Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid recounts the hero Aeneas’s perilous journey from Troy to Italy, as he takes a destined mission to establish a prophesied world of peace, order, and stability, founding what will one day become Rome. Virgil’s poem suggests that human greatness, insofar as empires are concerned, results from fidelity to fate and destiny, rather than independent volition. Aeneas fulfills his own destiny because he is faithful to the fate he is given.
Virgil begins by echoing Homer’s invocation of the muse, as in The Iliad and The Odyssey, picking up the story of the Trojan War where those two epics left off. The Aeneid shares both epics’ tone of ironic tragedy as characters act against their own wishes, submit their lives to fate (usually associated with Jupiter’s will), and often meet dark ends. For Virgil’s Roman audience, however, fate is a divine, religious principle that determines the course of history, culminating not in defeat, but in the Roman Empire. Scholars mostly agree that Virgil represents a full range of human emotions as his characters are battered about in the historical tides of dislocation and war. Prophecies and predictions orient mortal characters toward fate as they try to glean—clearly and unclearly—what is to come.
Split into two parts, the major conflict of the poem’s first half is that Juno harbors vengeance against the Trojans and impedes the hero Aeneas’s mission by inciting a romance between Aeneas and Dido. Aeneas struggles between choosing love and destiny and, in the end, chooses the latter. In the second part, the conflict comprises a war between the Trojans and the Latins, which again leads to struggle as Aeneas stays on his fated path to become ruler of Latium.
In the inciting incident of the first half, Aeneas is subject to the vagaries of fate: he flees Troy at the gods’ insistence, resisting the impulse to continue a doomed battle, rescuing his family and their gods, and sets sail toward Italy. His control is incomplete, his direction and progress dictated by supernatural forces. Fate has ordained that he will establish the Roman Empire, but exactly how that happens will be subject to meddling gods who continually disrupt and manipulate events on Earth. It is only Aeneas’s commitment to destiny, his duty to build a new city, that can remedy the confusion and uncertainty of his wandering and suffering over the loss of Troy.
In the first half of the poem’s rising action, Aeneas and his crew land near Carthage, Libya after lengthy and dangerous encounters. His first speech to his crew reveals his piety: he places his service to fate above all else. He fulfills Dido’s request to tell the sorrows of the Trojan War (notably recounting the episode of the wooden horse), presenting a new perspective outside of Homer’s—the victims’ point of view—though Virgil is careful to minimize their humiliation.
The climax in this first half of the epic is when Dido and Aeneas, at the prompting of Venus, consummate their affair. Dido’s desire for Aeneas consumes her. She selfishly abandons the construction of Carthage, becoming a literary icon for a tragic, betrayed lover. Events culminate in her suicide when, in the first part’s falling action, she throws herself onto a burning pyre. Cupid’s arrow, originally intended to promote love between Aeneas and Dido, results in death and destruction, and love is at odds with law and fate since it distracts people from their responsibilities. Aeneas’s enjoyment of Dido has been an indulgent distraction, and he resumes his journey. Dido has killed herself for love, leaving her city leaderless, while Aeneas returns to his course, indicating that civic responsibility resides with him.
The Trojans land in Latium, beginning the epic’s second half which describes the strife that leads to the unification of the Latin peoples. In the inciting incident, Juno descends to open the Gates of War after Latinus refuses to, representing the chaos of a world in which divine force overpowers human will and desire. An enraged Turnus gathers his forces as the rising action moves the plot forward. Aeneas takes up new armor—notably his shield, reminiscent of the ekphrastic episode in The Iliad—and with this new armor, he symbolically shoulders the weight of the destiny of Rome.
Jupiter suspends divine influence during the war, lending a sense of tragedy to the events that follow since the combatants are still doomed to their fates. In the climax, Turnus kills Pallas in an act of hubris, ignoring the gods’ signs that the conflict will be in Aeneas’s favor. Then, in the falling action, the war between the Trojans and Latins results in a duel between Aeneas and Turnus. When he finally confronts Aeneas, Turnus begs on his knees for mercy. Juno’s tandem resignation represents the end of the epic’s major conflict as the antagonistic, willful, and tempestuous characters are subdued by the forces of order.
In the final lines of the poem, Aeneas changes his mind about sparing Turnus as he remembers the slain Pallas, whose belt Turnus wears as a trophy. The true resolution is not narrated, as Virgil desires that the Roman audience itself—not Aeneas’s triumph—form the glorious conclusion to the epic story.