Laocoön, The Aeneid and Captain Picard

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laoco%C3%B6n_and_His_Sons

My high-school aged son is avidly devouring classic literature, and the echoes of those epic struggles from my own education, float back to me. On our winter break one evening, he had left the Norton Anthology of Western Literature out on the coffee table. Soon I was in the midst of battle at Troy, at Carthage, in Rome.

Aeneas of Troy, in the classic by Virgil, faces a long journey with many trials. Even in 20 BC, storytellers mastered Story. Sometimes the smallest moments are the best parts of a story:

  • Laocoön runs out from the city to warn his fellow citizens of Troy, that the large wooden horse left behind by hastily departed Greeks, was a trick: ‘beware of Greeks, even bearing gifts.’ To punish him, the gods send a pair of serpents to devour his sons and then kill him. The image above of Laocoön dying defending his sons is such a moment. The city elders, seeing him killed by the gods, are then convinced that he is wrong, and bring the Trojan Horse inside the gates. Of course, you know the rest: the city of Troy falls that night as hidden Greek solders pour out, open the gates and ransack the city.
  • Aeneas initially resolves to stay and defend his city to the death. His touching moment with his father and their resolve to stay together and flee is a pivotal moment of change for both of them.
  • Aeneas meets Dido, queen of Carthage, in his storm-tossed journey, and falls madly in love. Soon after, the gods send him a message that he and his lineage are to become the founders of Rome. He leaves immediately. Dido kills herself in despair.
  • With supernatural help, Aeneas journeys to the underworld to see the future: that his descendants establish Rome and create the Roman Empire.

These moments, to which I’ve summarized so prosaically, are told in verse and with rich detail and sensory imagery.

Interestingly, the Norton Anthology also included the ancient translation of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest recorded epic story. Being a science fiction geek, perhaps I should not have been surprised that my first exposure to this classic, written in antiquity, circa 1700 BC, first reached my ears via Captain Picard, on the all-time most popular episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation TV show called Darmok (no, not the new, apparently amazing show, that is behind the CBS paywall). Careful, don’t read the links unless you have time; you won’t come out for awhile.

CMIO’s take? Great storytelling captivating, and timeless. Smart people lived thousands of years ago. Sometimes Captain Picard teaches you ancient literature.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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