Ambiguity, Death and Regret in the Aeneid

Laurel Fulkerson

Florida State University

Nearly every reader of the Aeneid has a (strongly held) opinion about its ending: Aeneas' killing of Turnus is either the regrettable proof that Aeneas is not as honorable as we might wish, or a wholly justified response that highlights the villainy of Turnus, or emblematic of ancient philosophical views about anger and/or heroism, or a sign of the complexity of Vergil's understanding of what it is to be Roman.   (The above are vast but necessary generalizations about an extremely well-plowed field.)  This paper discusses four major death-scenes in the poem, two of which are presented as problematic, either by the killer or by the poem itself, and two of which offer no comment.  Turnus' slaying of Pallas and Aeneas' killing of Lausus are scenes that, among their many similarities, share in the expression of regret, either by the narrator or by the character himself (10.503-5, 10.825-30).  While we might want to draw conclusions about the relative merits of Aeneas and Turnus from their behavior here (Aeneas expresses regret but Turnus does not), that is not my primary interest; I note merely that each features a death and a reflection on its pathos.  Mezentius, however, complicates matters: the book ends before Aeneas or the narrator has commented on his death, or even before it is clear whether Aeneas will honor his foe's last wishes.  Book 10 thus foreshadows the inconclusiveness of book 12. 

I will argue that the explicit lack of reflection upon the killings of Mezentius and Turnus challenges the moral conclusions we might have drawn when Aeneas mourns the body of Lausus.  Aeneas feels sorry about causing the death of certain characters, but when it comes to others, he does not.  After Lausus, the reader has the expectation that Aeneas will respond in a certain way when he kills, but this expectation is undermined after the death of Mezentius, and then dashed in the case of Turnus.  This ambiguity reflects a larger question about Aeneas, whose capacity for regret is either unfortunately limited or is stifled by a higher moral understanding that renders it inappropriate.  He is thus both the savior of lives and the cause of their wasteful destruction.   


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