Did you suppose, my father,
That I could tear myself away and leave you?
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Fulfilling Dido’s request, Aeneas begins his sorrowful story, adding that retelling it entails reexperiencing the pain. He takes us back to ten years into the Trojan War: at the moment the tale begins, the Danaans (Greeks) have constructed a giant wooden horse with a hollow belly. They secretly hide their best soldiers, fully armed, within the horse, while the rest of the Greek army lies low some distance from Troy. The sight of a massive horse standing before their gates on an apparently deserted battlefield baffles the Trojans.
Near the horse, the Trojans find a Greek youth named Sinon. He explains that the Greeks have wished to flee Troy for some time but were prevented by fierce storms. A prophet told them to sacrifice one of their own, and Sinon was chosen. But Sinon managed to escape during the preparations, and the Greeks left him behind. The Trojans show him pity and ask the meaning of the great horse. Sinon says that it was an offering to the goddess Minerva, who turned against the Greeks after the desecration of one of her temples by Ulysses. Sinon claims that if any harm comes to the wooden statue, Troy will be destroyed by Minerva’s wrath, but if the Trojans install the horse within their city walls, they will rise victorious in war against southern Greece, like a tidal wave, with Minerva on their side.
Aeneas continues his story: after Sinon finishes speaking, two giant serpents rise up from the sea and devour the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons as punishment for hurling a spear at the horse. The snakes then slither up to the shrine of Minerva. The Trojans interpret the snakes’ attack as an omen that they must appease Minerva, so they wheel the horse into the city of Troy.
Night falls, and while the city sleeps, Sinon opens the horse’s belly, releasing the Greek warriors. The warriors kill the Trojan guards and open the gates of the city to the rest of their forces. Meanwhile, Hector, the fallen leader of the Trojan army, appears to Aeneas in a dream and informs him that the city has been infiltrated. Climbing to his roof, Aeneas sees fighting everywhere and Troy in flames. He runs for arms and then heads for the heart of the city, joined by a few of his men.
Aeneas and his men surprise and kill many Greeks, but are too badly outnumbered to make a difference. Eventually they go to King Priam’s palace, where a battle is brewing. The Greeks, led by Pyrrhus, break into the palace. Pyrrhus kills Polites, the young son of Priam and Hecuba, and then slaughters Priam on his own altar.
Aeneas continues relating his story: nearly overcome with grief over this slaughter, he sees Helen, the cause of the war, hiding. He determines to kill her, but Venus appears and explains that blame for the war belongs with the gods, not Helen. Venus advises Aeneas to flee Troy at once, since his fate is elsewhere. Aeneas then proceeds to the house of his father, Anchises, but Anchises refuses to leave. But after omens appear—first a harmless tongue of flame on Ascanius’s forehead, then a bright falling star in the sky—Anchises is persuaded to flee the city.
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