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Nisus and Euryalus in the Aeneid - by Peter Xiao

Nisus and Euryalus are two important characters in Book Nine of the Aeneid. They have a strong companionship but some scholars argue that there is a suggestion of an erotic relationship between the two. They eventually die together on the same mission that is aimed to bring back Aeneas. Inspired by their love for one another, Virgil declares ‘If my songs have any power, the day will never dawn that wipes you from the memory of the ages, not while the house of Aeneas stands by the Capitols’ rock unshaken, not while the Roman Father rules the world.’

Nisus and Euryalus. Marble, exhibited at the 1827 Salon. A plaster model was exhibited at the 1822 Salon.
Nisus and Euryalus. Marble, exhibited at the 1827 Salon. A plaster model was exhibited at the 1822 Salon.

Their story starts when Aeneas is away on his quest to the Arcadians for alliances and military assistance. Turnus and the Rutulians suddenly attack the Trojan camps in Latium. The Trojans are helpless at night and don’t know what to do the morning after, with the knowledge that a second attack from the Rutulians would definitely come. It is at this moment that Nisus, the son of Hyrtacus, decides to undertake the mission to recall Aeneas. From Virgil’s descriptions, we know that Nisus has a companion named Euryalus. Virgil describes their relationship as ‘one love bound them, side by side they’d rush to attack.’ From this, it may be theorised that the love between the two young men is deeper than friendship. Nisus tells Euryalus about this burning desire in his heart for glory. He wants to launch a night attack on the Rutulian camp, slaughter as many enemies as possible, and secure the recall of Aeneas on this mission. Euryalus is delighted by Nisus’ passion for this quest – Virgil describes ‘his heart pounding with love of praise.’ However, he is disappointed that Nisus does not intend to bring him along in this journey. Nisus explains to Euryalus emotionally that he is still too young and his life is worth more; Euryalus also has a mother that he needs to support. Nisus does not wish to bring any grief on a mother already exhausted by the pains of war. However, the young Euryalus does not listen to his advice. He proclaims, ‘No, my mind won’t change, won’t budge an inch. Let’s be gone.’

The pair soon reach Aeneas’ son Iulus and ask for his permission on this important mission. Iulus is delighted by the bravery of these two young men and asks, ‘What reward can I find to equal the noble work you’re set on?’ Iulus then gives a long list of presents that the two will receive they have accomplished their mission successfully. He promises Nisus the stallion that Turnus rode and also twelve beauties. He tells Euryalus emotionally that ‘Never without you, when I am bent on glory, whether in word or in action, peace or war, you have my trust however.’ However, the young Euryalus only has one request for Iulus: to take care of his mother if he should not return. Everyone is moved to tears by the love of Euryalus for his mother, Iulus most of all. He reassures the young Euryalus: ‘Your mother will be mine in all but the name, Creusa.’ As a son who lost his mother during the fall of Troy, he understands well the pain of separating a mother from her son.

Following these iconic exchanges between Iulus and Nisus and Euryalus, the two companions journey to the camp of the Rutulians for their mission. They launch a successful strike by slaughtering many notable Rutulians. After they kill Rhamnes, Euryalus tears off his battle emblems and gold-studded belt. This proves to be a fatal mistake. While Nisus and Euryalus hide in some bushes, a troop of cavalry passes by; they see the belt glinting in the dark. Euryalus is discovered by the Rutulian soldiers and later captured. Nisus now is at a loss. He finds out that Euryalus was overwhelmed by the Rutulians, and becomes desperate. He eventually hurls spears at the soldiers in order to distract them, immediately killing Sulmo, a Rutulian cavalryman. Not knowing who initiated the attack, the Rutulians decide to kill Euryalus to punish the murderer. Nisus cannot bear the pain of this and reveals his identity publicly. Too late – the sword enters Euryalus’ ribs, cleaving open his chest. Nisus goes into a frenzy, charging at his enemies without any consideration for his own safety. He kills Volcens, the leader of the Rutulians, with his sword and eventually dies because of his own wounds.

The love between Nisus and Euryalus, whether romantic or not, is unconditional. By including this episode, Virgil adds meaning to one of the main themes of the Aeneid: the great costs of human lives behind the founding of Rome. Rome was built on the bones of many young men like Nisus and Euryalus. Despite the risk to their own lives and the happiness of their companionship, they were driven by piety to undertake this dangerous mission on behalf of the refugees of Troy. Just like Aeneas, they are lovers with a sense of state responsibility. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for the collective good and also the fulfilment of the common goal: the rejuvenation of Troy.

Translations by Robert Fagles (2006)

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