“Do the gods light this fire in our hearts or does each man's mad desire become his god?” ― Virgil, The Aeneid
The Aeneid is an epic poem, detailing Aeneas' journey. The first six books of the Aeneid recount the adventures of Aeneas, the future founder of Rome. The last six books tell of the settlement of the Trojans in Italy and the war with the Italians.
After the fall of Troy, a small group of refugees escaped, and Aeneas became their leader. Several prophecies predicted that this group would settle in Italy and become ancestors of the Romans. They suffer many hardships; similar to those suffered by Odysseus (attacks by the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis.) After wandering for years, they arrive in Italy, settling in Latium. Before they are accepted, they have to fight a terrible war against the Latins led by Turnus. After Aeneas slays Turnus, he is free to marry Lavinia, the princess of Latium.
Virgil begins the poem as Aeneas is sailing on the last leg of his journey, destined to take him to Italy. When tremendous storms batter his ships they take refuge on the nearest land. Aeneas learns that it is here that Queen Dido is constructing Carthage. The Queen falls in love with Aeneas and begs him to tell her the story of the fall of Troy.
Aeneas relates the tale at the request of the Queen. After the fall, the band of exiled men sailed to Delos where the oracle of Apollo predicted that they would found a great nation. He details his adventures up to the present time for the Queen. Dido and Aeneas' love is ill-fated. He must follow the destiny the Gods have made for him. When he leaves grief-stricken Dido commits suicide.
The ships finally arrive in Italy, near Cumae. Aeneas visits the temple of Apollo to consult a prophetess. She appears to him and tells Aeneas of the war he will fight and of his enemies. He asks to descend into Hades, where he meets his father, Anchises. Anchises shows Aeneas his future heirs and the heroes of Rome. The visit to the underworld in the Aeneid parallels a similar visit made by Ulysses (Odysseus) in Homer's Odyssey.
The Trojans continue on and settle in Latium. Aeneas realizes his prophecy has been fulfilled. A war breaks out and Aeneas is given magical armor by the Gods for protection. Turnus, the leader of Latium's defense, attacks the Trojan camp, and many lives are lost. Turnus announces that the husband of Lavinia will be determined by a duel between Aeneas and himself. Aeneas kills Turnus in battle. The prophecies of the gods have been fulfilled.
The epic by Virgil has inspired great writers ever since his day. Dante knew the story of Ulysses from Ovid who recounts it in his Metamorphoses (like Dante, Ovid suffered the fate of exile and expulsion from the city he loved and died without returning to it). It is this recounting that inspired the tale narrated by Ulysses in Canto 26 of The Inferno. In the twentieth century Hermann Broch began his novel of Virgil's last days, The Death of Virgil, with a similar motif of the ending of a sea-voyage with Virgil lying on his death bed in the entourage of Augustus. Beside Virgil in a small trunk was the manuscript for the Aeneid. And Primo Levi, in his autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz, recounts how he kept himself sane by attempting to reconstruct Ulysses' great speech in the Comedy from memory. These words provided a touchstone of humanity and civilization even that modern version of Dante's hell.