Aeneid Book 9, lines 791 - 818

Turnus at bay

by Virgil

Aeneas’s enemy Turnus, King of the Rutuli, is besieging the Trojan camp while Aeneas is away seeking allies. An attempt by the Trojans to reach Aeneas and bring him back to lead the fighting has failed, as they find out when the heads of the men charged with the mission, the lovers Euryalus and Nisus, are paraded before Euryalus’s mother on spears. A bitter battle, in the course of which Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, kills his first man with a bowshot, follows as Turnus tries either to take the camp or to force the Trojans to leave it and fight in the open. In a series of combats recalling the heroic warfare of Homer’s Iliad, many are gorily killed on both sides. Bravely but rashly, the Trojans open a gate to make a sortie: the enemy see their chance and make a concerted attack. The Trojans manage to close the gate again, at the cost of leaving many of their own men outside – and, as they soon realise to their cost, shutting Turnus, the most terrible enemy warrior of them all, inside. He creates havoc, and for a time it looks as though Trojan resistance will collapse, until the Generals Mnestheus and Serestus have finally managed to rally their troops.

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Acrius hoc Teucri clamore incumbere magno
et glomerare manum, ceu saevum turba leonem
cum telis premit infensis; at territus ille,
asper, acerba tuens, retro redit et neque terga
ira dare aut virtus patitur, nec tendere contra
ille quidem hoc cupiens potis est per tela virosque.
haud aliter retro dubius vestigia Turnus
improperata refert et mens exaestuat ira.
quin etiam bis tum medios invaserat hostis,
bis confusa fuga per muros agmina vertit;
sed manus e castris propere coit omnis in unum
nec contra viris audet Saturnia Iuno
sufficere; aeriam caelo nam Iuppiter Irim
demisit germanae haud mollia iussa ferentem,
ni Turnus cedat Teucrorum moenibus altis.
ergo nec clipeo iuvenis subsistere tantum
nec dextra valet, iniectis sic undique telis
obruitur. strepit adsiduo cava tempora circum
tinnitu galea et saxis solida aera fatiscunt
discussaeque iubae, capiti nec sufficit umbo
ictibus; ingeminant hastis et Troes et ipse
fulmineus Mnestheus. tum toto corpore sudor
liquitur et piceum (nec respirare potestas)
flumen agit, fessos quatit aeger anhelitus artus.
tum demum praeceps saltu sese omnibus armis
in fluvium dedit. ille suo cum gurgite flavo
accepit venientem ac mollibus extulit undis
et laetum sociis abluta caede remisit.

Rallying at this, the Trojans pressed forward and closed
ranks with a great shout, as when a crowd hems a savage
lion in with spears, and it, anxious, fierce and casting
vicious looks, gives ground, and neither anger nor courage
will allow it to turn its back, nor is it able as it would wish
to fight its way past the men and their weapons.
In exactly the same way, Turnus slowly and carefully
stepped backwards, his mind angrily blazing still.
And even then, twice he had attacked the enemy head-on,
twice chased the troops in disarray round the walls,
but the camp’s whole force had quickly gathered together,
nor did Juno, Saturn’s daughter, dare give all the strength
he needed, for Jupiter had sent gossamer Iris down from
heaven to his sister-wife with blunt messages of trouble
if Turnus did not quit the Trojans’ high walls.
And so neither the young man’s arm nor his shield is now
strong enough to hold out, so beset is he by missiles that
rain from all sides. His helm constantly clangs round his
hollow temples, stones start to crack the solid bronze,
his crest is struck off and his shield cannot take the blows
to its boss: the Trojans and, like a thunderbolt, Mnestheus
in person, redouble the spear-thrusts; sweat flows all over
Turnus’s body in a grimy stream, he can hardly breathe
and a grim gasping shakes his exhausted limbs.
Then, with a headlong leap, armour and all, he threw
himself into the river, which took him in its yellow flood
as he came, bore him up in its gentle waves, and, the gore
washed away, restored him in good spirits to his friends.