I've been reading the Aeneid quite a bit and I've come to the conclusion that Turnus really is not that evil at all, and in some respects Aeneas is more so. I've got quite a lot of evidence to suggest a good reading of the epic why he's not so evil - I've been picking out some bits and writing them up.
Firstly, Virgil puts considerable emphasis on the intervention of the gods upon Turnus, often to sympathetic effect. For example, right before the wars in Latium, Juno sends Allecto to force Turnus into war, and when disguised as the aged priestess of Apollo, Calybe, Turnus’ response to her demand that he go to war is one which shows that he is a responsible leader and has no real quarrel with the Trojans. Juno, as the main god against the Trojans in the epic needs a moral agent to act for her, and Turnus’ status in the epic as this makes us feel sorry for him because we know that Aeneas will win, and therefore know that Turnus must lose, and therefore die due to the control of a god.
However, it could be said that Turnus did have some evil and impious principles even before Juno sent Allecto to force him to do her bidding – for example, Turnus aided Mezentius, the king of the Etruscans who was exiled for his cruelty, who stated in the battle in book 11 that “I trust in my right arm” before the gods. It is hard to be sure if anything that Turnus actually says is at all due to his own decision or that of Allecto’s curse, but his support of Mezentius is suggestive that he was “evil” before Allecto cursed him.
Turnus frequently rejects the social conventions of the time and even some religious principles, such as his killing of Pallas in book 11, when he takes the sword and baldric of the warrior, which for the time would have been considered the height of arrogance. Also, he states that he does not trust the “prophecies of these easterners” which is obviously sacrilegious, as he knows Venus’s prophecy and that Aeneas is the son of Venus. However, yet again, many of these actions are based after Allecto cursed Turnus, and it is emphasised by Virgil metaphorically that Turnus cannot control his actions by the statement that she “threw a black torch into his heart”.
At the beginning of book 10 at the congress of the gods, we can consider Juno’s control over Turnus to be absolute, but there are echoes of a previous time where Turnus was exactly the same or very similar to now we now see him. In book 11, Turnus’ harsh words to Drances and threats towards him are preceded by the statement that both had a rivalry, and that Drances states that Turnus had always been like this. However, Drances himself is also painted in a negative light, and as Turnus is a Homeric hero – a man of action rather than words, standing in contrast to Drances – it could be stated that Turnus appears less “evil” than Drances, as the latter is stated by Virgil to be bitterly jealous of Turnus. However, Drances is right in stating that Turnus goes against the entire wishes of his people – the Rutulians – by going to war against a people who they have no quarrel with (as Turnus himself stated in book 7), and accuses Drances as being similar to Paris. In relation to this comparison, Virgil is equating Turnus to someone who is considered “evil” by the Trojan people for effectively causing the destruction of their city, so it is not surprising that Turnus is considered evil in this sense.
The prophecies of the Sibyl in book 6 and Jupiter in book 1 both mention that Aeneas will meet a “new Achilles” in Italy, and this comparison is poignant in relation to Turnus because like Achilles, he disgraces the body of a good friend to a powerful warrior – in this case, when he takes the baldric of Pallas in book 11. Achilles like Turnus was a Homeric hero, but it led to his downfall because of the furor that he experienced. Whereas Aeneas makes this transition particularly in book 9 – when he gives sensible orders for the Trojans in the camp not to engage the Rutulians so that he can get reinforcements from Evander – Turnus never does make it, and even when he does break into the Trojan camp, he does not open the gates which could end the war.
Turnus is simply not the responsible leader that Aeneas is and does not appear to care for his people as much, and his piety reflects this. Whereas Aeneas implicitly trusts and respects all of the gods – he even pours libations to Juno that Helenus states that he should in book 3, despite the knowledge that Juno is against him – Turnus rejects the opinion of Calybe even though she is a priestess of Apollo, and were he truly pious he would accept this without question. Even when he sees the ships of the Trojans turn into nymphs by the will of Jupiter in book 9, he still does not realise the pious significance of this and merely continues to look at the situation from the perspective that Juno wants him to look at it from – her perspective. In contrast to this, when Turnus is arguing with Drances about the war in book 11, it is the arrival of Etruscan and Trojan troops near the city that causes the assembly to break up – from this perspective we can see why Turnus reacts as he does; he is only defending his people from an external threat.
Although it is true that in book 12, it is only Latinus and Aeneas that make the sacrifices at the beginning of the Truce and not Turnus, the true is ended by Tolumnius – the Rutulian Augur – throwing a spear at a group of nine Etruscans. Turnus is described as looking downcast and as having eyes like a young child, and as we can see, he is obviously scared of his fate and we feel sympathetic towards him.
There is a significant historical reason why Turnus has to appear as being out of control and dangerous to the people of Italy and Aeneas does not, and this rests on the political message that Virgil is trying to create throughout the poem. Aeneas literally carries the future of Rome on his shoulders in the form of the shield of Vulcan that was given to him in book 8 by Vulcan. Therefore, for a contempary audience of the Aeneid, anyone trying to interfere with the progress of this history and the founding of Rome will naturally be considered as evil. By writing “the Aeneid”, Virgil was drawing parallels to the current situation in Rome – the calm that Augustus had created by ending a century of civil war and strife. Thus, Aeneas can be seen to represent the end of war in Latium as Augustus did, but in order to make Aeneas appear a rightful ruler of Latium, he has to create a prophecy so that no allusions are drawn to the 31 BC battle of Actium which was facing easterners (the forces of Cleopatra of Egypt which supported those of Marc Anthony). Therefore, it is a necessity for Virgil to portray Turnus as being evil so that Aeneas’ defeat of him appears morally good in the eyes of the audience, and it is for this reason that he is associated with characters such as Mezentius.
The reason that Turnus is portrayed in some respects in a sympathetic light could be simply to portray Virgil’s pacifism – all of the descriptions of the battles between the Rutulians, Latins, Trojans and Etruscans in books 7 – 12 are not portrayed in a bias light in any considerable sense, and there is equal pain and suffering on both sides. This in contrast can make Turnus appear evil – that even when his safety is assured by his sister, the nymph Jutanura and Juno – he still wishes to be on the battlefield causing this pain, and was the man who brought these peoples to war in the first place. Despite the intervention of the gods and the sympathy that we feel when he is lead away from the battlefield and disgraced by the false image of Aeneas, he still appears evil and must for the purposes of Virgil’s message appear evil. The end of the Aeneid – the abrupt death of Turnus – is symbolic of the end of the strife that is personified by him.
...But what do you think? It's one of the best pieces of literature I've read and I'd like to know what the general consensus is.