The Aeneid: Novel Summary: Book 12
The Latins hold council again, and Turnus, seeing how everything has turned against them, now offers to fight alone against Aeneas again, while the Latins watch. Latinus tries to persuade him not to fight, to choose another bride. It was so clearly wrong to try to give Lavinia to anyone but Aeneas, and he blames himself bitterly for the outbreak of the war. Latinus is ready to make peace-why must Turnus die first? Let Turnus take pity on his father and yield. Turnus's fury grows stronger at the king's words. If he dies, he will win glory-and he may win! The queen begs him not to fight, and Lavinia, silent as becomes a young maiden, weeps and blushes, making Turnus even wilder with love. He arms, so wild with rage that his eyes flame and he gives off sparks.
Aeneas is also eager to fight, in his divine armor, hoping this combat will end the war. He comforts his son and his companions, and "teaches them fate" (line 111), and he sets generous terms of peace and sends them to the king.
As the field of battle is prepared, Juno goes to Juturna, the sister of Turnus, once a mortal woman and now divine, and urges her to save her brother from the combat. Aeneas and Latinus make a solemn treaty, calling the gods to witness. Aeneas declares that he will not treat the Latins as a conquered people-they will keep their customs and kingdom, only granting a city and Lavinia to him.
But the Rutulians are unhappy. The combat seems so unequal, and Turnus looks so pale and young as he worships, silently. Juturna immediately takes on the form of a Rutulian leader and stirs up all the Latins-they are cowards if they let Turnus fight alone. Juno sends an omen that suggests that they can defeat Aeneas, and, taken over by frenzy, they charge into battle. King Latinus cannot stop them and goes back to the city. Pius Aeneas tries to stop his men from fighting, but as he pleads, stretching out an unarmored hand, an arrow wounds him, and he has to withdraw from the fighting. Now Turnus feels new hope, and charges into battle, slaughtering many.
Aeneas is wild with rage, but the healer can do nothing, and defeat looks imminent. Then Venus brings a divine remedy and the wound is healed. Aeneas returns to battle, stopping only to hug and kiss Ascanius, and tell him to remember the example of his father and his uncle Hector when he becomes a leader.
At first Aeneas drives everyone to flight, but does not stop to kill anyone; he seeks only Turnus. But Juturna has taken the form of Turnus's charioteer, and she keeps Turnus well away from him. Finally a spear that shears off his helmet's crest stirs up anger so great that Aeneas begins to slaughter all who oppose him, as Turnus is doing. Virgil asks Jupiter whether it was his pleasure to have such strife between peoples who would eventually be eternally at peace.
Amid the fierceness of the battle, Aeneas, looking everywhere for Turnus, sees the city of Latinum unharmed, and, inspired by Venus, calls on his men to take the city, vowing to level it unless the Latins yield. Seeing the attack, Queen Amata thinks Turnus must have been killed, and she kills herself. Latinus mourns in dust, dazed by disaster. Turnus becomes aware of what is happening, and grabs the reins and halts. His disguised sister tries to persuade him to continue hunting Trojans, but he tells her that he recognized her long ago, and that now he must no longer let others die for him, that he must not endure the even worse shame of seeing the city burned because of him. He must face Aeneas and die.
Turnus leaps off the chariot and crashes through the ranks, shouting to all to cease fighting and let him fight alone. Father Aeneas rejoices, and the two giant men meet in combat. Turnus's sword breaks on the divine shield, and he runs in search of a better one, pursued by Aeneas. Juturna gives him a sword, and they face each other again. Jupiter speaks to Juno, asking her to finally stop helping Turnus and let go of her hatred for the Trojans. She consents, and forswears warfare, asking only that the name of Troy may die, and that the race that comes from the union of Trojans and Latins may be Latin in name and customs. Jupiter smiles and grants her wish, saying that she will see the race that comes from this union outdo men and gods in pietas.
Jupiter sends a Fury to keep Juturna from helping her brother. The Fury, in the form of a bird of ill omen, terrifies Turnus, and Juturna gives up and plunges into the river, her home. Aeneas charges at Turnus, goading him to fight, and Turnus answers that he has not been struck with terror by Aeneas, but by Jupiter, his enemy. Turnus tries to throw a huge stone at Aeneas, but the Fury takes away his strength, so that he feels like a man in a dream, powerless, and the stone falls to the earth. Turnus trembles and looks for help, but his sister is gone, and there is no help. Aeneas hurls his spear at Turnus, and it wounds his thigh. He falls, and from the earth he pleads with Achilles, saying that he deserves death, but urging Aeneas to pity Turnus's father and send Turnus back to his father, if not alive, at least dead. He gives up Lavinia-let Aeneas give up his hatred.
Aeneas hesitates, moved by Turnus's words, but then he sees the belt of Pallas, worn as booty on Turnus's shoulder. He is taken over by grief and rage, and he plunges his sword in Turnus, calling out that it is Pallas who kills Turnus. Turnus's limbs go slack, and "with a groan, indignant [at dying so young], his life fled to the shadows" (last line).
As Book 4 can be seen as the tragedy of Dido at least as much as it is the story of Aeneas winning free of temptation and following his destiny, so Book 12 can be seen as the tragedy of Turnus, and many have questioned whether it can really be seen as the victory of Aeneas at all. True, one moral lesson is obvious-it is Turnus's lack of compassion and lust for booty that bring about his death. Yet Virgil creates a strong sense that the combat is unequal, and stirs up our pity for Turnus. Turnus himself admits that he deserves his death, but that only makes the pathos stronger, and it has seemed strange to many that the last words of the epic should describe his death. Perhaps that is one of the things Virgil would have revised if he had lived to do his final revisions, but we can only react to the poem as we have it, and in the poem as we have it, Turnus draws the sympathy of many readers more than Aeneas does.
Still, Aeneas's generosity to the Latins and his desperate attempts to avoid starting a general war again are moving. He clearly seems to be a different kind of hero, one who fights only when he must to fulfill his destiny and bring a new world into being, one who will give respect and generous terms to former enemies, one qualified, in short, to be considered a true Roman hero, as Anchises has defined it in Book 6, one whose arts are "to impose the way of peace, / to spare the conquered and to battle down the proud" (lines 852-853). And that is what has been seen as most troubling about the end. Aeneas has battled down the proud Turnus, and now that he is conquered, Aeneas almost spares him, but then flies into rage at the sight of Pallas's belt and kills him.
Has justice been done, or have we seen that the vision of Roman magnanimity in war is a false dream, making it appropriate to send Aeneas back to the living world through the Gate of Ivory, the gate of false dreams? Robert Fagles, whose new translation of the Aeneid came out in 2006, sees a balance between Virgil's sense of pathos and his patriotism. Fagles's "Translator's Postscript" asks more questions than it answers, which seems appropriate. Here is the last question: "Might one voice reinforce the other, conspiring to make the modern reader, like Aeneas, more complete, more accepting of uncertainties, and so perhaps more seasoned and humane, as Virgil calls us toward a future far beyond our ken and control?" (401)