Does Aeneas grow to fill the shoes of an epic hero, or does he succumb to an animalistic rage, unworthy of a Roman?
The establishment of Aeneas’ true character boils down to the last two and a half pages of the epic. By this time, he has completed his mission to conquer part of Italy, and by doing so, fulfills the destiny set before him. As a sign of Aeneas’ victory, Juno terminates the dark anger that has characterized her throughout the tale. Instead of trying to thwart Aeneas, she “changed her mind. Then she withdrew from sky and cloud” (lines 1142-43). As a result, the only section of the entire poem that is not weighed down by Juno’s anger and the delays that result from it are the last lines, 1145-1295.
Up until this point, Aeneas’ decisions have not been his own; he has been driven by Fate to fulfill his destiny in Italy, and by Juno’s destructive interference. The only decision he made apart from this drive was to spend several years living in Carthage with Dido—a decision which ended in disaster when he left Carthage and Dido committed suicide out of despair. However, because he has now entered into his destiny, Aeneas has the ability to act on his own resolve for the first time.
Released from everything he was driven to do, Aeneas forgoes the opportunity to show mercy toward his enemy Turnus; instead he kills Turnus, “terrible in his anger” (1290). Even though Virgil seems to praise Aeneas throughout his poem, in this last act of victory the hero refrains from the deed that would prove him to be the good man Virgil commends.
Aeneas succumbs to an animalistic rage that is unworthy of a Roman, but in doing so, grows to fill the shoes of an epic hero. During his trip to the underworld, Aeneas’ father describes to his son the duty of a Roman: to “pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud” (1153-54). After battling down the proud—that is, Turnus—Aeneas fails to spare the conquered.
Without damaging his own victory nor diminishing Turnus’ humiliation, Aeneas could easily have let Turnus live, especially after Turnus begs for his life to “bespeak your mercy for old age in Daunus,” his father (1279-71). Instead, Aeneas asks, “Shall I be robbed of you?” before butchering his fallen foe (1292). The following—and final—lines hint at Virgil’s opinion of this act: “With a groan for that indignity [Turnus’] spirit fled into the gloom below” (1297-98). Though it is Aeneas’ right to kill his enemy, by not showing mercy to a fallen man, he fails to live up to his father’s expectations of a Roman.
On the other hand, mercy for the conquered is not a necessary qualification for an epic hero.
In fact, the phrase “epic hero” really only refers to a few characters at this point in literary history, the most notable being Homer’s Achilleus and Odysseus. Neither of these two heroes spared his conquered: Achilleus, obsessed with a god-like rage because of Patroklos’ death, does not stop at Hektor’s death, but drags his body behind his horse, mutilating and fully dishonoring it. Similarly, Odysseus spares none of his wife’s suitors, but kills them all as vengeance for their dishonor and rudeness in his household for the last decade. In the case of Achilleus, it is this very quality of god-like rage that makes him such an exciting hero to follow. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, and would rather die gloriously in defiance of Agamemnon than go home in safety and live a long, peaceful life.
By killing Turnus, Aeneas acts very much like Achilleus: his rage over Pallas’ death leads him to show no mercy, but instead exclaim that “this wound will come from Pallas: Pallas makes this offering and from your criminal blood extracts his due” (1292-94). Thus, Aeneas steps into the shoes of an epic hero, while failing miserably to meet the high Roman standard.