Aeneas's tale of his travels takes up Books II and III of the Aeneid (note that only the first verse of Book II and the last verse of Book III are not spoken in Aeneas's voice). Aeneas begins by sighing deeply and telling Dido and her court that his is a long and tragic story, but that he is willing to try to recall it for his host. He starts by describing the fall of Troy:
The Greeks, aided by the goddess Minerva, construct a huge wooden horse, within which they hide a great many armed soldiers. The rest of the Greeks flee the land. The Trojans rejoice, thinking that they have driven off their opponents. They marvel at the horse and decide that it should be brought within their walls. Only Laocoon disagrees, saying that "some trickery is here" (68) and flinging a spear at it in anger.
As Laocoon finishes his speech, Dardan shepherds drag a Greek youth who had surrendered willingly before King Priam. The young man, Sinon, tells a tale of how he turned away from the Greeks after they almost killed him as a sacrifice. The Trojans take pity on him and believe his claims. Sinon tells them that if they lay waste to the horse the wrath of the gods will turn on them - this perspective is supported when two giant sea-snakes rise out of the sea and kill Laocoon, the disbeliever, and his two young sons. The Trojans tremble in fear at this omen, and they decide that the horse must be taken to the temple to curb the wrath of the goddess Minerva.
That night, the traitorous Sinon frees his comrades from the belly of the wooden horse, and they fall upon the sleeping city. In his sleep, Aeneas is visited by the shade of his friend, Hector, who warns him that the Greeks have overtaken Troy. Hector tells him to flee. Aeneas, awakened by the sounds of battle, seizes his weapons to join his comrades. He is met on his threshold by Panthus, who tells him that "It has come - the final day/ and Troy's inevitable time. We Trojans/ were; Troy has been" (442-444). Aeneas sets out to meet the Trojan warriors and enters the gruesome battle, where many of his closest companions meet their ends.
Finally, Aeneas sets up a stronghold in King Priam's palace, and the Trojans fling down weapons at the advancing Greeks, but the Greeks break down the gate and wreak havoc inside the structure. Even the ancient Priam throws on his armor, ready to rush into combat, but his wife, Queen Hecuba, urges him to join her in prayer at the altar instead: "this altar shall yet save us all, or you shall die together with us" (703-704). One of Priam's sons, Polites, is slain before his very eyes, throwing Priam into a deep despair. Aeneas is shaken by the sight of the Greek warrior Pyrrhus murdering Priam on his very altar. His despair turns to anger when he notices Helen (the woman whose beauty brought about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans) cowering in a corner, and he is about to attack her when Venus appears to him, urging him to forget this "madness" (803) and to find his father Anchises, his wife Creusa, and his son Ascanius.
Aeneas obeys his mother's wishes and sets out for his father's house. Anchises does not want to live to see the fall of Troy and asks to be left behind. Aeneas declares that he will never leave his father to die, and he steels himself for battle, but Creusa begs him to protect the house if he has any hope left for their survival. Suddenly, a flame appears above Ascanius's head, and Anchises is so moved by this omen that he says that if the gods will only send another sign he will consent to leave Troy. Thunder crashes down and a shooting star appears in the sky, so Anchises allows Aeneas to hoist him onto his shoulders. Aeneas asks his father to carry the household gods (since Aeneas has been defiled by battle), takes his son by the hand, and tells Creusa to follow behind. They approach the gates.
Just before they reach safety, the group is attacked by a band of Greek warriors. In a panic, Aeneas runs for safety, but once he stops he realizes that Creusa is no longer behind him. He turns back toward Troy, seeking her out, but he is met by Creusa's shade, who urges him to go on. Creusa tells him that he is destined to find gladness along the banks of the Tiber River, where he will take a royal bride and rule over a great kingdom. Aeneas, weeping, tries to throw his arms around Creusa's neck, but her shade disappears. Aeneas returns to his companions, only to find that they have been joined by a great many more refugees from the burning city. Book II ends with Aeneas lifting his father onto his shoulders once more and starting off towards the mountains.
One of the primary themes in Book II is the great value of one's family. Throughout the story, there are several instances of a father being forced, as Priam is, to watch his son die - an "unnatural" event. Indeed, throughout the Aeneid one of the driving forces behind Aeneas's determination to fulfill his destiny is his desire to give Ascanius a good life. Family is so important to Aeneas that he is willing to give up his own life rather than leave his father behind for certain death. The Romans placed extraordinary value on respect for one's ancestors, and through this action, Aeneas positions himself as a model of true virtue. Creusa is able to convince Aeneas to flee Troy largely because she appeals to his instincts as a father and head of the family: "To whom is young Iulus left, to whom your/ your father and myself, once called your wife" (918-919).
The losses incurred in Book II recall a theme first introduced in Book I: the inevitability of loss. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the poem occurs when Priam watches his son die; even such a great leader, it seems, is not exempt from the most emotionally painful experiences. Virgil offers a vision of a world in which rewards are accrued only in the afterlife, where blessed souls spend their days relaxing in the sun-dappled fields of Elysium, or where the evil suffer through eternity behind the sleepless gaze of the bloody monster Tisiphone. In the land of the living, it seems, destiny is supreme, and even the very best of men will be made to suffer if their pain is written in the threads spun out by the Fates' nimble fingers.
Many critics have pointed out that Aeneas is almost too good to be true, a perfect example of Roman morality. While it is true that Aeneas is a paragon of virtue throughout the Aeneid, one of the most interesting moments in the Book occurs when he is tempted to slay Helen to avenge Priam's death. It is only because Venus, essentially acting as his conscience, intervenes that he realizes that killing the young woman will do no good. Aeneas, it seems, is not godlike in his virtue; he has achieved it through effort and temperance. Perhaps Virgil has invested Aeneas with this slight measure of imperfection in order to make him more accessible to audiences and to encourage them to emulate Aeneas's morality.
One place where Aeneas demonstrates incontestable skill is on the battlefield. Book II gives the first demonstration that Aeneas is a truly remarkable warrior. Skill at arms was another invaluable trait for the Romans, and by displaying courage and dexterity on the battlefield Aeneas becomes even more elevated in the eyes of the audience. Furthermore, he displays excellent leadership skills, inspiring his comrades to fight with moving words: "Young men, your hearts/ are sturdy ... The lost have only/ this one deliverance: to hope for none" (471-479). Clearly, Aeneas is a born king, worthy of the exceptional fate that awaits him.
Book II introduces yet another important theme: the supernatural. Throughout the Aeneid, the ghosts of the departed often appear to Aeneas and offer him advice. This furthers the idea of respecting one's ancestors; Virgil's contemporaries believed that the dead should be consulted and revered for their wisdom. They also placed great faith in omens: Anchises only relents and accompanies the family out of Troy when he has seen two omens that indicate that doing so is the best course of action.