Virgil Influence On Dante Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. In his life, he created two major books of poetry: Vita Nuova and The Comedy. The Comedy, which was later renamed The Divine Comedy, is an epic poem broken down into three books in each of which Dante recounts his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The first book of The Comedy, Dante’s Inferno, is an especially creative narrative. He narrates his descent and observation of Hell through the various circles and pouches. An excellent poet himself, Dante admired much about Virgil, revering him to such an extent that he turned him into the guiding character, the teacher to Dante the pilgrim, in the Purgatory and Inferno.
Dante borrowed from Virgil much of his language, style, and content. While Dante improved upon Virgil’s works in many respects, his changes in the theological content in particular, reveal the differences between the religious views of the afterworld/underworld of the two authors’ respective time periods. Other writers that I have encountered describe Dante’s extremely ordered otherworld. A large portion of Dante’s Inferno is merely an expansion of one book (VI -the Underworld) of Virgil’s Aeneid. Though much of Dante’s Hell is original, he seemed to use the Aeneid as a base and the parts which he did extract from the Aeneid, he carefully altered for his own purposes and beliefs.
In pursuing his Christian vision of the afterlife, Dante created an otherworld theoretically and visually different from, yet still remarkably similar to Virgil’s Underworld. Dante, of course, structured his Hell to fit the theology and dogmas of his Christian beliefs, but still used the Aeneid as his foundation. Thus, in order to portray the Christian universe and to represent the afterworld concepts of justice for one’s actions during life, Dante used Virgil’s Aeneid for both, the inspiration to create and the tools to do so. Similarities between Virgil’s Underworld and Dante’s Hell are fairly apparent. The entrance or gate to Virgil’s Underworld in the Aeneid marks a distinct separation, as also found in The Inferno, between the land of the living and the land of the dead. A threatening gateway gives entry to the Underworld, intending to say that there will be no ease in this journey toward the heart of Hades, and to help remind them that this is the afterlife they chose.
Inhabiting Virgil’s gateway are the causes of death, imprisoned into spiritual forms as agents of death (Virgil, 274-280), but they are not clearly seen forms, nor are any of the forms in both, Virgil’s and Dante’s visions of Hell. All of the Underworld in Dante’s and Virgil’s interpretations is portrayed in a shadowy, colorless environment to create the illusion of death and hopelessness. “I am the way to the doleful city, I am the way into eternal grief, I am the way to a forsaken race. Justice it was that moved my great Creator; Divine omnipotence created me, and highest wisdom joined with primal love. Before me nothing but eternal things were made, and I shall last eternally. Abandon every hope, all you who enter.”-reading on Vestibule Gate (Dante, 89).
Virgil places high importance on this vestibule to delineate clearly one main difference between the Underworld and the outside: the first has an intangible, bodiless, and abstract quality to it, compared to the outside’s concrete, physical reality. The presence of the agents of death, most notably “Sleep the brother of Death” (Virgil, 278), are here to symbolize the transition from the world of life outside the gateway, to a room full of the causes of death, and finally lead to the land of death itself, Hell. The vestibule can be considered to be a no-man’s-land, you are not completely in Hell yet, but there’s nowhere else to go except down. Dante’s Hell is also preceded by a foreboding gateway which is home to the souls who could not decide to do good or evil with their lives. The angels who did not pick a side in the fight between Michael or with Lucifer (Satan) in the battle of Heaven reside here. This entrance of Hell begins the world of darkness and unidentifiable shades, colorless in their symbolization of lifelessness.
Dante compares the lifeless shades to “‘dead leaves fluttering to the ground in autumn’, weightless and lifeless, as when falling leaves ‘detach themselves’ from the tree of life. All the souls descend ‘one-by-one’, like leaves falling ‘first one and then the other'” (Dante, pp. 112-117). This comparison that Dante uses is almost identical to Virgil’s description of the souls as “..a multitude of leaves..”(Virgil, p. 309).
In creating the environment for his Hell, Dante repeatedly borrowed from Virgil’s writings, but for more comprehensive reasons. While Virgil used the visual descriptions of pale skin and shades to indicate a lack of hope and the completeness of death, Dante uses similar themes in a more Christian interest, how the lost souls would manifest into their tortured nature in order to make up for their sins. Dante’s sinners would represent the sins they committed; those who were choked with rage in life, are choked by a boiling pitch. Virgil’s shades were lost on the banks of the Styx to represent the despair and intangible unreality of death. Where Dante’s lost souls represented not only the despair of death, but also the void that is Hell; those who left a void in their lives where morals and good should have been now get to live in the void of nothingness they created.
Dante’s Hell and Virgil’s Underworld are alike in their general atmosphere, but their organizational differences show how Dante varied more in the interest of a Christian view of the underworld. The prime differences in both poems is caused by the time period in which theses poems were written. Virgil’s and Dante’s interpretation of Hell were arranged to fit how the societies of their time viewed the afterlife. Dante did improve upon Virgil’s Underworld. In his Underworld, Virgil divided Hell into three regions: Tartarus, Elysium, and Lugentes Campi, and nine sections “..and nine times the river Styx, poured between, confines” (Virgil, 439).
The damned souls in the Underworld are all suffering in a disorganized society. All the souls are punished for their sins in life, but none are placed in organized sections where all sinners of the same sin suffer together. However in Dante’s Hell the rewards for sins are organized in an orderly afterlife. All sinners of the same act are tortured together in the same circle of Hell, and as one moves deeper into the depths of Hell, the acts against God grow ever more evil as do the soul’s punishments. Dante’s Circles of Hell each provide a permanent image of justice, specifically Christian justice. Hell’s overall physical structure reflects this idea of justice.
Dante conveys a sense of appropriate justice with each new Circle of Hell: if you were false to others, you are punished likewise, and if you had been violent, you would have been punished in that way. This precision is a reflection of Dante’s Catholic belief in God’s justice. The punishments of Hell, being created by God, would only be rightly and justly fair, as well as reflective of his appropriate dislike of the sin that was done in life. Virgil was also a major character in Dante’s Inferno. For the first part of his journey, Dante needed a guide who knew about Hell, Virgil was the perfect guide.
Virgil had been through Hell before and, therefore, knew the territory. Early in the poem, Virgil tells Dante that he is there because Heaven wanted him there and that he can take Dante only part of the way. (Virgil can’t enter Heaven or see God because he lacked a faith in God) Someone “more worthy” will take Dante to God. I have seen writers interpret this as saying that man’s reason is defined, while God is infinite. Man’s reason and philosophy will get him started on the right way, but the ultimate way to God is guided by a higher power.
Virgil is Dante’s only friend and guardian spirit in his journey through Hell. With the help of Virgil’s wisdom and guidance, Dante safely passed through the land of the dead, and can continue on in his journey to Heaven. In borrowing the dark, pale environment so precisely described by Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante in one way shows his ability to combine classical themes into a Christian story line. Dante’s in depth description of the layout of Hell shows his deep faith in representing the Christian ideas of the last judgement, such as justice. Dante desired to transform the most important elements in the Underworld of Vergil’s classic work Aeneid into the Hell of the Christian afterlife.