As armies march from all over Latium to fight the Trojans, Turnus extends his appeal for help to Diomedes, who had engaged Aeneas in personal combat during the Trojan War and is now a ruler in southern Italy. Aware of this dangerous course of events, Aeneas anxiously tries to devise a plan of action.
One night while Aeneas is sleeping, the god of the Tiber River appears in a dream and tells the Trojan prince that he will find on the shore a white sow and her litter, which symbolically represent Alba Longa, to be founded by Ascanius after thirty years have passed — the number of sucklings in the litter. This discovery is the sign Helenus foretold to Aeneas: It is absolute proof that the Trojans have come to the right place at last. The river god also advises Aeneas to sail upstream to the city of Pallanteum and seek the aid of its king, Evander.
Waking, Aeneas prays to the river god and then finds the sow and her litter, all of which he sacrifices to Juno. He then sails up the Tiber with two of his oared ships and their crews. The next day, approaching Pallanteum, they come upon Evander, his son, Pallas, and a crowd of citizens, who are engaged in worshipping Hercules.
Aeneas, identifying his own people and his mission, is warmly received by Evander, a Greek who came to Italy with his people many years before and established Pallanteum, on the site of the future Rome. Aeneas tells Evander that the two are blood relatives: Dardanus, the founder of Troy and Aeneas's ancestor, was the son of Electra, Atlas's daughter; Evander's father, Mercury, was the son of Maia, another of Atlas's daughters.
Evander, who recollects having met Priam and Anchises when he was a young man, promises his full support against Turnus. He invites Aeneas and his company to be guests at the worship ceremony for Hercules, which is performed yearly as an offering of thanks to Hercules for killing Cacus, the fire-breathing giant who dwelt in a nearby cave and victimized Evander's people.
Aeneas accompanies Evander to his home, and on the way Evander tells Aeneas that the region of Latium was formerly the realm of the god Saturn, who, banished by Jupiter, came here as an exile and taught the arts of civilization to the savage natives. In Pallanteum, Aeneas is shown sites that will be famous in later times when Rome is in its full glory, including the Capitol, the future city's central hill.
That night, Venus visits her husband, Vulcan, the blacksmith of the gods, and persuades him to make weapons and armor for her son. The next day, Vulcan goes to his shop and orders his three smiths, who are Cyclopes, to begin the work. In Pallanteum, meanwhile, Evander advises Aeneas to go to the nearby city of Agylla — or Caere, now Cerveteri — a stronghold of the Etruscans, to seek their help. Having overthrown their evil king, Mezentius, who now has taken refuge with the Latins, the Etruscans are prepared to wage war against their former ruler. Because a seer has told the Etruscans that they must choose a non-Italian to lead them, they will welcome Aeneas as their leader.
Aeneas, at first doubtful about asking the Etruscans for help against the Latins, is given a go-ahead by his mother — tremendous crashes of thunder — and soon sets off for Agylla with Pallas, four hundred horsemen, and the pick of his own crew, the rest of whom he sends back to the Trojan camp downstream with a message to Ascanius informing him of what has happened.
At Agylla, Aeneas's company joins the Etruscans, who are under the leadership of Tarchon. Here, Venus appears before her son with the arms and armor that Vulcan has forged for him. The masterpiece of the ensemble is a magnificent shield decorated with episodes from Roman history, of which Aeneas, of course, can have no knowledge, since all of these events lie in the future. The shield's center depicts the crucial naval battle at Actium, which will mark the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra and the triumphant return to Rome of its future emperor and Virgil's patron, Augustus.
Book VIII, in which Aeneas consolidates his position by gaining the support of Evander and the Etruscans, offers a tranquil interlude between the irreversible steps leading up to war, detailed in the preceding book, and the outbreak of hostilities depicted in Book IX. Because we first view Evander as he is performing rites for Hercules and other gods, our impression of him is favorable; he embodies deep, sincere religious piety comparable to Aeneas. Likewise, we favor the Etruscans when we learn that they have deposed their evil king, Mezentius, who resembles Turnus in his savage arrogance and unbridled fury. Like the Trojans, Evander and his people are foreigners in Italy, and their presence is also opposed by Turnus. Furthermore, Evander is related to Aeneas through their common descent from Atlas.
Aeneas's visit to Pallanteum affords Virgil the opportunity to link the city of his own present, Rome, to its legendary predecessor. In the course of Aeneas's city tour, the Trojan prince views urban sites that were familiar to Virgil's contemporary Roman readers. This patriotic history lesson was intended to demonstrate the continuity of Roman institutions and to impress readers with the idea that as long ago as the heroic age, the time in which the Aeneid and Homer's epics are set, destiny had already selected the spot on which Rome would rise, as well as ordained the greatness of the Romans themselves.
Book VIII is saturated with references that link the legendary past to the Rome of Augustus. Virgil uses every means put at his disposal by legend and myth to show the Augustan Age as having been especially favored by fate and the gods. And, once again, Virgil's political purpose — to legitimatize Augustus by showing him as the heir of the ages — is enhanced by allusions to Homer's Iliad.
This continuity of past and present is dramatically emphasized at the very moment that Aeneas and his band approach Pallanteum: They encounter Evander and his people performing rites of thanksgiving to Hercules at the same altar — the Ara Maxima, or "the Greatest" altar — where annual rites in honor of Hercules were still being performed in Virgil's own time. Virgil counted on his informed readers to be aware of this conjunction and to make a comparison between Hercules, Pallanteum's savior, and Augustus, who became Rome's savior by defeating its enemies and thus ushering in an age of peace.
Throughout Book VIII, Virgil draws parallels between Hercules, Aeneas, and Augustus as past, present, and future heroes — relative to the time of the story. In the past, Hercules killed Cacus; in the present, Aeneas is about to conquer Turnus; and in the future, as revealed on the shield that Venus presents to her son, Augustus will defeat the combined armies of Antony and Cleopatra. Later, in the course of the ceremony honoring Hercules, the dancing priests — the Salii — sing honorific hymns for the Greek warrior, a ritual detail that would have reminded Virgil's readers of the deep respect paid to Augustus after Actium, the site of his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, when members of the same ancient priesthood inserted his name into their hymns.
Comparisons between Aeneas and Hercules are also implied in the hymn sung by the dancing priests, who recount how Hercules performed many labors and was opposed by Juno — or Hera, her Greek name — who was his great enemy before she became Aeneas's. The many labors undertaken by Hercules in myths about him parallel the endless tasks Aeneas performs to establish a homeland. Numerous details in Book VIII stress the likeness between the two heroes, as when Aeneas performs rites for Hercules and then sets out for the Etruscans's camp on a horse covered with a lion's skin, an emblem associated with the Greek hero.
Although Virgil presents Turnus only once in Book VIII, at its beginning when the warrior "raised the flag of war," this lone view is enough to cement our dislike of the Rutulian. Turnus is linked with disorder, and because of his rash behavior, "Then hearts were stirred by fear, then all of Latium / Joined in distracted tumult, and young men / Grew bloody-minded, wild." In comparison, Aeneas is thoughtful and concerned about the senseless bloodshed he knows is imminent. The passage in which Virgil describes the Trojan hero as "heartsick at the woe of war" directly follows Turnus's spurring others to madness and increases Aeneas's noble stature when compared to his adversary's all-consuming passion for war.