‘Heroic end’ or ‘brutal killing’: how does our understanding of death in Book 9 affect our impressions of the value of Aeneas’ mission
In Book 9 there is a plethora of deaths of different kinds: death on both sides of the dispute, heroic deaths and cowardly slaughter. Each death has a lesson to teach the reader about our perception of the priority of Aeneas’ mission and about what it takes to be a true man: a true hero. We are thus forced to re-assess our ideas about death and it’s implications. In the absence of the Trojan hero Aeneas, an opportunity is presented to explore the meaning of heroism and its place in Aeneas’ mission.
For Nisus and Euryalus, the purpose of their journey through the night is to become heroic. Euryalus even refers to accompanying Nisus as being his ‘comrade in heroism’. Their venture is for them not only for the good of the camp but to receive honour and glory, through the slaughter of the sleeping Rutulians and through alerting Aeneas to their plight. Therefore it is possible to see heroism in this way- as a willingness to fight and be brave at all times.
Surely then the deaths of those in Turnus’ camp at the hands of Nisus Euryalus demonstrates a lack of heroism in the Rutulians? They have spent the evening drinking themselves into a stupor without thought to their safety and without any mission of higher importance, while the Trojans are alert and prepared to be brave and kill at all times. However this is too simplistic. Slaughter at night is not ‘manly’ or heroic and certainly doesn’t make Aeneas’ mission seem more worthy.
In fact at this point the Rutulians appear to be acting with more ‘pietas’ by refusing to launch a ‘cowardly’ secret night attack, as Turnus puts it. Therefore our understanding of the deaths of Nisus and Euryalus’ victims is altered from the idea that the Rutulians, in their slovenliness, deserved to die and we question whether or not Nisus and Euryalus are truly heroic. These deaths in the night then become in our minds ‘brutal killings’ and cast a shadow of doubt on the Trojans as the stock from which the heroic Romans will eventually emerge.
So we see the deaths of Nisus and Euryalus also in a different light. The fact that they do not make it through the night is a symbol of their inability to ‘get the point’ of Aeneas’ true mission and act like real men. Ultimately, it is the need for glory, symbolised by the booty, that actually gets them detected and slows Euryalus down so that he is captured. Furthermore it is Nisus’ love for Euryalus that finally results in his death and ruins his chances of alerting Aeneas to the fate of the camp.
Here we see a contrast with Aeneas, the true hero who is prepared to cast aside his love of Dido to fulfil his duty. But we nevertheless feel engaged with Nisus and Euryalus and are saddened by their tragic end. In the principle character list of Gransden’s The Aeneid, Euryalus is referred to as a ‘Trojan hero’. So despite lack of heroic skill we still value them. This shows to a certain extent how highly we hold Aeneas’ mission at this point.
If Virgil made us feel that the mission was the most important thing, we would only criticize Nisus and Euryalus for hindering the mission. But Virgil wants to show us that it is not so black and white. Certainly, the mission is important and Nisus and Euryalus pay dearly for allowing themselves to be distracted from it by their ‘keen thirst for glory’ but Virgil allows us to still view them as heroes of a sort. Nisus’ inspired dash at the enemy, resulting in the death of Volcens and a number of his soldiers is heroic and ensures that his death can be seen as a heroic end.
Moreover the brutal killing of Euryalus evokes pity and empathy in the reader, particularly as we read Volcens’ vengeful words to Euryalus at the death of his soldiers: ‘you, meanwhile, shall repay me with your warm young blood’. His speech is vulgar and brutal and reminds us of Euryalus’ age, therefore inspiring more pity in the reader. Virgil’s representation of them, even composing an exclamation dedicated to them that is laced with pathos and sorrow, makes us feel an emotional connection with these characters despite their failures.
So we perhaps find ourselves asking whether the mission is really worth the loss of these young men and the sorrow of Euryalus’ mother. ‘Is it the gods who have put into our hearts this ardour for battle? ‘ Nisus asks. This question raises the issue of the Roman concept of death and battle. Virgil appears to be asking the reader if a lust for battle and conquest is simply a natural Roman characteristic, instilled by the gods or passed down from their ancestors.
Perhaps we can find an answer to this question in the absence of the gods’ intervention in the Nisus and Euryalus episode: Virgil is saying that it is ‘really an overmastering impulse’ of the Roman race. Therefore do their deaths emphasise the importance of Aeneas’ mission in founding the Roman race and perpetuating this inherent aptitude for battle that has made Augustan Rome so great? And if so is the hint of doubt in the worthiness of Aeneas’ mission installed by our empathy with the fate of Nisus and Euryalus a sign that Augustan Rome is in fact not so great?
Pandarus and Bitias, also young men, die because of their immaturity and arrogance, believing that they can stave off any attack to the opening of the gates and thus they exposing the inhabitants to grave danger, ‘flushed with the success of their recent bloodshed’. The description of Bitias’ death is tinged with acrimony- he is killed ‘for all the fire in his eye and all his raging pride’, and the comment on Bitias’ extravagant armour not being able to resist Turnus’ weapons seems almost sarcastic.
Pandarus’ death, even though we recognise that it is through he and his brother’s actions that Turnus is within the gates, is far more gruesome and evokes pathos, particularly with the reminder of his young age (young, smooth jaws) and the grisly description of ‘his arms bespattered with blood and brain’. We certainly view his death in a different way to that of his brother’s, perhaps due to our understanding of his grief and his heroic act of trying to repair the damage that he and his brother have done by closing the gates again, this time completely single-handedly.
Therefore, although in this instance the deaths are on the Trojan side, we feel pity for these young men. We see this again in the description of the Rutulian camp, full of lamentation after the discovery of Nisus and Euryalus’ rampage. However we also feel the exact opposite, for example in Numanus Remulus’ death which is neither a brutal killing or a heroic end- we see heroism and pietas (Ascanius prays to Jupiter before shooting his arrow) defeating hubris. Numanus is ‘swelling in pride’ and his arrogance leads to his downfall and we feel little sympathy for him as he dies.
Virgil thus reminds us repeatedly in Book 9 that nothing is black and white and that death and warfare is more complex than simply the fight between the right and the wrong side. Both sides suffer and there is heroism and brutality in equal amounts wherever you look. We are left with a different view of Aeneas’ mission, with a doubt as to its worthiness put into our minds to contemplate at length. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong view of his mission. It is both worthy and wasteful.
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