Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I read the story of Laocoon from the Aeneid with my year 9 class today. It's a story I first read when I was at high school, and ever since I've enjoyed the vividness of Virgil's gory portrayal, and the tragic heroism of Laocoon. Here it is for your enjoyment.

Hic aliud maius miseris multoque tremendum
obicitur magis atque improvida pectora turbat.
Laocoon, ductus Neptuno sorte sacerdos,
sollemnis taurum ingentem mactabat ad aras.
ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago pariterque ad litora tendunt;
pectora quorum inter fluctus arrecta iubaeque
sanguineae superant undas, pars cetera pontum
pone legit sinuatque immensa volumine terga.
fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arva tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
diffugimus visu exsangues. illi agmine certo
Laocoonta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat et miseros morsu depascitur artus;
post ipsum auxilio subeuntem ac tela ferentem
corripiunt spirisque ligant ingentibus; et iam
bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum
terga dati superant capite et cervicibus altis.
ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.

And now there came upon this unhappy people another and yet greater sign, which caused them even greater fear. Their hearts were troubled and they could not see what the future held. Laocoon, the chosen priest of Neptune, was sacrificing a huge bull at the holy altar, when suddenly there came over the calm water from Tenedos (I shudder at the memory of it), two serpents leaning into the sea in great coils and making side by side for the shore. Breasting their waves, they held high their blood-stained crests, and the rest of their bodies ploughed the waves behind them, their backs winding, coil upon measureless coil, through the sounding foam of the sea. Now they were on land. Their eyes were blazing and flecked with blood. They hissed as they licked their lips with quivering tongues. We grew pale at the sight and ran in all directions, but they made straight for Lacoon. First the two serpents seized his two young sons, twining round them both and feeding on their helpless limbs. Then when Laocoon came to the rescue with his sword in hand, they seized him and bound him in huge spirals, and soon their scaly backs were entwined twice round his body, twice round his throat, their heads and necks high above him as he struggled to prise open their coils, his priestly headband befouled by gore and black venom, and all the time he was raising horrible cries to heaven- like the bellowing of a wounded bull shaking the ineffectual axe out of its neck as it flees from the altar.

[Aeneid II.199- 224. Translated by D. West, Penguin Classics, 1990]

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