The Divine Comedy | Inferno | Canto 4

Opening my copy of Inferno at the start of the fourth canto, I thought I had picked up a book about student living by accident.

Thunder rolling heavily in my head
shattered my deep sleep…
(Lines 1-2)

As it turned out, however, I had not exchanged one kind of hell for another (student digs on the Morning After The Night Before) but was still in the original.


In Canto 3, Dante visited the threshold of hell, where narcissistic angels, and people whose lives were so wretched they had neither honour nor even ill fame, lived.

Before continuing his journey in this canto, Dante first, rather bravely, I feel, peers over the edge of the circle and into the abyss below. He sees a

… cavern of grief and pain
that rings a peal of endless miseries.
(Lines 7-9)

Drawing back, he notices that Virgil’s face is pale. The poet tells Dante, this is not from fear, but rather out of pity, for the people in the lower circles.

Circle One

Here in the dark (where only hearing told)
there were no tears, no weeping, only sighs
that caused a trembling in the eternal air –
sighs drawn from sorrowing, although no pain.
This weighs on all of them, those multitudes
of speechless children, women and full-grown men.
(Lines 25-30)

In Catholic theology today, limbo is regarded as ‘a possible theological hypothesis’ (The International Theological Commission The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised [text]). Its existence can be defended but it is not a formal part of the teaching of the Church.

Two things about the above quotation jumped out at me

  1. As the title of the ITC document suggests, the theologians were interested in limbo in the context of understanding what happens to unbaptised infants after death. It becomes notable, therefore, that Dante thought that adults could reside in limbo as well. As it turns out, however, that is only the beginning; his conception of limbo is even wider. I’ll return to this theme below.
  2. Dante’s conception of limbo is that it is a dour place. While there are no tears, weeping or speech there is nothing else – nothing positive – that replaces it. The only sound is of regretful sighs.
    If I were to defend the existence of limbo I would not make it such a nothing-place. Yes, I would say, those in limbo are deprived of the beatific vision, but eternity in a place without any positive aspect would be eternity in hell-by-another-name. For limbo to be truly limbo, happiness has to be present in some measure.

I’d like to go back to (1). Virgil says that of those who reside in limbo that

… some attained to merit.
But merit falls far short.
(Lines 34-35)

Who could he mean? There are two sets of people that he has in mind here.

  1. Pagans who lived ‘before the Christian age began’ (l.37)
  2. Israelites


Virgil mentions five different types.

i. Poets
Dante sees Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Rather modestly (!) he says that the four of them ‘summoned me to join them in their ranks’ (l.101). To be fair, I don’t think anyone would dispute his right to stand with them now.

ii. Greeks and Romans
There are two sub-classes here.

Mythological Figures

  • Aeneas – Trojan, ancestor of Romulus and Remus
  • Camilla – virgin warrior
  • Electra – daughter of Atlas (Not of Agamemnon)
  • Hector – son of Priam; killed by Achilles
  • Latinus, King – son of Odysseus and Circe
  • Lavinia – daughter of Latinus, wife of Aeneas
  • Penthesilea – virgin warrior; queen of the Amazons

Historical figures

  • Brutus – deposed the last Roman king
  • Cornelia – wife of Julius Caesar
  • Julia (Julius Caesar’s daughter)
  • Julius Caesar – I’m sure he needs no introduction
  • Lucrece – whose rape and suicide lead to the deposition of last Roman king
  • Marcia (Julius Caesar’s grandmother?)
  • Saladin – sultan

The odd man out in this list is, of course, Saladin. Although he gave the Crusaders a good thumping, he was – as the notes say – well known in the west for his ‘heroism and generosity’.

iii. Greek Philosophers

  • Socrates – philosopher
  • Plato – philosopher
  • Democritus – philosopher
  • Diogenes [of Sinope]
  • Tales – philosopher
  • Anaxagoras – philosopher and Pericles’ mentor
  • Empedocles – rhetorician and scientist
  • Heraclitus – scientist
  • Zeno – philosopher

One significant name is missing from this list – that of Aristotle. He is present, though; Dante just refers to him indirectly as ‘the master of all those who think and know’ (l.132). That’s high praise, indeed. Perhaps it speaks to Aristotle’s popularity in the Middle Ages?

iv. Notable Greeks, Romans and Arabs

  • Averroes – philosopher
  • Avicenna – physician and philosopher
  • Dioscorides – founder of pharmacology
  • Euclid – geometrician
  • Galen – writer on medicine
  • Hippocrates – founder of medical studies
  • Linus – mythical poet
  • Orpheus – mythical poet
  • Ptolemy – astronomer
  • Seneca – philosopher
  • Tully – (i.e. Cicero) politician, philosopher

Credit where it’s due: I used the notes from my edition of Inferno (details below) to find out/remind myself who some of these figures were and have quoted some of their descriptions. Wikipedia was also helpful!

Virgil describes how he saw Christ leading away

… the shadow of our primal sire [Adam],
shades of his offspring, Abel and Noah,
Moses, who uttered (and observed) the law,
of Abraham the patriarch, David the king,
Israel, his father and his own twelve sons,
with Rachel, too, for whom he laboured long.
and many more besides. All these He blessed.
(Lines 55-61)

By the way, Virgil is referring here specifically to the harrowing of hell: Jesus’ descent into the underworld to take the souls of the righteous to heaven.

At this point, you might be wondering, what do you mean by righteous? If someone was righteous, why was he not in heaven already?


A Little Digression and Catholic Theology
Skip if the aforementioned question is not of interest to you
The answer to the above question goes back to Adam and Eve. At the beginning they lived in communion with God in the Garden of Eden. They were sinless. When they allowed themselves to be tempted by the Devil, however, sin entered the world. This caused them to be expelled from Eden. Thereafter, the stain of sin remained imprinted on every man however righteous he was. As such, he became unable to enter heaven. This sorry state of affairs could only be reversed by God redeeming Mankind – i.e. taking away its sin. He tried to do this through the introduction of the Law, but the people still strayed. So, He sent the prophets to try and draw people back but they were unsuccessful. In accordance with the saying ‘if you want to get something done, you have to do it yourself’, He sent His Son – Jesus – to take on the sin of Mankind in His sacrificial death. When Jesus died on the cross, therefore, He made it possible for Man to be redeemed – made sinless – and thus able to enter heaven.


In light of the above, we can give a date to when Virgil saw Jesus – A.D. 33. Actually, that date is incorrect by a few years due to an Anglo-Saxon dating error but at least now you know what Jesus was doing between the time of His death and Resurrection on Easter Sunday.


  • I am using the Penguin Classics edition of Inferno (2006 translated by Robin Kirkpatrick) for this series
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