After some initial hesitation, Aeneas begins to tell the story of Troy's downfall. Everything that follows in this book is told by Aeneas, and so reflects his perspective.
Aeneas begins by telling how the Greeks, unable to defeat the Trojans in battle, sail away from Troy. On the beach, they leave behind a giant wooden horse, with Greek warriors hidden inside it – though the Trojans don't know that yet.
Something else the Trojans don't know is that the Greeks didn't actually sail home. Instead, they made their way to the nearby island of Tenedos, and parked their navy behind it.
The Trojans are amazed at the horse and come out of their city to have a better look at it.
Some argue in favor of taking it inside the city. Others say it should be destroyed.
Laocoön, a priest, comes down from the city to have a look. He says not to trust anything having to do with the Greeks. He even guesses that there are Greeks hiding inside it, and throws his spear at the horse. It echoes, revealing that it is hollow.
The Trojans would have followed Laocoön's lead and destroyed the horse, but they are interrupted by a commotion.
It turns out that all the ruckus is coming from some shepherds, who step forward with a prisoner – a Greek!
The captive's name is Sinon, and he has a story to tell.
Sinon claims to be related to Palamedes, a Greek hero who came to oppose the Trojan War. As a result of this, Palamedes was executed on a trumped-up charge, as a result of Ulysses's (a.k.a. Odysseus's) trickery.
Sinon says that because he complained about this injustice, Ulysses had it in for him.
He also says that the Greeks tried several times to sail home, but, every time, they were held back by bad weather. He says that their problems only got worse after the horse was built.
Finally, they sent a guy called Eurypylus to ask the oracle of Apollo what they should do. The oracle told Eurypylus that a human sacrifice was required for them to get home, just as a human sacrifice was required for them to get to Troy.
(Huh? The oracle is referring to the fact that, on the way to Troy the Greek king Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to convince the winds to blow the right way.)
As you can imagine, this made everyone pretty nervous. Ulysses asked Calchas, the soothsayer, to interpret the true will of the gods.
Calchas kept silent for ten days, but finally caved in to Ulysses's pestering, and named Sinon as the victim. Everyone else was cool with that.
When the day of the sacrifice rolled around, however, Sinon managed to escape. In the end, the Greeks sailed off without finding him.
So ends Sinon's story. In concluding, he begs the Trojans, in the name of the gods, to spare his life.
The Trojans feel pity for Sinon, and Priam orders them to remove his chains.
At this point, Priam thinks it's time to ask Sinon about the elephant in the room – that is, the horse on the beach.
Sinon first swears that he is no longer loyal to the Greeks. Then he explains how the Greeks' troubles started when Ulysses and Diomedes stole a statuette of Minerva from the Trojan citadel. (You can learn more about this daring raid here.)
After they brought the statuette back to camp, however, wacky stuff started happening. The statuette started sweating, flaming, and moving its eyes. Oh yeah, and the goddess herself kept appearing out of the ground amid flashes of lightening.
Calchas, the seer, interpreted these events to mean that Troy could not be captured. They would have to sail home and wait for another sign from the gods before making war on it again.
According to Sinon, it was on Calchas's orders that they constructed the horse – as a replacement for what they had stolen. He says that the reason they made it so big was so that the Trojans wouldn't be able to take it inside their city.
Sinon tells the Trojans that if any of them damage the horse, it will bring destruction on all of Troy. On the other hand, if they take it inside the city, it will bring destruction on all the Greeks (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Here ends Sinon's second story.
At this point, Laocoön, the priest guy who threw the spear at the side of the horse, starts making a sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea.
All of a sudden, two giant serpents slither out of the sea, crawl up to Laocoön, and strangle him and his two sons to death. (A picture's worth a thousand words.) Then the serpents make their way into Troy, head to Minerva's citadel, and curl up behind the statue's shield.
The Trojans interpret this as punishment from the gods for spearing the horse. They decide to take the horse inside the city. They actually have to knock a hole in the wall to bring it in.
Everyone is celebrating. Four times the horse jars on its way into the city, and four times the weapons of the Greeks inside clatter. No one notices.
The Trojan princess Cassandra, who has the gift of prophesy, tries to prevent them from taking the horse inside the city. Unfortunately, the gods have cursed her so that her predictions will not be believed. As indeed they aren't.
Night comes. The Greek fleet sails back from Tenedos. Sinon lets the Greeks out of the horse. They kill the Trojan sentries and open the city gates for their friends who are just arriving at the city.
Meanwhile, in the city, Aeneas is asleep. The Trojan warrior Hector appears to him in his dream, all covered in blood and dirt as he was on the day he was killed by the Greek hero Achilles.
Hector tells Aeneas that Troy is about to be captured. He tells him to gather up his household gods and go found a new city for them.
Aeneas wakes up and climbs up to his roof. From there, he hears a terrible clamor, and can see numerous houses burning.
His first thought is to arm himself for battle. Then, at his door appears Pantheus, the priest of Apollo, who is carrying some images of the gods, and leading his grandson.
Aeneas asks Pantheus where they should take their stand to defend Troy, but Pantheus tells him that the city is done for.
All the same, Aeneas rushes into the fight, and gathers up some companions. Together, they fight with suicidal courage.
They kill some Greeks and take their equipment. With these disguises, they are able to join the ranks of other Greeks and kill them through trickery.
But then Coroebus, one of Aeneas's comrades, who also happens to be the husband of Cassandra, sees his wife being dragged out of Minerva's temple by some Greek warriors. Like a madman, he rushes into the fight, and everyone else follows.
In the chaos, they are hit by a bunch of missiles thrown by Trojans hiding out of top of the temple – they mistook Aeneas and company for Greeks because of their stolen armor.
Realizing the Trojans' deception, the Greeks rally, and a furious battle breaks out in front of the temple. Many Trojans are killed, including Coroebus.
But then the Trojans are distracted when they realize that Priam's palace is being besieged. Aeneas and some other men sneak in a back entrance to help out.
They make their way to the roof, where they knock a tower off onto the Greeks below. But there are too many of them, and they keep coming on.
The most fearsome of the Greeks is Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles.
Meanwhile, Priam puts on his armor and prepares to face down the Greeks, old and decrepit as he is.
When his wife Hecuba sees him, however, she tells him to stop being such a fool. She makes him come over with her and some women who are clinging to an altar for safety. (They are assuming that the Greeks will not violate the holiness of the place.)
Just then, Polites, one of Priam's sons, rushes in, wounded, with Neoptolemus in pursuit. Neoptolemus catches up to him and kills him.
Enraged, Priam prepares to attack Neoptolemus. Priam reminds Neoptolemus about how his father, Achilles, once had pity on him when he gave Hector's body back for burial. (This scene is described in Book 23 of Homer's Iliad.) Priam tells Neoptolemus that his horrible behavior makes it seem as if he isn't a true son of Achilles.
Priam feebly attacks his younger foe, but does not succeed in wounding him.
Instead, Neoptolemus drags Priam through the blood of his son to the altar, and kills him there.
Aeneas, who has been watching this whole scene, suddenly thinks of his own father, Anchises.
On his way home, he runs into Helen. She is trying to hide, afraid of both the Trojans and the Greeks.
Aeneas is about to kill her, when his mother, Venus, appears and tells him not to blame her. She says that what is happening to Troy is not Helen's fault; it is the will of the gods.
Venus takes the mist away from Aeneas's sight so he can see various gods at work destroying the city.
Then Aeneas runs home, finds his father, and tells him to get ready: they're going to head for the hills!
But Anchises refuses. He says that he has lived and suffered long enough.
Creusa, Aeneas's wife, and Ascanius, his son, try to bring Anchises around, but he keeps refusing.
Finally, Aeneas gathers his weapons in order to go out and die fighting.
Creusa tells him to take her and Ascanius along with him.
Just then, flames burst out of Ascanius's head, but do not burn him.
Anchises prays for a sign from the gods, and suddenly a shooting star flashes overhead.
Anchises accepts the sign and decides to go with Aeneas.
Now thinking of survival instead of suicide, Aeneas takes his father on his shoulders. He gives his father the images of the household gods to carry. Then he takes Ascanius by the hand.
After Aeneas tells some servants that they will meet up at a certain cypress tree by an inland gate of the city, they head off, with Creusa following behind.
In a moment of confusion, however, Aeneas ducks down some alleyways, and Creusa gets lost. Aeneas doesn't realize this until they get to the cypress tree.
He goes back alone through the flaming city, looking for her, but does not find her. Suddenly, her ghost appears and tells him that it is too late. She tells him to go to where the Tiber river flows (i.e., in Italy). There he will get a new kingdom – and a new wife.
Aeneas accepts Creusa's words and heads back to the cypress tree, where many refugees have now gathered. Together, they set out on their voyage.