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The Aeneid | Book 12 | Summary

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Summary

Wanting only to win or die, Turnus demands that the terms of single combat with Aeneas be set. The next morning both armies line up and people watch from Latium's walls to see the fight. Still defying Fate, Juno urges Turnus's sister, Juturna, to save him from death. Making offerings before the duel, Aeneas vows to deal honorably with the Italians, win or lose. However, it is evident that Turnus is no match for Aeneas. Juturna (who is a minor goddess) begins to rile up the Rutulians, showing them a sign: many smaller birds driving away an eagle.

A Rutulian throws a spear, and the truce starts to fall apart. Aeneas tries to stop the fighting, but he is hit by an arrow and has to retreat. This gives Turnus hope, and he starts to rampage in his chariot—the war resumes. Venus helps heal Aeneas, and he strides into the battle like a storm, looking for Turnus. Terrified, Juturna impersonates Turnus's chariot driver to keep him away from Aeneas. Both roam the battlefield killing enemies. Prompted by Venus, Aeneas attacks the city and threatens to burn it. Thinking Turnus is dead, Amata hangs herself. When Turnus learns the city is falling apart, he returns to fight Aeneas, stopping the battle.

In single combat Turnus's sword breaks—he mistakenly grabbed his charioteer's inferior blade. He runs from Aeneas until Juturna delivers his own sword. In the heavens Juno finally stops fighting Aeneas's fate, asking only that his descendants be called Latins not Trojans. Jupiter calls off Juturna with an omen: one of the Furies in the form of an owl, which also harasses Turnus. After Aeneas wounds Turnus in the leg, he asks for mercy for his father's sake. Moved, Aeneas is inclined to grant it—until he sees Pallas's sword belt hanging on Turnus's shoulder. Enraged, he stabs Turnus in the heart.

Analysis

The will of the gods plays a central role in the final conflict, with many divine interventions affecting how events unfold, despite the final outcome. Turnus's reaction to Latinus's proposition that he give up his claim on Lavinia indicates that he is still infected with the rage that Allecto introduced at Juno's request: "The attempts to heal enflame the fever more." When Juno asks Juturna to start the fighting again and keep her brother from facing Aeneas, she only delays the inevitable. Venus's interventions—healing Aeneas and inspiring him to put pressure on the city—balance the consequences of Juno's interference and bring Turnus back to fight Aeneas. The god Faunus holds Aeneas's spear in the roots of his sacred tree, but Venus frees it. Finally, the Fury that Jupiter sends to warn off Juturna also hampers Turnus in the duel. Thus, Aeneas's fate and, through him, the destiny of Rome are preserved.

The Roman concept of pietas, or piety, which encompasses not just reverence for the gods but also for country and family, runs as an undercurrent through this last book of the poem. Aeneas's piety to the gods is explicit in his offerings and prayers before single combat is set to begin. Within a long list of others, Aeneas significantly prays to Juno, trying to appease her anger: "goddess, be kinder now, I pray you, now at last!" He also honors his family and the all-important father-son relationship by including an appeal to Anchises and advice to Ascanius in his prayers. He tells his son to always revere family as well: "Soon as you ripen into manhood,/ ... remember—/father Aeneas and uncle Hector fire your heart!"

Latinus asks Turnus to consider the welfare of his country and his "father, bent with years and grief" rather than insisting on fighting Aeneas, but Turnus's rage will not let him even consider the possibility. Turnus may believe he will preserve his family and country by winning, but he fails to consider the very real (readers know inevitable) possibility that he will lose, bereaving his father and perhaps destabilizing his country. In contrast, Juturna honors her family by doing everything she can to save her brother. She is crushed when she fails, running up against Aeneas's fate. However, their failure is Aeneas's success, preserving the honor and glory of his family and planting the seeds for a new city and country (Rome) that will turn into an empire.

After many delays and diversions, Aeneas and Turnus finally come face-to-face in single combat, and their interaction serves to highlight their similarities and differences. As noted earlier, they are both the sons of goddesses, although only Aeneas's shows up to help him. Each is the hero of his group that no enemy can defeat. They both are armed by the god of fire—Turnus carries a sword made by Vulcan. Yet when they stand against one another, the battle is remarkably one-sided. Aeneas's quickly healed arrow wound evens the odds a bit, but Turnus never lands a blow. He knows he is beat even before Aeneas wounds him with a spear throw that seems to have been thrown by a catapult.

Aeneas's decision to kill rather than spare Turnus is controversial. It goes against Anchises's instruction in Book 6 to "spare the defeated, break the proud in war." Aeneas has effectively broken Turnus. When he pleads for his life (in another example of pietas) for the sake of his father and his people, Aeneas seems about to spare him—until he sees the golden sword belt Turnus plundered from Pallas's body. Once again, the lust for gold and glory leads to a tragic rage over Pallas's death and puts Aeneas back in the rage of battle, where endless vengeance leads to vicious cycles of killing, by which reason and mercy are abandoned—a subtle but powerful condemnation of war.

It is unclear whether Virgil intended to end the poem so abruptly. It doesn't fit the pattern of other epic poems, which usually conclude with sections that wrap up details in the story, such as Aeneas building his fated city and actually marrying Lavinia. Virgil died before finishing his epic, so he may have intended a conclusion of this sort. But if the ending we have is what he intended, it makes his denunciation of war and the grief it causes, evoked by Turnus's sad ghost in the last lines of the poem, that much stronger.

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