Aeneid 2.40-56, 203-19 Laocoon and the Serpents (contributed by Anne Dicks)

Studying this passage for ‘O’ level many years ago is what made me choose to take ‘A’ Level Latin and begin my career as a Classics teacher.

Anne Dicks, Classics teacher (just retired!)

Here we have the contrast between Laocoon’s blazing anger at the thought of the wooden horse being taken inside Troy and the use of hindsight as Aeneas describes the echoing monster, knowing that defeat is inevitable. (You can hear this passage read aloud in Anne’s Powerpoint; follow the link at the bottom of the page).

Primus ibi ante omnis, magna comitante caterva,                 40
Laocoön ardens summa decurrit ab arce,
et procul: “O miseri, quae tanta insania, cives?
Creditis avectos hostis? Aut ulla putatis
dona carere dolis Danaum? Sic notus Ulixes?
aut hoc inclusi ligno occultantur Achivi,                                  45
aut haec in nostros fabricata est machina muros
inspectura domos venturaque desuper urbi,
aut aliquis latet error; equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quicquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.”
Sic fatus, validis ingentem viribus hastam                                50
in latus inque feri curvam compagibus alvum
contorsit: stetit illa tremens, uteroque recusso
insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
Et, si fata deum, si mens non laeva fuisset,
impulerat ferro Argolicas foedare latebras,                              55
Troiaque, nunc stares, Priamique arx alta, maneres.

First, there before all, with a great crowd accompanying him,
Laocoon, burning with anger, ran down from the top of the citadel,
and from afar: “O wretched citizens, what madness so great is this?
Do you believe the enemy has gone away?  Or do you think
that any gifts of the Greeks lack treachery?  Is this how Ulysses is known to you?
Either enclosed in this wood, Greeks are lying hidden,
or this machine has been built against our walls, to spy into our homes
and to come upon the city from above, or some trickery lurks here: do not trust the horse, Trojans,
whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts!
After speaking thus, with huge strength, he hurled his huge spear
into its side and into the belly of the beast, curved with its joints.
It stood there trembling, and with its womb reverberating, its hollow caverns resounded and gave out a groan,
and if the fates of the gods, if our minds had not been wrong,
it would have compelled us to defile the Greek hiding-places with the sword,
and Troy would now be standing, and you, O high citadel of Priam, would remain!

The suspense is amazing – starting from a lovely peaceful scene across the sea, the interjected “Horresco referens” and only finding out at the end of the second line that the ‘gemini’ are in fact snakes.  The build-up of the description is intensified by alliteration and onomatopoeia.  You can see the picture slowly building up in the series of illustrations in the Powerpoint

Then comes the horrific description of the serpents’ attack, made more vivid by the intertwining word-order and the physical effects of reading ‘Miseros morsu’ – the readers’ mouth works as if chewing.  This is the section which inspired the sculptor of the Laocoon group which can be seen in the Vatican museum.

Ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta—
horresco referens—immensis orbibus angues
incumbunt pelago, pariterque ad litora tendunt;             205
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,                        210
sibila lambebant linguis vibrantibus ora.
Diffugimus visu exsangues: illi agmine certo
Laocoönta petunt; et primum parva duorum
corpora natorum serpens amplexus uterque
implicat, et miseros morsu depascitur artus;                         215
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.

Look now,  from Tenedos across the tranquil deep,
 (I shudder recalling it) with huge coils twin snakes
 are breasting the sea and are making for the shore together.
 Their breasts [are] raised up among the waves and their blood-red crests are towering
 over the waves, the remaining part skims over the sea behind
 and arches their back with a huge coil.
 A sound is made as the salt sea surges; and now they are reaching the fields,
 and, their burning eyes flecked with blood and with fire
 they are licking their hissing mouths with flickering tongues.
 We scattered, pale at the sight.They, in a straight line,
 made for Laocoon; and first, each serpent having embraced the small bodies
 of his two sons, twined round them, and fed on their wretched limbs with a bite.
 Next, they seized upon him, himself, coming up with help and bringing  weapons
and bound him with huge coils; and now having coiled
twice round the middle, twice
 having surrounded his neck
with their scaly backs they towered over him by a head and lofty necks.

 

Chosen and translated by Anne Dicks.

Anne says: I have enjoyed using the pictorial approach on my website and powerpoint to make these passages come alive www.pyrrha.me.uk in the Latin Poetry section and on the powerpoint www.pyrrha.me.uk/utpicturaSerpents.pptx 

The above text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library.

Read more of this text at the Perseus site.

 

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