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Bacchylides


Kylix Dionysus on a ship
Kylix Dionysus on a ship between dolphins (530 BCE). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.

Laocoön is identifiable figure in a mid mid sixth-century BC ode by Bacchylides. As with Arctinus's account, the original is lost. Our access to it is through a tiny fragment from the fourth century AD by Servius:

sane Bacchylides de Laocoonte et uxore eius vel de serpentibus a Calydnis insulis venientibus atque in homines conversis dicit.[note 1]
Bacchylides certainly speaks of Laocoön and his wife and of the serpents coming from the Calydnian Isles and being turned into men.[note 2]

In Bacchylides' version, then, Laocoön has a wife and the serpents that kill him come from the Calydnian isles, not Tenedos as in later versions. Tenedos is the island ajoining the Trojan coast; the Calydnian isles are thought to be the Aegean islands of Leros and Kalymnos.

Bacchylides' choice of the Calydnian isles is more important allegorically than geographically. In Homer's Catalogue of Ships, forces from the Calydnian isles are part of Agamemnon's Greek force (Iliad 2.677–678). As in so many ancient works, then, geography is subordinate to what lands stand for: the serpents can be seen as the Greeks attacking Troy, which is represented by Laocoön. The allegory is underlined in the transformation of the serpents into men.

Quintus Smyrnaeus, who wrote his τά μεθ΄ ὅμηρον (tà meth΄ Hómēron, Posthomerica) in the third or fourth century AD, also specifies the serpents' origin in an island called "Calydna".[note 3] Taken together, these references to the Calydnian isles / Calydna indicate an earlier Laocoön story. That prototypical story gave rise not only to the version of Laocoön's death in which he an his sons are attacked by serpents from the neighbouring island of Tenedos but also to the tales of Bacchylides and Quintus Smyrnaeus (and presumably others) in which Laocoön and his wife are attacked by serpents from Kalydnai. In the former, the emphasis is on the intervention of the Gods; in the latter tales stress the power (and wide geographical reach) of the Greeks.

Note 1. Servius, Servianorvm in Vergilii Carmina Commentariorvm, Vol. 2 (Quod in Aeneidos Libros I et II Explanatiores Continet, ed. Edvardus Kennard Raud et al (Lancaster, PA: Societatis Philologicae Americanae Cura et Impensis, 1946), pp. 377–78. [back to text]

Note 2. J. M. Edmonds (ed. and trans.), Lyra Graeca, Vol. 3 (London: William Heineman, 1927), p. 119. [back to text]

Note 3. Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy, trans. Arthur S. Way (London: William Heinemann, 1913), 12.451, p. 518 [Gk.] and p. 519 [trans.]. [back to text]

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