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Nisus
(myth) Rome

Nisus

Trojan hero

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Nisus was the son of Hyrtacus, companion of Aeneas. He and his lover Euryalus died during a nightly raid on the camp of the Rutulians, the enemies of Aeneas in Latium. (Virgil V, 294; IX, 199, 234.)

Euryalus and "his heart's love" Nisus, though frequently listed, do not exist outside the pages of Virgil's Aeneid, but therein the Roman poet attempts to immortalize the "happy pair" at least for the duration of the temporal sway of the Empire.

We first meet the friends engaged in a footrace, foremost amongst all the contestants:

Euryalus famed for beauty and fresh youth,
Nisus for the fair love he bore the boy.

Euryalus is another formosus puer modeled upon Virgil's own Alexis:

"no comelier youth
Clave to Aeneus, or donned Trojan arms -
Whose smooth boy-face showed faint the budding man."

Nisus is a warrior, and significantly older than Euryalus. Both die in battle, Nisus throwing himself upon the body of his lover. All the later writers who involke them never mention the disparity in their ages, or the pederastic nature of their love, or even the boyish beauty of the latter. But, on the authority of a single line - that "These had one heart between them" - they are invoked as the ideal and prototypical faithful friends and comradely age-mates.

It is puzzling that although Renaissance writers were familiar with the Aeneid, they never acknowledge the real nature of the relationship between Nisus and Euryalus in their frequent references to them: is it because Renaissance readers were equally familiar with the Aeneid, and needed no overt prodding of their sly understanding?

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Nisus, son of Hyrtacus, was guard of the gateway; Ida the huntress had sent this man, known for the speed of his spear-throws, flight of his arrows, and courage in battle, to join with Aeneas. Next to him his comrade Euryalus - a boy with first down on unshaven cheeks - and there was not another more handsome Trojan of Aeneas' followers nor did a more handsome man put on armour, one love joined them and they always rushed side by side into battle; at that time too they were on a shared sentry duty.

Other creatures throughout the whole world were relaxing their anxieties in sleep and their hearts forgot their toils: the chief Trojan leaders, a picked group of young warriors, were holding a meeting about important matters of state, debating what they should do or who should now take the news to Aeneas. They stood leaning on their long spears and holding their shields in the middle of their camp in the plain. Then Nisus and together with him Euryalus eager and in haste begged that they be admitted; they said that the matter was important and would be worth their while.

Julus was the first to welcome the excited pair and told Nisus to speak. Then the son of Hyrtacus spoke thus,

"Listen O sons of Aeneas with open minds, and let not these ideas that we bring be looked upon according to our age. The Rutulians are quiet, overcome with sleep and wine; we ourselves have seen a place for a surprise attack, which lies at the fork of the road outside the gate which is nearest the sea. The line of watch fires is interrupted there and black smoke rises to the stars; if you allow use to take advantage of our luck so that we can look for Aeneas and the walls of Pallanteum, you will see that we will soon be back with spoils after completing mass slaughter. The route will not lead us astray as we go: we have caught a first glimpse of the city from down in dark valleys during our constant hunting and we are familiar with all the river's course."

Straightaway the armed men strode off; a band of chieftains, both older and younger, followed them to the gates as they went with good wishes. And also the handsome Julus, taking on beyond his years the mind and the responsibilities of a man, gave them many instructions to be carried to his father; but the breezes scattered them all and made of them useless gifts to the clouds. Having left, they climbed over the ditches and headed through night's shadow for the enemy's camp, but before that they were going to bring destruction on many people.

Everywhere they saw bodies spread out in sleep and wine in drunken sleep, chariots tipped up on the shore, drivers lying amid the reins and the wheels, and both weapons and wine scattered around. The son of Hyrtacus spoke first saying,

"Euryalus, we must be daring with our right hands: the occasion itself demands it now. This way lies our road. You, be on guard and look out all around so that no force can spring up against us from behind; I will devastate this area and will lead you forward on a broad path."

Thus he spoke then stopped his speech, at the same time he attacked haughty Rhamnes with his sword, who by chance was breathing out his sleep in deep-chested snores propped up on a high pile of coverlets.

Meanwhile, riders, sent ahead from the Latin city, while the remainder of the army waited lined up for battle on the plain, were on the march and were carrying an answer to king Turnus, there were three hundred of them, all with shields, under the command of Volcens. They had already reached the camp and were approaching the walls when they observed them (Nisus and Euryalus) in the distance turning off on a path to the left, and the helmet gave away Euryalus, who had forgotten about it, in the half-lit shadows of the night and it flashed reflecting the rays of the moon. It was not seen to no effect. Volcens shouted from the column:

"Stand, men. What is the purpose of your journey? Who are you (coming here) in arms? Where are you making your way to?"

They offered nothing in reply, but hastened their retreat into the woods and trusted to the night. The riders took up positions on either side at a crossway they knew, and encircled every escape route with guards.

Fierce Volcens raged and could not see anywhere who had thrown the spear nor where he could launch himself in his burning fury.

"But you, meanwhile, will pay me the punishment for both of you with your warm blood,"

he said; at the same time with his sword drawn he went for Euryalus. Then indeed, terrified, out of his mind, Nisus shouted and could not hide himself in darkness any longer nor endure so great a grief:

"Me, me, I am here who did it, turn your steel on me, o Rutulians! All the fault is mine, that person neither dared, nor could, do anything; I call to witness this sky and the stars that know the truth; he only loved too much an unlucky friend."

Nisus & Euryalushe gave forth such words, but the sword driven home with strength passed through his ribs and split open his white chest. Euryalus writhed in death, the blood spread over his lovely limbs and his neck, sunk down, rested on his shoulders: just as when a purple flower, cut down by the plough, droops dying, or the poppies hang down their heads on their tired necks when they happen to be weighed down by rain.

But Nisus rushed into the middle of the enemy and headed through them all for Volcens alone, he was concerned only with Volcens. The enemy having gathered round him tried to repel him in close combat on this side and that. He pressed on none the less and whirled his thunderbolt of a sword, until he buried it full in the face of the shouting Rutulian and as he died he took away the life of his enemy.

Then, pierced through, he threw himself down on his lifeless friend and there rested at last in peaceful death.

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