The final book of the Aeneid culminates in a dramatic duel between Aeneas and Turnus that meticulously mirrors the final encounter between Achilleus and Hektor in the Iliad. Though superficially almost identical, analyzing the motivational, stylistic, and contextual differences between the two encounters reveals that the antagonism between Aeneas and Turnus is fundamentally different than that between Achilleus and Hektor.
To be able to closely examine where Virgil diverges from his Homeric antecedent, we must first understand the significance of the extent to which Virgil incorporated Homeric elements into the final book of the Aeneid. The final encounter in the Iliad contains four essential components: a pursuit (Iliad 22, 136-223; Aeneid 12, 973-1014), conversation between the gods (Iliad 22, 167-87; Aeneid 12, 1049-1119), the weighing of fates (Iliad 22, 208-15; Aeneid 12, 961-4), and the final battle (Iliad 22, 248-363; Aeneid 12, 1178-1271). Virgil strives to preserve all four components, and the individual specifics of those components, even when doing so serves no narrative purpose. The weighing of fates in the Aeneid, for example, exists only to imitate the Iliad because the outcome is never revealed; had the outcome been revealed, it would have made the subsequent conversation between Jupiter and Juno unnecessary and would ruin the suspense for the reader.
Another clear example of Virgil’s methodical copying can be seen in the pursuit. We are told Hektor cannot change his direction or run through the gates of Troy because Achilles would cut him off at each attempt and thus force Hektor to keep his course (Iliad 22, 194-8); however, in the corresponding scene in the Aeneid, Turnus is surrounded by the armies and runs in wayward circles as Aeneas chases him (Aeneid 12, 983-8). Unlike Hektor, Turnus is not restricted to a circular course, so there is no reason why he should not take an irregular path to make it more difficult for Aeneas to reach him.
Virgil nevertheless decides to retain the motif of repeated circular motion to strengthen the parallels between the Iliad and the Aeneid and to further align Aeneas with Achilleus and Turnus with Hektor. By going to such great lengths to mirror Homer, especially in the instances where it makes no superficial sense to do so, Virgil sets up a framework from which to depart. We must then pay special attention to the moments in which Virgil departs from his Homeric framework because Virgil uses these departures to communicate with his readers.
Though the details of the events of both final encounters are almost identical, there is a crucial difference in the motivation of the warriors that underlies their final confrontations; the aims and intentions of Aeneas throughout the Aeneid are ultimately different than those of Achilleus in the Iliad. While Achilleus is motivated by the desire for vengeance owed to a friend, Aeneas is motivated by a desire for peace. In particular, Aeneas’ response to the breaking of the treaty demonstrates his dedication to achieving peace. As fighting engulfs him, he calls out to his men to hold back their anger and stop the bloodshed so that he and Turnus can settle the war through a duel as previously agreed in the treaty (Aeneid 12, 425-31). Counterintuitively, Aeneas’ decision to attack the Latin city most clearly elucidates his true motivation.
He orders an assault on the Latin city because the Latins have already broken his treaties twice and thus sees the attack as his last resort in forcing Turnus to face him in a duel and bring peace (Aeneid 12, 766 ff.). After Turnus finally capitulates to fate and agrees to duel, Aeneas orders his men to stop their attack on the city (Aeneid 12, 900-27). In contrast to the pietas Aeneas displays, Achilleus shows no such humanity; he is solely motivated by intense resentment and spite as evidenced by the contempt with which he addresses Hektor during their final battle (Iliad 22, 260-72 and 344-54). Finally, the nature of the Aeneas’ anger is very different from the wrath of Achilleus. Aeneas shows hesitation before killing Turnus and acts for the sake of peace whereas Achilleus takes pleasure in killing Hektor.
Had Aeneas been motivated by a lust for revenge, as is the case with Achilleus, he would have burned the city to the ground; instead, his self-restraint exemplifies his desire for peace. Though Aeneas and Achilleus have significantly different motivations for their antagonisms, motivation is a superficial difference that exists only within the context of the narratives. By analyzing stylistic divergence, we may gain a deeper understanding of the message Virgil wishes to impart.
One of the most poignant rhetorical differences between the final encounters in the Iliad and the Aeneid is the diction used to describe military actions. Homer uses more restrained, realistic, and technically precise language to depict duels and battles, as if the Iliad were a factual account of the Trojan War; Virgil instead employs much more exaggerated, hyperbolic, and metaphorical language. One example of extensive military verisimilitude in the Iliad occurs when Achilleus closes in on Hektor right before the pursuit. Achilleus is described as the lord of battles with his shining helmet as he holds his bronze-tipped spear made from a Pelian ash tree over his right shoulder (Iliad 22, 131-5).
With the exception of the comparison to Ares as the only reference to the supernatural, the language Homer uses in this scene is vivid and militarily accurate. Examples of hyperbole are plentiful in the Aeneid. Whereas Achilleus’ spear is said to be made from ash trees on Mount Pelion, Virgil likens the spear of Aeneas to being as large as a tree (Aeneid 12, 1179), and when Aeneas throws his black whirlwind-like spear, it makes a sound louder than rocks launched by a catapult or a thunderbolt (Aeneid 12, 1228-31). Moreover, Aeneas is said to be as tall as Mount Athos, Eryx, or Appenninus (Aeneid 12, 932-3) and Turnus has more strength than twelve men combined (Aeneid 12, 1198-200). Homer also has a particular interest in death blows. The dramatic and gruesome deaths of even minor characters, such as Erymas (Iliad 16, 345-50) and Cebriones (Iliad 16, 739-43), are described with clinical detail absent in the Aeneid.
In a similar manner, the description of Achilleus’ fatal blow of is incredibly detailed. Achilleus surveys Hektor’s body for weaknesses in his armor right before delivering a fatal blow to his jugular vein right above the collar bone but without damaging his windpipe (Iliad 22, 321-9). All that is explicitly said about the death of Turnus is that Aeneas drives his sword into his chest (Aeneid 12, 1269). Homer’s use of military verisimilitude keeps us grounded to the immediacy of the story; in contrast, Vergil employs grandiose and hyperbolic language in the Aeneid to peer past the dimension of the story and invite us to glean a deeper message veiled behind the antagonism between Aeneas and Turnus. By exaggerating military descriptions, Virgil wants us to interpret the battle as more than just a battle within the context of the Aeneid; instead, the battle is a metaphor for the foundation of Rome that can be further explained by analyzing Aeneas and Turnus as being analogous to Roman conquerors and those defeated by the Romans.