The Aeneid: Novel Summary: Book 2
Aeneas can hardly bear the idea of renewing the terrible grief of the fall of Troy, but he cannot refuse Dido's request. All the rest of Book 2 is in his words.
At the point that Aeneas takes up the story, the Greeks have been besieging Troy for ten years and have not been able to take the city. Achilles, their greatest warrior, is dead, and Pyrrhus, his son, has joined the Greeks; Troy still stands. Then Minerva (Athena) gives the Greeks the idea of building a huge wooden horse and filling it with armed men. They leave the horse before the gates of Troy and pretend to sail home, but they actually hide in the harbor of a nearby island, Tenedos. Most of the Trojans rejoice, and one suggests bringing the horse into the city. The most suspicious of the Trojans, Laocoon, is sure this is some trick of the deceiving Greeks, but as he is trying to persuade the others to destroy the horse, a young man is dragged into their midst. He pretends to have been cast out by the Greeks, and the Trojans take pity on him and welcome him. They ask him about the horse, and he explains that the Greeks have left it there as an offering to Minerva, to expiate an offense against her. They have made it so huge that it cannot be taken through the gates of Troy, because if it were, Troy could never be conquered. If the Trojans were to harm the horse, they would offend Minerva and be doomed. Two hideous snakes rise out of the sea and strangle Laocoon and his sons, and the Trojans are convinced. They dismantle their own gates and drag the horse into the city.
That night the Greeks sail back from Tenedos, Sinon lets the warriors out of the horse, and the sack of Troy begins. Aeneas is warned in a dream by Hector to flee, saving the household gods of Troy, and lead the Trojan remnant to a new home, but when he wakes up to hear the clamor of war and see the fires burning the city, he plunges into battle, wanting only to die in arms. For a time he and his companions do some damage to the Greeks, but in the end Aeneas has to watch helplessly as Pyrrhus kills Priam (Hector's father and the king of the Trojans). The sight reminds him of his own father, Anchises, and of his wife and son. His men are all defeated-but before he can make up his mind to go back to his home, he sees Helen hiding, and is tempted to kill her as the cause of his beloved city's destruction. Then his mother, Venus, appears in all her glory, and reproaches him for his madness. Helen is not to blame-the gods are at work, bringing proud Troy down to destruction. She actually allows him to see the huge forms of the gods tearing down the city, and promises to protect him on his way home.
He reaches his home, but his father refuses to leave, telling Aeneas to leave without him and let him die with Troy. Aeneas cannot do that, and is ready to plunge back into battle, but his wife, Creusa, holds up their son and begs him to protect his wife and son. Then, a wonder! A flame plays about Ascanius's head. Anchises recognizes the omen of divine favor and consents to leave. Aeneas sets out, his father on his shoulders, his son led by the hand, his wife and the others of the household following. Panic separates them as they make their way through the battle, and when they reach the gathering place, Creusa is not there. Aeneas, mad with despair, plunges back into the burning city to find her, searching everywhere. At last her shade appears before him, telling him her death was fated, and that he must face a long journey, at the end of which he will find a kingdom and a princess to marry. She bids him farewell, urging him to love their son. He tries three times to embrace her, but she is a shade and she escapes his hands.
He rejoins his companions, and there he finds that many other men and women have gathered, ready to join him in exile and search for new lands under his leadership. He finally gives up on Troy and, with his father on his back, leads them to the mountains.
No summary can do anything like justice to the vivid depiction of the fall of Troy Virgil gives here. The story of the strangling of Laocoon and his sons by serpents is so compelling that an ancient sculptor embodied it in a celebrated statue. The horror of battle, the insanity of slaughter, the loss of humanity for all involved, and the despair of the defeated are all brought vividly to life, in a way that makes us feel the varying emotions of Aeneas. No Roman hero he, at this point; he pays little or no attention to the predictions of his destiny. The only thing that counters his desire to die in battle, taking as much vengeance as he can, is his reverent love for his father and wife and son. Such love is an aspect of what the Romans called pietas, and Aeneas even refers to himself as pius Aeneas. Our words piety and pious are far more narrow in their meaning. Pietas involved a religious sense of duty based on reverence for everything worthy of reverence, which included all the members of one's family, one's country, and even the human race as a whole, as well as the gods. In Aeneas at this point in the story, pietas is largely personal, and the main thing that makes it distinctively Roman is that it focuses first of all on his father, then on his son. The image of Aeneas with his father on his back and his son by the hand had been a favorite image among Italians in general long before Virgil wrote.
At the same time, Aeneas's love for his wife exercises far more power over him than would have been thought becoming to a true Roman, since in his despair at losing her he risks his own life, he risks the lives of his father and son and all who depend on him to lead them, and he ignores his mission to found a new city. Everyone tells him what his destiny is, but he has not yet aligned himself with it; he clearly still misses his wife deeply at the time he tells his story to Dido, and he describes his reluctance to leave Troy in a way that makes clear that he still feels it. He has been forced to recognize that the fall of Troy was fated, but he still mourns bitterly.