Nisus and Euryalus

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Nisus and Euryalus (1827) by Jean-Baptiste Roman (Louvre Museum)

Nisus and Euryalus are a pair of friends and lovers serving under Aeneas in the Aeneid, the Augustan epic by Virgil. Their foray among the enemy, narrated in Book nine, demonstrates their stealth and prowess as warriors, but ends as a tragedy: the loot Euryalus acquires (a glistening Rutulian helmet) attracts attention, and the two die together. Virgil presents their deaths as a loss of admirable loyalty and valor. They also appear in Book 5, during the funeral games of Anchises, where Virgil takes note of their amor pius[clarification needed], a love that exhibits the pietas that is Aeneas's own distinguishing virtue.[1]

In describing the bonds of devotion between the two men, Virgil draws on conventions of erotic poetry that have suggested a romantic relationship to some, interpreted by scholars in light of the Greek custom of paiderastia.[2]


Nisus and Euryalus are among the refugees who in the aftermath of the Trojan War flee under the leadership of Aeneas, the highest-ranking Trojan to survive. Nisus was the son of Hyrtacus,[3] and was known for his hunting. The family cultivated the huntress-goddess who inhabited Mount Ida.[4] Euryalus, who was younger, has spent his entire life in a state of war and displacement.[5] He was trained as a fighter by his battle-hardened father, Opheltes,[6] of whom he speaks with pride. Opheltes seems to have died at Troy.

After their wanderings around the Mediterranean, the Trojans are fated to land on the shores of Italy. Some members of their party, especially the matres ("mothers"), are settled at Sicily before the Italian war, but the mother of Euryalus refused to be parted from her son and continued on.[7]


Although Nisus and Euryalus are inseparable as a pair in the narrative, each is given a distinct characterization. Nisus is the elder, more experienced man. He is swift and accurate (acerrimus) in the use of projectile weapons, the javelin (iaculum) and arrows.

Euryalus is still young, with the face of a boy (puer) who hasn't started shaving, just old enough to bear arms. He was more beautiful (pulchrior) than any other of Aeneas's men at arms. Euryalus maintains a loving relationship with his mother. He refuses to see her before he leaves on his mission, because he cannot bear her inevitable tears, and yet his first concern amid promises of rich rewards is that she be cared for if he fails to return.[8]

Plot and themes[edit]

The foray by Nisus and Euryalus is a well-developed, self-contained episode[9] that occurs in the "Iliadic" half of the Aeneid, set during the war through which the displaced Trojans established themselves among the inhabitants of central Italy. Virgil introduces the characters anew, but they have already appeared in Book 5,[10] at the funeral games held for Aeneas’s father, Anchises, during the "Odyssean" first half of the epic.[11] The games demonstrate behaviors that in the war to come will result in victory or defeat; in particular, the footrace in which Nisus and Euryalus compete prefigures their disastrous mission.[12]

The five runners are, in the order in which they would have finished, Nisus, Salius, Euryalus, Elymus, and Diores. Nisus, however, slips in the blood from the cattle sacrificed during the religious rituals that preceded the race. Recognizing that he can't recover his lead, he trips Salius to hand the victory to Euryalus. Nisus shows himself willing to sacrifice his own honor in order to help Euryalus, but the gesture demonstrates not only his loyalty but a willingness to cheat. Salius objects to the foul, and is given a consolation prize. Nisus receives compensation for his bad luck, and Euryalus gets the winner's prize. The incident is treated as comic, but becomes ominous in light of what happens to the pair later.[13]

Although the night raid of Nisus and Euryalus has a discrete narrative unity, it is closely related to major themes of the epic, such as the transition from boyhood to manhood, also present in the characters of Ascanius, Pallas, and Lausus,[14] and the waste of young lives in war. Nisus and Euryalus's killing spree through the camp of the Rutuli is one of Virgil's most brutal descriptions of combat (especially when Nisus beheads the chief Remus with his warriors Lamyrus, Lamus and Serranus). The poetry of Euryalus's death—"as when a richly hued flower is cut down by the plough and withers as it dies, or when the rains beat down the poppy's head, weighed down on slack neck" — is a replay of the death of Gorgytion in the Iliad.

Amor pius[edit]

In portraying the amor of Nisus and Euryalus, Virgil draws on a Greek model of love between men. In the Roman military, homosexual behavior among fellow soldiers was harshly prohibited, in keeping with Roman values that defined a citizen's political liberty in part by freedom from physical compulsion, including sexual use.[15] Among the Greeks, however, there was a long tradition of idealized homosexuality in a military setting. Although the relationship between Nisus and Euryalus initially conforms to the Greek model of the erastes and eromenos, their shared military exploits transform them into solidly Roman viri, "men."[16] By describing their love as pius[clarification needed], Virgil endorses it as "honorable, dignified and connected to central Roman values."[17] The elevated decorum of the Aeneid excludes explicit sexuality in general.[18]


  1. ^ James Anderson Winn, The Poetry of War (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 162.
  2. ^ Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 84–86; Winn, The Poetry of War, p. 162.
  3. ^ Aeneid 9.175, 234, 319, 406.
  4. ^ Aeneid 9.406–408.
  5. ^ Mark Petrini, The Child and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil (University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 21–22.
  6. ^ bellis adsuetus, Aeneid 9.201.
  7. ^ Aeneid 9.284–286; Petrini, The Child and the Hero, p. 22.
  8. ^ Petrini, The Child and the Hero, p. 22.
  9. ^ Petrini, The Child and the Hero, p. 21.
  10. ^ The race is narrated at Aeneid 5.286ff.
  11. ^ Although the games are an episode in the wanderings, they recall the funeral games for Patroclus in Iliad 23; Lee Fratantuono, Madness Unchained: A Reading of Virgil's Aeneid (Lexington Books, 2007), p. 131.
  12. ^ W.S. Anderson, The Art of the Aeneid (Bolchazy-Carducci, 2005, originally published 1969) , p. 60.
  13. ^ Anderson, The Art of the Aeneid, p. 60.
  14. ^ Petrini, The Child and the Hero, p. 21.
  15. ^ A Roman man was free to engage in same-sex relations with a passive partner excluded from the protections of citizenship (an infamis), such as a slave, prostitute, or entertainer. See further discussion at "Sexuality in ancient Rome".
  16. ^ Petrini, The Child and the Hero, pp. 24–25.
  17. ^ Winn, The Poetry of War, p. 162.
  18. ^ Compare the discreet treatment of the wild passion shared by Aeneas and Dido in the cave in Book 4. On the general propriety of sexuality depending on literary genre, see Amy Richlin, "Sexuality in the Roman Empire," in A Companion to the Roman Empire (Blackwell, 2006), p. 330.

Further reading[edit]

  • Virgil, Aeneid, V.294; IX.176-445.
  • Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Penguin, 1990. ISBN 978-0-14-051235-9.
  • Guy-Bray, Stephen. "Cowley's Latin Lovers: Nisus and Euryalus in the Davideis." Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 21.1 (2001): 25-42.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay. "Roman Attitudes to Greek Love." Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 31.4 (1982): 484-502.
  • Makowski, John F. "Nisus and Euryalus: A Platonic Relationship." The Classical Journal 85.1 (1989): 1-15.

External links[edit]