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[18] However, Apollo sent them a sign; for two serpents swam through the sea from the neighboring islands and devoured the sons of Laocoon.1


1 Compare Arctinus, Ilii Persis, summarized by Proclus, in Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, ed. G. Kinkel, p. 49; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. i.48.2; Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica xii.444-497; Tzetzes, Scholiast on Lycophron 347; Verg. A. 2.199-227; Hyginus, Fab. 135; Serv. Verg. A. 2.201; Scriptores rerum mythicarum Latini, ed. Bode, i. pp. 144ff. (Second Vatican Mythographer 207). According to Arctinus, our oldest authority for the tragedy of Laocoon, the two serpents killed Laocoon himself and one of his sons. According to Virgil, Hyginus, and Servius, they killed Laocoon and both his sons. According to Quintus Smyrnaeus, the serpents killed the two sons but spared the father, who lived to lament their fate. This last seems to have been the version followed by Apollodorus. The reason of the calamity which befell Laocoon is explained by Servius on the authority of Euphorion. He tells us that when the Greek army landed in the Troad, the Trojans stoned the priest of Poseidon to death, because he had not, by offering sacrifices to the sea god, prevented the invasion. Accordingly, when the Greeks seemed to be departing, it was deemed advisable to sacrifice to Poseidon, no doubt in order to induce him to give the Greeks a stormy passage. But the priesthood was vacant, and it was necessary to choose a priest by lot. The lot fell on Laocoon, priest of the Thymbraean Apollo, but he had incurred the wrath of Apollo by sleeping with his wife in front of the divine image, and for this sacrilege he perished with his two sons. This narrative helps us to understand the statement of Apollodorus that the two serpents were sent by Apollo for a sign. According to Tzetzes, the death of Laocoon's son took place in the temple of the Thymbraean Apollo, the scene of the crime thus becoming the scene of the punishment. Sophocles wrote a tragedy on the subject of Laocoon, but though a few fragments of the play have survived, its contents are unknown. See TGF (Nauck 2nd ed.), pp. 211ff.; The Fragments of Sophocles, ed. A. C Pearson, vol. ii. pp. 38ff. In modern times the story of Laocoon is probably even better known from the wonderful group of statuary in the Vatican than from the verses of Virgil. That group, the work of three Rhodian sculptors, graced the palace of the emperor Titus in the time of Pliny, who declared that it was to be preferred to any other work either of sculpture or painting (Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxvi.37). Lessing took the group for the text of his famous essay on the comparative limitations of poetry and art.

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