Virgil’s Aeneid: The Adventures of Aeneas Described in 17 Artworks

Fleeing Troy, Aeneas held the lives of his Trojan followers and the future destiny of Rome in his hands. Follow the legend of Rome’s foundation as told through art.

Feb 7, 2021By Marian Vermeulen, BA History and Philosophy


After ten years of bloody warfare outside the walls of Troy, the Greeks finally put their ships to sea.  They left behind only a large wooden horse before the gates. Convinced by a Greek spy that it was a farewell offering to Athena for their safe return home, King Priam brought the horse within the gates of Troy, spelling doom for the city.


In the night, the Greeks, concealed within the horse, leaped out and opened the gates for their comrades. They poured into the city, slaughtering and plundering as they went. One of the Trojan heroes to witness the destruction was Aeneas, a young but capable warrior who was destined to lay the foundations of Rome itself. Aeneas’s legend, told by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid, follows the epic hero’s escape from Troy, wanderings on the sea, and landing in Latium to father a great people.


Aeneas Escapes From Troy

Battle Within The Walls 

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La Mort de Priam by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, 1861, in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Paris


Deep in sleep just before the Greeks fell upon the city, an image of bloodied and beaten Hector, the prince of Troy, visited Aeneas in a dream. Hector warned him of the coming chaos and pleaded with him to escape with as many as he could save and to found great Troy again. As the dream faded, Aeneas woke to the sounds of approaching battle. He rushed from his home and joined in the fighting, watching many other brave Trojans fall. The battle swept into the palace of Troy, where Aeneas witnessed the death of King Priam. Achilles’ son Pyrrhus dragged the aged Priam through pools of his own son’s blood and skewered him on the palace altar in front of his wife and daughters.


Fleeing The City 

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Aeneas Flees from Troy, attributed to Lucca Batoni Pompeo, 1754-57, via the Galleria Sabauda, Turin


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Finding himself unexpectedly alone as the battle continued away, Aeneas suddenly feared for his own wife, father, and son. He hurried home. His father, Anchises, initially refused to leave and resolved to die in the ruins of Troy. Unable to bear leaving his father, Aeneas resolved to return to the battle and die in combat himself. However, Jupiter sent a star over Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, and then another to show the path to Mount Ida behind the city. Accepting the sign, Anchises agreed to flee. The epic hero lifted his father onto his shoulders and hurried towards the city gate closest to the mountain. He advised their household and surviving friends to take different routes to better ensure their survival and to meet at the foot of the mountain.


A Devastating Loss

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Creusa Appearing to Aeneas by Valentine Green after Maria Cosway, 1781, via the British Museum, London


Aeneas was just approaching the gate to the city, still carrying his father when he realized that Creusa was gone. She had been following behind, but somewhere along the way, they had lost her. Horrified, Aeneas left his companions and raced back into Troy, retracing his footsteps through the streets. He never found his wife but encountered her spirit among the Trojan houses. The ghost of Creusa reassured him, telling him that her death had been the will of the gods and that the epic hero must turn and continue his escape, for a greater destiny awaited him and their son, Ascanius. Blinded by tears, Aeneas returned to where he had left the others. There he found that an even greater number of refugees had gathered, prepared to follow him into exile. 


The Wanderings Of The Epic Hero

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Aeneas and his Companions Fighting the Harpies by François Perrier, 1646-47, via The Louvre, Paris


Sheltering beneath Mount Ida, the Trojans built ships and set sail, seeking the land that would be the site of a new Troy. Initially, they sailed to Crete and found a city called Pergamea, but that was not the fate decided for Aeneas by the gods. After a deadly plague hit the city, the Trojans once again took to their ships. In the Strophades islands, they found rich herds of cattle and goats and fell upon them hungrily. However, the creatures belonged to the vicious harpies, who attacked them, resulting in a brief skirmish. Only the harpy Celaeno remained out of the fight, speaking dire prophecies of the suffering that still awaited the Trojans on their journey.


The Death Of Anchises

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The Death of Anchises by G.C. Eimmart, from a book illustration of Virgil’s Aeneid, via Dickinson College, Carlisle


Sailing on to Buthrotum, Aeneas spoke with Andromache, the widow of Hector, and Helenus, son of Priam. From Helenus, he received again the prophecy to seek Italy. On the way to Sicily, they encountered Charybdis who drove them from the shoreline out to sea. By chance, they landed on the island of Cyclops where Odysseus had been before. There, they found Achaemenides, a Greek from Odysseus’s crew who was accidentally left behind by his companions. He begged them to rescue him from the dreadful island and they took pity on him. They took him on board and fled the island, barely escaping the great Polyphemus. They put into port at Drepanum, but even more sorrow awaited Aeneas, for there he lost his father to old age. Upon leaving Drepanum, the Trojan ships were caught in a storm and eventually driven upon the shores at Carthage.  


Queen Of Carthage

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The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, exhibited 1766, via Tate, London 


They found Dido, the queen of newly founded Carthage, at her new temple. She took pity on the shipwrecked Trojans, leading them back to her palace and ordering a great feast prepared for them. Dido had lost her husband and true love, Sychaeus, and she had long been uninterested in any other men. Yet Venus, fearing Juno’s designs for Aeneas, sent Cupid to ensnare Dido’s heart and thus steer the situation as she pleased. Taking the form of Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, Cupid sat upon Dido’s knee and worked his arts on her, even as Aeneas stood before the assembled feast and told the story of the sack of Troy and their subsequent wanderings. By the time he ended his tale, Dido was thoroughly smitten. 

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Landscape with the Union of Dido and Aeneas by Gaspard Dughet and Carlo Maratta, ca. 1664-68, via the National Gallery, London


The next day, Dido took Aeneas hunting in the countryside of Carthage, and the goddesses sent a great storm. The queen and epic hero took shelter together in a cave and became lovers. Aeneas and his men stayed for some time in Carthage, helping to build the new city. However, Jupiter sent Mercury to remind the epic hero of his great destiny, and Aeneas realized he must press on to Italy. He slipped away with his men in the night. Heartbroken, Dido stabbed herself with Aeneas’s sword on a pre-prepared pyre. As she died, she predicted eternal strife between their two nations, a nod to the longtime conflict between Rome and Carthage

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La Mort de Didon by Joseph Stallaert, ca. 1872, via the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium


To Sicily And Italy 

Though back on track for Italy, storms and heavy seas again hindered their progress, and they landed again in Sicily. Aeneas put on extravagant funeral games in honor of his father, Anchises. Yet once again, Juno interfered, convincing the Trojan women, who were fed up with wandering, to burn the fleet of ships. At the prayers of Aeneas, Jupiter put out the fires with a violent rainstorm and saved the fleet. Shortly thereafter, Aeneas saw a vision of his deceased father, who encouraged him on to Italy and instructed him to visit the underworld. 

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The Trojan Women Setting Fire to their Fleet by Claude Lorrain, ca. 1643, via The Met Museum, New York


They came to Cumae, and following the guidance of the Cumaean Sibyl, Aeneas descended into the underworld. There the epic hero encountered the spirits of the men he had lost on the journey as well as that of Dido. The shade of Dido refused to speak with him or even look at him. In the fields of the warriors, they found his friends who had died in the Trojan War and the deceased Greek heroes also. Finally, he found his father. Anchises took him to see the spirits preparing to return to the world, and showed him the long line of his descendants to come, Romulus, Caesar, and Augustus, and the glory of Rome to be. 


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Aeneas in Hell attributed to Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh, 17th century, via the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium


Aeneas In Latium


Renewed in his purpose, Aeneas returned from the underworld and sailed on for Italy, landing in Latium. The oracles had informed King Latinus that he must marry his daughter to Aeneas, and not to her previously intended husband, Turnus of the Rutuli. Latinus was pleased and eager to unite with the Trojans through marriage. However, his wife, spurred on by Juno’s fury, plotted against the marriage. She roused Turnus in anger against the decision.  Juno also caused Ascanius to accidentally wound a sacred deer while hunting, creating further hostility.


The White Sow

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Marble relief depicting Aeneas’s Arrival in Rome and the portent of the sow, ca. 140-50, via the British Museum, London


With war coming, much to the dismay of Aeneas, the Trojans left the city of the Latins and camped by the banks of the Tiber. In a dream, Aeneas saw the god of the river, who assured him that Italy was to be the Trojans’ home. He told the epic hero that their great kingdom would begin where they saw a white sow with thirty piglets. Tiber also instructed Aeneas to seek out King Evander of the Tuscans, who would be their allies in the war to come.  Sailing up the river Tiber, Aeneas caught sight of the white sow as prophesied. Further up the river, they found the Tuscans, performing rites in celebration of Hercules. Challenged by Pallas, the king’s son, they came to shore and were welcomed by King Evander and his people.


Preparing For War 

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Venus Presenting Aeneas with Armour Forged by Vulcan by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, 1748, via the Princely Collections, Liechtenstein


After warmly befriending the Tuscans, Pallas eagerly offered to go to war alongside Aeneas and lead the Tuscan warriors. Aeneas gratefully accepted him and promised King Evander that he would look after Pallas. Meanwhile Venus, Aeneas’s mother, also worried about the coming fight. Going to her husband Vulcan, the smith of the gods, she begged him to fashion new weapons for Aeneas. He agreed, and Venus presented the armaments to Aeneas, “He turned them over in his hands, admiring the terrible, crested, fire-spurting helmet, the death-dealing sword, the huge, unyielding breastplate of blood-red bronze like a dark cloud fired by the rays of the sun and glowing far across the sky, then the polished greaves of richly refined electrum and gold, the spear and the fabric of the shield beyond all words to describe.”


Siege Of The Trojan Camp 


The Trojans and Tuscans marched toward Etruria, and Juno informed the Rutulians that the warriors had left their walled camp. Seizing the opportunity, Turnus led his soldiers around the approaching army and laid siege to the Trojan camp. The Trojans within feared the assault of the Rutulians. Nisus and Euryalus, two young men of the Trojans, resolved to bring help. With the blessings of Ascanius, they snuck out of the walls at night and slipped past the Rutulian camp. Though their intention had been to bring word of the attack to Aeneas, they were swept up by thoughts of valor. They launched a surprise raid on the sleeping Rutulians. Though they dealt a great deal of damage, eventually the Rutulians awakened and Nisus and Euryalus took flight. 

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Nisus and Euryalus by Jean-Baptiste Roman, exhibited 1827, via The Louvre, Paris


Nisus had almost escaped clear, but he found that he had lost Euryalus as he ran. Turning about, he saw his friend captured by the Rutulians, headed by Volcens. Nisus stealthily killed two Rutulians without them ever spotting him. Enraged, Volcens rushed to kill Euryalus. Panicked with fear for his young friend, Nisus exposed himself. He took the blame for the whole adventure and pleaded with them to spare Euryalus. Yet before he had even finished speaking, Volcens ran Euryalus through with his sword. In a fury, Nisus battered his way through the circle of men, not stopping despite taking many wounds. Finally, he reached Volcens and ran him through the mouth with his sword. Having taken his revenge, Nisus collapsed, and died on the body of his friend.  


The Battle Begins 


The next morning, Aeneas returned to camp to find the Rutulian army, and the battle was joined in earnest. Aeneas and Pallas both killed many great warriors. Turnus marked Pallas’s victories and called out to his men that Pallas was his alone. In a one-on-one fight, Turnus managed to slay Pallas, and he took from the corpse a great belt as spoils. Aeneas responded with a grief-stricken rampage that killed many heroes of the Rutulian line as he sought to kill Turnus. Only darkness brought an end to the days’ fighting. The Trojans and Tuscans mourned Pallas and prepared for the next battle.


Aeneas Wounded 

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Venus Healing Aeneas by Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1805-10, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


When the fighting resumed, Camilla and her Amazons had joined in with the Rutulians. She requested the vanguard of the battle and Turnus agreed. Camilla fought bravely and slew many men, but finally Arruns felled her with a thrown spear. Turnus called for negotiations, but even as he and Aeneas were speaking, an unknown Rutulian broke the cease-fire and wounded Aeneas with an arrow. Aeneas was carried from the field and Turnus leapt upon the sudden opportunity, haranguing his men into pitched battle once again. Aeneas was badly wounded, and though he growled and insisted that they wrap the wound and return him to battle immediately, his son and men began to mourn, fearing that the wound would overcome him. Yet Venus came from Olympus with healing herbs infused with ambrosia. She healed his wound and returned him to full strength, and Aeneas strode back to the battlefield.


The Final Duel

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Aeneas Defeating Turnus by Luca Giordano, 1688, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


In the final fighting, both Aeneas and Turnus fought triumphantly on their sides of the battle. Eventually, overcome with the loss of life, Turnus found his nerve and came to Aeneas, crying out “‘Enough, Rutulians! Put up your weapons, and you too, Latins! Whatever Fortune brings is mine. It is better that I should be the one man who atones for this treaty for all of you, and settles the matter with the sword.’” The single combat raged long and hard, though the epic hero was clearly the better of the two men. Eventually he bested Turnus, and almost spared his life. Unfortunately for Turnus, Aeneas spotted the belt that Turnus had taken from Pallas, slung across Turnus’s shoulders like a trophy. Enraged once again, he plunged his sword into Turnus’s heart


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By Marian VermeulenBA History and PhilosophyMarian has been a devoted student of the ancient world since primary school. She received her BA in History and Philosophy from Hope College and has continued researching and writing on topics of ancient history from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire and everything in between. She enjoys dabbling in historical fiction, but generally finds the actual true individuals of history and their stories more fascinating than any fictional invention. Her other passion is horses, and in her spare time she enjoys starting young horses under saddle and volunteer training for the local horse rescue.