Aeneid Book 2, lines 199-227

Laocoon and the snakes

by Virgil

As Aeneas tells the story of Troy to Queen Dido, the city is soon to fall. Laocoon has already rightly warned the Trojans to have nothing to do with the wooden horse: now the Goddess Minerva takes a horrifying revenge. Mistakenly thinking that the portent shows that Laocoon’s warning was wrong, the Trojans will soon seal their fate by bringing the horse inside the city walls. You can now also hear the German poet Friedrich Schiller’s fine version, with a translation, here.

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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.
at gemini lapsu delubra ad summa dracones
effugiunt saevaeque petunt Tritonidis arcem,
sub pedibusque deae clipeique sub orbe teguntur.

Then, to our sorrow, something new and far more fearful
faced us, shocked our unsuspecting hearts.
Laocoon, chosen by lot as the priest of Neptune,
was sacrificing an enormous bull at the hallowed altars.
But see! From Tenedos over the calm waves, a pair –
I shudder to say it – of snakes with huge coils
ride the sea and head together for the shore;
held aloft among the swell, the breast and blood-red
mane of each tops the waves, the rest of them skims
the sea behind and twists their huge backs into a coil.
The sea crackled and foamed; now on solid ground,
their burning eyes suffused with blood and fire, they licked
their hissing mouths with their flickering tongues.
We made way, our faces blanched. In a concerted rush,
they make for Laocoon; first each snake seizes
and traps one of the little bodies of his two
poor sons and feeds on it with its biting maw.
Next, as Laocoon comes to their aid with his weapons,
they seize and bind him in their huge coils; and now,
a double grip on his waist, twice passing their scaly
coils round his throat, they tower high, neck and head
above him. Then he reaches to tear apart the knots
with his hands, headband soaked in gore and black venom,
as he raises horrendous cries to the heavens:
like the bellowing when a wounded bull, fleeing the altar,
has knocked away a weak axe-stroke from his neck.
But the two serpents, slithering off towards the city’s
topmost temples, make for the shrine of fierce Minerva,
passing from view under her feet and the orb of her shield.