So says Turnus (X.392-93), urging on his troops to attack Aeneas’ newly marshaled supporters as they arrive to support the besieged Trojans. The remainder of book X exists, so it seems, for the sole purpose of disproving Turnus’ words.
The book starts auspiciously enough. Morning dawns on Olympus, and the gods convene. Venus and Juno make their respective please. Jupiter adjudicates:
………………………………………I shall hold
Without distinction Rutulians and Trojans,
Whatever fortune each may have today,
Whatever hope may guide him; whether the camp
Lies under siege as fated for Italians
Or through Troy’s blunder, and through prophecies
Malign and dark. Neither do I exempt
The Rutulians. The effort each man makes
Will bring him luck or trouble. To them all
King Jupiter is the same king. And the Fates
Will find their way.” (X.147-57)
At long last, merit will have its due. Each will receive what his own deeds deserve. And how will the outcome of the war, so long ago decided, be ensure? “The Fates / will find their way.” Turnus’ cry is in just this spirit: Fortune favors those who through their daring merit her graciousness.
The constraint, the one constraint, is that the Fates must find their way. And with this it falls apart. Fate is not robust enough to tolerate the vagaries of merit. Even before Turnus utters his bold but ill-favored challenge, Aeneas receives the favor of the gods. As he returns to the battle, bringing newly recruited fighters, he is visited by old friends: his former ships, now converted to gods. In a direct parallel to the Nereids speeding the Scylla in the boat race (Book V), the Cymodocea speeds Aeneas along:
With her right hand she sped the tall ship onward,
Having the skill of it: the ship more swift
Than javelin or arrow down the wind
Took flight over the waves. (X.340-43)
Book V, as noted in an earlier post (linked above), is full of divine disruptions of merit, and this parallel foreshadows what is to come. A first, fairly minor disproof of Turnus’ claim actually cuts against Aeneas. As they arrive, Tarchon urges on the Etruscan ships:
Picked oarsmen, now give way with your good oars,
And lift the bow with every stroke, then split
This enemy land wide open with your beaks.
Let each keel plow the shingle. It’s all one
With me if we break up, beaching her here,
Once the dry land is under us. (X.407-12)
This rash bravado turns against him. All the ships land safely – “But not yours, Tarchon” (X.417). It is a mild case, for here Tarchon’s daring is foolhardy, but it is daring nonetheless, and Fortune does not favor it.
A second disproof also works in Turnus’ (short term) favor. He confronts Pallas, Evander’s son, whom Aeneas has sworn to protect:
………………..When he seemed near enough
For a spear-cast, Pallas opened the engagement,
Hoping his daring would bring luck to him,
Outmatched in power as he was. (X.635-38)
His daring does not bring him luck. But here one may protest that in this case, as in the case of Tarchon, we are dealing not with daring but with foolhardiness. It is surely possible that Fortune could favor the daring and not the foolhardy.
Pallas, however, is not foolhardy. He is making the best of a bad situation, a situation into which he has been placed against his will. For it was not Turnus he sought to battle, but rather Lausus, the similar young son of Mezentius. For no apparent reason,
…………………the mighty ruler of Olympus
Would not let them encounter one another.
Their fates awaited them, each at the hands
Of a still greater foe. (X.602-05)
I take it back – there is a reason. Fate calls them elsewhere. Here is the first indication that it is specifically fate that requires the disruption of merit. Merit, left undisturbed, would bring Pallas and Lausus together in an evenly matched fight to be decided fairly. Instead, it pits Pallas against Turnus (and, later, Lausus against Aeneas). Those who know how the Aeneid ends know how essential it is that Turnus should kill Pallas – or how inessential it is.
One final send-up of merit merits discussion here. As Aeneas seeks out Turnus on the battlefield, Juno and Jupiter discuss his fate. It begins with a taunt. In the opening debate, Juno had pointed out (fairly) how Venus supported the Trojans, and wondered why she was not allowed to do the same for the Latins. Jupiter now rubs this in her face:
Sister and wife, too, most delightful wife,
As you were thinking – not amiss, that thought –
It must be Venus who sustains the Trojans,
Not their good right arms in war, their keen
Combativeness and fortitude in danger. (X.851-55)
Jupiter assumes that his decree, that merit will decide the battle, let the Fates fall where they must, has been followed. But he has simply not been paying attention – not even to his own actions, in the case of Pallas. Merit and daring have had very little to do with the outcome. Juno was, and is, entirely correct. Jupiter’s sarcastic statement is thus doubly hurtful: first because it is true, second because it intends to be false.
But no matter Jupiter’s blindness – what of Turnus? Juno wishes to protect him. Jupiter allows her to extend his life, but not to save it. Juno, taking what she can get,
…………………………………..made her way
To the Ilian lines and the Laurentine camp,
Then made a bodiless shade of spectral mist
In likeness of Aeneas, weird and strange,
Adorned the image with Dardanian arms
And matched the godlike hero’s shield and plume,
Gave unreal words, a voice without a mind,
A way of walking, modeled after his. (X.892-99)
With this, Juno draws Turnus away from the battle against his will. And thus, through no fault of his own, Turnus is denied the reputation he deserves. He appears a deserter, though he desperately would return. How awful this is, how poorly Juno’s aid serves actually to help him, is foreshadowed in the Pallas episode. Pallas prays to Hercules to guide his spear, but Hercules is not permitted to do so. He can merely groan. Jupiter comforts him as follows:
…………………….Every man’s last day is fixed.
Lifetimes are brief, and not to be regained,
For all mankind. But by their deeds to make
Their fame last: that is labor for the brave. (X.650-53)
Pallas may die young, but he is at least acquitted by his bravery. This precisely is denied to Turnus by Juno’s intervention. What matters a few more days of life to Turnus (for that is all Juno’s trickery earns him) if they are bought the price of (apparent) cowardice?
Turnus, for his part, acquits himself. Undecided between suicide and jumping into the sea and swimming back to his troops, he attempts both three times each. And each time Juno, once again, denies him. What Turnus merits is not what Juno has decided for him.
This case is special, however. In the case of Pallas, we saw how Fate is fragile, unable to tolerate the unchecked operation of merit and reward. In this case, however, Fate is sufficiently robust: merit would bring Turnus and Aeneas in conflict, and Aeneas, would, presumably win. (I here deliberately overlook the actual facts of their encounter in book XII. I save that for another post. To appearances, at least, Fate is in this instance robust.) Indeed, Juno’s intervention merely stalls Turnus’ fate, but does not change it. And yet merit is, once again, disrupted.
Whether by Fate itself or by some divine will constrained by Fate, somehow or other merit is disrupted. Whatever else it is, the Aeneid is not, particularly, a story of heroic deeds justly rewarded.