Reluctantly accepting Dido's invitation to tell his story, Aeneas sorrowfully begins with an account of the fall of Troy. He describes how, in the tenth year of the Trojan War, the Greeks constructed an enormous wooden horse, which they then rumored was intended as an offering to the goddess Minerva in order to gain her protection on their voyage home. In truth, they filled the horse with nine of their best warriors, including Ulysses, and then hid themselves in their ships behind the offshore island of Tenedos.
Fooled by this stratagem, Troy's citizens believed that the Greeks had indeed sailed home. Some wanted to bring the wooden horse into the city; others, rightly suspicious, wanted to destroy it. Laocoön, a priest of Neptune, warned the Trojans that the wooden horse was either full of soldiers or a war machine. Defiantly hurling a spear into the horse's side, he implored his countrymen to remember the last time the Greeks gave a gift to Troy without deception being involved. Of course, the Trojans could not.
At this point, shepherds came to the crowd gathered around the wooden horse. With them was a Greek captive, Sinon, who said that he had deserted Ulysses's army after learning that he was to be sacrificed in order to guarantee a favorable homeward wind for the Greeks. In reality, he was lying: He had been left behind by his fellow Greeks to deceive the Trojans and prepare for the Greek invasion of Troy.
Deliberately confusing the Trojans, Sinon explained that the purpose of the horse was to appease Minerva, who was angry with the Greeks because they had stolen her sacred image, the Palladium, from her temple in Troy; the Greeks had sailed home with the Palladium but would return with it in time and again besiege Troy. Minerva would be pacified only when her sacred image was returned from Greece to Troy with due ceremonial reverence. Sinon then said that if the wooden horse were harmed in any way, the goddess would destroy Troy for its impiety, but if it were brought within the city's walls, Troy would conquer Greece.
The Trojans began to believe Sinon's explanation and were finally convinced of his story's truthfulness after two serpents rose out of the sea and crushed Laocoön and his two sons in their coils, an event that the onlookers regarded as rightful punishment for Laocoön's having attacked the horse. Hoping to make reparation for Laocoön's lack of reverence for Minerva and win the goddess's favor, the Trojans followed Sinon's advice and brought the horse into the city. The real intention of Minerva, who, according to tradition, helped build the wooden horse, was to destroy Troy. She killed Laocoön and his sons because she wanted the Trojans to believe that Sinon's story was true and bring the wooden horse within Troy's walls.
That night, while the weary Trojans slept, Sinon released the Greek warriors hidden inside the horse and opened Troy's gates to the remaining Greek forces, which had sailed back to Troy's shores from Tenedos. The Trojans were helpless against the assault, and Troy was soon in flames. Hector, King Priam's son, who had been slain by Achilles earlier in the Trojan War, appeared to Aeneas in a dream and told him that all was lost, and that he should take Troy's gods of hearth and household — the Penatës — and seek a new city for them.
Waking, Aeneas, disillusioned by the disastrous events revealed in his dream, armed himself and went out into the city, desperately planning to die in combat. He was joined by other Trojans, and after many struggles, including disguising himself as a Greek soldier to more easily traverse the city's streets, he arrived at Priam's besieged palace, where he witnessed the havoc wrought by Pyrrhus, Achilles's ferocious son. Pyrrhus rashly murdered Priam's son, Politës, in front of the king, and then he killed Priam himself at the altar of Jupiter.
Aeneas, suddenly concerned about the fate of his father, Anchises, his wife, Creusa, and his son, Ascanius, all of whom were still at home, began to make his way to them through Troy's streets when he unexpectedly encountered Helen. Convinced that her elopement with Paris was the cause of the war and Troy's downfall, he was seized by a vengeful desire to kill her and would have done so if his mother, Venus, had not appeared and stayed his hand. Venus told him that neither Helen nor Paris was to blame for Troy's destruction; it was willed by the gods, whom she caused to appear to Aeneas in a series of visions that showed them all in a destructive mood.
Aeneas, deciding to flee from Troy with his family, returned home at last, but Anchises, who declared that he would rather die than face exile at his age, refused to abandon his home and urged the others to leave without him, which they would not do despite certain death if they stayed. At that moment, Aeneas and his family witnessed a portent: A flame appeared around Ascanius's head, and when Anchises prayed to Jupiter for another sign, thunder rumbled — an affirmative omen — and a star streaked across the sky in the direction of Mount Ida. Now convinced that his departure was divinely ordained, Anchises changed his mind; with Aeneas holding his son by the hand and carrying his father on his back, and Creusa following behind, they left the house.
Turning to look for Creusa after the group reached a safe place outside the city that had been designated earlier as the rendezvous point for people wishing to flee Troy, Aeneas discovered that his wife had mysteriously vanished. He went back alone into the chaotic city to try to find her, but, instead, he encountered her ghost, which told him that he was destined to marry again after reaching his new homeland. Returning to Anchises and Ascanius, Aeneas found with them a large number of refugees waiting for him to lead them. As morning came, the band of survivors headed in the direction of Mount Ida.
The destructive invasion of Troy by the Greeks, the subject of Book II, occurs at the chronological beginning of the Aeneid and is the first crucial event of the epic, the one from which all others follow in sequential order. Aeneas's personally narrating the Trojans's adventures gives an intimacy to his story that would be lacking if it were told by a third-person narrator. The vivid scenes witnessed by Aeneas, some depicting legendary characters like Helen, Cassandra, Priam, and Pyrrhus, provide great visual impact: We see everything that takes place in the burning city by the light of the flames that are destroying it. Also, Aeneas's recounting these past events enhances our sense of his tale being about a stage in the lives of the hero and his companions that is over and done with, that can only be looked back upon. What lies ahead is the unknown future that awaits the Trojans in their new homeland. The meeting with Dido takes place at a dividing line, a watershed in time, but before Aeneas can sail forth to encounter his future, he must first love and then abandon the Carthaginian queen.
To his description of catastrophic incidents, Virgil adds psychological and spiritual dimensions that give his narrative a particularly human relevance and reveal the compassionate awareness of suffering and the tragic side of life for which he has been justly celebrated. These humane qualities are all the more noteworthy because they are expressed by Aeneas himself, who is thereby presented not only as a man of action but also as a man of feeling, as he was in Book I.
Aeneas is a warrior and a goddess's son, who will lead his people to safety and prepare for the establishment of a new Troy in Italy; but, first of all, he is a human being, at times prone to fear and indecision. Like everybody else in Troy that fateful night the city fell, he went to bed without suspicion, duped like the rest by Sinon and unaware that the city shortly would be in flames. Notably, however, Aeneas is never directly involved in the scenes in which Sinon convinces the Trojans to move the horse within their city's walls. Instead, King Priam himself questions the trickster.
Priam's presence at Sinon's inquisition and his actions later in the book show him to be an ineffectual leader of his people. A symbol of all that has gone wrong in Trojan society, he is duped by the lying Sinon, which suggests that he has succumbed to complacency in his rule. Worse, Virgil describes Priam as an "old man" who "uselessly / Put on his shoulders, shaking with old age, / Armor unused for years." Remembering that the Trojan War has been raging for ten years, Virgil's description of Priam's military prowess strongly suggests that the king's physical skills have waned during this time span.
Additionally, our last view of King Priam is not a very flattering one. Hecuba, his wife, questions — perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not — his mental acumen when she asks him what "mad thought" drove him to think he could fight the Greeks. She acknowledges what Priam cannot, that Troy's destruction and his approaching death symbolize the passing of a generation and a way of life. Unfortunately, the new, reigning generation will include individuals like Pyrrhus, who irreverently kills Priam's son in front of the king and then brazenly mocks Priam. When Priam recalls how Pyrrhus's father once nobly showed mercy to the Trojan king, Pyrrhus's response to the memory of his own father is cold, calculated, and inhumanely cruel: "You'll report the news / To Pelidës, my father; don't forget / My sad behavior, the degeneracy / Of Neoptolemus. Now die." In Book III, we learn that even the barbaric Pyrrhus is not invincible; he too becomes a victim of revenge when he is slaughtered by Orestes.
Immediately following this scene, Aeneas remembers his family in their home and worries about their safety. His concern for them, following as it does Pyrrhus's comments about his own father, increases our respect for Aeneas and highlights Pyrrhus's depravity. Lest we fear that Aeneas, as a member of this new generation of leaders, will act as vilely as Pyrrhus, Virgil emphasizes the Trojan hero's independence and honorable character by having him say of himself, "It came to this, / That I stood there alone." This comment recalls Virgil's describing Aeneas in Book I as "a man apart, devoted to his mission."
In Book I, Aeneas showed himself to be a competent leader of his people and a responsible father to his son. Here, in Book II, he demonstrates the appropriate pietas — devotion to one's family, country, and mission — for his father and again for his son.
When Anchises refuses to vacate his house, nobly choosing instead to commit suicide, Aeneas breaks down in tears and cries out that he could never leave his father. Aeneas is unwilling to abandon him, knowing that Greek warriors could break into the house at any moment and slaughter the man who gave him life. His deep respect for Anchises is best demonstrated by his physically carrying him through Troy's streets to the rendezvous point.
Another admirable role Aeneas continues in this book is that of the good father to Ascanius. Worried for the boy's safety, the Trojan hero's shepherding his son away from danger emphasizes the human nature of his character. After lifting Anchises onto his back, Aeneas recalls how "little Iulus put his hand in mine / And came with shorter steps beside his father." Aeneas's devotion to his son is exemplary.
Aeneas's treatment of Creusa is less admirable than that which he gives his father and son. To a great extent, Creusa's character is one-dimensional, and she appears as a mere prop in this superhuman drama. As the family flees Troy, that she walks behind her husband, son, and father-in-law symbolizes her subordinate position in respect to the males. Aeneas incriminates himself as an uncaring husband when he recalls the events leading up to her disappearance: "Never did I look back / Or think to look for her, lost as she was." His comment, "She alone failed her friends, her child, her husband," seems to place the blame for her death solely on her, when there can be little doubt — especially when she later appears to Aeneas as a ghost — that she was overcome by Greek soldiers and killed.
However, any blame we place on Aeneas for his treatment of Creusa is tempered by the grief he suffers when he learns of her disappearance. His returning alone to Troy when he knows the great danger of his doing so helps redeem him in our eyes. The grief he feels, which Creusa's ghost characterizes as madness, is most evident just prior to his encountering her spirit, when he searches frantically from door to door. Finally, Creusa sanctions his actions concerning her when she asks only that he take good care of their son. Like Jupiter in Book I, Creusa's ghost prophecies Aeneas's future: She knows the glory that awaits her husband and, even more so, her son, who will become the ancestor of Augustus, to whom Virgil dedicated his epic poem.
Why the Trojans were gullible enough to believe Sinon's story and drag the horse within Troy's walls has been heavily debated by critics. The answer, in part, recalls the theme of order versus disorder from Book I. Throughout Book II, although there is a movement toward a more ordered world for Aeneas and his followers, they are anything but safe from their enemy.
The disagreement within the Trojan community about whether or not to drag the horse within the city's walls is an effect of a disordered world in which the Trojans live. Virgil characterizes the discord within the society as "contrary notions" that "pulled the crowd apart." Both the gods and the humans are to blame for this mess that the Trojans — "blind miserable people" — find themselves in: "If the gods's will had not been sinister, / If our own minds had not been crazed, . . . Troy would stand today." Unfortunately, Virgil can only ask these "What if?" questions, for Aeneas now finds himself in search of a new homeland on which to found a new civilization.
The "shadow / Over the city's heart" that the wooden horse casts is both physical and psychological. Physically, the Greek soldiers hiding inside the wooden structure will eventually burn Troy to the ground. Psychologically, the Trojans are "deaf and blind" to the evil they willingly usher into their city, and, as Virgil suggests, their vulnerability is partly due to their living complacently and indulgently: The Greeks make their way unchecked into "the darkened city, buried deep / In sleep and wine." That Aeneas and some fellow Trojan soldiers later disguise themselves in Greek war clothing and are then fired upon by their own men demonstrates just how upside down this world has become.
By the end of Book II, Aeneas has regrouped those of his people who survived the Greek onslaught of Troy. Using a literary device that symbolizes a better future ahead, Virgil writes that a morning star rising over Mount Ida's ridges appears to Aeneas's ragged followers. The Trojan warrior recounts to Dido how he determinedly set forth toward Mount Ida to meet that future: "So I resigned myself, picked up my father, / And turned my face toward the mountain range." His resolute attitude is what we — and, more important, Virgil's contemporary readers — expect in this story of a world-class hero.