The Laocoon Group, or How I Came to Love the Latin Language

Amanda Reeves |
 A graphic representation of the author’s initial reaction to Latin study, a.k.a. the Laocoon. A graphic representation of the author’s initial reaction to Latin study, a.k.a. the Laocoon.

As I entered the Vatican Museum for the first time, I headed straight towards the Laocoön Group to pay my respects to the story that had the biggest impact on my becoming a classicist. The statue is a 1st century BCE copy of a Hellenistic original depicting the death of Laocoön and his sons. Excavated in 1506 and placed in the newly opened Vatican Museum, the Laocoön Group quickly became an influential piece of classical sculpture and a paradigm for depicting agony in art. The statue itself is stunning and lives up to its hype. The muscles of the characters, entangled in coils, are strained with tension. The contortions viscerally express the horror of the scene. The faces of the figures express varying degrees of terror as the situation escalated. Gazing at the statue, though, I was most overwhelmed by the whole flood of memories of my time as a classicist that came back to me as I stood at its base.

My relationship with Latin evolved so gradually that it is difficult to pinpoint a moment when I knew I wanted to study it for forever, but for whatever reason my memory has left entirely intact the moment when I realized I didn’t entirely hate it. I was wading through Vergil’s Aeneid in my AP class, eagerly awaiting the end of what certainly would be my final interaction with Latin. I had plans to burn my textbook in the grill after completing my exam, lest you doubt the severity of my hatred toward the language. At that point, I had invested eight years in learning Latin, and if you had asked me at the time, eight years too many. My parents had decided years earlier to impose ablative absolutes and quins on their unsuspecting children, with the sadistic hope that family discussions could be enlivened with the occasional Ciceronian oration, or something like that. By the time of this story, their lofty dreams were far from fruition. I had had my fill of banal translation exercises and nobody had yet offered me a good explanation for the value of reading texts in their original languages. But one auspicious day, probably the week before the AP exam because I definitely did most of my translations the week before, I found the death of Laocoön in the Aeneid and the first sparks of interest in Latin unexpectedly appeared.

Before we look at text that changed my feelings towards Latin, it’s important that you know how terrified I am of snakes, critters that feature prominently in this story. I hate snakes so much that I avoided my front door for years after discovering a garter snake under the porch. I covered up the picture of the Laocoön Group (ironic, isn’t it?) in my textbook because I hated it so much. I really despise snakes. When I saw on my syllabus that I needed to translate the reptile-heavy death of Laocoön for my exam, I decided to translate it as quickly as possible to have minimal interaction with my two nemeses, snakes and Latin.


The passage in the Aeneid describes the death of a Trojan priest named Laocoön who wisely tried to convince his people to leave the infamous Greek horse outside of Troy. His attempt to thwart fate attracts the wrath of the Greek-sympathetic deities, who send massive serpents from the sea to strangle and mangle Laocoön’s family. While the English translation was plenty vivid for my herpetophobic self, the Latin was far too much. It reads:

“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.” (2.203–211)


But behold twin vipers from Tenedos — I shudder retelling it — through the peaceful depths, with huge eyes hastening from the sea, side by side stretching toward the shore; whose fronts rose from among the billows and whose bloody crests stood over the waves; their other part slides behind through the sea, their back curving with immense coils. A roar comes from the frothing sea; already they were holding the shore, and with burning eyes tinged with blood and fire, they were licking their hissing mouths with flickering tongues.”

Aside from graphic descriptions that otherwise have only graced my nightmares, the structure of the Latin grotesquely gives you a sense of the experience. The repetition of s and p sounds (bolded in the Latin) mimic the sound the snakes would have emitted and the sound of waves crashing on the shore, respectively. This effect makes it impossible to read the text without experiencing a full sensory experience of the events narrated therein. As I read the passage and experienced the imaginative play on sounds and structures, I was simultaneously disgusted and delighted. For one, I hate snakes and don’t necessarily appreciate any piece of literature that gives me any more reason than I already have to fear them. However, I had to admit that the passage was absolute magic. I returned to an English translation and was disappointed that I could read it without making any snake noises and hearing the waves getting ever closer to the shore I imagined beneath my feet. There were still immense coils and eyes tinged with blood and fire, but they felt tame compared to the immensa volumine and oculos suffecti sanguine et igni. Compared to English translation, the dynamic, multi-dimensional vividness of the Latin drew me in and begged me to take a second look at the language I so decidedly despised. It was the first moment that I was able to imagine the world of wonder hiding behind the passive periphrastics and relative clauses of characteristics so thoroughly drilled into my brain. I realized then that the Latin made me feel things that the English could only approximate. I wasn’t ready yet to love Latin, or even like it, but I felt like hate was perhaps an unnecessarily strong word for what I felt towards the language.

As I looked at the Laocoön statue in person for the first time, I was seeing more than just a beautiful piece of classical art; I was also seeing my entire experience with Latin up until that point. I remembered the first time I saw the picture of the Laocoön Group in my intro Latin textbook, the time I joked to my sister that the agony in the characters’ faces was matched only by my own when I had to translate “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” for the nth time, and especially that day before my AP Latin exam when I was finally able to imagine how somebody could love the language. Standing in the Vatican Museum, recoiling at how horrifying the snakes in the statue are, I couldn’t help but smile at just how big an impact they have had on my life.


Sign up to receive email updates about new articles

Amanda Reeves

Amanda graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Greek and Latin. Her primary research interests include Greek philosophy, ancient language acquisition, and museum ethics, but really she is happy talking about any aspect of the ancient world over.


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.