Aeneas tells how Troy fell to the Greeks on the night they invaded it by means of a wooden horse. Among other incidents, he describes the murder of Troy’s King Priam by the Greek warrior Pyrrhus; the death of his own wife, Creusa; and his own escape with his father, Anchises, his son, Ascanius, and a band of fellow warriors.
On their westward sea voyage, Aeneas continues, the Trojans stopped first at Thrace, where they began to establish a settlement. However, because the ghost of Priam’s youngest son, Polydorus, who was killed by Thrace’s king, warned Aeneas to flee Thrace, the Trojans left the region and sailed to the island of Delos. There, Aeneas consulted an oracle of Apollo, who told him to seek his ancient homeland, which Anchises understood to be the island of Crete. Unfortunately, when the Trojans reached Crete, they realized that their rightful goal was Italy, so they again set sail. On an island in the Strophades, they were tormented by Harpies, vicious bird-women, whom they escaped by sailing to Actium and then to Buthrotum.
On Buthrotum, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans were welcomed by its ruler, Priam’s son Helenus, and Helenus’s wife, Andromache, the widow of the great Trojan warrior Hector. Helenus advised Aeneas how to reach Italy, and the warriors sailed on to Sicily, where Anchises died at a stopover in Drepanum, whose king, Acestes, received them hospitably. Finally, bringing his story up-to-date and back to the starting point of the narrative, Aeneas describes how the Trojans set forth from Sicily, only to be overcome by the storm that swept them off course.
Dido, inspired with love for Aeneas, confesses her fatal passion to her sister, Anna, who encourages the queen to satisfy it. Juno, hoping to delay Aeneas’s arrival in Italy, and Venus, Aeneas’s mother, hoping to ensure her son’s safety, cooperate to see that Aeneas and Dido are joined in a sexual union, which the queen regards as a marriage. Aware that the Trojan prince is wasting valuable time with Dido, Jupiter, the king of the gods, sends Mercury to instruct Aeneas to sail from Carthage, which Aeneas reluctantly does. Dido, distraught by her lover’s departure, puts a curse on the Trojans, the outcome of which will be the Punic Wars, and then commits suicide.
After the Trojans leave Carthage, another storm drives them back to Sicily, where Acestes again gives them a warm welcome. A year has passed since the death of Anchises, in whose honor sacrifices are now made and funeral games are held. Juno, acting through the goddess Iris, incites the Trojan women — tired after seven years of wandering and ready to settle permanently — to burn the ships. Entreated by Aeneas, Jupiter puts out the fire with rain, saving all but four of the ships. Aeneas, advised by Anchises’s ghost, permits any Trojan who wishes to remain in Sicily to do so. Those who want to continue on to Italy are about to sail when Venus, fearing that Juno will again cause trouble, asks the sea god Neptune to guarantee a safe voyage for her son. Neptune does as Venus asks in exchange for one human life, which turns out to be that of Aeneas’s ship’s pilot, Palinurus, who falls overboard but ably swims to land, only to be slain by savages.
At last, the Trojans reach Italy, known as Latium. Landing at Cumae, Aeneas consults a sibyl and with her visits the underworld. He is welcomed by Anchises’s ghost, who describes to him Rome’s future and its heroes.
Having seen this vision of Rome’s glory, Aeneas begins to establish a settlement in Latium, granted permission to do so by Latium’s King Latinus, who is convinced that the Trojans are favored by destiny and so wants to cooperate with them. However, Latinus is frustrated by his subjects, who, under the leadership of the Rutulian prince Turnus, do not trust Aeneas and want to force the Trojans from Latium. Latinus is also besieged by the antagonism of his wife, Amata, who sides with Turnus, to whom she wishes to marry her and Latinus’s daughter, Lavinia. Additionally, Latinus is unaware that Juno is plotting the outbreak of war between Aeneas and Turnus.
When war between the Trojans and the Latins becomes inevitable, Aeneas enlists the help of Evander, king of Pallanteum (site of the future Rome), and the Etruscans, who have rebelled against their evil king, Mezentius, Turnus’s ally. While Aeneas is out securing this support, the battle between the Trojans and Turnus’s forces begins. After Aeneas returns with help from Pallanteum, the war reaches its full fury. Turnus kills Evander’s son, Pallas; Aeneas reluctantly slays Lausus, the son of Mezentius; and Mezentius himself is hacked down at the hands of Aeneas.
The Trojans, on their way to victory, assault Laurentum, the citadel of the now-demoralized Latins. Latinus wants peace more than ever, but Turnus stubbornly opposes any type of settlement. After the defeat and death of the warrior maiden Camilla, his ally in battle, Turnus offers to confront Aeneas in single combat, with the understanding that the winner will marry Lavinia and the war cease. After a final attempt by Juno to frustrate the Trojans and Rutulians into breaking the truce, the fight takes place. Aeneas first wounds and then slays Turnus. With this decisive victory, the epic ends.