Just so Trojan Aeneas and the hero
Son of Daunus, battering shield on shield,
Fought with a din that filled the air of heaven.
Turnus decides to go and fight Aeneas alone for both the kingdom and Lavinia’s hand. King Latinus and Queen Amata protest, wanting Turnus to surrender and protect his life, but Turnus ignores their pleas, valuing his honor over his life. Latinus draws up the appropriate treaty, with Aeneas’s consent. The next day, the armies gather as spectators on either side of a field in front of the city.
Juno worries about Turnus because she suspects that Aeneas outmatches him. She calls Juturna, Turnus’s sister, and tells her to watch out for her brother’s safety. Latinus and Aeneas both come out onto the battlefield, and each vows to uphold his side of the pact. But Juturna, not wanting her brother to risk the duel, appears to the Latin army disguised as a noble officer named Camers and goads the Latins to break the treaty and fight now that the Trojans are off their guard. Turnus’s troops begin to agree, and suddenly one of them hurls a spear at the Trojans’ ranks, killing a young soldier. This unprovoked shot ignites both armies. They fly at each other with sword and lance. Aeneas calls for his men to stop, but as he yells, a stray arrow wounds him in the leg, forcing him to retreat.
Watching Aeneas leave the field gives Turnus new hope. He enters the battle and lays waste to a slew of soldiers on the Trojan side. Meanwhile, Aeneas is helped back to camp, but the physician cannot remove the arrow from his leg. Venus pities her suffering son and sends down a healing balm. The physician uses the balm, dislodging the arrow and closing the wound.
Aeneas takes up his arms again and returns to the battle, where the Latin troops before him scatter in terror. Both he and Turnus kill many men, turning the tide of the battle back and forth. Suddenly, Aeneas realizes that Latinus’s city has been left unguarded. He gathers a group of soldiers and attacks the city, panicking its citizens. Queen Amata, seeing the Trojans within the city walls, loses all hope and hangs herself. Turnus hears cries of suffering from the city and rushes back to the rescue. Not wanting his people to suffer further, he calls for the siege to end and for Aeneas to emerge and fight him hand-to-hand, as they had agreed that morning. Aeneas meets him in the city’s main courtyard, and at last, with all the troops circled round, the duel begins.
First, Aeneas and Turnus toss their spears. They then exchange fierce blows with their swords. At Turnus’s first strike, his sword suddenly breaks off at the hilt—in his haste, he had grabbed some other soldier’s weaker sword. Turnus flees from Aeneas, calling for his real sword, which Juturna finally furnishes for him. Juno observes the action from above, and Jupiter asks her why she bothers—she already knows the struggle’s inevitable outcome. Juno finally gives in and consents to abandon her grudge against Aeneas, on one condition: she wants the victorious Trojans to take on the name and the language of the Latins. Jupiter gladly agrees.
Jupiter sends down one of the Furies, who assumes the form of a bird and flaps and shrieks in front of Turnus, filling him with terror and weakening him. Seeing Turnus waver, Aeneas casts his mighty spear and strikes Turnus’s leg, and Turnus tumbles to the ground. As Aeneas advances, Turnus pleads for mercy for the sake of his father. Aeneas is moved—but just as he decides to let Turnus live, he sees the belt of Pallas tied around Turnus’s shoulder. As Aeneas remembers the slain youth, his rage returns in a surge. In the name of Pallas, Aeneas drives his sword into Turnus, killing him.
Since Turnus’s entrance in Book VII, his behavior has been brash, confident, and self-assured, yet he shows himself to be vulnerable and complacent in this final book of the Aeneid. Even before his final battle with Aeneas, he seems to have surrendered to the fates he earlier resists. When he sees the city of Latinus awake with flame, he says to Juturna that fate has defeated his forces and that he has resigned himself to his death. The Turnus we hear uttering these words hardly seems the same man who, earlier in the epic, taunts the Trojans, insulting their manhood and calling them “twice-conquered” (IX.837) and “effete” (IX.860), or lacking vitality. When he begs Aeneas for mercy on his knees, ignoring the fact that he has lost in fair combat and thus deserves to die, he hardly seems the same man who earlier values his honor more than his life. Virgil provides little explanation for Turnus’s transformation other than Turnus’s dismay at hearing of the queen’s suicide and the attack on the city. But, clearly, Virgil could not allow death to transform Turnus from Aeneas’s mortal nemesis into a tragic hero. We might feel some sympathy for Turnus’s resilience against the fates, but it represents the opposite of Aeneas’s pious submission to the decrees of fate.
Juno undergoes a similar turnaround at the epic’s conclusion. Until her conversation with Jupiter in Book XII, she stubbornly ignores the fates in her persecution of Aeneas. She knows she cannot win, but nevertheless she wants Aeneas to suffer, for her own satisfaction. Yet when Jupiter again points out that Aeneas is destined to prevail, as he has done often enough before, Juno suddenly crumbles, asking only that the Latin name and language be preserved. Like Turnus, Juno drives the plot of the Aeneid more than Aeneas does. Her sudden resignation represents the end of the epic’s major conflict, as the antagonistic, tempestuous, and willful characters are subdued by the forces of order.
The poem ends with a somber description of Turnus’s death: “And with a groan for that indignity [of death] / [Turnus’s] spirit fled into the gloom below” (XII.1297–1298). Virgil does not narrate the epic’s true resolution, the supposedly happy marriage between Aeneas and Lavinia and the initiation of the project of building Rome. Two elements of the classical tradition influence this ending. First, Virgil is again imitating Homer, whose Iliad concludes with the death of Hector, the great Trojan enemy of the Greek hero Achilles. Second, Virgil wants his Roman audience to feel that they themselves, not Aeneas’s exploits, are the glorious conclusion to this epic story.