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At the Battle of Balaclava, some six-hundred British Lancers, Hussars, and Light

Dragoons were ordered into a valley held by Russian Infantry and Artillery. The positions did not

lend themselves to frontal assault, but due to miscommunication the horsemen were ordered to

do just that. As the Light Brigade charged into that Valley, death awaited them with bated breath.

Just as the cavalrymen could see their impending doom, so too did Aeneas and Virgil understand

the horrors into which they would both descend. During the reign of Augustus, Publius Vergilius

Maro, henceforth to be referred to by the colloquial Virgil, dedicated a book of his Aeneid to a

journey into and out of the underworld. Durante degli Alighieri, known as Dante to modernity,

placed himself on a journey into Hell accompanied by Virgil, the story of which makes up the

first third of his epic poem, Divina Commedia. The influence of Virgil is evident throughout

Dantes poem, though the similarities may be more aesthetic than foundational. Despite outward

similarities, Dantes depiction of the underworld as a place wholly disposed to administering

justly deserved pain and suffering upon those guilty of sin is vastly different to that of Virgil,

who presents a world that is a realm of the dead, both virtuous and evil.

The decent of Aeneas into the underworld is described in book six of the Aeneid.

Following a prophecy that foretells great hardships for his people in Italy, Aeneas seeks out the

Sibyl of Cumae, Deiphob, for assistance in making the journey to the underworld to congress

with his father.1 The Sibyl, in turn, requests that Aeneas must find a golden bough deep in the

forest that will allow the hero entrance into the realm of the dead, as well as complete the funeral

rites of a fallen comrade.2 These tasks completed, Deiphob performs the necessary sacrifices to

1 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 121-146.

2 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 162-186.


enter into the underworld and flings herself, possessed into the gates that admit entrance to the

realm of the dead.3 Thus begins a processions filled with speech after speech, prophesy after

prophesy, as we progress through the underworld in the words of Sarah Spence.4

As the pair advance past the entrance, they come to the mighty river Acheron. It is here that the

first similarity with The Inferno can be drawn. Both Dante and Aeneas cross this river forbidden

to the living, accompanied by a guide who has divine sanction for this task. It is also here that the

first dissimilarity is to be noted. Aeneas enters the underworld of his own vocation, to seek out

guidance from his Father on the trials that surely await him and his people. Dante is spurned to

enter Hell by Virgil himself, sent as a guide by his beloved Beatrice, who awaits him in Heaven.

He must bear witness to what fate befalls those who live unvirtuous lives, as he is in danger of

doing having lost his way on the path of life.5

Returning to Aeneas, the realm past the river Acheron is divided into stages or areas,

which are inhabited by a multitude of peoples. He bears witness to souls suffering various fates

directly correlating to incidents in their lives, from infant mortality and the falsely accused, to

suicides and those who searched vainly for unrequited love.6 Virgil damns these souls to eternal

misery as they displayed virtues he saw as damaging to the ideal Roman. Continuing onward,

3 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 131.

4 Sarah Spence, Response to Horsfall: The Role of Discernment in Aeneid 6, Vergilius 59, (2013): 29,

5 Dante, Inferno, 1. 3.

6 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 490-553.


Aeneas come across a vast field home to the heroic war dead. Here he meets friends who greet

him warmly, and enemies he has slain who maintain their distance out of fear and respect.7

Again, such manly virtues as bravery in battle speak to the ideal countryman Virgil aims to

promote. At this stage, Aeneas sees a mighty fortress surrounded by fire, and is informed by the

Sibyl that this is where Rhadamanthus rules, administering judgment to all the Titans and Gods

who dared oppose Jupiter, as well as those who committed heinous despicable crimes such as

adulterers, traitors, and misers.8 Finally, the Sibyl leads Aeneas to the altar of Proserpina where

he deposits the golden bough, thus granting him entry to Elysium. The scenes that follow, the

reunion with his father and their dialogue, represent the summit of the Aeneid. Here, Virgil not

only legitimizes the rule of Augustus (presenting it as a pre-ordained eventuality) but

demonstrates the supreme love and respect Aeneas has for his father.9 The family was the

cornerstone of Roman domestic and political life, and the Father rules supreme inside the family.

Virgil aimed to reinforce this order, as well as lend credibility to Augustus program of turning

himself into the father of the Roman people.

As stated above, Dante at the beginning of the Inferno is half-way though his life, and has

wandered off the path of the virtuous life. Lost in a forest, Dante is visited upon by the ghost or

soul of Virgil himself.10 The ancient poet instructs Dante that he must make a perilous journey in

7 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 554-572.

8 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 702-709.

9 Virgil, Aeneid, 6. 791-1036.

10 Dante, Inferno, 1. 67-129.


order to again lead a life that will allow him entry into Heaven (Paradiso). For the first third of

the journey, his guide will be Virgil, who has been charged with this duty by the beloved

Beatrice, who lives in Paradise.11

The treatment of the underworld, its topography and purpose, by Dante is vastly different

to that of Virgil. Whereas the latters use of the setting was to convey all the manly virtues that

he believed the Romans ought to exhibit, Dantes Hell can be seen as the ultimate manifestation

of Catholic Doctrine on the afterlife, heavily influenced by the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.12

Dante made great use of the theological dissertations of Saint Thomas Aquinas, primarily the

assertion that the soul outlives the body, and thus is capable of being rewarded or punished

following death. This is the underpinning of the entire Divina Commedia, as Dante bears witness

to both the punishment of individuals who had transgressed without repentance, and the reward

of those who lived lives worthy of admittance to paradise. The notion of unrepentant sinners and

their place in the Inferno is described by John Alcorn:

A fundamental pattern (what is shown) in Inferno is remorselessness. Hell is the realm

of sinners who failed to repent. To revisit the distinction between pain and suffering, each

is incomplete in its own way; virtual bodies cannot feel maximal pain, and damned souls

conspicuously lack remorse in their otherwise comprehensive palette of negative

emotions. The absence of remorse creates a paradox in the economy of suffering.13

11 Dante, Inferno, 2. 58-114.

12 Steven Kreis, Lecture 28 Aquinas and Dante, The History Guide, Accessed November 4th, 2015,

Should sinners repent their sins however, they will be admitted into purgatory as is evidenced in

the second division of the Divina Commedia. This distinction is important, as it gives those who

have transgressed hope for salvation which is the ultimate aim of Christianity.

Separated by a thousand years and a religion, the underworlds of Virgil and Dante are

markedly different, both in purpose of existence and in literary meaning. The two poets aimed to

influence how their fellow man approached daily life by presenting either what man ought to

strive for, or what he ought to avoid on pain of eternal damnation. Despite outward similarities in

setting, the Aeneid and the Inferno depict nearly opposing underworlds.

13John Alcorn, Suffering in Hell: The Psychology of Emotions in Dante's Inferno, Pedagogy:
Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 13, no. 1 (Winter
2013): 77-85. https://library.macewan.ca/library-search/detailed-view/mzh/2013300566.