Aeneas is the hero of the Aeneid, the final victor after the bloodbath of Book XII, but he is not the central figure in that book. That would be Turnus. Not that Aeneas is not omnipresent, but it is Turnus who earns my sympathy.
This is, of course, a subjective judgment, a reflection of the peculiar course of my own experience, but it is a testament to Virgil that it is possible. A myth that would encompass life – that is, a myth that would serve its function as myth – must be large. The central plot, in this case the course of Fate that drags Aeneas onward, the destiny “for whose sake I could endure / Hard days and many” (XII.238-39), provides a skeleton and a first route of entry for the reader, but it is the side alleys, the divagations, that provide the pockets of deep meaning in which the myth proves its worth. It is no accident that on a first reading I saw in Aeneas a model for myself, while on my second and now my third readings I have found myself increasingly alienated from Aeneas and drawn to secondary characters: Creüsa, Dido, Turnus.
At the center of it all is, once again, the question of merit. Finally, Aeneas and Turnus are to fight one another, one on one, to decide the war. Drancës had suggested this course of action in book XI and Turnus roundly shut him down, but Turnus is now open to the idea. In prophetic but misdirected words, Turnus boasts:
His goddess-mother, she who, when he runs,
Hides him in womanish cloud, who hides herself
In empty phantoms—she’ll be far away. (XII.73-76)
He does not realize how soon these words will turn back their sting upon their utterer. But first the peace treaty Aeneas and Latinus plan to sign must be disrupted – by Juno of course. Anxious yet again to extend the life of Turnus at the cost of his glory, she urges his goddess sister, Juturna, to stir the troops to war. She does so by exploiting their fear that Turnus is outmatched, that a decision on the basis of merit will fall in favor of the Latins. With just a gentle prod, Juturna spurs Tolumnius to break the peace before it can begin, and the war returns.
Juturna, meanwhile, disguises herself as the driver of Turnus’ chariot, keeping him far from Aeneas. He mows down scores of named and nameless Trojans and their allies, empty kills that do not add to his glory. Aeneas, meanwhile:
Must I go on, awaiting Turnus’ whim
To face and fight me once again in battle,
Beaten already as he is? I think not.
Countrymen, this town is head and heart
Of an unholy war. Bring out your firebrands!
Make terms, this time, with a town in flames! (XII.776-81)
(This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I find myself distant from Aeneas by the end of the peom. Though undoubtedly a smart tactical decision, there is something inhuman about a man who has seen his own city in flames and yet can do the same to another.)
Disaster builds on disaster for the Latins, while Turnus “keep[s his] chariot in play / On this deserted meadow” (XII.899-900). Now, in one of the most sympathetic moments of the entire Aeneid, Turnus is haunted by an old insult. Drancës, who in Book XI had urged Turnus to face Aeneas one-on-one, to spare any further Trojan bloodshed. In so doing, he had mocked Turnus for fleeing this battle (this was Juno’s doing, and entirely against Turnus’ will, but Drancës does not know this). Turnus recalls this shame now: “Should I not give the lie to Drancës?” (XII.872)
And so, finally, after so much unnecessary death, Turnus will battle Aeneas. But it is not merit that will decide it. Instead Jupiter insists to Juno that now, finally, she must give up her protection of Turnus, must allow him to meet his fate. Jupiter further contrives to drive Juturna away from Turnus. And so we watch as Turnus is abandoned by the gods. His strength then fails him:
…………………………………….He said no more,
But looked around him. Then he saw a stone,
Enormous, ancient, set up there to prevent
Landowners’ quarrels. Even a dozen picked men
Such as the earth produces in our day
Could barely lift and shoulder it. He swooped
And wrenched it free, in one hand, then rose up
To his heroic height, ran a few steps,
And tried to hurl the stone against his foe –
But as he bent and as he ran
And as he hefted and propelled the weight
He did not know himself. His knees gave way,
His blood ran cold and froze. The stone itself,
Tumbling through space, fell short and had no impact. (XII.1218-31)
Here Turnus dies. Oh, to be sure, Aeneas must complete the kill, but this is the moment of decision. The gods are with Aeneas, not with Turnus, and there is nothing else to say. Perhaps Turnus would have lost on merit, but this is not for us to find out. The fragile fates again look elsewhere to ensure history keeps to its course.
And so the story ends. I do not celebrate Aeneas’ victory, the glorious future of his people. I weep for Turnus, a man forsaken by the gods.