Comparing the Struggle in Dante’s Inferno and Book VI of The Aeneid

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The Infernal Struggle in Dante’s Inferno and Book VI of The Aeneid

Does hell have its own history? For Dante, the structural and thematic history of ‘hell’ in the Inferno begins with the Roman epic tradition and its champion poet, Virgil. By drawing heavily from the characteristics of hell in Book VI of The Aeneid, Dante carries the epic tradition into the medieval world and affirms his indebtedness to Virgil’s poetry. Moreover, Virgil becomes a central character in the Inferno as he guides Dante, the pilgrim, who has no knowledge of hell, through his own historical model. Similarly, the protagonist of The Aeneid, Aeneas, lacks the foresight necessary to make the journey through hell on his own and thus places his trust in the
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The historical relationship between the Aeneid and the Inferno originates with Dante’s own definition of the former as “the canonic epic model” (Jacoff 3). By definition an “epic model” dramatizes events of historical or legendary importance (Webster). Thus Dante, who “had no direct access to Homer” and the first epic models of Western literature--The Illiad and The Odyssey--chose Rome’s national epic, The Aeneid, as his historical inspiration (Jacoff 3). Specifically, the Inferno finds its overarching structural and thematic antecedent in Book VI of The Aeneid, where Aeneas descends into the realm of the shades. Here among hell’s carnage Aeneas finds his idea of eternal beauty embodied within the shade of his father, Anchises, who has survived in the heaven-like Elysian Fields. In the Inferno, the pilgrim undertakes the same journey as his historical prototype but instead searches for spiritual absolution in a Christian heaven. The motif of the journey remains, but the specific religious overtones of hell become slippery from the time of Aeneas to the pilgrim. For example, in his essay entitled "Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages," Umberto Eco notes that “the medieval period was a prolongation of the mythopoetic dimension of the Classical period, though
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