[The Roman race was] destined to bring under [its] empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.
Note: Because this story was taken from Latin sources, Roman names are used.
Written during the Pax Augusta, a time of great optimism for Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid chronicles the adventures of Aeneas, the Trojan hero and mythical progenitor of the Roman people. Due to the help of his mother, he is the lone Trojan able to escape defeat at the hands of the Greeks, fleeing with his father on his back and his son in his hand. Aeneas eventually winds up in Italy, where his son founds the city Alba Longa, the predecessor of Rome. Between the two cities, however, Aeneas has a long journey and many adventures.
In a dream, Aeneas is told that he is destined to sail to Italy, known then as Hesperia, the Western Country. On the way, he and his crew encounter the same Harpies whom the Argonauts battled. Unable to defeat them, they are forced to escape. They next encounter Hector’s widow, Andromache, enslaved by Achilles’ son after the war. After her captor’s death, she marries the Trojan prophet Helenus. Helenus tells Aeneas that he should land on the western coast of Italy and gives him directions and tells him how to avoid the dire Scylla and Charybdis. He seemingly does not know about other dangers along the route. Luckily, when the Trojans land on the island of the Cyclopes, they meet a sailor whom Ulysses (Odysseus) has left behind. They escape just as Polyphemus charges the ship.
Juno is still angry with the Trojans, however, as she still resents Paris choosing Venus over her and has learned that Aeneas’s descendants are fated to found a city that will one day destroy Carthage, her favorite city. Juno recruits Aeolus, King of the Winds, to send a gigantic storm. Though Neptune’s intervention saves the Trojans, they are blown off course all the way to Africa, near Carthage, of all cities. Juno conspires to have Aeneas fall in love with Carthage’s queen, Dido, figuring that if he does, he will not leave Carthage. Venus makes her own plan, however, and sends Cupid to ensure that Dido falls in love with Aeneas and that Aeneas never reciprocates the feelings. Nonetheless, as Dido lavishes attention on Aeneas and his men, he grows used to the luxury and lingers in Carthage. At last, Jupiter, acting on Venus’s behalf, sends Mercury to Aeneas. Mercury urges Aeneas to go fulfill his destiny, so he soberly takes his leave of a sobbing Dido. Sailing away, he sees smoke rising from Carthage, never knowing that the source is her funeral pyre.
Helenus had also told Aeneas to find the prophetic Sibyl of Cumae upon reaching Italy. They find the Sibyl, who says she must take Aeneas to the underworld to meet his father, Anchises, who has died earlier in the journey. To travel to the underworld, Aeneas and his friend Achates must find a mystical golden bough that gains them admittance. Venus eventually leads them to the bough, which Aeneas bears as he and the Sibyl enter the underworld. They pass by many horrors—lost souls, frightening spirits of Disease and Hunger, even Dido herself, who refuses to acknowledge Aeneas. Charon sees the golden bough and ferries them across his river. They mollify Cerberus with cake and finally find Anchises, who shows Aeneas the souls who will one day rise to be his future descendants. He also tells Aeneas where and how to establish his new home in Italy.
Aeneas returns to the surface and sails up the Italian coast with his crew. Latinus, king of the Latins, warmly receives them. Latinus plans to marry his daughter, Lavinia, to the majestic Aeneas. Juno, however, makes Alecto, one of the Furies, cause trouble. Alecto convinces Latinus’s wife to oppose the marriage, and Alecto tells Turnus, King of the Rutulians and suitor of Lavinia, about Aeneas. Finally, Alecto makes Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, unwittingly kill a certain stag very popular among the Latins. The advancing army of the Rutulians joins with the Latins to oppose the small band of Trojans. The two armies are also aided by Mezentius, a cruel ex-leader of the Etruscans, and Camilla, a renowned female warrior. Aeneas again receives divine help, however. Father Tiber, god of the famous Roman river, tells him to retreat upstream to find Evander, king of the town that will one day become Rome. There, Evander and his son, Pallas, receive Aeneas warmly but can offer no real help. Evander tells Aeneas that he can seek the help of the powerful Etruscans, who are anxious to get revenge against the tyrannical Mezentius. Evander gives the few men, including Pallas, whom he can spare.
While Aeneas seeks these allies, the Trojans face a huge offensive from Turnus. They must get word to Aeneas, but Nisus and Euryalus are the only Trojans brave enough to sneak past enemy lines to send the message. Euryalus is captured and, Nisus, rather than run away, tries to save Euryalus, only to be killed alongside him. Aeneas returns with Etruscan reinforcements. After the deaths of Camilla, Pallas, and others, Turnus and Aeneas meet in single combat. Aeneas kills Turnus, marries Lavinia, and founds the Roman people.