The Aeneid is Virgil's masterpiece, the product of eleven years of intensive work. Legend has it that Virgil wrote this epic out of order, separating it into twelve books and working on each one whenever he pleased. Still unfinished at the time of Virgil's death in 19 B.C., the manuscript was nearly destroyed; the perfectionist Virgil, it seems, was unsatisfied with the product, and had declared in his will that it must be burned should anything happen to him. Fortunately enough for countless generations of readers, Emperor Augustus denied Virgil his request and handed over the manuscript to two of Virgil's friends, Tucca and Varius. The men revised the document, changing only the most obvious errors, and published one of the most brilliant epic poems in history.
The Aeneid, in essence, is Virgil's answer to Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. Much as Homer's great epics tell the story of the Greeks, the Aeneid is the tale of the founding of Rome. Although largely fictitious, the narrative interweaves historical elements with the popular mythology of the era - a technique that speaks to the poet's power to transform the fruits of imagination into popularly accepted fact.
Although history suggests that Rome began as a series of small tribal villages populated by Europeans from the north, the Romans of Virgil's day had a far more romantic perspective on their origins. They believed that their great empire had begun when the Trojans, in the wake of the fall of Troy, had fled across the Mediterranean Sea to Lautium (later called Rome). They held that this band of brave Trojans had been led by Aeneas, whose descendants formed a line of kings leading up to Romulus and Remus, two sons of Mars (the god of war) and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia. These two brothers, it was believed, were the founders of present-day Rome. Because the Aeneid tells the story of their heroic ancestor, it is therefore the tale of the first years of a dynasty - a topic that undeniably was popular among Virgil's contemporaries.
The driving force behind the Aeneid is the will of the gods, a popular theme with parallels in Homer's works. The Italian gods and goddesses are so closely linked to their Greek counterparts that Romans generally thought of them as the same deities with different names. These beings, with their capricious tendencies and unpredictable personalities, shape the voyage of Aeneas and his companions. Interestingly, the one thing that they cannot do (with the exception of Jupiter, king of the gods) is dictate the outcome of the events: the text repeatedly refers to Aeneas's fate as the founder of Rome, clearly playing to a Roman audience that would have enjoyed the notion of being a people destined for greatness.
Aeneas's considerable struggles are the consequence of an old grudge: at the outset of the poem, Virgil describes the anger of Juno, queen of the goddesses, over "the judgment of Paris" (41-42). Virgil refers to this "judgment" so briefly because it is a tale that would have been immediately familiar to his Roman audience: Paris, asked to choose the fairest of three goddesses, chose Venus, the goddess of love, because she promised him the most beautiful woman in the world for a wife if he were to select Venus. Juno, one of the two goddesses not chosen, was so infuriated by this decision that she became determined to do all that she could to harm the handsome Trojan's descendants.
More abstractly, the Aeneid is ultimately about virtue: Aeneas is an idealized hero, almost too good to be true, who embodies nearly all of the virtues most prized by the Romans of Virgil's day. Aeneas is courageous, kind, respectful of the gods and of his ancestors, pious, a skilled warrior, and an inspiring leader. The epic is not only the tale of the heroic origins of the Roman people, but also a story about the triumph of morality. By crafting such a flawless hero, Virgil was playing directly to his audience, holding before them a vision of their remarkable, virtuous ancestry.