The Aeneid

The Aeneid Summary and Analysis of Book XII

Turnus, seeing that the tide of war has turned against the Latins, realizes that he now must keep his pledge and fight Aeneas in a duel. King Latinus begs Turnus to reconsider and seek peace with the Trojans, and a weeping Queen Amata pleads with him to defect. But Turnus cannot back down; his very honor, he believes, is at stake. "The war," he states, "will be decided by our blood; the bride/ Lavinia will be won upon that field" (107-109). Aeneas sends word that he will duel with Turnus indeed, comforting his companions and his son by teaching them "the ways of fate" (150).

The next day, both the Trojans and Latins gather on a field to watch the duel. Aeneas and Turnus agree to the terms of the duel and offer sacrifices to the gods. Juno, afraid that Turnus will be killed, calls on Juturna, Turnus's sister, to come to his aid. Juturna disguses herself as Camers, a Latin warrior, and moves among the Latin ranks, telling them that they should not allow their honor to rest on a single life. She is able to inflame them into action, and Tolumnius, calling himself their new leader, hurls his lance at the Trojans. It kills a young warrior, and the Trojan army rushes the Latins. Once again, the battle begins in earnest, and King Latinus retreats to his castle to mourn the broken treaty.

Aeneas begs his men to calm themselves and leave him to battle, but he is hit in the leg with an arrow and must flee. Turnus is heartened by Aeneas's departure and begins slaying a great many Trojans. Aeneas, back at the camp with his comrades, wishes only to return to the battle, but the physician, Iapyx, cannot remove the arrow from his leg. Venus, upset by her son's pain, sends a healing balm to mend his wound. Thus recovered, Aeneas embraces Ascanius and returns to battle.

Aeneas and Turnus both slay a great many warriors, although Juturna is able to distract Aeneas momentarily by riding around in Turnus's chariot while Aeneas, believing his foe to be inside it, pursues her. Finally, Venus urges Aeneas to move towards the unguarded Latin city. He pledges to annihilate the city if the battle is not resolved that day. Queen Amata, terrified at the sight of the approaching Trojans and believing that her beloved Turnus has been killed, hangs herself in the castle.

At last Turnus realizes the tragedy that he has wrought, and he calls for Aeneas to meet him on the field once again to decide the battle once and for all. The fight begins by both men throwing their spears. Then they rush toward each other to battle with swords. Turnus's sword breaks off, forcing him to retreat, and Aeneas pursues him despite his pain from the arrow wound. Aeneas, unable to catch Turnus, notices his spear embedded in an olive tree and struggles to free it. Meanwhile, Juturna takes on the guise of Turnus's charioteer and returns her brother's blade to him. Angered by this interference, Venus helps Aeneas remove the spear from the tree.

Jupiter, himself angered by this continued meddling in mortal affairs, calls his wife to him. She knows, he says, that Aeneas is fated to win, so why must she persist in staving off the inevitable? Jupiter tells her that the end has come. In return, Juno asks that the Latins be able to keep their name and customs, and Jupiter, smiling, says that he will allow the customs to be blended and the Latins to keep their name: "You will see/ a race arise from this that, mingled with/ the blood of the Ausonians, will be/ past men, even past gods, in piety;/ no other nation will pay you such honor" (1113-1117).

Jupiter sends down one of the Furies to frighten Turnus into submission. Juturna, realizing that there is nothing more that she can do to help her brother, flees into the depths of the river, moaning. Aeneas hurls his spear at the fallen Turnus, and it pierces his thigh. Aeneas approaches Turnus to end his life, but Turnus pleads for mercy, for the sake of his father. Aeneas is moved by Turnus's words and momentarily considers sparing him, but then notices Pallas's belt slung across Turnus's shoulders, and drives his sword through his opponent's chest.


One of the most fascinating and perplexing aspects of Virgil's epic is its ending: even though our hero Aeneas is victorious, the Aeneid ends on an unquestionably tragic note, devoting its final lines to the sad last moments of Turnus's short life. Virgil could have ended the story with, for example, victory celebrations and the joining together of the Latins and the Trojans, but he chooses to end it in a manner that not only takes readers to the opposite emotional pole from the triumphant, positive beginning, but is consistent with his interest in creating multilayered, painfully human characters. The ending of the epic is tragic in order to convey Turnus's complexity, as well as the complexity of the situation at hand (compare the funeral of Hector at the end of the Iliad, after which the second half of Virgil's epic is patterned).

Turnus is arguably one of the most inconsistent characters in the Aeneid. He is by turns courageous, antagonistic, sympathetic, impassioned, and pitiful. This very complexity lends him his humanity. Just as Virgil invests Aeneas with flaws in order to enhance the sense that he is not simply an epic hero but a real person, Turnus's capriciousness enables the audience to view him not merely as a villain but as a person whose misdeeds are motivated by internal conflicts and flaws. Indeed, his motivations, while vastly different from those of Aeneas, are in some ways no less pure. Turnus seems to be truly passionate about Lavinia, while Aeneas wishes to marry her simply because it his destiny to do so; Turnus wishes to uphold his sense of honor regardless of the challenges that face him, while Aeneas can, to some degree, rest in the security of knowing he is destined to succeed.

In the final episode, Turnus's willingness to fight Aeneas even though he knows that he is fated to lose demonstrates his courage, placing him on a level closer to Aeneas than any other warrior. Yet in the last moments of his life he is reduced to begging on his knees to be spared. Readers cannot help but feel pity for this fallen man, and it is exactly this sentiment that Virgil hopes to elicit. Even though the ending is "happy" in that the protagonist, Aeneas, is victorious, the focus on Turnus's sad end demonstrates that no victory is without its downside.

In the closing moments of Homer's Iliad, Achilles demonstrates his compassion by agreeing to return Hector's body to King Priam. At the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas is confronted with a similar decision, but he does not show a comparable level of empathy (even though his loss of Pallas might be compared with Achilles' loss of his friend Patroclus). The fact that Virgil's epic ends with Aeneas's sword plunging through Turnus to his death, and with Turnus's embittered shade fleeing to the underworld, might be even more downbeat than the funeral of Hector at the end of Homer's work. By ending the poem in this manner, Virgil underscores the theme of loss as a consequence of following one's destiny. Aeneas's adventures result in the loss of countless lives, but in the end something even more precious is lost, Aeneas's mercy. Throughout the Aeneid, the protagonist has shown himself to be a just, moral, and kind leader, but in the final moments of the epic he is a fighter, slaying a man who lies pleading for his life at his feet. While Aeneas may be a classic hero, modern readers might want their heroes to mix more mercy with their justice.