Laocoon was the uncle of the Trojan prince Aeneas. In Book II of Vergil/Virgil's Aeneid, Laocoon makes the memorable comment about being wary of Greeks bearing gifts (timeo Danaos et dona ferentis [Aeneid. II.249]).
Laocoon believed the massive wooden horse known as the Trojan horse had men in it who would destroy the city of Troy. Laocoon was right, of course, but he was no more trusted than the prophetess Cassandra who also warned the Trojans against the horse.
Laocoon was a priest of the sea god Neptune, but this didn't save him from divine punishment when he thrust a sword into the side of the wooden horse. Ostensibly, the horse was an offering to the goddess Athena/Minerva. As punishment, Laocoon and his two son were strangled by serpents from the sea.
The Trojans considered this punishment a sign that Laocoon had displeased the god whom he served. They also believed it showed that the wooden horse was sacred, so they wheeled it into the city. The inevitable result was a Greek victory and Troy in flames.
Laocoon and His Sons Sculpture
The picture shows a life size marble sculpture from the Vatican Museum. This presumed Hellenistic piece (or Roman copy thereof) was found during the Renaissance among the ruins of the first century A.D. Flavian Roman emperor Titus' palace [source: Mary Ann Sullivan Laocoon] or "inside the Sette Sale (holding tanks for the baths of Trajan on the Esquiline Hill in Rome)" [source: [ maa.missouri.edu/objects/castgallery/castlaokoon.html] The Curators of the University of Missouri]. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) describes an object believed -- not without problem -- to be this piece that was in the palace of Titus.
For more on the dating of the group, see Laocoon Chronology.
(Pliny H. N. xxxvi. 5) "The Laocoön, which is in the palace of the emperor Titus, is a work to be preferred to all others, either in painting or sculpture. Those great artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, Rhodians, executed the principal figure and the sons and the wonderful folds of the serpents out of one block of marble."
Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
Since the pieces were unearthed in 1506, the sculpture has inspired artists and art critics, especially the 18th century Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's essay "Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry" and in 1940, Clement Greenberg's "Towards a Newer Laocoön."