Lacoön and His Sons may be the most famous sculpture in the world though its origins are shrouded in controversy. Is it Greek or Roman or a later forgery?
What we do know is the story. Lacoön correctly understood that the giant horse left by the Greeks on the plains outside the city of Troy’s defensive walls was not a religious offering but a deception. He correctly intuited that enemy warriors were hidden inside. When he tried to demonstrate this truth to the Trojans by attacking the wooden horse with his spear, the gods sent those snakes to kill him and his two sons.
The Trojans then destroyed their own city wall to create a large enough gate to bring the “Trojan Horse” inside. This story isn’t told directly in Homer’s Illiad, which focuses on Achilles’ wrath. That poem ends after Achilles is brought to some dim comprehension of universal justice after Priam, the King of Troy, persuades Achilles to grant a truce long enough to provide a proper burial for Priam’s son, Hector, whom Achilles has killed in battle. In his wrath, Achilles had been mutilating and dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, but after listening to Priam’s plea, he senses that his conduct is wrong. A light dawns slowly in the warrior’s mind. He senses that some actions are wrong, even when done to one’s hated enemy. That was the moment Homer was aiming for, and soon after Achilles is killed by an arrow shot into his heel by a Trojan warrior.
Homer briefly relates the story in the Odyssey, when Odysseus asks a bard to sing of the event. For the Greeks, the story reveals a shift in the Greek understanding of how to win against the enemy. For ten years they have put their faith in physical might, represented by the awesome prowess of Achilles. But there was no victory. Achilles turned out to be quite fickle, controlled by his moods more than by fidelity to the Greek alliance. It was Odysseus who finally contrived to defeat The Trojans using deception more than muscle. Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, is a liar and a trickster.
The Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil, provides best telling of Lacoön’s story from the Trojan point of view. What matters most about Troy’s ruin is that from the smoking ruins, Aeneas stumbles away. In his wandering, he gradually comes to a more clear vision of a mission he only dimly understands. It is when he visits the Underworld that he finally learns from his dead father that his fate is to found a new civilization—Rome. In modern vernacular, he learns that in creating a new polity he will be on the right side of history.
The greatest story in literature deals with the creation and preservation of a new world order. That grand project is not like Greece in a vital way. The Greeks sought to live in accord with nature, and the Greek heroes lived out their nature. But Rome’s destiny will unfold as characters learn to subordinate nature to the needs of the state. Aeneas is no Greek hero. It is not fame that he serves but a new international order that will bring peace through civilization. Serving that order exacts great costs and ultimate bowing down to the needs of the state.
Though Aeneid often does not understand what is happening, the audience, living after the founding of Rome, knows much that he does not. They can understand how the work of statecraft requires operating with limited knowledge and uncertainty about outcomes while having faith that the gods have a plan, and that plan will come to fruition. The reason the Trojans do not heed Lacoön’s clear warning is that it was their fate to be destroyed. He might heroically speak truth to power, but it makes no difference. What the gods intend will come to pass. No hero is larger than destiny.
The destruction of Troy was integral to Aeneas’ vision of statecraft. Success can be guaranteed neither by military might nor by deceptive intrigues. It is necessary to be aligned with destiny and to accept its dictates—to persevere in faith.
Of course, we moderns see Rome from quite a different perspective than did Virgil. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) provided the world with some order and stability and was a period of sustained prosperity. Much was achieved in the realms of managing large organizations and keeping order through the use of written law. Tribes bound together by kinship and shared territory were superseded by states, organized into an international order.
But Rome was not the end of history. Though Roman engineers were adept at creating implements of war, Rome was often a violent place, permitting and even glorying in hideous cruelty, such as arena games, unconstrained by respect for human life. It was a slave empire that never bothered to master using the winds to power their ships or water to power their mills. The slaves made innovation less than urgent. Those slaves had no rights, and sexual slavery was a central preoccupation for much of Rome’s reign. For a great many people, the collapse of Rome was a great liberation. It was not its destiny to persist through the ages.
The collapse of Rome was followed by a Euro-American Empire which built on many of Rome’s learning while greatly surpassing it in vital ways, including the gradual abolition of slavery and the development of various theories of human rights.
Today, we live at a moment when that civilization appears to be faltering, mainly by allowing global financial creatures of a vast scale, directed by a small oligarchy, to perfect the conversion of earth and life to money, to corrupt a system of justice into a network of powerful interests for whom the name of “justice” is a decoy, and to displace the culture’s best stories with Hollywoodish propaganda that creates in many citizens, especially the young, a false consciousness. We are living by and through lies. Things fall apart.
If Lacoön were here, he might point out that we are fools to allow the fake gifts bestowed upon us by overlords to entice us to lower our guard and to tear down the walls and fences that have served us well in the past. But that will not prevent what is already happening. My hunch is that we might do better to search for our own visionaries such Aeneas, who have turned away from the conflagration to search for those messages from God that tell us the truth of things are they really are and as they will really be. What comes next is better than what is passing away.