The Aeneid: Novel Summary: Book 9
Juno sends Iris down from heaven to stir Turnus to battle-Aeneas is away looking for allies, now is his chance. Turnus leads his Rutulians and the other Latins to battle; the Trojans stay within their fortified camp, as Aeneas has ordered. Turnus, in an effort to draw them out to fight, is the first to take up firebrands to set the Trojan ships on fire, but the goddess from whose pines the ships were constructed won from Jupiter a promise that, once the ships had brought the Trojans to Italy, they would suffer no further damage, but be turned into nymphs. Now, before the amazed eyes of the Rutulians, that happens. Turnus cheers his men, daunted by this miracle, saying that it means the Trojans are now trapped in Italy, where they will learn that it is just as dangerous to steal his wife as it was to steal Menelaus's Helen. Now the Trojans are besieged again, and Turnus and his sturdy men will not take ten years to defeat them the way the Greeks did. But now it is evening and time to rest.
Turnus sets sentries all around the camp, but Nisus and his beloved younger companion Euryalus, set to guard one of the Trojan gates, long to win glory by a great deed, and they decide to try to win the prize that has been offered to anyone who will slip through the enemy ranks and bring word of Turnus's attack to Aeneas. The Trojan leaders are in counsel, and Nisus and Euryalus win praise and gratitude from all for attempting this mission. Euryalus's mother is the only one of the Trojan women who has dared to sail on from Sicily, and he plans not to say goodbye to her, knowing he would be unable to resist her tears if she begged him not to go. He asks Ascanius to comfort her if he does not come back, and Ascanius promises that she will be a second mother to him.
Once Nisus and Euryalus are among the sleeping enemy, instead of slipping through unnoticed, they are taken over by lust of slaughter and kill many. They leave behind much booty when they finally take their way again, but Euryalus can't resist taking glorious armor from one of the slain men, including a gleaming helmet with a high crest. Then they head toward the forest to pursue their mission, but a troop of horsemen happens to ride up, and they see that helmet flashing in the moonlight. Nisus escapes, but Euryalus, hampered by his spoils, does not, and when Nisus tries to rescue him, both are killed. Virgil hails them as fortunate-if his poetry has any power, they will never be forgotten while Rome endures.
When Turnus and his men march into battle next day, they carry in front of them the heads of Nisus and Euryalus on pikes. Euryalus's mother laments and wishes for death, spreading yet more sorrow among the Trojans. Turnus and his men find ways of breaching the Trojans' defenses and spreading slaughter, though occasionally the Trojans rally, and the boy Ascanius even kills his first man. Finally Turnus finds himself inside the Trojans' walls alone, the Trojans fleeing before him. If he had had the sense to open the gates and let in his troops, says Virgil, that would have ended the war, but "burning fury and insane desire for slaughter" (line 760) drive him on, boasting that in him the Trojans have found a new Achilles, and he kills many before the Trojan leaders finally manage to get their troops to stand together and resist. They then drive him, still raging but unable to hold out against so many, out of the camp, and he dives into the Tiber and escapes.
Many have felt that Virgil makes the slaughter he describes so horrible-and this summary makes no attempt to suggest just how gory and gruesome his descriptions of wounds and death are-because he hates war (especially a civil war like this one) so much . He believes (perhaps) that war can lead to peace, and that is the only thing that justifies it in his eyes. At the same time, Virgil seems to be delivering a clear message about what goes wrong in war. If Nisus and Euryalus had not been taken over by the lust for slaughter, if Euryalus had not taken booty from the slain, if both had kept their minds on their mission, they would probably not have been killed, and Aeneas might have returned much sooner, preventing the bloodshed of the next day.
In the same way, it is being taken over by lust for slaughter that causes Turnus not to open the gate, the simple action that would have meant a decisive victory for his side. Yet can wars be fought without such passions taking over even calm and steadfast minds, let alone the minds of the young men who fight in them, so little apt to be calm and steadfast? Certainly Virgil seems to pity Nisus and Euryalus far more than he condemns them, and the episode that describes their foray and death has indeed been one of the most popular parts of the second half of the Aeneid, giving the young men the immortality he promised them, and more, since Rome fell long ago, but Virgil's poetry lives on.