Virgil and Dante portray two similar depictions of Hell in their respected works, The Aeneid and Inferno. Among the many similarities these two works share, both writers depict Hell as being compartmentalized and in each compartment greater sin warrants greater punishment. Both Dante and Virgil infuse a convincing amount of imagery into their depictions of the physical aspects of Hell. Their vivid imagery also includes the various punishments and tortures devised for the souls in Hell.
Dante, it seems, strives for a sense of poetic justice when creating the various punishment. Virgil and Dante also differ significantly on the level of importance each sin receives in Hell. Similarly, Dante and Virgil’s outlook on the purpose of Hell itself seems to differ; reflecting a decidedly Christian vantage point for Dante, while Virgil approaches Christian theology but never fully supports these ideas. The similarities between these two works are made evident from the very beginning when Dante chooses to use Virgil as his Sybil guide through Hell.
Using Virgil as a character to supplement the key construct of a guide, taken itself from The Aeneid, immediately tells the audience that similarities will exist between Dante’s work and Virgil’s. Other key constructs of Hell simultaneously exist in both works, like the very entrance into Hell itself. Virgil depicts a dark and ominous cave inhabited by “Centaurs, twiformed Scyllas, hundred-armed Brtiareus” along with other various monstrous creatures (VI. 29-30). Dante’s journey also begins “in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost” and is initially thwarted by three beasts rather than monsters (I. 4).
Dante makes his way to the gates of Hell where he encounters the sinister inscription “Abandon every hope, who enter here” (III. 8). Both writers depict an encounter with Charon the ferryman, and make similar journeys across the river Acheron. These and other similarities should be considered definitive aspects of a mythological Hell or Dis incorporated by the writers. Dante and Virgil both use a compartmental style to describe the various stations in Hell. While Virgil relies heavily on standard mythological interpretations of Hell, Dante breaks away from these standards and creates his own multileveled Hell.
Virgil’s Hell is broken up into several distinct areas. Before he departs across the river Acheron, Aeneas witnesses various souls crowding around the boat but unable to cross because their bodies remain unburied. This position in Hell reaffirms the mythological belief that the physical body is an important key for the afterlife and burials are absolutely necessary, as made evident in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Immediately upon crossing, Aeneas encounters the wailing souls of infants, placed in a form of limbo on the outskirts of Hell.
Following the infants, Minos, former king of Crete, sits judging the souls of the falsely accused. Next are “those sad souls, benighted, who contrived their own destruction” or those who committed suicide (VI. 212-213). As a final realm within this area of limbo, Virgil creates the Fields of Mourning where Aeneas encounters Dido among the souls of those who died of love. Aeneas seeks to explain himself to Dido, but she, like Ajax in Homer’s Hell in the Odyssey remains unfazed, “her face no more affected than if she were immobile granite or Marpesian stone” (VI. 258).
Dante’s Hell contains a version of limbo similar to that of Virgil’s, but Dante begins immediately to separate his own Christian ideology from Virgil’s pagan concepts. While Virgil’s souls remain unable to cross into the underworld due to their bodies being unburied, Dante depicts these souls as being indecisive, unable to chose between one side and the other. These souls “who never were alive, went naked and were stung again, again” while being herded back and forth along the river. Dante also adheres to Christian philosophy in that those who died before Christ are unable to obtain a place in Heaven.
Instead, he places the righteous of these souls in limbo. Here Dante finds many of the great philosophers and thinkers, such as Socrates and Plato. On soul recalls seeing, “A Great Lord enter here; the crown he wore, a sign of victory” (IV. 52-54). Dante uses this passage to explain, in Christian philosophy, Christ’s dissension into Hell in order to rescue the various children of Israel. Dante also incorporates Minos in a fashion similar to Virgil. In Dante’s Hell, Minos judges the souls of the damned, wrapping his tail around them to symbolize the level of Hell to which they are sentenced.
Dante and Virgil’s reveal much about their own personal ethics by placing various sins at different levels in their respective Hells. In The Aeneid, Aeneas only receives a glimpse of the torments of Tartarus, but learns that this horrible place is reserved for those who committed the most heinous crimes in life. Traitors, adulterers, and those who committed incest are all doomed to spend eternity being tormented by the various Titans who call this place their home. Dante takes a similar stance against those who commit treason, placing them in the very lowest rung of Hell.
Dante depicts three historical traitors, Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ and Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Julius Caesar, being chewed in the three mouths of Lucifer. As for the other lower levels of Hell, Dante agenda seems more political than Virgil’s. Some of the crimes being punished in Dante’s seventh circle of Hell include flatterers, thieves, false counselors, and seducers. Each of these crimes, unlike those in Virgil’s Hell, is accompanied by a particular individual or individuals well known either from history or from Dante’s era for committing that crime.
While Virgil places some crimes, such as suicides and lustful crimes in a limbo-like area of Hell, Dante assigns each a particular level in Hell, with an appropriate punishment for each. Those guilty of lustful crimes must eternally be blown about in a storm, while the suicides spend eternity in the form of trees being broken by Harpies. Both writers also incorporate literary figures from Greek history when discussing their encounters with soldiers who died in battle. Aeneas encounters Deiphobus, King Priam’s son in another field outside the main body of Hell.
Even in Hell, the enemies Aeneas made during the Trojan War still shun him. Similarly, Dante places both Odysseus and Diomedes deep within the recesses of Hell for their role in deceiving the Trojans during the Trojan War. The Aeneid and Inferno also share many rhetorical similarities. Many of the descriptions that occur throughout the stories share striking resemblances to one another through their poetic diction. Virgil describes “a triple wall round which a torrent rushed with scorching flame”, “formless ooze amid the gray-green sedge,” as well as other various depictions of cliffs, walls, and rivers of fire (VI.
258-259, VI 188-189). Dante’s descriptions, similar to those of Virgil, describes “the eternal dark, the fire and frost”, “gray hailstones, water gray with filth, and snow”, as well as grand descriptions of dark foreboding castles and mountains (III. 87, VI. 10). The stories of Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno share a number of similarities. Both rely heavily on the mythological representations of Hell. The use similar rivers, fields, and castle so that readers familiar with these mythological positions will be able to understand the geography in which the stories take place.
Many of the characters such as Charon and Minos, also taken from ancient literature, appear in both stories. And while Dante’s Inferno is obviously built upon Virgil’s earlier depiction of Hell, it breaks away from Virgil’s pagan background in several key areas to establish Dante’s own independent Christian theology in Hell. Dante also uses various realms within his Hell to push a political agenda. By placing Popes and other political rivals within his Hell, Dante’s Hell adopts level of separation from the purely ethical considerations used by Virgil.
Accordingly, Virgil’s punishments are also much more simplistic than the morbidly poetic punishments decreed by Minos in Dante’s version of Hell.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Inferno. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Sarah Lawall et. al. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1297-1410. Virgil. The Aeneid. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Sarah Lawall et. al. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 810-893.