Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Ambiguity of the Death of Turnus

My year 12 class have recently done an exam on Aeneid XII; to help them learn from the experience I wrote a sample answer to the extended response question I posed them. Any comments are, as always, welcome. I know the ending of the Aeneid has the potential to cause heated debate, so feel free to let me know if you think I've got it completely wrong.

'utere sorte tua. miseri te si qua parentis
tangere cura potest, oro (fuit et tibi talis
Anchises genitor) Dauni miserere senectae
et me, seu corpus spoliatum lumine mavis,                           935
redde meis. vicisti et victum tendere palmas
Ausonii videre; tua est Lavinia coniunx,
ulterius ne tende odiis.' stetit acer in armis
Aeneas volvens oculos dextramque repressit;
et iam iamque magis cunctantem flectere sermo                940
coeperat, infelix umero cum apparuit alto
balteus et notis fulserunt cingula bullis
Pallantis pueri, victum quem vulnere Turnus
straverat atque umeris inimicum insigne gerebat.
ille, oculis postquam saevi monimenta doloris                      945
exuviasque hausit, furiis accensus et ira
terribilis: 'tune hinc spoliis indute meorum
eripiare mihi? Pallas te hoc vulnere, Pallas
immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.'

“A difficult, complex, allusive, challenging end” (Horsefall, p.195)

Analyse how Virgil’s language and characterisation of Aeneas and Turnus contributes to the ambiguity of his poem’s ending.

In the final lines of the Aeneid, we see what appears to be a dramatic role reversal in the characters of Virgil’s two heroes. The out of control Turnus, now seems calm and collected in the face of his impending death, whereas pius Aeneas seems to give in to the feelings of rage and grief which surge within him, showing the same excess of passion and lack of restraint which is condemned in both Dido and Turnus. This apparent reversal contributes to the poem's somewhat ambiguous ending, and forces the reader to carefully consider whether Aeneas’ final act can be justified within the moral framework of the Aeneid.

It is perhaps in Turnus that the more striking change occurs. Virgil gives him a nobility largely absent from his portrayal in Book XII, which comes primarily from his acceptance of his impending death. His acknowledgement of Aeneas’ victory is total, and conveyed through the polyptoton of vicisti et victumvidere (emphasised by alliteration), his renunciation of Lavinia (tua est Lavinia coniunx) and the way he calmly refers to his own death in grand-sounding language (corpus spoliatum lumine). Although he pleads with Aeneas (oro, miserere), he does not protest about his actual death, and Virgil gives his pleas a humble rather than desperate, tone through the use of elevated, poetic language, such as the framing of miserere by Dauni… senectae or the use of the poetic word genitor (rather than the more prosaic pater).

Moreover Turnus’ pleas reveal not just a calm acceptance of death, but a selfless concern for his father (cura… parentis, Dauni miserere senectae). This display of pietas, the virtue more usually associated with Aeneas, is surprising, but reinforces the nobility of Turnus, portraying him in a more sympathetic light. In a similar way we are surprised to find Turnus, the wounded lion, the out of control boulder, the bellowing bull, urging restraint upon Aeneas, advising him not to stretch his hatred any further (ulterius ne tende odiis). Like pietas, self-control or moderation was an important Roman value, and so Virgil’s choice to end Turnus’ speech in this way is significant, suggesting that he wanted his Roman audience to feel respect and even admiration for Turnus at this point of the narrative. The sympathy for Turnus which Virgil arouses in his readers through portraying his nobility and virtue is thus a prime source of the ambiguity we feel over his imminent death.

Aeneas on the other hand, appears in a much more negative light. Virgil associates him with words and images of intense grief and anger. At first he is merely fierce (acer), but as his attention is drawn to the stolen sword-belt of Pallas, Virgil describes him (or more accurately his grief) as savage (saevi), enflamed with madness (furiis accensus) and terrible in anger (ira terribilis). This is the kind of language more typically used of Turnus and even Dido to show their excess of emotion and lack of self-control. The image of fire (accensus) in particular suggests that Aeneas’ rage is burning beyond his control and that he is not behaving in a way consistent with the Roman ideals revealed to him by his father Anchises in the Underworld (Book VI). Aeneas’ killing of Turnus also requires a rejection of Turnus’ appeal to his pietas and the memory of Anchises himself (fuit… Anchises genitor), showing the extent of the change in Aeneas’ character.

Aeneas’ brief speech at the end of the extract also strengthens this impression. The outrage of his rhetorical question (tune… eripiare mihi?), the repetition of Pallas’ name, the framing of the final line with the violent verbs of sacrifice (immolat… sumit), and the hissing sound created by the ‘s’ alliteration in scelerato ex sanguine sumit all combine to create a speech seething with anger and rage, again suggesting to the reader that Aeneas goes too far in killing Turnus, contributing to the ambiguity of the poem’s ending.

And so it is clear that Virgil wants his readers to feel some sympathy for Turnus at the end of his life, and portrays Aeneas in a way which emphasises his anger. However it is not solely the fact of Aeneas’ anger which creates ambiguity; the ambiguity comes from the ghost of Pallas which haunts these lines. Virgil’s decision to make the belt of Pallas (infelix… balteus) the catalyst for the death of Turnus reminds us of the duty he owes to Evander and his dead son Pallas, and makes us ask whether the rage of Aeneas, intense and overwhelming as it is, is perhaps justified. Aeneas’ must choose between two loyalties; honouring Daunus and the memory of Anchises, by sparing Turnus’ life, or honouring Evander and the memory of Pallas by taking it. This choice is perhaps embodied in line 943, which is framed by Pallantis pueri at the start and by Turnus at the end. The ambiguity comes from Virgil’s characterisation and surprising role-reversal of both Turnus and Aeneas, but also from the conflicting loyalties felt by Aeneas, from the unanswerable question of whether his rage is ultimately justified, and from the knowledge that either choice is, in the end, fundamentally compromised.


richard ross md said...

And whats more, a close reading suggests Aeneas stabs Turnus in the back!

Anonymous said...

that's an intriguing idea. what makes you say that?