In Dante Alighieri’s poem

In Dante Alighieri’s poem, the Inferno, the character Virgil embodies an ancient poet named Publius Vergilius Maro, referred to simply as Virgil. Considered one of the greatest poets of Ancient Rome, Virgil the poet played an important role in Dante’s literary development. Dante’s character Virgil directly reflects the reverence Dante had for the famous poet and the initial role he played in his writing. Several key parallels exist between the poet and the character, including their places in history, the roles each play, their moral foundations, their exploration of sin and human suffering, and their involvement in symbolic journeys. Dante also masterfully uses the Virgil character’s position and limitations as a means to symbolize his surpassing of the greatness of Virgil the poet. Dante uses the foundations laid by Virgil the poet as a base for his writing, and expands beyond it to more fully explore free choice, sin, and Christian theology (redemption?) in his Divine Comedy.
Virgil the poet and Virgil the character share the same historical placement. Born on October 15, 70 BC, Virgil the poet lived before Christ came to Earth. Though many of Virgil’s works, particularly The Aeneid and the Eclogues, explore elements of sin, the underworld, and prophesizing about a coming messiah, he was limited in understanding by his time in history. Consequently, Virgil’s place in Hell in The Inferno is in Limbo, home to those born without the light of Christ. Virgil dwells in Limbo along with other “virtuous pagans”- the famous ancient poets, philosophers, and heroes. Although Virgil does not suffer the torments of Hell, his pain arises from his lack of hope. When Dante says that the souls “only pain is that they have no hope”, he directly references the ancient poet’s hopelessness due to the absence of Christ’s salvation during his lifetime.
The role that Virgil plays as a main character in Inferno also parallels the role that Virgil the poet played in Dante’s life. As the two main characters continue to venture into Hell in Canto Four, they come to the Citadel of Human Reason where Virgil is greeted with the welcoming cry, “Honor the Prince of Poets; the soul and glory that went from us returns” (Dante 52). Here reside the “master souls of pagan antiquity” who have reached the highest state possibly achieved without the presence of God. Virgil’s comparison to these historical figures demonstrates the poet’s importance in Dante’s eyes. Dante’s reverence for Virgil the poet is illustrated through Virgil the character, a symbolic representation of human reason who leads, guides, and protects him on his spiritual journey through Hell. Dante believed that Virgil’s poetry served as a guide to direct his own writing. As a guide in the poem, Virgil often redirects Dante, telling him to stop pitying the sinners and leading him in the right directions. As a writer, Dante also sees Virgil’s poetry as a source of protection from sin, as shown when Virgil protects Dante from the monsters and demons of Hell. Virgil’s character and traits are developed in reflection of the role and impact Virgil the poet had in Dante’s life.
Virgil the poet also had impact on Dante’s moral beliefs and values. In Canto XXXIV, the last canto in The Inferno, the two characters enter the ninth circle of Hell in which reside those who committed treachery to their masters. Dante chose three sinners who betrayed their masters as the worst sinners of all time – Judas, Cassius, and Brutus. The placement of this sin as the lowest and worst sin of all reflects Virgil the poet’s values. In The Aeneid, the main character Aeneas serves as an example of the Roman ideals of “loyalty to state, devotion to family, and reverence for Gods”(), values often expressed in Virgil’s writings.
Dante also drew from Virgil’s poetry the idea that suffering results from human action, incorporating this foundation into his own work. Each circle of Hell contains souls who suffer as a result of the sin they committed in life, repeating a theme that Virgil used in The Aeneid. However, Dante’s beliefs diverge from Virgil’s when distinguishing between a sinners predestined fate versus their individual choices. The actions of the suffering in Virgil’s Aeneid are described as preordained and the author makes it clear that he believes that their ultimate fate was inescapable. Dante, on the other hand, believes that sinners are in hell as a result of their own choices, not because they were destined to be sent to Hell.
In the end of this scene, Dante and Virgil leave Hell and begin the ascent to Purgatory, marking the beginning of yet another journey. The repeated theme of a journey is a concept that also parallels Virgil’s Aeneid, a story similarly based around a journey. Eventually, Dante will have to leave Virgil behind as he continues on into heaven. Dante’s journeying on without Virgil expresses Dantes’s belief that his works surpassed those of Virgil. Just as Virgil took what he learned from his teachers and moved beyond them, Dante used Virgil as a foundation but then would move past his predecessor to become a better poet. Part of Dante’s evolution was also with regard to the understanding of sin and salvation as explored in The Inferno. Though Virgil the poet has been credited with prophesizing about the coming of Jesus in his work The Eclogues, Dante’s works more thoroughly depicts the role of free will in sin, suffering, and salvation in one’s life and over fate or predestination.
The parallels of Virgil the character and Virgil the poet aids in the depth of meaning and understanding of Dante’s Inferno. The common historical basis, the mentoring role of Virgil in Dante’s development, similarmoral foundation, and the focus on human suffering all provide a depth of meaning that builds upon the foundation Virgil the poet laid in his works. Just as Virgil the poet drew and learned from Siro the Epicurean and other precursors and evolved their concepts to new levels, Dante drew from Virgil’s basis and evolved beyond his predecessor to become one of the most important writers of his time.