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Dante Uses Virgil to Create His Own Legacy in "The Inferno"

Updated on November 10, 2012
Ronna Pennington profile image

Ronna Pennington, a college instructor, has a Master of Liberal Arts degree with emphasis in history.

Using Virgil's Hell as a base for the one he creates in The Inferno serves a dual purpose for Dante. First, he does not have to reinvent the wheel; he expounds on Virgil's description to give a more detailed look into the underworld. Anyone who reads The Aeneid will recognize similarities between the Hell Virgil describes there and the one he directs Dante through in The Inferno. More importantly, Dante almost insures acceptance of his poem by linking it so closely with the cherished ancient poet. By putting himself in direct contact with Virgil, a respected Roman nationalist poet, Dante creates a professional and political legacy for himself as well.

In terms of literature, Dante's choice of Virgil as a tour guide is sensible. When a person takes a tour, he or she wants to be led by the foremost authority on the area being traveled. That is why Virgil is the Dante's perfect tour guide in The Inferno. By repeating and building upon the underworld Virgil wrote about 1,300 years earlier, Dante makes Virgil appear to be the expert on Hell.

Virgil has first-hand knowledge of Hell as well. Not only did he write about it in his epic, it is now his home (2.51). Virgil is not being punished. He is only in Hell because he lived during pre-Christian times. Since Christ did not yet exist, salvation was not offered. Virgil is stuck in Limbo simply because he did not have the opportunity to be a Christian (4.35).

Virgil is likewise the logical choice for guide because of his vocation. He, too, is a poet. Who better to lead a poet through Hell than another poet? Their poetry, along with their Roman heritage, connects them and allows them to relate to one another. The shared vocation also creates an immediate mentor/mentee relationship between the two (2.133). Virgil takes Dante under his wing, protecting him on their journey and reassuring him as needed (5.21, 9.52). He also reprimands Dante periodically during the tour, reminding him not to pity the inhabitants in certain regions of Hell because they are there as punishment for wrongdoing and because stopping to stare slows their journey (29.22).

While Dante as author obviously chose Virgil to be his guide, it is important to note that Virgil is divinely selected for the role according to the poem. Virgil is selected by Beatrice to redirect Dante back to the path of righteousness (2.70). Through this scenario, Dante depicts his life as one worthy of divine intervention, another boost to his professional and political legacy. The idea of a divinely-chosen tour guide from Hell may seem strange to present-day readers, but the concept is not far-fetched when put into perspective. Remember, Virgil is only in Hell because he dies before the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ which brought salvation.

Politically speaking, Dante's self-alignment with Virgil alone is a gigantic statement. During Dante's time, Virgil is a respected Roman historian. His epic The Aenid is accepted as the basis of Roman national history. By incorporating himself as a character interacting with Virgil, Dante absorbs some of Virgil's political reputation as well.

Writing in retrospect, Dante uses Ciacco to "predict" his political exile from Florence. Ciacco tells of a struggle between White and Black, referring to the conflicting guelph factions (6.61). Dante was a white guelph, ultimately exiled for his role in city government. Recording the exile in The Inferno as though it were a prediction, changes Dante's role from simply being exiled to fulfilling a prophecy.

In a final political inference, Dante is true to his Roman heritage by positioning God and the Empire as equals. He cleverly does this through the depiction of Satan, represented by those who ultimately offended God and the Roman Empire. The devil himself is made up of three heads which are eating the killer of Christ in the center and the killers of Julius Caesar on each side (34.61). By balancing the killers of the emperor on each side of the killer of Christ, Dante depicts a supreme connection between God and Emperor. This connection between the emperor and godhead furthers the same political and divinity connection made by Virgil through demi-god Aeneas in The Aeneid. This connection of God to the Roman Empire, the similarities in their descriptions of Hell, and incorporating himself as an interacting character with Virgil allows Dante to place himself in the ancient poet's ranks, thus building his own political and professional legacy.

Based on the reading of:

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 2003. Print.

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