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Definition: Laocoön from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In classical mythology, a Trojan priest of Apollo and a visionary, brother of Anchises. He and his sons were killed by serpents when he foresaw disaster for Troy in the Trojan horse left by the Greeks. The scene of their death is the subject of a classical marble group, rediscovered in the Renaissance, and forms an episode in Virgil's Aeneid.

Summary Article: LAOCOON
from Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

Laocoon, a priest to either Apollo or Poseidon, figured prominently in the fall of Troy as the voice of caution whose efforts were frustrated by both Greek cunning and the intervention of two serpents. Laocoon's origins are unclear—he was either the son of the Trojan king Priam or the son of Antenor, one of Priam's confidantes who betrayed the Trojans during the war.

Laocoon met his horrific fate during the last days of the Trojan War. Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) retold the priest's story in his epic poem Aeneid. After nearly 10 years of fighting, the Greeks built an enormous wooden horse and placed inside its hollow belly their fiercest warriors. They then rolled the horse up to the gates of Troy, and the armies retreated to their ships, appearing to sail away, presumably to Greece. However, they only sailed out of view of the Trojans, behind an island called Tenedos. Upon seeing the horse, Laocoon immediately warned the gathering crowd by saying that he feared the Greeks, even when they were bearing gifts. According to Greek writer Apollodorus (fl. 140 BCE), Laocoon suggested that there could be armed men within, waiting to lay waste to the city. For a few moments the Trojans were convinced by the priest's words, and they debated how to dispose of the horse. Laocoon even hurled his spear into the horse's belly, and the hollow boom from within would have heightened the Trojans' suspicions had a Greek named Sinon not appeared before them.

Lies and sea serpents

Sinon had been left behind as part of a Greek plan hatched by the hero Odysseus. A convincing storyteller, Sinon would persuade the Trojans to take the horse inside the city gates. He told the assembled crowd that the goddess Athena was angry with the Greeks because they had stolen the Palladium, a statue made in her honor, from inside the city. The only way for the Greeks to ensure a safe passage back home was to make a sacrifice to appease Athena. The lying Greek told the Trojans that he was the intended sacrificial victim, but that he had escaped after his fellow soldiers sailed away. He added that the Greeks also hoped to regain the goddess's favor by building a wooden horse to replace the Palladium. According to Sinon, the Greeks made the horse extremely large in the hope that it would not fit through the city gates since, if it were to get inside, it would grant Troy Athena's protection.

Both Sinon and his story were very convincing, but the Trojans' fate was sealed by what happened next. As Sinon was finishing his story, Laocoon was tending to the sacrifice of a bull. Suddenly, from the direction of Tenedos where the Greeks were hiding with their ships, two serpents glided over the waves, with enormous coiled bodies, bloodred eyes, and flickering tongues. Once ashore, they made their way toward Laocoon's young sons. Accounts vary about what happened next. According to Virgil and Greek poet Euphorion (c. third century BCE), the serpents strangled and devoured Laocoon's sons before attacking Laocoon himself. Arctinus (c. eighth century BCE), another Greek poet, says that Laocoon and only one of his sons were killed. A third account, corroborated by Apollodorus, the Greek poets Bacchylides (c. fifth century BCE) and Quintus Smyrnaeus (c. fourth century CE), and the Athenian playwright Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE), is that only Laocoon's sons were killed. All sources agree, however, that as the Trojans scattered in horror, the serpents left the remnants of the bodies on the shore and disappeared within Athena's temple inside the city.

The Laocoon Group, Vatican City, Rome. The statue (created c. second century BCE–first century CE) depicts a sea serpent strangling Laocoon and his sons.

A fatal error

Ancient writers differ in their accounts of why Laocoon was attacked. Euphorion wrote that the sun god Apollo sent the serpents because Laocoon and his wife had offended the deity by making love in sight of his statue. Other writers maintained that the sea god Poseidon, who was on the side of the Greeks, sent the serpents to destroy Laocoon because the god feared that the Trojans would destroy the horse if the priest were not silenced. Regardless of who sent the serpents, their gruesome actions had the desired effect. The Trojans opened their arms to Sinon and took him and the wooden horse inside the city gates. That night, Sinon let the soldiers out of the horse and lit a beacon on the shore to signal to the other Greeks, waiting in their ships. The Greeks massacred the city's sleeping inhabitants and captured Troy.

Laocoon in art

The story of Laocoon survives on two frescoes in Pompeii, a Roman city buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE; in addition, El Greco, a Spanish artist born in Crete, paid tribute to the Trojan priest and his sons in his painting Laocoon (1610). In the 19th century, French composer Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) wrote the opera Les Troyens, in which Laocoon has a key role in the first act. Perhaps the most compelling reminder of Laocoon's demise is a nearly eight-foot- (2.4-meter-) tall statue that now stands in the Vatican in Rome. Sometime between the second century BCE and the first century CE, three sculptors from Rhodes immortalized the anguish of Laocoon and his sons in marble. When fragments of it were discovered in the 16th century, renowned Italian sculptor Michelangelo (1475–1564) was asked to restore the statue, which has been widely lauded for its realism and emotional impact.


Further reading
  • Apollodorus, and Robin Hard, trans. The Library of Greek Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Virgil, and Robert Fagles, trans. The Aeneid. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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