Author: Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period)
This epic poem follows Aeneas, – a hero of Greco-Roman mythology, who appears in Homer’s epic – Iliad. Written over twelve years during the rule of Augustus Caesar, it describes how the Trojan Aeneas followed his destiny to Italy, conquered the Latins, and laid the foundation of the subsequent Roman Empire. This legitimizes Augustus as belonging to the dynasty descended from Aeneas’s son Ascanius or Iulus (Julius). In the process of accomplishing the political imperative of consolidating the myth of the founding of Rome at a time of civil discord, Virgil created some of the most beautiful poetry ever composed in Latin.
Aeneas flees from Troy (in present-day Turkey) and sails towards Ausonia or Hesperia (in present-day Italy), where he is prophesied to become the founder of Lavinium, which would eventually become the capital of a great conqueror race – the Romans. Juno, the queen of the gods, wants to stop him as Aeneas’s successors will defeat her beloved Carthaginians. Moreover, she has an old grudge against goddess Venus, Aeneas’s mother.
Juno requests wind-god Aeolus to create a storm, but the Trojans are saved by Neptune, the god of the ocean and Juno’s brother. Venus appears to Aeneas and recounts the history of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia), and her able founder Dido. Venus creates a mist for their safe passage to Carthage and instructs her other son Cupid, the god of love, to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas.
Dido throws a banquet welcoming the Trojans, where Aeneas narrates why he fled Troy. As described in Iliad, the Trojans were tricked by the Greeks led by Ulysses to take in a large wooden horse into their walled city, in spite of warnings from the priest Laocoon and the clairvoyant Cassandra. Soldiers hid inside the horse, – immortalized forever in Western culture as the Trojan Horse, and opened the city gates to the secretly returned Greeks, who then butchered the duped Trojans.
Aeneas escaped with son Ascanius and father Anchises while wife Creusa was killed, urged by the slain warrior Hector in a dream. Various omens like Ascanius’s hair catching fire predict their future greatness. Aeneas sails to various ports in the Mediterranean, and hears the prophecy regarding his founding of a great city. He meets many beings and has many adventures, for instance visiting the land of Cyclops – the one-eyed giant, till his father expires and is buried in Sicily ruled by Acestes.
Dido’s love cannot keep Aeneas in Carthage. He leaves when the king of gods Jupiter reminds him of his destiny through Mercury. Dido commits suicide with Aeneas’s sword, and Aeneas sees the flames of her funeral pyre from his ship. Before dying, Dido proclaims eternal rivalry between the descendants of the Trojans and her people.
With Acestes’s permission, funeral games or contests in the memory of Anchises are held on the anniversary of his death. While the men are thus occupied, Juno in disguise instigates the women to burn the ships. Jupiter creates a rainstorm to douse the fires hearing Aeneas’s prayers. The old and weak Trojans stay back, and Aeneas visits the Sybil or prophetess of Cumae with the remaining. Neptune agrees to grant them safe passage at the request of Venus, but takes the life of the navigator Palinurus as sacrifice.
The Sybil takes Aeneas to the underworld, where Anchises shows him a vision of Rome’s future leaders; and Dido spurns him. He meets the three-headed dog Cerberus and Charon ferrying the dead.
Reaching Latium in Ausonia, Aeneas is welcomed by King Latinus, as it is foretold that Latinus’s daughter Lavinia will marry a non-Latin. Juno intervenes, sending Alecto, a Fury – goddess of rage or vengeance, to Lavinia’s mother Amata and to her foremost suitor Turnus – the leader of the Rutuli. These two oppose Aeneas’s candidature as Lavinia’s husband, antagonizing their people against the Trojans. Allecto is instrumental in Ascanius killing a pet deer, which leads to war.
The river Tiber advises Aeneas in a dream to find allies. Aeneas attempts to appease Juno with the sacrifice of the sow with thirty piglets he finds as foretold. Aeneas obtains help from the Etruscans; King Evander of Arcadia and his son Pallas join Aeneas; while Latinus is joined by Etrurian king Mezentius with son Lausus, and Camilla – a devotee of Diana, the goddess of hunting. Venus’s husband Vulcan – the god of volcano, fire and forge, constructs armor for Aeneas depicting the glorious future of Rome.
The Trojan camp is attacked while Aeneas is away; and when Turnus tries to burn the Trojan ships, Jupiter turns them into water nymphs which swim away. Two Trojan warriors Nisus and Euryalus go to find Aeneas at night, killing many Latins before they are killed as well. Aeneas returns with his allies and the battles start in earnest. Though impressed by Ascanius’s skill, Apollo, the god of archery, appears to Ascanius in disguise, counselling him not to fight as destiny awaits him.
The gods are advised by Jupiter to let fate take its course. When Pallas and Lausus fight, Turnus’s sister, the nymph Juturna, sends him to help Lausus. Turnus kills Pallas and takes his belt as a prize. Pallas’s death enrages Aeneas, who ruthlessly massacres his enemies. Juno sends a phantom Aeneas to lure Turnus away so that he can meet his father before his death. Lausus and Mezentius are killed.
A temporary truce is declared to bury the dead. Diomedes, a Greek ally of Latinus, advocates joining Aeneas and rejecting Turnus. When fighting resumes after three days instead of the proposed twelve, Camilla is killed. Turnus rejects peace and injures Aeneas in one-on-one combat, but Venus heals Aeneas. Even Juno agrees to help Aeneas because Jupiter promises the Trojans will adopt the culture and language of the Latins.
Amata hangs herself and the Trojans attack Latium. Juturna, disguised as Turnus’s charioteer, tries to help Turnus. Juno sends a Fury which weakens Turnus, who concedes defeat. Aeneas considers sparing him, but seeing Pallas’s belt, avenges Pallas by killing Turnus.