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The Aeneid


Book XII

Summary Book XII


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.12971298). 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.