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 installment of The Comedy, Dante’s

Inferno, is an especially magnificent narrative. He narrates his descent and observation of Hell

through the various circles and pouches. An excellent poet in his own right, admired much about

Virgil (also spelt Vergil), 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 conceptions of the afterworld/underworld of the two authors’ respective time periods. As

Erich Auerbach writes, with reference to Dante’s extensively ordered otherworld, “Dante had no

true precursors, except for the sixth book of the Aeneid.”(Auerbach, Erich . p. 88). 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 that

which he did extract from the Aeneid, he carefully adapted for his own purposes and beliefs. In

pursuing his Christian vision of the afterlife, Dante created an otherworld theoretically and

doctrinally different from, yet still inescapably reminiscent of Virgil’s Underworld. Dante, of

course, structured his Hell to fit the confines and fundamentals of his Christian ideology, but still

used The Aeneid as his foundation. Thus, in order to portray the Christian universe and to

represent the afterworldly concepts of justice for one?s actions during life, Dante looked to

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 quite noticeable to even the untrained eye.

The entrance or gate to Virgil’s Underworld in the Aeneid marks a sharp division, as also

found in The Inferno, between the land of the living and the land of the dead. A foreboding

vestibule precedes the entrance to the Underworld, purposely there not ease any journey toward

the heart of Hades, and help remind them that this is the afterlife they chose. Inhabiting Virgil?s

vestibule are the causes of death, incarnated 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 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 former has an unavoidably intangible, bodiless, and abstract

(nothing clearly defined) quality to it, compared to the latter?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 vestibule, to a room full of the causes

of death, and finally lead to the land of death itself (Hell itself). The vestibule can be considered

to be a no-man?s-land, your not completely in Hell yet, but there?s nowhere else to go except

down. Dante?s Hell is also preceded by a foreboding vestibule 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 (God’s general) 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 simile 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 time and again borrowed from Virgil?s

writings, but for more extensive ends. While Virgil used the inferences of pallor and shade to

indicate a lack of hope and the completeness of death, Dante’s use of similar themes was used in a

more Christian interest, how the lost souls would manifest into their tortured spiritual nature.

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 utter despair and indefinite unreality of death, whereas Dante?s lost souls represented not only

the utter 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 they created. Dante?s Hell and

Virgil?s Underworld are alike in their general auras and atmosphere, but their structural

organizational differences show how Dante digressed more in the interest of a Christian

conception of the underworld. The prime differences in both poems is caused by the age at 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, however, 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 vice suffer together.

Rather, in Dante?s Hell retribution for sins are organized in an orderly afterlife. All sinners of the

same immoral 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 malicious as do the soul?s punishments. Like the

eternal crossroads in the Underworld, Dante?s Circles of Hell each provide a permanent image of

justice, specifically divine Christian justice. Hell’s overall physical structure reflects this idea of

justice. Dante conveys a sense of excruciatingly precise justice with each new Circle of Hell: if

you were fraudulent, you are punished likewise, and if you had been violent, you would have been

punished accordingly. This precision is a reflection of Dante’s Catholic conception of divine

justice. The punishments of Hell, being created by God, would only be exactly fair, as well as

reflective of His relative displeasure with the sin that was executed 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 navigated

through Hell before and, therefore, knew the territory. According to Brother Etienne, ?Virgil

becomes in the Inferno the symbol of human reason? 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. Most critics interpret this as saying that man’s reason is finite, 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. (Glen, Chris. English 12 notebook) 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 expedition

to Heaven.

In borrowing the dark, pale environment so thoroughly explored by Virgil?s Aeneid, Dante

on the one hand shows off his ability to incorporate classical themes into a Christian

framework of ideas. 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 vital elements in the Underworld of Vergil’s classic work Aeneid into the Hell of the

Christian universe.

Works Sited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: U of

California P. 1980.

Auerbach, Erich. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Chicago: U of

Chicago P. 1961.

Vergil. Vergil’s Aeneid: Books I – Vl. Ed. Clyde Pharr. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co.,


Interview with Brother Ethienne 12/3/98

Glen, Christopher. English 12 Notebook. New York. 1998


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: U of

California P. 1980.

Auerbach, Erich. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Chicago: U of

Chicago P. 1961.

Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask.

Princeton: Princeton U P. 1953.

Austin, R.G. Aeneid VI: Commentary. Oxford: Oxford U P. 1979.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Trans. S. G. C. Middlemore. vol.

l. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

Commager, Steele, ed. Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,

Inc., 1966.

Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Trans. E. F. M. Benecke. London: George

Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1966.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Aaes. Trans. Willard R. Trask.

New York: Harper & Row, 1953.

F[letcher], A. S. “Fable, Parable, and Allegory.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropedia. 1985.

Freccero, John, ed. Dante: A Collection ofritical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,


Kline, Morris. Mathematics in Western Culture. New York: Oxford U P. 1953.

Otis, Brooks. Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon P. 1964.

Quinn, Kenneth. Virgil’s Aeneid: A Critical Description. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. 1969.

Vergil. Vergil’s Aeneid: Books I – Vl. Ed. Clyde Pharr. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co.,




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