The epic finale of Virgil’s Aeneid comes down to a duel between the two leaders – Aeneas and Turnus. This duel provided the conclusion to the bloody war.
We find Turnus in a difficult position. He prepared an ambush in the hills but failed to realize it as the Trojans kept on attacking his city. Turnus received the message from dying Camilla, left the hills and returned to the Latin city (Laurentum). The night prevented them to do any more fighting that day, but they all knew their fate would be decided the next day. Turnus returned to the king’s palace and spoke about his plan to finally do what everyone expected of him – to meet Aeneas in a duel.
The king tried to convince him it was not a good idea, the queen wept and begged him no to do it, but he made his decision. He sent a message to the Trojan camp that in the morning the duel would take place.
This situation seemed quite familiar to the goddess Juno who once went to extraordinary lengths to save Turnus, her favourite, from an encounter with Aeneas. This time, in an attempt to achieve the same, she turned to Iuturna, Turnus’ sister. Iuturna may have been Turnus’ sister, but she also was an immortal nymph at this stage of her life. She had been a girl of incomprehensible beauty, so sexy that Jupiter, the king of gods himself, fell in love with her and took her virginity. As compensation for her inconvenience, he granted her immortality and life as a water nymph.
The friendship of Juno and Iuturna is rather surprising. Juno, fed up with all the affairs of her unfaithful husband, usually hated his mistresses and their offspring (Hercules could talk for days about all the pain Juno/Hera caused him). Nevertheless, the two immortals became almost best friends connected by their common goal – to keep Turnus alive.
The new day began and both armies stood prepared and waiting to see the long-awaited duel. The leaders gathered to agree on the details of what would happen should one or the other side win. Aeneas promised that in case of his demise, the Trojan people would merge with the people led by Evander and that his son Iulus would leave the land. Even in case of his victory, he would not demand to rule over the Latins, only to establish the cult of the true gods and to receive a land where a new city could be founded. King Latinus agreed with such conditions, but just as he did, the truce was broken.
Iuturna, disguised as one of the Latins spoke against letting Turnus die in this duel to settle the war. For an even greater effect, she staged an impressive omen. The Latin army witnessed, how a huge eagle attacked a flock of swans taking one of them as his prey. The swans, however, fought back and together attacked the eagle. The mighty bird, the symbol of Jupiter himself, surprised by such ferocity and coordination, left the poor swan there and flew away. The will of gods couldn’t have been any more obvious. The Latins attacked the Trojans without waiting on their leaders.
Aeneas rushed back to the core of his army in an attempt to stop the fight. He didn’t achieve anything. Moreover, he got injured by a stray arrow and was forced to leave the battlefield. Which mighty Latin warrior shed blood of the Venus’ son? Well, nobody really noticed. But Turnus obviously enjoyed being a warrior once again peerless in his skill and went on to kill many brave Trojans.
Aeneas knew what was demanded of him. The only way to bring victory to their side required him on the battlefield and full of strength. It was his divine mother who saved the day. She found a herb from lands far away that miraculously healed Aeneas’ injury. The Trojan found a moment to give his son a “Watch me know and learn,” speech a run back to the battle to finally challenge Turnus to the long-awaited duel.
Turnus, brave as he was, didn’t face him. The fault was not entirely on his side. He fought on the chariot and spread death among the Trojans, but he didn’t drive his chariot. It was his sister Iuturna (in disguise) who took care of this and she avoided Aeneas as much as she could. Every time Aeneas got closer to them, she rode away. Aeneas got quite annoyed. Realizing that this way he would chase Turnus for ages, he changed his strategy. He gathered his best men and charged, aiming not to the Latin lines, but to their city. If this wasn’t enough to persuade Turnus to show up, nothing was.
Inside the city of Laurentum, panic burst out. Even before the Trojans entered the city, the Latin queen Amata, the wife of king Latinus and a devoted supporter of Turnus, committed suicide. The look at the Trojan army approaching the city walls and Turnus nowhere to be seen caused her despair. Turnus knew it was a now or never situation. He still had the possibility to listen to Iuturna and stay away from the city, but would an honourable man do such a thing? For a proper king or a hero, the choice didn’t require much thought. He had to return and save the city.
Turnus swiftly returned and sought out Aeneas. As the two found their way to each other, all the fighting stopped and all the men from both armies just waited to see this duel.
On the beginning, they both tossed their spears. If you recall how Turnus had killed Pallas, you know he was good at this. Not good enough to kill Aeneas. But the Trojan didn’t have any more luck with his spear, so they drew their swords. The fight was a fierce one, worth of two peerless heroes. At one moment Turnus got the upper hand and a massive blow of his sword almost injured Aeneas. “Almost” is an important word in that sentence. When Turnus’ sword hit Aeneas’ armour, its blade just shattered.
That’s what you’d call bad luck. Turnus must have taken a different sword. Not his usual one, but one from his charioteer. Such a week blade didn’t survive the clash with armour made by god’s hands. The unlucky Turnus as now left unarmed and facing the fiercest warrior of them all. He did the only reasonable thing – ran away. Aeneas, considering him to be an easy prey now, chased him. After several rounds of running, another gamechanger came.
At first, Aeneas who, after his recent injury, couldn’t run as fast as his foe, changed his tactics and focused on regaining the possession of his spear that was stuck deep in an old tree. Then Iuturna found Turnus’ sword and gave it to him. The king of the Rutuli now stood against Aeneas in a fair fight and no longer needed to run. The Trojan on the other hand finally succeeded, with just a little help from his divine mother, in freeing his spear from the tree.
At this moment the gods abandoned Turnus. Juno agreed to stop helping him under just one condition – that after the Trojans’ victory the tribe would not be called Trojans, but the merged people would still be known as Latins. Jupiter granted her this and he also gave a clear sign to Iuturna that her help to her brother was no longer desired.
Turnus came up with an idea to end the fight. He picked up a large rock and attempted to throw it on Aeneas. He failed. The rock didn’t make it all that way. Aeneas responded by throwing his spear from distance. The spear flew across the shield and the armour and stabbed Turnus into his thigh effectively ending the fight.
Turnus, aware of his defeat, spoke to the victorious Aeneas. He admitted his loss and kindly asked Aeneas to consider mercy in this case (for the sake of his elderly father). Aeneas considered it and decided to show none of it. He noticed that Turnus still bore the belt he took from Pallas, Aeneas’ friend after he had killed him. Aeneas now avenged his friend’s death and with one mighty blow ended Turnus’ life as well as the story of Virgil’ Aeneid.
Sources: Virgil – Aeneid