one of Apollo.
It is in fact argued that Virgil altered Laocoon’s divine patron because, in the Augustan age when the Aeneid was composed, it would have been unthinkable for a priest of the sun god to be so slaughtered (Fratantuono 42). What is generally agreed upon is the basis for the attacks of the serpents. An account of the sack of Troy predating Virgil has Laocoon as an Apollonian priest who warns the Trojans that the Horse is not a gift of the Greeks, but a ruse. In the Iliupersis of the poet Arctinus, this is important, as the Trojans are already divided in their opinion of it.
Laocoon then echoes the character of Cassandra, gifted with prophetic sight but ultimately ignored. Also as with Cassandra, Laocoon’s warning brings punishment from gods interested in seeing Troy fall and – in Arctinus – it is Apollo who sends the murderous serpents (Farrell, Putnam 327). That Virgil assigns this act to Athena and renders Laocoon a priest of Neptune, does not appreciably alter the meaning of the event; a mortal issue of a desperate warning is ignored and is further destroyed by the god furious at his interference.
Various scholars attempt to unravel the complications of Laocoon and this turning point in the Trojan War, and usually through investigating which deity had the most incentive for intervening. To Virgil’s credit, his account of Athena as ordering the murders is extremely plausible. The goddess had helped to create the Trojan Horse, and her desire to punish Troy for the insulting Judgment of Paris never waned (Fratantuono 44). As Athena has always been a particularly warlike goddess, the rationale is more convincing. She is also consistently identified with serpents, as in her history with Medusa and the serpents on her own shield (Henry 98).
That Apollo would order the killings is also less easy to explain, as the god was invested in the welfare of Troy and not driven to the extremes of violence of Athena. Then again, Apollo is a protector of Aeneas, who must later found Rome, so the sacrifice of Laocoon may be only an agent in generating the flight of Aeneas from Troy. Also, it must be wondered how, if Laocoon is a priest of Poseidon as Virgil claims, sea serpents would be used to destroy him and his sons, as such creatures would have been within Poseidon’s domain and control. Nonetheless, and disputes aside, the reality consistently remains that Laocoon and his sons die because he is actively seeking to warn the Trojans.
Most central to this is the agent of the murders, and the statue itself gives some indication of this important element. As noted, the form is classically perfect; the three are represented as fully human in every detail, just as the size of the work adds integrity to the scene and the figures are virtually life-size (ancientrome.ru). The work absolutely conveys an act of brutality in action, as the suffering on the father’s face, the loss of life evident on one son’s, and the despair on the other’s is emphasized.
The serpents are of course causing the deaths but, as the guiding force behind then is not represented, that force then takes on greater mystery and power. Moreover, the serpent biting into Laocoon has itself an expression of malevolence, indicating that this is no random attack of wild creatures. Even a lack of awareness of the story of the Trojan War, or the identities of the characters, would not weaken the clear sense that this is, in fact, an act of deliberate retribution. Moreover, it is beyond even severe punishment because the father must be aware of the deaths of his sons before his own life is taken (Fratantuono 41).
All of this then goes to the strangely persistent quality of political conflict in Greek and Roman legend, and conflict in which the gods are as active – and prone to irrational decisions – as the mortals. In The Aeneid, as in Homer, there are two levels of play; the mortal and the divine, and human events are perpetually shaped by the interactions of the two.
On one level, these classics invariably add the component of human prophecy as both enabled by the gods and ultimately leading to disaster, as with Cassandra. On another, there is the equally constant aspect of sacrifice as essential. In Virgil, Laocoon is in a sense merely doing as he is directed to do by his faith; he is, in fact, in the process of sacrificing a bull at Poseidon’s altar, to better understand the meaning of the Trojan Horse and the Greek agenda, when Athena sets the serpents upon him and his sons. Virgil has actually transformed Laocoon into the bull he is killing is important (Fratantuono 41); for the gods, sacrifice is then echoed, just as any human exercise of a gift of prophecy must be punished.
That such gifts come from the gods then underscores the ultimate reality, in that mortal presumption in interfering with divine plans must bring destruction. In the intensely political, complex, and often barbaric quarrels of the gods, no human may dare assert such power. This implies that even divine gifts of prophecy are bestowed only as warnings and never to be used, and Laocoon and his sons suffer greatly for his having simply played a role in a drama under the authority of vengeful deities.
In this scholarly essay, Laocoon and his sons are interpreted as representing a tragic and human moment in the Trojan War, in which the victims die as the trajectory of the war proceeds, and also to prompt the flight of Aeneas necessary for the founding of Rome. It does to an extent represent human matters of a dramatic nature during an epic war. At the same time, there is a stronger message here, and one invariably linked to all mortal warfare of the classical era. Laocoon and his sons die simply because he has gone too far in expressing human capability, in seeking to warn the Trojans. This being the ultimate reality, Laocoon then represents fully the dangerous, if not typically fatal, consequences of human interaction with the gods when the former asserts too much power.
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