Nisus and Euryalus, two heroic lovers in the mold of Achilles and Patroclus, encounter their deaths with bravery as they die alone, separated from their allies on the Italian shore (Aeneid 9. 410-449). Vergil employs this scene, and the vivid recollection of Homer’s lliad that it causes, with the purpose of presenting his own thoughts about a situation only hypothetical in the Iliad.
Homer portrays Achilles as immensely regretful that he allowed Patroclus to die alone and without him, but Vergil uses parallel characters to remind his audience of that portrayal and offer his views, claiming that even if Achilles had been there with Patroclus neither of them would have survived anyway—while also presenting the case that Nisus’ and Euryalus’ death together was perhaps more fortunate and peaceful than Achilles’ and Patroclus’ separate, lonely deaths.
Vergil employs this alternative narrative with the purpose of promoting the Roman tradition of soldiers as unified, orderly, and disciplined over the ancient Greek tradition of hero-kings and glorious individual fighters working alone in combat (lliad 18. 102-121; Aeneid 9. 396-449). When Achilles hears word of Patroclus’ death, his instant regret is that “I was no help / To him when he was killed out there” alone (lliad 18. 103-104).
He laments, crying out that “He died / Far from home, and he needed me to protect him” and that “[l] just squatted by my ships, a dead weight on the earth… ” (Iliad 18. 104-105 and 109). His sadness goes so far as to wish that “all strife could stop, among gods / And among men,” despite the fact that “[He stands] alone in the whole Greek army / when it comes to war” (lliad 18. 112-113, 110-111). Achilles would give up that which he is famed for, his conquests in battle, to bring his friend back to him, and yet he wasn’t even present for his death.
Reacting vengefully in his despair, Achilles goes forth to belatedly avenge his companion, even as he knows that this leads him towards his fate of an early death, crying out “If it is true that I have a fate like [Hercules’], then I too / Will lie down in death. / But now to win glory” (lliad 18. 128-130) Homer, of course, is unable to offer insight into what may have happened were Achilles with Patroclus—his poem, as Vergil’s, is a tale of what has been, not of what may have been. Vergil seizes upon this loose end to close up with his own ideas, and writes these conclusions into his own epic.
He creates two characters, soldiers in the Trojan army, who share as many characteristics with Homer’s pair as possible: they are close-knit lovers, capable fighters, and feel great pride in their cause, leading them to act bravely for it. Though Vergil does not plagiarize the Iliad entirely, presenting the pair as scouts into hostile territory who get caught away from their allies by a band of cavalry rather than as soldiers caught alone in battle, the only crucial difference between the stories of the two pairs of soldiers is that Nisus and Euryalus are caught out together.
The two serve no other significant purpose in the narrative—they don’t accomplish any scouting, as they don’t return with information, and the damage they inflict on the Italian forces just before the passage is evenly counteracted by the damage to the Trojan morale when “With a shock of grief, they recognized the heads / Too well. Black gore was oozing down the spears” (Aeneid 9. 471-472)—and thus they exist solely as Vergil’s tools to address the Iliad. This situation that Vergil has created, of two soldiers fighting together, is not Vergil’s ideal, though.
His exceedingly Roman military mindset would ideally place these soldiers within the whole army, working as cogs in a machine; but it is also much more satisfied have two soldiers working together as a group than individuals striking out on their own, as in Greek tradition. And it is on this basis, with Nisus and Euryalus fighting in a transitionary style from that of the Greeks to that of the Romans, that Vergil argues his conclusions.
And with that established, two pages of the Aeneid become Vergil’s thought experiment, a “what if. As he opens the scene, Euryalus is in danger, fighting for his life just as Patroclus had (Aeneid 9. 396-398). As Achilles wishes he had, Nisus tries to “[be a] help to him,” bravely hurling his spear into the crowd of enemies and readying another (lliad 18. 103-104; Aeneid 9. 409-417). What follows is Vergil’s first claim—that even with what little separation occurred between Achilles and Patroclus in battle, when Patroclus came under imminent threat Achilles would have been unable to save his companion.
Nisus, as he sees Volcens prepare to strike out at Euryalus and kill him, is still a spear’s throw away from his own Patroclus—and even his most desperate act of pleading, offering his own life to save that of Euryalus, is not enough to save his closest friend and lover from death (Aeneid 9. 420-432). At this point, it must be noted that the outcome as Vergil imagines it already cannot be better than what occurred in the lliad, as Euryalus (or rather, Patroclus) has already fallen, and Achilles’ regret is that he was not present to save Euryalus from death.
Vergil continues his case, though, as his version of events does not end with the death of the companion-here, Euryalus. His idealized Roman force must continue to fight even as one man falls—but now Nisus is still alone, however, surrounded by enemies and cut off from aid, and the weakness of their twoperson army is revealed: Nissus is left fighting in the individualized Greek manner. As Vergil pictures Achilles doing, Nisus directs his rage solely at the man who killed his lover (Aeneid 9. 438-439).
Vergil grants Nisus a portrayal as vengeful and powerful as that of Achilles in combat, his “thunderous sword / Whirling,” but he falls as he slays Volcens, his only true target (Aeneid 9. 441-443). This claim is a bold one, as Vergil suggests that a raging Achilles, charging into enemy ranks and focused only on the man who “destroyed [his] beloved,” would fall to the sheer number of his enemies, unable to withstand their onslaught (lliad 18. 120-121). Now made plainly apparent in the connections to Achilles, Nisus is indeed fighting in the Greek style, alone and for personal vengeance.
This is Vergil reinforcing his positive image of the unified Romans with a negative portrayal of the more individual style—when only these one or two men become separated, they fall prey to their enemies and to their emotions, rather than working together in a calm, unified way to survive. But although Vergil clearly believes that were Achilles with Patroclus both would have died anyway, he does still suggest that it would have been a more fortunate end, as Achilles laments it would.
Nisus “hurled himself / On his dead friend to find rest and peace,” to which Vergil interjects “Lucky pair! ” (Aeneid 9. 444-446). For Nisus to die with his companion in the most literal sense in addition to killing his killer is a much more peaceful and fortunate end, Vergil argues. This claim is best supported in Homer’s own words, as when Achilles learns that Patroclus has died away from him he immediately comes “under a great weight” and calls himself “a dead weight on the earth” (lliad 18. 02, 18. 109). To the Greeks and Romans, Achilles and Patroclus have now been separated needlessly—they could have gone together to the afterlife.
Instead, Achilles must spend more time on earth in his attempts to avenge Patroclus before his death-—and as in both Greek and Roman tradition souls in the afterlife maintain their earthly knowledge and thoughts, his pain lasts into the afterlife as well, as he will forever regret that “[He] was no help / To him when he was killed out there” (lliad 18. 03-104). This lasting regret is why Vergil calls Nisus luckyhe is immediately reunited with and justified with Euryalus, and they will find “rest and peace” together in the afterlife knowing that in their last moments they were both willing to die for the other (Aeneid 9. 445).
And again, Patroclus dies alone because he fought alone, and so here to Vergil is able to suggest that the Roman style of fighting is better even in the manner of death, as t is what allowed Nisus and Euryalus to be united in their deaths. Vergil even heaps more praise upon these two soldiers, granting that “You’ll never be forgotten, while the children / Of Aeneas live below the steadfast rock / Of the Capitol, and a Roman father reigns,” attempting to express the Roman tradition’s great support of those who exhibit its values well, fighting together to the last, even if, like Nisus and Euryalus, they are not the stuff of legends to the degree of Achilles or Patroclus otherwise.
Thus Vergil answers a question asked in the Homeric text: how would the outcome of Patroclus’ danger have changed had Achilles been with him? Vergil argues strongly that both would still have died, which may be initially discouraging, but finally agrees with what Achilles himself seems to believe—it would have been better for them to be in the fight together, if only for the sake of Achilles’ emotions and relationship with Patroclus.
And so 700 years later, Homer’s audience receives a possible answer to a question the Iliad left for them to consider themselves—all while Vergil pushes a Roman ideal over a Greek one. Vergil’s balanced approach to promoting the Roman style of war revolves around both a positive portrayal of fighting and just as importantly dying with your companions and a negative image of what can and does occur, even to the heroes of myth and lore, when they attempt to fight without an army beside them, and certainly demonstrates great support for Vergil’s society’s culture and traditions.