Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1515
Laocoon: Trojan priest of Neptune
Sinon: Greek soldier captured by the Trojans
Hector: son of King Priam of Troy, recently deceased
Panthus: priest of Apollo
Coroebus: ally of King Priam
Cassandra: daughter of King Priam
Androgeos: Greek warrior
Pyrrhus: Greek warrior, son of Achilles
Priam: aged king of Troy
Hecuba: Priam’s wife
Aeneas begins the sad tale of the fall of Troy. After many years of war between the Greeks and the Trojans, the Greeks build a giant wooden horse. The Greek fleet sails out of sight, leaving behind the horse, which is filled with well-armed soldiers.
Although believing that the Greeks have left, the Trojans are unsure what to do with the horse, which they believe to be an offering to Minerva. The priest Laocoon has almost convinced the gathered crowd that the horse needs to be destroyed when a group of shepherds appears with the deceitful Greek soldier Sinon. Sinon tells the Trojans that he has run away from the Greek forces after being chosen as a human sacrifice. Then, pretending to break a vow of secrecy, he tells the Trojans that the horse is an offering to win Minerva’s favor for the Greeks. However, he adds, it was prophesied that if the horse came within the walls of Troy that the Trojans would take over Greece.
Suddenly, a pair of giant snakes appear from the sea. They kill Laocoon and his two young sons, then slither to Minerva’s temple. The Trojans take this as a sign to disbelieve Laocoon’s warnings. They drag the horse toward Troy, where they break down the city walls in order to take the horse inside.
That night, the Greeks sail back to Troy. Sinon lets the warriors out of the wooden horse’s belly. They open up the gates and let the other Greeks enter the unsuspecting city.
Meanwhile, Hector appears to Aeneas in a dream. He warns Aeneas that Troy is falling and tells him that he should take Troy’s household gods to the city he will eventually found. Aeneas wakes up and is about to leave when Panthus arrives with the household gods. He tells Aeneas that the city is overrun. Aeneas nonetheless leaves to defend the city. He meets up with several Trojan men, who succeed in killing many Greeks by dressing in the armor of their victims. Coroebus, wearing Androgeos’ armor, tries to save Cassandra and becomes the first of the group to die.
Aeneas runs into the palace, joining in its futile defense. Pyrrhus breaks down the palace doors. While Priam watches from the household altar, Pyrrhus kills Priam’s son Polites. Priam attempts to fight, but Pyrrhus kills him also.
Aeneas briefly contemplates killing Helen, whom he sees hiding. Venus then appears to him and orders him to go to his family. She shows him that the fate of Troy was determined by the gods, not by Helen.
Back at home, Aeneas finds that his father, Anchises, refuses to leave. Just as Aeneas is about to return to the fray, a heavenly fire appears around the head of Ascanius. Anchises is swayed by this and the sight of a shooting star to leave Troy. Aeneas, leading Ascanius, carries his father out of the city on his back. In the chaos Creusa is separated from them.
Leaving his father at a shrine, Aeneas returns to the sacked city to find Creusa. After much searching, he is met by her ghost, who tells him that he is to have another bride and a kingdom when he reaches the Tiber river. Aeneas finally returns to his father. He is surprised to find a large number of refugees assembled and waiting for him to lead them. As the sun rises, the group leaves for the mountains.
In this book, Virgil displays his lyrical style through a series of similes that gives the events of the fall of Troy a heightened sense of tragedy. Aeneas, listening to the attack of the Greeks, is like a bewildered shepherd listening to a river tear apart cultivated fields (414-421); the women of the palace hide from the palace like doves driven by a storm (694-695); the city collapses like an ancient tree falling from a mountainside (845-853). The overall effect is of a natural disaster over which the human victims have no control. While these often lengthy similes are only one of the many stylistic elements Virgil uses in imitation of Homer, Virgil applies his sensitivity to the natural world (as developed in the Georgics and Eclogues) to put his own stamp on the technique.
Virgil is also a much more lyrical writer than Homer. Homer excelled in the description of battle scenes. In his other descriptions, he tends toward a realism that is at times so unheroic as to be humorous. Virgil, who never served as a soldier, writes woodenly of war. His excellence is in the romantic description of places that only exist in his imagination, such as the halls of the gods and the caves of the underworld.
Aeneas, as portrayed in Book Two, is initially the model of a Greek hero. He is determined to participate in a useless defense of Troy, not once thinking about saving himself. It takes three supernatural interventions and an appeal for him to think of his family before he is finally convinced to leave the city. At this point Aeneas’ Roman virtues begin to appear: rationality and self-control are shown as he forsakes his opportunity to die a glorious death, filial duty and piety as he prioritizes saving his father and the household gods. His voyage toward his new home has often been interpreted as a personal transformation from a “barbaric” Greek into a “civilized” Roman.
From the death of Laocoon to the description of Pyrrhus, snakes play a strong symbolic role in this book. Slithering across the waves, Laocoon’s killers’ “blood-red crests” and “eyes drenched with blood and fire” foreshadow the destruction of Troy in flames (291, 296). Pyrrhus, “like a snake fed on poisonous plants,” appears as a force of pure evil; he is indifferent to the blasphemous nature of the murders he commits. Deceitful Sinon is given a name that parallels the Latin word for coils (sinus, as in the English sinuous). The horse itself is said to slither its way up to the city. Overall, the motif of the snake reminds the reader of the deceit that has brought down Troy, adding a sense of horror to the pathos.
In this book the theme of the uncaring gods runs strongly. Neptune does nothing to save Laocoon, and Minerva chooses to destroy him for attempting to thwart her plans; the household gods turn their backs on Priam’s family; Ripheus, the man who was “first among the Teucrians for justice and observing right,” falls because the gods were indifferent to his virtue (573-575). Venus makes an appearance to save Aeneas, but her actions against Dido in the previous book show that she is as merciless as the rest of the Pantheon.
This theme fits in nicely with one of Virgil’s personal inclinations—a hatred for war. Rather than glamorizing war, Virgil shows it to be a waste of lives and potential. For example, instead of talking of the eternal fame won by Aeneas’ fighting companions, Virgil gives each of them a short description that creates a sense of tragedy at their deaths. Indeed, Virgil creates the feeling that anonymity after death seems to be the rule, rather than the exception—even for King Priam, whose body lies headless on the beach, “a corpse without a name” (750). In later books, Virgil vividly enumerates a variety of gory deaths met on the battlefield. Even the winners in the battles are not praised; they are depicted as slaughterers even when they are on “the right side.” Virgil’s underlying tone is one of pacifism.
A few elements of this book remain open to debate. First, why is it that Aeneas wonders why Hector appeared to him wounded? Every Trojan would have known of the mutilation of Hector’s body as it was dragged behind Achilles’ chariot. According to Patrick Kragelund, the traditional interpretation is that the dreaming Aeneas had forgotten that Hector was dead. Drawing from Roman divination, Kragelund’s interpretation is that Aeneas’ understood Hector’s wounds to be prophetic, but was unsure of what specific bad event they foretold. Hector’s wounds symbolize the ruin of Troy.
A second questioned passage is Aeneas’ encounter with Helen. For Aeneas to consider killing a defenseless woman is extremely unheroic, perhaps even out of character. The fact that the passage does not exist in some texts of the Aeneid has led to a debate over whether or not Virgil even wrote it. William Anderson, in The Art of the Aeneid, concludes that Virgil wrote it, but the people who edited the Aeneid after Virgil’s death excised it. Whether or not Virgil would have included it, the scene casts a pallor on Aeneas’ character that presages his later lack of compassion.
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