Aeneas begins to tell the story of his wanderings. (Book 2 and Book 3 are therefore told in first person from Aeneas's point of view.) Though it's late at night and he's anguished to recall such sad events, he'll do it for Dido. He begins his story during the Trojan war. He describes how the Greeks, who are losing the war, build an enormous wooden horse and hide soldiers inside. The Greeks then sail away from Troy to wait and hide behind a nearby island, leaving the horse behind at Troy, where spirits are high and the gates are open. Some men want to bring in the horse, while others are not sure.
At the end of Book 1, the readers hear more about Dido's emotions than Aeneas's. Here, we are again aligned with Dido, listening to Aeneas's story. Aeneas demonstrates his piety and good manners by telling the story, despite how sad it makes him to remember these events. The stories also explicitly link Aeneas, and therefore Rome, to the great Greek tradition of epic heroes.
Laocoon, a Trojan priest of Neptune, runs up, breathlessly advising the Trojans not to trust the horse, explaining it might be a Greek trick, and saying, "I fear the Greeks, especially bearing gifts." He throws his spear into the horse, and the noise reveals that it's hollow inside. Shepherds bring a young Greek man, Sinon, to the gates. Sinon describes how Ulysses hated him based on false rumors. When the Greeks were going to use him as a human sacrifice, he fled. The Trojans believe Sinon's fraudulent story.
Though Laocoon gives proof that the horse might be hiding something, the Trojans don't want to second-guess what seems like cause for celebration. Unlike Aeneas in his speeches to his men in Book 1, they don't take the long view. That the Trojans don't immediately reject Sinon and the horse shows how eager they are to be finished with the war.
Priam unbinds Sinon and asks about the purpose of the horse. Sinon says the horse is an offering to Minerva, whose help the Greeks desperately need. If the horse enters Troy, Sinon says, the Greeks will lose the war. The Trojans, tired of ten years of war, rejoice at this news.
Sinon turns the Trojans' respect for the gods against them. Keeping the gods on one's side is an inexact science, and Sinon exploits that uncertainty.
Laocoon slays a bull at the altar. Two monstrous, red-crested sea serpents swim towards the shore. They strangle Laocoon's two sons, then constrict around Laocoon, who fails to dislodge them. The terrified Trojans interpret this as punishment for Laocoon's damaging the horse with his spear, and immediately bring the horse into the city. Though the Trojan seer Cassandra tries to alert the Trojans to their impending doom, the Trojans don't listen to her, celebrating the horse and throwing a big party. During the party, Sinon, hidden by Fate, opens the horse, releasing Ulysses and other Greek warriors. Meanwhile the Greek fleet returns to the Trojan shores.
Why did the serpents come and attack Laocoon and his sons? Virgil doesn't mention a specific god sending them—they're more like agents of fate. This scene shows a miscarriage of piety and religion. The Trojans choose their favorite interpretations, and don't realize that their devotion and respect are based on an incorrect assessment of events.
The bloody ghost of Hector, a great, deceased Trojan warrior, appears to Aeneas in a dream and warns Aeneas of a fire and the enemy within the city. Troy cannot be saved, Hector says, and Aeneas should take the household gods and find a new home. Aeneas wakes, hearing screaming and sounds of fighting in the streets. Hector was right: the Greeks are inside and the city burns. On the street, Aeneas meets Panthus, a seer who has given up hope for Troy. Aeneas, in a panicked rage about the battle, neglects Hector's advice and joins the fight.
This is the first time that Aeneas learns that he will have to leave, wander the seas and found a new home. Bringing the household gods means that he can preserve Troy's legacy. Throughout the poem, home is closely tied to ideas of Troy. Aeneas will always carry the past with him.
A band of Trojans, led by Aeneas, slay a group of Greeks and disguise themselves in the Greeks' armor. They kill many Greeks, but then the Trojans, not recognizing them, fire on them, and many die, including Panthus. The Greeks begin to attack the royal palace, and Aeneas rallies the Trojan troops against them. Aeneas then describes Pyrrhus, the Greek warrior and son of Achilles, and says he was like a snake that hid and grew huge in the winter and now reveals itself. Pyrrhus and his comrades break into the palace, like an overflowing river.
By disguising himself, Aeneas resembles trickster Greeks such as Sinon and Ulysses. He's willing to play dirty to fight for his home and his friends—another sign of his piety, but one that shows how his moral judgment might change based on his situation. The comparison of Pyrrhus to a snake suggests that his evil is beyond human.
In the palace sits Priam, the aged king, who had put on his rusty armor and bravely attempted to fight even though Hecuba, his wife, begged him to stay with her in safety. Pyrrhus kills Polites, one of Priam's sons. Despite being in mortal danger, Priam rebukes Pyrrhus for killing his son, and, despite his weakness, throws his spear at Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus mercilessly kills Priam, telling him to complain to Achilles in the underworld about his bad behavior. Aeneas, horrified, fears for the safety of his own father, wife, and son.
This scene shows the extreme importance of family in Aeneas's world. The most important bonds are those of father and son, husband and wife. Piety doesn't have to be just devotion to the gods—it's also about family. In this culture, Pyrrhus's killing the son before the father is excessively savage.
Returning to his house, Aeneas sees Helen, the woman whose beauty started the war. He envies her fortune and longs to vengefully kill her, when Venus appears, reminding Aeneas to focus on his love for his family. She gives him a glimpse of the fight from the gods' perspective, showing how Juno and even Jove are on the Greek side, and encourages him to depart.
Venus's intervention clearly defines right and wrong. Right is love and family, wrong is pointless vengeance. (Keep this in mind at the end of the Aeneid, when Aeneas delivers some pointless vengeance!)
When Aeneas tells his father Anchises of his plans for them to leave Troy, Anchises firmly responds that he wants to stay in Troy to die, and younger people can flee. Aeneas begs him desperately to reconsider, then arms himself again, refusing to leave his father helpless. Creusa tells Aeneas that she would die with him, but he should protect Ascanius.
Anchises's words bring back the personal tragedy of the fall of Troy. Anchises feels towards Troy the same devotion Aeneas feels towards his family—he doesn't want to live without it. It is his home, and a home is what gives his life meaning.
A harmless, flamelike light illuminates Ascanius's hair. Anchises interprets this as a sign from Jove, which is then further confirmed by a shooting star. Anchises changes his mind, and the family hastens to depart. Aeneas carries Anchises on his back, with Ascanius by his side and Creusa behind.
Signs from the gods can override even the strongest human desires. As soon as he's sure it's Jove, Anchises is ready to leave Troy.
In the confusion of fleeing, Aeneas loses Creusa. Leaving Anchises and Ascanius safely hidden, Aeneas seeks Creusa in the ravaged city, but finds only her ghost. The ghost comforts him, saying that the gods have ordained it all, and that, after years of exile, he will marry a royal in Italy. She tells him not to mourn, and he tries vainly to embrace her. He returns to his father, son, and surviving Trojans.
In this scene, too, Aeneas's priorities are crystal clear. He's willing to die for his family, but he won't argue with fates or the gods' decrees, so he abandons his search for Creusa without question. Ultimately, he's pious to fate above all else.