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Introducing Virgil’s Aeneid
Introducing Virgil’s Aeneid

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4.2 Vengeance and mercy in the Aeneid

Virgil makes it clear that the rational side of Aeneas is on the brink of sparing Turnus, and it is only the sight of Pallas’ belt that changes his mind. Let’s look at the lines that describe Aeneas’ reaction here:

As soon as his eyes took in the trophy, a memory of cruel grief,
Aeneas, blazing with fury [furor], and terrible in his anger, cried:
‘Shall you be snatched from my grasp, wearing the spoils
of one who was my own?’

(Aeneid 12.946–9)

Aeneas acts in impulsive anger, and he acts from furor rather than a considered sense of what is right: indeed, he is ‘blazing’ with it. As we have seen, furor is often associated with fire imagery. Even if Aeneas makes a valid decision in killing Turnus, he seems to be doing it for the wrong reasons, and it’s troubling that the foundational act that will found the Roman race is one of furor and anger.

Virgil has already referred to the issue of vengeance and mercy earlier in the poem, in a scene in which Aeneas is visiting the underworld in Book 6 to consult the ghost of his father, Anchises. Virgil’s underworld contains the souls of those not yet born as well as those of the dead, and Aeneas is allowed to see a parade of future heroes of Rome, including Romulus, Julius Caesar, and Augustus himself. Anchises makes a speech to Aeneas predicting the glory of Rome and introduces the individuals who will make it great; at the end, he turns to the more general question of what it means to be a good Roman, and addresses the hypothetical future Roman:

‘Remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power,
(that will be your skill) to crown peace with law,
to spare the conquered, and subdue the proud’.

(Aeneid 6.851–3)

Anchises claims that war is an essential part of the Roman mission, and that peace will come through military conflict. His final words refer to how a good Roman should balance mercy and retribution. In Anchises’ model it is easy to tell where to draw the line: only those who show arrogance should be crushed, while those who have been crushed should be spared. In reality, however, it is harder to tell the difference, and we might well recall his words as we read the final scene, and wonder which category Turnus fits into. His previous actions in the poem have been arrogant, but he is certainly now defeated: does that mean that Aeneas has failed to live up to his father’s advice when he refuses to pardon him?

The fact that the poem ends so abruptly makes this scene even starker. We might expect Virgil to end his poem by describing the end of the war, the reconciliation between the two peoples, perhaps even Aeneas’ marriage to Lavinia or the foundation of Lavinium. Instead, we’re left on a bleak note, as our final image is of the dying Turnus, unmitigated by any of the positive consequences of his death in the future.

Scholars have debated for many years how best to interpret the poem’s ending. We know that Virgil was unhappy with the Aeneid as it stood, and requested on his deathbed that it should be burned, and scholars have sometimes suggested that this is because he wanted to alter the ending. On the other hand, there’s no particular reason to suppose that the ending was the part that Virgil felt was incomplete, and there may have been other aspects that he wanted to change. Indeed, there are other ways in which the Aeneid is obviously unfinished, for example missing parts of lines. In any case, since we have the ending that we have, we need to engage with the poem as it stands, and try to interpret how it works in literary terms.

For some scholars, Aeneas’ killing of Turnus is an act which undermines the Roman future, and calls Augustus’ own achievements into question. For others, Aeneas’ actions show that the world is a complicated place in which idealistic models do not work: killing Turnus may be disagreeable, but it is part of the necessary price for establishing peace.