1902 Encyclopedia > Laocoon


LAOCOON, in Greek legend, was a brother of Anchises, and had been a priest of Apollo, but having married against the will of the god he and the two sons of this marriage 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 punish-ment 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 in the Vatican (see Plate V.). 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 Pro-pylxa 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 Bliimner, Berlin,

1876, in which the subsequent criticism is collected). The marble group in the Vatican was found in 1506 near the baths of Titus, and there is no question of its being the same which Pliny (Nat. Hist., xxxvi. c. 5) speaks of as in the palace of Titus, and as the work of three Bhodian sculptors Agesander, Folydorus, and Athenodorus. They made it, he says, de consilii sententia, which, according to the highest Latin authorities, must refer not to a standing imperial council but to a council selected ad hoc. This suits the theory of the sculpture being a work of the time of Titus—not an original conception of that time, but a variant of a conception more or less familiar to Greek art since the time of Alexander, such as may be seen in marble reliefs, on gems, in a painting found at Pompeii (see Bliimner's Laohoon, pis. 2, 3), and on a terra cotta Etruscan urn in the British Museum. The names of Agesander and Athenodorus have been found repeatedly on bases of sculptures in Italy, and the date of the writing is that of the time of Titus. Still the opinion is very generally held that the Vatican group is altogether a work of the Bhodian school during its supremacy after the death of Alexander, and that the artists named by Pliny had lived then, and were apparently a father and two sons, for which reason Pliny may have thought it necessary to add de consilii sententia, in the sense of " according to the decision of their combined thoughts," to prevent any one supposing that the artists had each made one of the figures, selecting them possibly in accordance with thsir own relationship to each other, the father taking Laocoon, and the sons taking respectively the sons of Laocoon. As yet, however, the characteristics of the Rhodian school are not sufficiently known for a final settlement of this long standing question. In Plate V. the right arm of Laocoon with the coils of the serpent which he holds up is restored, as is also the right arm of the younger son. (A. s. M.)

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