Book 12 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1491

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New Characters:
Juturna: Turnus’ sister, goddess of pools and rivers

Tolumnius: the Rutulians’ auger

Iapyx: Aeneas’ healer

Turnus is eager to fight Aeneas, and asks Latinus to prepare a peace treaty before the duel. Latinus asks Turnus to consider not fighting. He tells him there are plenty of marriageable girls available, that he knew it was wrong to offer Lavinia to any of her suitors because of the oracles, and that, if peace can be had, he is sure that he can have peace and also have Turnus alive.

Turnus says that glory is too important to him for him to not fight. Queen Amata then begs him not to fight, as she is sure that her fortunes will fall with him. Seeing Lavinia blush, Turnus goes wild with love for her. He sends a messenger to tell Aeneas to meet him at dawn.

The next morning, the troops gather on the field to watch the confrontation. In Olympus, Juno warns Juturna that her brother is about to die, encouraging her to try to save him, or at least incite a war that will break the treaty. Back in Latium, Latinus and Aeneas meet in front of the sacrificial altar, where Aeneas prays, promising that he will treat the Italians as equals if he wins, preserving their religious traditions and customs. Latinus also prays, promising to uphold the treaty under any circumstances.

The Rutulians are unhappy about the apparently unequal nature of this duel. While they watch the nervous, pale Turnus pace back and forth, Juturna enters their ranks disguised as one of their most distinguished fighters. She encourages them to attack. To further incite them, she makes an omen appear in the sky. Tolumnius interprets it as a sign to defend Turnus and throws a lance at the Trojans and their allies. Soon, war breaks out again. Aeneas tries to restrain his warriors, but he is hit by an arrow thrown by an unknown hand and is carried off the field. Seeing Aeneas fall back, Turnus leaps into his chariot and attacks.

In Aeneas’ camp, Iapyx attempts vainly to remove the arrowhead. Venus secretly mixes a plant into Iapyx’s salves which causes the arrowhead to leap out and the wound to instantaneously heal. Aeneas then rearms and leaves to find Turnus.

Juturna disguises herself as her brother’s charioteer, taking his place behind the horses. While she skillfully keeps her brother from Aeneas, Aeneas grows tired of Turnus’ treachery. He finally decides to enter the battle. Aeneas and Turnus wreak violent death across the plains until Venus inspires Aeneas to directly attack the city. As the city starts to burn, Amata hangs herself.

Turnus grows tired of racing in his chariot. Juturna tries to convince him not to return to the city, but he recognizes her. A messenger rides up and begs Turnus to come to Laurentum, lest it be entirely destroyed. Turnus walks away from the chariot and goes to the city walls. As he calls for a halt to the fighting, both sides stop and clear a space for the two warriors to meet.

The duel starts as both men hurl spears. They then rush at each other with their swords. Unevenly matched against Vulcan’s smithery, Turnus’ blade snaps off. Turnus runs to get a replacement while Aeneas chases him. Aeneas attempts to remove his spear from a tree trunk in order to throw it at his now-moving target, but Faunus hears Turnus’ prayers and holds the metal tightly. Juturna tosses her brother his sword. This angers Venus, who frees Aeneas’ spear from the tree.

Jupiter, seeing Juno watching the battle below, chastises her for her interference. He tells her that she is no longer allowed to harass the Trojans. She says that she had indeed given up her war. She only asks that after the Trojans unite with the Latins, that the Latins not adopt the Trojan ways and that the name of Troy die forever. Jupiter agrees, adding that the two races mingled will be known as Latins.

Jupiter then sends down a Fury to drive Juturna away from the combat. Disguised as a bird, the Fury terrifies Turnus by flying in his face. Juturna recognizes the creature and dives, despairing, into a river.

Turnus attempts to hit Aeneas with a giant rock, but his strength seems to have left him and the rock misses. While Turnus wavers, Aeneas throws a spear that hits Turnus in the thigh. Turnus concedes the victory to Aeneas, and requests that he be returned to his father, if not alive, then dead.

Aeneas contemplates sparing Turnus’ life. As he is about to grant clemency, he spots Pallas’ sword belt gleaming off of Turnus’ shoulders. In Pallas’ name, the enraged Aeneas buries his sword in Turnus’ chest. Turnus’ soul escapes and flees to the underworld.

After the endless battles of the preceding books, the ending of the Aeneid seems anticlimactic. Where is the triumphant wedding scene? When does Virgil allow Aeneas to enjoy what he has struggled to achieve? If nothing else, why focus on Turnus’ stiffening body and resentful soul? It is hardly a glorious ending.

The debate over Virgil’s choice rages on over 2,000 years after it was written. William S. Anderson says that Aeneas’ killing of Turnus is simply a human tragedy. Aeneas cannot win a victory whether he saves Turnus, who deserves it as a suppliant and man of honor, or kills him. The point of this ambiguous moral situation is that it parallels the foundation of Rome. Rome was morally compromised; the welcomed Augustan peace was accompanied by doubtful means of restoring order. Virgil’s ambiguity is “a vehicle for conveying his complex vision of Rome” (Anderson, 108).

Michael Putnam contrasts his interpretation to that of the historicists, whose opinions have dominated the literature. To them, the Aeneid is “a grandly imaginative reinforcement of Augustan ideology and power structures” (Putnam, 2). Aeneas kills Turnus because it is good and right for the Roman forces to triumph. But for Putnam, Virgil encoded more than one meaning into his ending. Although he has been told by Anchises that the city his children will found will spare the defeated, Aeneas chooses instead to let his desire for revenge run unchecked as the sight of Pallas’ belt draws him down from his statesman-like hesitation to the dirty world of practical politics. Turnus’ death therefore foretells not peace, but war and an end to liberty, while Aeneas’ failure shows that he has not brought the perfection of Olympus down to the mortal plane.

Virgil does demonstrate his masterful abilities of organization in the last book. Two elements of the final scene match up with those of the first, in essence providing bookends. In the first book, it is Aeneas whose “limbs fall slack with chill” and stretches his hands in prayer; in the last scene of the Aeneid, Turnus follows both of these actions. Also, in the opening of the book, Juno is burning with rage and the desire for revenge; in the final book, Aeneas is the one filled with such a rage. To Putnam, this transformation of the protagonist into a god-like figure who imitates the actions of his former nemesis is full of tension, especially because of the similarity between Turnus’ death and that of Hector’s.

Turnus’ death confuses the interpretation of the Aeneid’s meaning in many ways. Turnus is constantly incapacitated by fury, which is associated with Juno and other violent characters. Thus, Aeneas’ victory can be seen as the triumph of order over chaos and the irrational. Yet in the end, it is Aeneas who is possessed by fury as he sees Pallas’ belt. It is as if his ability to exercise rational rule will no longer be exercised now that he is the dominant one. Aeneas has also been interpreted as the man who brings civilization to the Italians. Yet, the nobility of the Italians and Aeneas’ failure to live up to Anchises’ prediction bring into doubt whether Rome’s glories have really resulted in a better way of life. The Italians certainly fought better, but would it not have been preferable to have maintained the honest, pastoral life of the Arcadians?

The Aeneid is also seen as a tale of rewarded suffering. Aeneas pays terribly for his obedience to the will of the gods, and he is ultimately given a kingdom and a home for his people. However, Turnus also is fighting for a just cause, and his reward is death. Is the overall tone therefore one of optimism or pessimism? Rather than providing easy answers, Virgil forces the reader to consider the options and decide for himself or herself. As Putnam says, “It is this realistic appraisal of Rome and of life’s ultimate ambivalence—the glory but also finally the tragedy—that at the present time continues to earn for the Aeneid its status as a masterpiece” (Putnam, 26).


Book 11 Summary and Analysis