1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Laocoon
LAOCOON, in Greek legend a brother of Anchises, who had been a priest of Apollo, but having profaned the temple of the god he and his two sons were attacked by serpents while preparing to sacrifice a bull at the altar of Poseidon, in whose service Laocoon was then acting as priest. An additional motive for his punishment consisted in his having warned the Trojans against the wooden horse left by the Greeks. But, whatever his crime may have been, the punishment stands out even among the tragedies of Greek legend as marked by its horror—particularly so as it comes to us in Virgil (Aeneid, ii. 199 sq.), and as it is represented in the marble group, the Laocoon, in the Vatican. In the oldest existing version of the legend—that of Arctinus of Miletus, which has so far been preserved in the excerpts of Proclus—the calamity is lessened by the fact that only one of the two sons is killed; and this, as has been pointed out (Arch. Zeitung, 1879, p. 167), agrees with the interpretation which Goethe in his Propylaea had put on the marble group without reference to the literary tradition. He says: “The younger son struggles and is powerless, and is alarmed; the father struggles ineffectively, indeed his efforts only increase the opposition; the elder son is least of all injured, he feels neither anguish nor pain, but he is horrified at what he sees happening to his father, and he screams while he pushes the coils of the serpent off from his legs. He is thus an observer, witness, and participant in the incident, and the work is then complete.” Again, “the gradation of the incident is this: the father has become powerless among the coils of the serpent; the younger son has still strength for resistance but is wounded; the elder has a prospect of escape.” Lessing, on the other hand, maintained the view that the marble group illustrated the version of the legend given by Virgil, with such differences as were necessary from the different limits of representation imposed on the arts of sculpture and of poetry. These limits required a new definition, and this he undertook in his still famous work, Laokoon (see the edition of Hugo Blümner, Berlin, 1876, in which the subsequent criticism is collected). The date of the Laocoon being now fixed (see Agesander) to 40–20 B.C., there can be no question of copying Virgil. The group represents the extreme of a pathetic tendency in sculpture (see Greek Art, Plate I. fig. 52).