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The Aeneid | Book 9 | Summary

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Summary

Taking advantage of Aeneas's absence, Turnus and his allies march on the Trojan fort. Although they want to fight, the Trojans follow Aeneas's instructions to retreat inside their walls. Scornful and angry, Turnus seeks a way to harm his enemies—he fires torches and approaches the Trojan fleet. The Mother of the Gods (who abides near Troy) appeals to her son Jupiter not to allow the Rutulians to destroy them. Granting the request, Jupiter turns the Trojan ships into sea nymphs.

On the walls of the Trojan settlement, Nisus sees a way to get through the Rutulian camp and inform Aeneas of the situation. His companion, Euryalus, insists on going with him. Ascanius promises rich treasures if they succeed. Nisus and Euryalus sneak through the Rutulian camp, killing many enemies. Young Euryalus takes a decorated helmet as a trophy—a fatal decision. As they sneak toward the woods, Rutulian cavalry spot them when moonlight glints off the helmet. Fleeing through the trees, Nisus gets away, but Euryalus is caught. Nisus returns for his friend and spears the cavalry leader, but both comrades are killed.

Turnus's troops attack the Trojan walls. As the fighting intensifies, Ascanius shoots his first man: a boastful Rutulian. Someone opens the Trojan gates in the excitement of battle. At first they kill many of Turnus's people, but Turnus arrives and turns the tide of battle. When the gates are finally closed, Turnus is already inside the Trojan fort. He wreaks havoc until a squadron of Trojans beats him back. He seems trapped but boldly escapes into the Tiber River.

Analysis

Virgil develops the complexity of Turnus's character in Book 9. Like Aeneas, he displays piety, praying "to the gods ... /weighing down the heavens with his vows." However, unlike Aeneas, he suffers from hubris, exaggerated or foolish pride. He compares himself to Achilles at Troy, taking Troy's fall as a sign that he will be victorious, and boasts that his fate is to "stamp out these accursed people with my sword." Like other epic heroes, he is dominant in battle—no one can stand against him (with occasional help from Juno). However, in his enthusiastic killing of enemies he misses a golden opportunity to defeat the Trojans: if he had "thought ... /of smashing the gate-bolts, letting his cohorts in," it would have been "the last day of the war." This episode is part of a pattern of battle fury clouding a fighter's judgment with large consequences, supporting the view that Virgil is subtly arguing against the "lust for war," or war for war's sake. Virgil may have been able to get away with this risky idea by appealing to the Roman virtue of gravitas, which, even in war, must prevail over anger and promote reason.

The nature of the relationship between Nissus and Euryalus—whether their love is friendly or romantic—is ambiguous and continues to be debated. They fit the ancient Greek erastes-eromenos relationship in which an adult man is romantically involved with a teenage boy. As a youth with only the "first down of manhood, cheeks unshaved," Euryalus fits the eromenos role, and Virgil repeatedly notes that Nisus is older (though it seems not by much). Their battle exploits also call to mind the Sacred Band of Thebes, a highly effective Greek military unit comprising 150 pairs of lovers said to be more motivated because of their romantic ties. However, Virgil does not describe Nissus and Euryalus's love with the fire language he uses to describe the passion of Dido, or the encounter between Venus and Vulcan. Ultimately, readers must decide for themselves.

The story of Nisus and Euryalus's tragic end is one of the most poignant in The Aeneid. They are young, beautiful, and bold, and they die together. Ascanius unwittingly foreshadows their tragic deaths when he promises them a wine bowl that was a gift from Dido when they succeed. They come very close, but unfortunately the Fates are against them: they are "destined to die/but make a bloodbath first." Euryalus's desire for glorious plunder betrays them, a pattern that repeats in Camilla's death in Book 11 and also relates to Turnus's death in Book 12. The death of the beautiful Euryalus is compared in a haunting simile with a blood-red poppy cut down in a field, and Virgil admonishes his readers to remember them both: "If my songs have any power, the day will never dawn/that wipes you from the memory of the ages."

Virgil's portrayal of war is considerably more nuanced than in a typical epic. The deaths of soldiers on both sides of the conflict are portrayed sympathetically with no sense of one side being better than the other. The Rutulian cavalry captain Volcens is not eulogized like Nisus and Euryalus, but Virgil does make a point to depict the Rutulians' grief. On the other hand, Romans believed glory was earned in war, and the actions of characters and descriptions of battle reflect this attitude. Virgil's typically vivid imagery applied to battle scenes contributes to this, creating a jarring mix of glory and gore. As in Homer's epics, the bodies of notable enemies who are captured are often abused and displayed to the other side as a sign of victory.

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