The Aeneid is one of a small group of writings from Latin Literature that was required for students of Latin. Traditionally students, after reading the works of Julius Caesar, Cicero, Ovid and Catullus would then read the Aeneid. As a result, many phrases from this poem entered the Latin language much as passages from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope have entered the English language. One example is from Aeneas' reaction to the painting of the Sack of Troy, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt -- "the actions of mankind move us to tears and touch our heart" (Aeneid I, 462).
Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas' wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous piety, and fashioned this into an epic poem of twelve books, in conscious imitation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Virgil's poem tells the adventures of Aeneas from his escape from Troy after its sack, his wanderings through the Mediterranean region, and his final arrival in Italy where he becomes the ancestor of the Roman people. The most famous episode of this work is when he is driven by a storm to the coast of Africa, where he meets Dido, queen of Carthage, they fall in love, but the Roman gods insist he fulfill his destiny and he departs. Her heart broken, Dido commits suicide. Aeneas descends to the underworld through an opening at Cumae, where he speaks with his father Anchises and has a prophetic vision of the destiny of Rome. He marries Lavinia, the daughter of the king of the Latini, and her rejected suitor Turnus, king of the Rutuli, challenges Aeneas to a duel in which Turnus is slain.
Virgil's portrait of Aeneas emphasizes the Roman quality of pietas, or to devotion his parents, the gods in general and to the destiny of Rome. This is borne out in the famous scene where he leaves the shattered city of Troy carrying his father on his back, with his son and his household gods in hand.
The work was written at a time of major change in Rome, both political and social. In reaction the Emperor was trying to re-introduce traditional Roman moral values and the Aeneid is thought to be reflecting that aim.
On his death, Virgil left instructions for the Aeneid to be destroyed if he died with his work unfinished. On his death in 19 BC, the emperor Augustus ordered his literary executor Varius Rufus to disregard the poet's wishes, and after minor modifications the Aeneid was published.