A warning is ignored and a city falls in El Greco’s lurid depiction.

Laocoön, by El Greco, c.1610, National Gallery  of Art, Washington © Bridgeman Images.

‘Don’t trust the horse, my people. Even when they bring gifts, I fear the Greeks.’

These are among the most famous lines of the classical world, uttered by Laocoön, the Trojan priest of Poseidon (the Roman god Neptune), in the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, written in the first century BC. A gigantic horse, made with woven ribs of fir, had been built by the Greeks who had besieged the city of Troy for ten years. Its belly hid a group of their greatest warriors, including Odysseus. It was left outside the city as the Greeks, apparently, sailed away. An inscription on its side read: ‘For their return home, the Greeks dedicate this offering to Athena.’ It seemed to be compensation for the Greeks’ destruction of her temple in Troy. A Greek soldier, Sinon, was seemingly abandoned on the beach, though his real task was to light a beacon once the soldiers inside the Trojan horse had opened the city’s gates, alerting the Greek army, who would finally destroy Troy.

When the wooden horse was taken inside the city’s gates, Laocoön sounded his warning and threw his spear into ‘the creature’s round and riveted belly’. In response, Athena/Minerva unleashed two sea serpents, which strangled Laocoön and his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, the scene depicted in El Greco’s painting. In the Odyssey of Homer, written in the eighth century BC, others’ warnings are recorded, including that of Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan king Priam, but she too is ignored and the city falls.

The fate of Laocoön fascinated artists of El Greco’s generation, not least because of the discovery in Rome in 1506 of the Laocoön Group, one of the greatest of all ancient sculptures, which depicted the death of the priest and his sons. The city in this painting’s background is not Troy, however, but the Spanish city of Toledo, El Greco’s home, which was enduring war at the time. Strangely, El Greco’s Trojan Horse is depicted as a natural beast. 

The story of Laocoön has been referenced repeatedly: in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in novels such as Joyce Carol Oates’ American Appetites and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in songs by R.E.M., in Hector Berlioz’ opera Les Troyens and in Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and the Laurel Wreath