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Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st or 2nd century CE)


The Trojans pulling the wooden horse into the city
Giulio Bonasone (after Francesco Primaticcio), The Trojans pulling the wooden horse into the city (1545). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Pseudo-Apollodorus's Bibliotheca (Βιβλιοθήκη, Bibliothēkē, "Library")[note 1] is a collection of Greek myths and legends. Like an encyclopedia or dictionary, it was not designed to be a creative work, but rather to offer a collation of knowledge—that is, what was known in a particular time and place.

Unfortunately, the section that covered the Trojan war is missing from surviving manuscripts and we know its contents only through summaries. Sir James Frazer provided a sense of the content of the missing section in his 1921 Loeb edition, under the heading "Epitome".[note 2]

In the summarised account, the Trojans see the Greek camp deserted and, thinking their enemies fled, drag the wooden horse into their city. The Trojan priestess Cassandra first warns of dangers, saying there is an armed force in the horse. Laocoön, who in the version recorded by Pseudo-Apollodorus is a seer rather than a priest, confirms her assertions. The Trojans debate what to do, some suggesting they should destroy the horse. However, the majority favour sparing it as a votive offering to a divinity, so they just get on with celebratory feasting.

Apollo then sends two serpents from neighbouring islands as a σημεῖον (Epitome 5.18). Frazer translates the word as "sign" but it is more accurate to think of it in terms of an omen: such signs herald an inescapable fate rather than warn of an avoidable one. In this telling, Apollo's serpents devour Laocoön's sons but leave Laocoön himself pysically unharmed.

In this version, Laocoön's sons are killed not after the Trojans have decided to admit the wooden horse into their city (as in Arctinus) but after they have actually dragged it in in celebration. There is no mention in the summary of Laocoön having a wife or of the serpents being sent as a punishment for breaking his vows of celibacy (as we find in Sophocles' tragedy). Here, the story is less about Laocoön personally than his death being part of a series of events and portents that lead inexorably towards the fall of Troy.

Note 1. The Bibliotheca was originally thought to be by Apollodorus of Athens (2nd century BCE), but a reference in the text to Castor the Annalist (1st century BCE) proved that attribution to be false. [back to text]

Note 2. Apollodorus [Pseudo-Apollodorus], The Library, trans. Sir James George Frazer, Vol. 2 (London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1921). The section on Laocoö is Epitome 5.16–19 (pp. 232–33). [back to text]

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