Unable to reach the protected Trojans, Turnus decides to burn their ships. However, before the ships can be set ablaze, Jupiter, in answer to a plea from his mother, changes them all into sea nymphs, who swim away unharmed. In acting as he does, Jupiter fulfills a promise he made to his mother years before, when Aeneas built the ships from pine trees taken from her grove on Mount Ida, near Troy, where the Trojans found refuge after their defeat.
Turnus is not disturbed by the fleet’s transformation. In fact, he regards the ships’s disappearance as favorable: The Trojans now have no means of escape. Because night is coming, he delays another attack until the next day and orders his forces to rest until then.
In the Trojans’s camp, the inseparable companions, Nisus and Euryalus, who appeared in Book V as contestants in the foot race, volunteer and obtain permission to go to Aeneas in Pallanteum in order to inform him of the siege; hoping together to perform a glorious act of bravery, they are fearless. They go with the approval of their elders and Ascanius, who promises them that both he and his father will richly reward them.
Nisus and Euryalus pass safely through the enemy’s encampment, killing many warriors who lie in a drunken sleep. However, on the road to Pallanteum, they are intercepted by the Rutulian captain Volcens, who is leading a force of three hundred men to Turnus’s aid. The young Trojan men flee into a forest, where they become separated. Nisus manages to shake off pursuit and leave the woods, but Euryalus, who is hampered by armor he took as spoils from the Rutulian camp, is captured. Nisus, who has already reentered the forest to look for his companion, discovers him in enemy hands and boldly launches spears, killing two warriors. To avenge these deaths, Volcens slays Euryalus, provoking Nisus to slay the Rutulian captain in turn, only to die himself of wounds inflicted by Volcens’s defenders.
Volcens’s men proceed to Turnus’s encampment, where the carnage inflicted by Nisus and Euryalus causes great consternation. The next day, the two Trojans’s heads, impaled on spears, are exhibited to the Trojan defenders at their ramparts, and the battle begins. A great struggle follows, with Turnus’s forces attempting to scale the Trojan camp’s walls, only to be beaten back. A tower crashes, causing many deaths; two survivors are slain, one of them, trying vainly to get back over the wall, by Turnus. Ascanius, who slays Remulus, Turnus’s brother-in-law, with an arrow to punish him for mocking the Trojans’s manhood, is visited by Apollo, who praises the young Trojan prince for his skill but tells him that henceforth he must refrain from killing, as his purpose will be to promote peace.
Now, to provoke the Latin enemy, the brothers Pandarus and Bitias, guardians of the Trojan gate, fling it open. Latin warriors force themselves through it but are beaten back, while Trojans leave the camp and fight outside. Turnus slays Bitias, and the Latins, aroused by Mars, increase their assault as Pandarus manages to close the gate, shutting out many Trojans. Turnus, however, slips into the camp before the gate is shut, and a struggle ensues between him and Pandarus. The Rutulian prince, aided by Juno, is the victor. He proceeds to cause havoc among the Trojans, but they gradually get the upper hand. Undaunted by the vast number of Trojans fighting against him, at the very moment of greatest danger, Turnus escapes death by leaping fully armed into the Tiber River and swimming back to join his fellow warriors.
In Book IX, with Aeneas away in Pallanteum, the Trojans and the Latins engage in indecisive warfare, and the situation at the end resembles what it was at the start. The battle, which continues over a period of two days, shares our attention with the intervening nighttime tragedy of Nisus and Euryalus.
Virgil contrasts the serenity of Aeneas in Book VIII with the frenzy of Turnus in Book IX. The Trojan leader has been assured, first by his tour of Pallanteum and then by the scenes depicted on the shield presented to him by his mother, of eventual victory over Turnus’s forces. In a way, Rome already exists in the form of Evander’s city, and the course of its triumphant history has already been laid down. Although Juno would like Turnus to believe that he has a chance of claiming victory over the Trojans, in actuality, the reader, gods and goddesses, and Aeneas all know that Turnus is bound to be defeated by the Trojans, and that his strenuous efforts in this book and those that follow must all come to nothing.
Book IX is the only book in the Aeneid in which Aeneas is absent. However, his spirit and his inviolate leadership still govern the warriors under his command. When Turnus’s army first attacks the Trojan encampment, the Trojans pull back within the security of their walls, as Aeneas instructed them to do before he left to seek allies. Virgil notes that the retreating soldiers’s impulse is to fight, but they respect Aeneas’s leadership and withdraw as he had commanded them to do.
Aeneas’s presence is also felt through his son’s actions. Knowing that his father’s duties as leader include rousing the troops, Ascanius assumes this responsibility when he promises gifts to Nisus and Euryalus before they depart on their ill-fated mission. His address to the two boy-soldiers recalls Aeneas’s speech made to the athletic competitors in Book V, in which he promised gifts to the participants. Ascanius also reminds us of his father when, having killed one of the enemy for the first time, he refrains from boasting of his accomplishment. Because a good ruler does not needlessly inflame his enemies, Ascanius limits himself to a very short speech. Virgil’s brief comment following Ascanius’s speech emphasizes the brevity of the boast: “Only this / Ascanius called out.” As Virgil noted earlier in the book, Aeneas’s son is “thoughtful, responsible / Beyond his years”; Ascanius will make as good a leader as his father.
With Aeneas out of the picture, Turnus, who manages to enter the Trojans’s camp and make his desperate bid to defeat the newcomers to Italy, stands forth as Aeneas’s antagonist — his chief enemy and heroic counterpart. Concerning Turnus’s character, critical opinion has always been divided. However, it seems fairly obvious that since Turnus’s role in the epic is to embody the forces that will be defeated by fate’s decree, he is condemned to behave in a way that must necessarily portray him as the inferior of Aeneas, whom fate favors.
We read of Turnus’s rage in this book with the certain knowledge that he is fighting a lost cause, even though he believes that he has a chance of winning. This ironic knowledge is likely to dispose us to feel rather sorry for him in spite of his faults, as Virgil, who was never content to give a one-dimensional picture of human nature, perhaps intended.
Turnus’s actions hinge on his rash personality. Described from the book’s outset as “the rash prince,” this character flaw proves to be his undoing. For example, after gaining entrance into the Trojans’s camp, he begins slaughtering his enemies with reckless abandon, consumed by his thirst for blood. However, his lack of control hinders rather than helps his cause. Instead of admitting his own troops within the enemy’s walls, he fights alone and thus misses the chance to claim a decisive victory, as Virgil notes explicitly: “And if the thought had come to the champion / To break the gate-bars, to admit his friends, / That would have been the last day of the war, / The last for Trojans. But high rage and mindless / Lust for slaughter drove the passionate man / Against his enemies.” Earlier associated with the fire imagery of Dido’s uncontrolled passion for Aeneas, Turnus’s lust for blood thwarts what should be his overriding concern, to defeat the Trojans as quickly as possible and thereby marry Lavinia.
Book IX is the most graphically violent book in the Aeneid. However, the violence is not indiscriminate; rather, it emphasizes the depravity of Turnus’s character. Although Turnus is not personally responsible for Nisus’s and Euryalus’s deaths, his parading their severed heads, skewered on spears, shatters completely our sense of dignity to which the dead have a right. The great injustice of Turnus’s performance is reinforced by Euryalus’s mother’s heartfelt wailing over the loss of her son. Her reaction increases the beastliness of the Rutulian’s actions. Although Turnus has the power to make the “quivering” earth resound, as he does when he slays Pandarus, his ghastly behavior is in marked contrast to the noble character of Aeneas, whose stature gains even in his absence.
The two central characters of the intervening episode, Nisus and Euryalus, are familiar to us from Book V, in which Nisus, who fell as he was about to win a foot race, tripped another contestant to ensure that his inseparable companion, Euryalus, would win instead. Now, Nisus, surrendering his own favorable situation, tries ineffectually on a far graver occasion to save his friend’s life and dies. Nisus and Euryalus are in the ranks of a number of young people in the Aeneid — Pallas, the son of Evander; Lausus, the son of Mezentius; and the warrior maiden Camilla — who, as beautiful as they are brave, must die in battle. The pathos surrounding their deaths heightens our sense of the cruelty of war, even a war that is fought, like the present one, for what is held to be a good purpose.
inscribing writing, marking, or engraving (words, symbols, etc.) on some surface.
lustral of, used in, or connected with ceremonial purification.
rampart an embankment of earth, usually surmounted by a parapet, encircling a castle, fort, etc., for defense against attack.
conflagration a big, destructive fire.
marauders raiders who rove in search of plunder.
visage the face, with reference to the form and proportions of the features or to the expression; countenance.
carrion the decaying flesh of a dead body, esp. when regarded as food for scavenging animals.
gittern an early instrument of the guitar family, having an oval body and wire strings.
poltroons thorough cowards.