Virgil and Dante Alighieri are considered two the greatest writers in history. Although they lived centuries apart, with each one producing their own masterpieces during their respective lifetimes, their works are often mentioned side by side. This is mostly attributed to Dante Alighieri who explicitly considers Virgil as his mentor. Virgil’s influence on Dante Alighieri is most ostensible in his two major books—La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy. In this literature review, I will focus on Virgil’s influence on Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy. Dante borrowed from Virgil his language, style, and theme. Dante’s concept of Hell in the epic poem was evidently based on Virgil’s afterlife but with modifications based their theological and historical backgrounds.
Background on Virgil and Dante Alighieri
Virgil (also Vergil) is one of the greatest poets of the Roman Empire. His most known work is The Aeneid, which describes Roman mythology. The epic poem also has a detailed description of the Underworld, as Aeneas takes the journey through the River Styx and into the Underworld. Virgil’s work has been used as a primary basis for Roman mythology. In this respect, Dante Alighieri is a primary example.
Dante Alighieri is an Italian poet and philosopher who is most known for his depiction of heaven, purgatory, and hell in his The Divine Comedy. Having grown up in Florence, Dante was raised a Catholic (Jacoff & Schnapp, p. 3). However, he was greatly interested in Latin writers like Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil. He wrote lyric poems, many of which were love poems to his love for Beatrice Portinari. The Divine Comedy is perhaps his most renowned and influential work. It was written in Italian instead of the traditional Latin, and his work served to establish the characteristics of classic literature in Italy.
Virgil’s Influence On Dante
Dante is quite explicit in stating that Virgil is his “authorial model, his primary guide and literary “father”” (Jacoff & Schnapp, p.2). While the two authors have distinct writing styles, Dante takes after a number of techniques from Virgil. Dante uses similar literary devices, such as similes, in his work as those used by Virgil. Dante’s description of souls descending one-by-one like leaves falling (Dante, pp.112-117) alludes to Virgil’s description of souls as “a multitude of leaves” (Virgil, p. 309). Dante sees Virgil’s Aeneid as the ideal that poets must strive to attain (Jacoff & Schnapp, p. 3). This is the reason why he modeled his poetry after Virgil’s writing.
Dante’s depiction of the afterlife was a groundbreaking phenomenon at the time. No other writer or philosopher had written about the afterlife in such detail, and his only precursor was Virgil’s Aeneid (Auerback, p. 88). Dante’s The Divine Comedy takes after much of Virgil’s description of the afterlife. However, Dante made some modifications that fit his Catholic beliefs. This is most apparent in Inferno, which according to Auerbach, is but an expansion of book “VI – The Underworld” from Virgil’s Aeneid (p.89). Where Virgil’s underworld is preceded by a vestibule where the agents of death welcome the souls, reminding them of the afterlife they chose, the vestibule in Dante’s Hell is home to souls who could not decide whether to do good or evil during their lives. Virgil’s portrayal of hell as a shadowy, colorless place that reflects death and hopelessness clearly influenced Dante’s version of Hell: "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” (Dante, p. 89). Despite the complex system in which Dante’s Hell classifies and tortures souls, Dante also describes it as a world of darkness and shadows to symbolize lifelessness and hopelessness. Dante’s famous circles of hell is also based on Virgil’s. In Aeneid, Virgil describes the underworld as divided into three regions--Tartarus, Elysium, and Lugentes Campi, and nine sections "...and nine times the river Styx, poured between, confines" (Virgil, p. 439). However, in the underworld, there is no order—the sinners are not organized based on their sins as it is portrayed in Dante. The damned souls are put together at random and suffer the same punishments. Virgil’s focus in describing the underworld is to highlight the utter despair and the indefinite unreality of death. In contrast, Dante’s hell is organized and precise in inflicting punishment onto damned souls. Each circle of hell corresponds to a degree of sin and all souls with the same sin suffer together. This is clearly a Catholic influence where sins and their corresponding punishments are laid out clearly for the believers. Hell is a place where divine justice is carried out. Dante’s visual idea of hell is influenced heavily by Virgil whom he studied from a young age, but also of his Catholic upbringing.
Virgil’s influence on Dante’s version of Hell is apparent even to the untrained eye. However, it is also true that much of Dante’s Hell is original. As mentioned earlier, Dante extracted the basic conception of Hell from Aeneid, and then adapted this to fit his own purposes and beliefs (Auerbach, p. 90). Thus, although there are some similarities in the two authors’ descriptions of Hell and Underworld, they are each theoretically and doctrinally different. Dante’s version of Hell is confined within the Catholic ideology, with Catholic concepts of justice served for the souls’ actions during their lifetime. The fundamental differences between Virgil’s and Dante’s conception of the afterlife are closely knit with their respective societies’ views of the afterlife. This explains why Dante’s hell revolves around precise divine justice.
Virgil’s influence on Dante is no secret. Dante himself writes about his admiration for Virgil, in addition to making Virgil his guide in the afterlife. In The Divine Comedy, Virgil symbolized human reason, but for Dante, Virgil is also the ideal author. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy as an epic poem, and borrowed some writing styles from Virgil, especially in describing hell. Indeed, Dante based his The Divine Comedy on Virgil’s concept of the afterlife, but this is not the same as merely copying or plagiarizing. In other words, if he were alive today, Dante’s work would pass Turnitin. As much as Dante looks up to Virgil, he is also aware of Virgil’s limitations. As a Catholic, Dante views Virgil’s conception of the afterlife as flawed and incomplete because of their pagan origins. This is why he improved upon it and infused it with Catholic beliefs and conception of the afterlife. The Divine Comedy is a manifestation of the influences in Dante’s life—his Catholic upbringing and Virgil.
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.
Jacoff, Rachel and Jeffrey T. Schnapp, editors.The poetry of allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s ‘Commedia’. Stanford University Press. 1991.
Vergil. Vergil's Aeneid: Books I - Vl. Edited by Clyde Pharr. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co. 1964.