Page 1. " Midway upon the journey of our life "

(Canto 1, line 1)

"The midway upon the journey" of a man's life is 35 years. The Bible verse Psalms 90:10 reads: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." In another of his works, the Convivio, Dante says himself that a person's life can be likened to an arc. Speaking of the high point of the arc, he writes: "My own view is that in most people it occurs somewhere between the ages of thirty and forty. I also believe that in those endowed with a perfect nature it occurs in the thirty-fifth year." (Treatise 4, chapter 23) His view was that the high point of Jesus' life occurred exactly in his thirty-fifth year.

It is perhaps fitting with Dante's temperament for him to view himself as "endowed with a perfect nature". Commentators believe that Dante was born around 1265, and that his journey through hell might have occurred in the year 1300, that is to say, exactly when he was in 35 years old. The date is supposed to have been on Good Friday that year, that is, April 8.

Page 1. " I found myself within a forest dark "

Dante lost in the forest
Public DomainDante lost in the forest - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 1, line 2)

"A forest dark" is endowed with a double meaning by commentators: one as symbolic of mistakes and transgressions a man commits in his worldly life, the other as a comment upon the chaotic state of contemporary Italian society. This latter meaning would mainly refer to the corruption and depravity of the church and the weakness of imperial power, as this reflected Dante's political views.

Page 1. " But of the good to treat, which there I found "

Bust of Virgil
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeBust of Virgil - Credit: A. Hunter Wright

(Canto 1, line 8)

"The good" refers to being saved by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC), sent to succour him by the heavens. "The other things" in the next line refers to being threatened by the three beasts he meets on his way. Virgil was Dante's most important poetic source of inspiration, and his influence on the "Comedy" is very great: the "Comedy" repeatedly draws on material found in Virgil's "The Aeneid".

Page 2. " But after I had reached a mountain's foot "

(Canto 1, line 13)

The mountain contrasts with the "forest savage", maybe as a symbol for the protection of God.

Page 2. " Vested already with that planet's rays "

(Canto 1, line 17)

"That planet" is the sun. According to the medieval Ptolemaic view of heavenly bodies, the sun orbited the earth. Something divine is perhaps to be intimated from the appearance of sunlight at this junction.

Page 2. " So that the firm foot ever was the lower "

(Canto 1, line 30)

A cryptic line, debated much over the years by scholars. Literally interpreted, it is a description of one's steps in climbing a mountain: to always make sure the lower foot stands firm before taking the next steps. However, based upon Aristotle's theories on physiology, another interpretation reads the "firm foot" as the left one. The left foot was associated with wordly desires by Alberto Magno (1193-1280) and others, and would therefore obstruct the climber on his way to God - it is therefore fitting that it is always lower than the right foot, associated with the intellect. A modern interpretation, by Natalino Sapegno, believes that this line tries to show that Dante still has no solid grip on the virtuous heights he desires to reach, and therefore walks with an unsure gait, always making a conscious effort to stand firmly.

Page 2. " A panther light and swift exceedingly "

(Canto 1, line 32)

This "panther" is often viewed as a symbol for the desires of the flesh. The panther, the "lion" and the "she-wolf" further down together represent a triple barrier and a triple sin (the lion representing pride and the she-wolf greed). Others have interpreted the panther as signifying envy. A historical document from 1285 mentions a caged leopard or a panther in the possession of the city authorities of Florence, which Dante may have seen.

The concept of the three beasts may have its roots in the biblical verse Jeremiah 5:6, "Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased."

Page 3. " So were to me occasion of good hope, The variegated skin of that wild beast, The hour of time, and the delicious season "

(Canto 1, lines 41-43)

In medieval times it was believed that God created the world in spring. Dante's journey starts when the sun is in the constellation of Aries, exactly at the spring equinox, moreover, it is the hour of sunrise - therefore Dante thinks the time is auspicious: so much, that he does not even fear the skin of the leopard.

Page 3. " And many folk has caused to live forlorn "

(Canto 1, line 51)

As noted, the wolf represents greed, which to Dante is very dangerous. Saint Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:10, "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

Modern commentator Reggio notes that Dante believed greed to be the fundamental reason for the regrettable state of society: the thing that had caused the corruption of the church and marginalization of righteousness. Dante believed that society lacked a strong emperor, who could create peace and a sense of honour in the world.

Page 3. " Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent "

(Canto 1, line 60)

This description of the sun through the sense of hearing has been praised by commentators. Obviously, the simple meaning is that the sun cannot be seen in the forest.

Page 3. " Before mine eyes did one present himself "

(Canto 1, line 62)

This is Virgil, or more correctly, his soul. Throughout the poem he is a symbol of intellect and philosophy and is trusted with the mission of guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory on his way to eternal happiness. This illuminates a general idea: that man must rely on his intellect and philosophy to overcome his mistakes and sins and find a path to rebirth.

Page 3. " Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse "

(Canto 1, line 63)

Much has been made of the meaning of "hoarse" here. Apart from the literal interpretation that he has been silent for so long that his voice is weak, it has been proposed that the reason for Virgil's silence is that his image has faded away in the minds of men and been forgotten by them, or that Virgil, representing the intellect, has been silent in the mind of the sinful Dante for a long time and only now has awoken again, ready to assist him with advice, but only scarcely being heard.

Page 4. " "Have pity on me," unto him I cried "

(Canto 1, line 65)

Much in the manner of a Catholic prayer.

Page 4. " And both my parents were of Lombardy "

(Canto 1, line 68)

Lombardy, as a medieval geographical term, derives its name from the Lombards or Langobards, a Germanic people which inhabited the lands of the Po river valley in northern Italy during the 6th to 8th centuries AD. In Dante's time, it referred to a region that overlapped with the modern region Lombardia, but also included parts of what is now Veneto and Emilia-Romagna. "Lombards" were then a name for people inhabiting this area, but was often used to mean simply "Italians" and especially Italians of the Alps region. However, in Virgil's own time, the modern region of Lombardia belonged to the Roman province Gallia Cisalpina. Commentator Reggio therefore notes this line as a famous example of an anachronistic use by Dante in the "Comedy".

Page 4. " 'Sub Julio' was I born, though it was late "

(Canto 1, line 70)

Virgil was born in the year 70 BC, the village of Andes, in what is now the municipality of Virgilio (named after him). The Latin phrase "Sub Julio" means during the reign of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), however, at the time of Virgil's birth, Julius Caesar had not yet come to power. When Julius was murdered in the year 44 BC, Virgil was only 26 years old and had not yet achieved notoriety, which is why he here laments his late birth.

Page 4. " And lived at Rome under the good Augustus "

(Canto 1, line 71)

Augustus (63-14 BC) was the first emperor of the Roman empire. He was the maternal grandson of Julius Caesar's sister and was appointed successor by Caesar. After Caesar's death, he established the empire and became an important patron of Virgil.

Page 4. " During the time of false and lying gods "

(Canto 1, line 72)

False and lying because there was no Christianity yet. Virgil died in 19 BC, before the birth of Christ.

Page 4. " Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy, After that Ilion the superb was burned "

(Canto 1, lines 74-75)

"Son of Anchises" refers to Aeneas, whose travels are recorded by Virgil in his "Aeneid". Aeneas was a hero of Greek mythology, the son of Trojan Anchises and the goddess of love, Aphrodite. After the fall of Troy, he escapes the city together with his father, his young son Ascanius (also known as Julus) and his wife Creusa, but becomes separated from his wife in the night. On their way to Epirus (today a region in the south of Albania) by boat they are surprised by a storm which sweeps them away to Sicily, where the aged father dies. Later, Aeneas goes to Carthage and falls in love with their queen Dido. After that, he goes to Latium, where he becomes befriended by Latinus, king of the Latins, who offers his daughter Lavinia in marriage to him. Aeneas defeats Turnus, king of the Rutuli; Camilla, princess of the Volsci; and the Etruscan king Mezentius. In the Aeneid, Virgil portraits him Aeneas as the earliest founder of the Roman empire, and his son Ascanius as the forefather of Caesar and Augustus.

The use of the name "Ilion" comes from the Aeneid. It is another name for the city of Troy.

Page 4. " Why climb'st thou not the Mount Delectable "

(Canto 1 line 77)

The "Mount Delectable" contrasts with the "Forest dark", as a symbol of earthly happiness.

Page 5. " Many the animals with whom she weds "

 (Canto 1 line 100)

This is to say that many people have become infected with greed, and many more will in the future. It may be that people are referred to as "animals" simply because the wolf is used as the personification of greed, but the use of the word carries something denigrating.

Page 5. " And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain "

(Canto 1, line 101-102)

The "Greyhound" is one of the famous "riddles" in the poem. One reading interprets the Greyhound as Emperor Henry VII, who Dante was a supporter of; Dante would then express his hope here that Henry might save Italy from the chaos caused by the corrupt church. Another interpretation understands the Greyhound as either Cangrande della Scala, ruler of Verona, or Ugoccione della Faggioula, ruler of Lucca, who received Dante during his years of banishment. These two figures both belonged to the anti-Pope Ghibellines. A third interpretation stresses that Dante's political beliefs were not yet fully formed by this time and that he still was a moderate Guelf who hoped that someone within the church would stand up to correct its faults. According to this interpretation, the Greyhound refers to Pope Benedict XI. In any case, the Greyhound stands for a figure with saviour-like properties.

Page 5. " 'Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be "

(Canto 1, line 105)

The word "Feltro" constitutes a rather unguessable riddle with many different interpretations. Ancient commentaries tell us that "Feltro" is a type of coarse fabric used for clothing by Franciscan monks, by which logic Dante seems to say that the "Greyhound" will be chosen among Franciscan monks. Other older commentaries think that "'Twixt Feltro and Feltro" should be interpreted as "between heaven and heaven". Still others believe that Dante is referring to the geographical area between the town Feltre in Veneto and the region Montefeltro in Romagna. This would mean that the saviour Greyhound could be the same Cangrande della Scala mentioned in an earlier bookmark, whose territories included Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Belluno and Feltre. Lastly, some modern commentators think that "Feltro" was a fabric used in the fashioning of ballot boxes, and that the "Greyhound" therefore would be democratically elected.

Page 5. " On whose account the maid Camilla died, Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds "

(Canto 1, lines 107-108)

These four figures are characters from the Aeneid, belonging to the opposing sides of the war waged by Aeneas and his Trojans in Latium. Camilla, mentioned in a previous bookmark, was killed in battle; Euryalus and Nisus were close friends and fought on Aeneas' side, but lost their lives in a nightly attack on Turnus' Rutuli forces; Turnus, who planned to take the Latin princess Lavinia as his bride, was killed by Aeneas in the Aeneid's culminating battle. This war was fought over Latium, Roman soil which here is made to stand for all of Italy.

Page 5. " There from whence envy first did let her loose "

(Canto 1, line 111)

Sapegno and Reggio both offer the explanation that it was Lucifer the Devil who had let greed (the she-wolf) loose in the world because of his envy of the human race. 

Page 5. " Who cry out each one for the second death "

(Canto 1, line 117)

Second death: the final judgment of God and the death of the soul.

Page 5. " And thou shalt see those who contented are "

(Canto 1, line 118)

This line and the following refers to the souls suffering in Purgatory, the preceding lines to those damned in Hell.

Page 6. " A soul shall be for that than I more worthy "

(Canto 1, line 122)

This "soul" is Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290), the great love of Dante's life. She was the daughter of Folco Portinari, a wealthy banker. Dante is said to have first met her when she was only nine years old and fallen in love at first sight. Nine years later, he saw her one more time; in 1286, she was married to Simone di Geri de Bardi and died in 1290, only 24 years old. Dante never revealed his feelings for her while she was still alive, but expressed his love and mourning for her in his first literary work, the Vita Nova (completed in 1292 or 1293). In the Comedy, Beatrice stands for faith and theology, which in medieval times were thought nobler than the intellect and philosophy represented by Virgil. Beatrice is therefore able to guide Dante through Paradise, which Virgil cannot.

Page 6. " In that I was rebellious to his law "

(Canto 1, line 125)

Because Virgil lived before the advent of Christianity, he is a heretic and cannot enter Paradise.

Page 6. " So that I may escape this woe and worse "

(Canto 1, line 132)

"This woe and worse" probably refers to the three beasts blocking his way and the damnation of his soul to Hell, respectively.

Page 6. " That I may see the portal of Saint Peter "

(Canto 1, line 134)

"The portal of Saint Peter" has two explanations: the gate of Purgatory and the gate of heaven. Most commentators incline towards the former, because Cantos 9 and 21 of "Purgatory" both describe the gate to Purgatory as guarded by an angel, a vicar of Peter. Also, as pointed out by Reggio, Paradise as described by Dante does not even have a gate. Sapegno disagrees, saying it would be more natural for Dante to have the final destination of the journey in mind.

Page 7. " O Muses, O high genius, now assist me! "

(Canto 2, line 7)

This "high genius" probably refers to Dante's own genius, but some commentators believe it refers to the Muses, that is to say, Dante wishes to be inspired by the Muses' "genius".

Page 7. " Thou sayest, that of Silvius the parent "

(Canto 2, line 13)

"Of Silvius the parent" is Aeneas. Book 6 of the Aeneid records how Aeneas travels through the underworld. Silvius was the son of Aeneas and Lavinia and the half brother of Ascanius. He later became king of Alba Longa, which Ascanius had founded and which preceded the Roman empire.

Page 8. " But if the adversary of all evil "

(Canto 2, line 16)

"The adversary of all evil", that is to say, God.


Page 8. " That issue would from him, and who, and what, To men of intellect unmeet it seems not "

(Canto 2, lines 18-19)

These lines are slightly unclear. Sapegno proposes two explanations. It might refer to the lasting influence of Aeneas, his role in founding the Roman empire and the church, or the accomplishments of his descendants, including Caesar and Augustus. Another explanation focuses on the personal character and noble standing of Aeneas himself, and his alliances by marriage etc. with Creusa, Dido, Lavinia and others.

There is a passage touching the virtue and lasting influence of Aeneas in Dante's own treatise "De Monarchia":

"...the testimony of the ancients is convincing, since Virgil, our divine Poet, throughout his Aeneid testifies in everlasting remembrance that the father of the Roman people was Aeneas, the famous king; and Titus Livius, illustrious writer of Roman deeds, confirms this testimony in the first part of his volume which begins with the capture of Troy. So great was the nobleness of this man, our ancestor most invincible and most pious, nobleness not only of his own considerable virtue, but that of his progenitors and consorts, which was transferred to him by hereditary right, that I cannot unfold it in detail, 'I can but trace the main outlines of truth.' As to his personal nobility, hearken to our poet in the first book of the Aeneid, introducing Ilioneus with the plea, 'Aeneas was our king, than whom none other was more just and pious, none other greater in war and arms.' [...]"


Page 8. " In the empyreal heaven as father chosen "

(Canto 2, line 21)

The "empyreal heaven" is the abode of God, variously referred to as the tenth circle of heaven or the highest heaven. The Empyrean is immobile, surrounding nine layers of circling heavens: the Moon heaven, the Mercury heaven, the Venus heaven, the Sun heaven, the Mars heaven, the Jupiter heaven, the Saturn heaven, the heaven of Fixed Stars, and the Crystalline heaven or Primum Mobile. Dante discusses this cosmology at length in Book 2, chapter 3 of his Convivio. Dante's system is a little bit different from the classical Ptolemaic system, where it is assumed that nine heavens circle around the earth, immobile at the centre. Dante seems to view things more theologically.

Page 8. " Sits the successor of the greatest Peter "

Saint Peter
Public DomainSaint Peter - Credit: Peter Paul Rubens

(Canto 2, line 24)

"The greatest Peter" is Saint Peter, the first disciple of Jesus. He was appointed a successor or representative of Jesus, witnessed the transformation of Jesus and attended the Last Supper. He came to Rome via Syria and became its first bishop. Together with Saint Paul, he was later arrested and died on the cross. The "successor" refers to all the successive Popes, since Peter is sometimes regarded as the first of that office.

Based upon this line, commentator G. Ferretti has concluded that the "Comedy" was composed in two periods - he believes that Dante's opinions on the papal office as expressed in the poem contradicts his earlier works "De Monarchia" and "Vita Nova" with their pope-friendly Guelfism, where he expresses opinions he would later revise. Sapegno concurs, seeing an element of doubt and wavering in Dante's political thought during the first period. Reggio, however, disagrees and cites Book 4 of the Convivio and the first Cantos of the Comedy as examples of the maturity and stability of Dante's thought.

Page 8. " Both of his victory and the papal mantle "

(Canto 2, line 27)

In book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas meets his father Anchises' soul in the underworld, who reveals to him how he will defeat Turnus of the Rutuli and others. Dante's point is that Aeneas' rise to prominence in Italy enabled the founding of the Roman empire and eventually, the emergence of papal power (the "mantle").


Page 8. " Thither went afterwards the Chosen Vessel "

(Canto 2, line 28)

The phrase "Chosen Vessel" appears in Acts 9:15, "But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel", referring to Saint Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul, speaking in third person of a vision he experienced himself, says "I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." Though Dante simply says "thither", it does seem as if he suddenly speaks of Heaven, not the Underworld or Inferno where Aeneas, mentioned in the preceding lines, travelled.

Page 9. " Among those was I who are in suspense "

(Canto 2, line 52)

The souls "in suspense" are the dwellers of the first circle of Hell, "Limbo". Among them are virtuous people from the time before Christ (like Virgil) and children who died before baptism; because they are without sin, they do not have to be punished in Hell, but because they never believed in Christ and were not baptized, they can neither ascend to Paradise and are left "in suspense". The latin world "limbus" means edge or boundary.

Page 9. " And a fair, saintly Lady called to me "

(Canto 2, line 53)

Referring to Beatrice.

Page 9. " Her eyes where shining brighter than the Star "

(Canto 2, line 55)

According to the opinion of many commentators, the singular "Star" is here used with plural meaning (because they describe "her eyes", there should reasonably be at least two stars). A similar use of the singular is found in the Vita Nova: "Then, as it seemed, I by degrees beheld/ The sun grow dark, and then the star appear".

Page 10. " All contained Within the heaven that has the lesser circles "

(Canto 2, lines 77-78)

That is to say, "within the Moon heaven": since the Moon heaven is the lowest one, it is also the one with the smallest circumference. Sapegno elaborates that all things below the Moon heaven are mortal and everything above immortal. The meaning of the line then simply becomes "all things on earth".

Page 10. " The here descending down into this centre "

(Canto 2, line 83)

"This centre", that is to say, the centre of the Earth, and of the universe, where Hell is situated.

Page 10. " Of those things only should one be afraid Which have the power of doing others harm; Of the rest, no; because they are not fearful "

(Canto 2, lines 88-90)

This passage seems to derive from Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics" and its discussion on what things should be feared. However, Dante is believed to have been ignorant of Greek, and his allusions to ancient Greek classics were therefore borrowed through Latin translations.

Page 10. " A gentle Lady is in Heaven, who grieves At this impediment "

(Canto 2, lines 94-95)

This "gentle Lady" is mother Mary. The "three such Ladies benedight" in line 124 below are therefore the Holy Mother, Lucia, and Beatrice. Early commentators thought that these three saints were charged with bestowing grace, enlightenment and benevolent inspiration, respectively, or that they represented, in turn, compassion, hope and faith.

Page 10. " In her entreaty she besought Lucia "

Saint Lucia
Public DomainSaint Lucia - Credit: Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

(Canto 2, line 97)

Lucia was a saint who according to tradition died a martyr in 303 or 304. She is a patron saint of those who are blind. Dante had a great veneration for this particular saint: in the Convivio, book 3 chapter 9, he describes an ailment of the eyes he had suffered from, and it might be that he hoped for the protection of Lucia.

Page 11. " Where I was sitting with the ancient Rachel "

Rachel and Jacob
Public DomainRachel and Jacob - Credit: James Tissot

(Canto 2, line 102)

Rachel, according to Genesis chapters 29-35, was the second daughter of Laban. Both she and her older sister Leah became wives of Jacob. Traditionally, Rachel is a symbol of the "contemplative life", while her sister Leah represents the "active life". Rachel died in childbirth and was buried close to Bethlehem, where Jacob set a pillar. A building proposed to be the very site is still frequented by religious Jews.

Page 11. " Beside that flood, where ocean has no vaunt? "

(Canto 2, line 108)

"That flood" might stand more generally for a flood of sin. However, some have interpreted this flood as the river Acheron in Hell, or even as Arno, which flows through Florence.

Page 13. " My maker was divine authority, The highest wisdom, and the primal love "

Dante and Virgil enter Hell
Public DomainDante and Virgil enter Hell - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 3, lines 5-6)

It might appear strange that Hell should be characterised as created by "primal love". Actually, it is the divine Trinity which is meant: in the Convivio, Dante has described the Trinity in a very like manner: the "supreme power of the Father", "the supreme wisdom of the Son" and the "supreme and most fervent love of the Holy Spirit". Sapegno explains that Hell is not only a product of the authority or power of God, but as much a product of the wisdom that have created an orderly universe and the love whose supreme manifestation is justice, the three different aspects of God.

Page 13. " Before me nothing but eternal things were made, And I endure eternally "

(Canto 3, lines 7-8)

This is to say that before God created Hell, he first created angels, the heavenly bodies in the nine heavens and the four elements (air, water, earth and fire) of Greek mythology, all of which are "eternally enduring". Afterwards, when some sinful angels led by Lucifer rebelled against God and were driven out of Paradise, they were banished to Hell, which was created only then. After that did God create the Earth, animals, plants, men and all other things not "eternally enduring".

Page 14. " Who have foregone the good of intellect "

(Canto 3, line 18)

"The good of intellect" stands for the highest truth. The idea comes from Aristotle's "Ethics", as Dante himself explains in the Convivio: " contemplate the truth, which is our ultimate perfection, as the Philosopher says in the sixth book of the Ethics when he says that truth is the good of the intellect." Here the phrase should be inferred to stand for God, who represents this highest truth.

Page 14. " Who lived withouten infamy or praise "

(Canto 3, line 36)

These are the "uncommitted", who never did anything for either good or bad, and are therefore cast away by God and Hell alike.

Page 14. " Commingled are they with that caitiff choir Of Angels "

(Canto 3, lines 37-38)

The so-called "neutral" angels. They are not really canonical and more like a part of popular belief, however in Revelation 3:15-16 it is said about the "angel of the church of the Laodiceans": "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

Page 15. " Who made through cowardice the great refusal "

(Canto 3, line 60)

There are different speculations on who this may refer to, but most commentators believe it is Pope Celestine V, famous for abdicating the papacy. Also known as Pietro da Morrone, he was born sometime around 1210-1215 in a humble household. Most of his life was spent in asceticism and solitude. After the death of Pope Nicholas IV in April 1292, he was elected Pope by an assembly of cardinals at Perugia two years later. After hesitating some time, he finally accepted and was crowned in August 1294. However, Celestine remained in Naples and did not go to Rome to take the office. It is sometimes speculated that his election as Pope may have been the result of pressure from Charles II of Naples. Very soon, he starting feeling powerless towards the political environment around him and decided to abdicate, in spite of opposition from Charles. His abdication in December 1294, not four months after his coronation, may also have been prompted by cardinal Gaetani, who succeeded him as Pope Boniface VIII the same month. After his abdication, Celestine, who wished to resume his life of solitude, was however imprisoned by Boniface in the castle Fumone, where he died of disease in May 1296.

Dante regarded Boniface VIII as the instigator of both the factional fighting in Florence and the persecution of himself. Because Celestine V's abdication opened the way for Boniface's rise to power, Dante places him here among the uncommitted souls of no ambition. However, Celestine has otherwise mostly been portrayed as virtuous and respected, and he was subsequently canonized, in 1313. Scholars puzzled by Dante's condemnation of Celestine have proposed that this line refers to some other person, like Pilate, who seeked to avoid the responsibility for Jesus' death; Roman emperor Diocletian, who likewise abdicated as emperor after 20 years' reign; or Esau, who sold his birthright as eldest son in the Genesis account.

Page 16. " Upon the dismal shore of Acheron "

(Canto 3, line 78)

In Greek mythology and popular legend, Acheron is one of the rivers of the underworld. According to one tradition, Acheron was a son of sun god Helios, and earth goddess Gaia, but was turned into an underworld river after he had offered water to the Titans during their contest with Zeus.

Page 16. " An old man, hoary with the hair of eld "
Public DomainCharon - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 3, line 83)

This old man is Charon, the ferryman who carries souls over the river into Hell. In mythology, he is the son of the dark god Erebus and Nyx, goddess of the Night. One tradition claims that he only ferries those souls who where interred after death, and charges one obol, a coin placed in the mouth of the dead, for the ride.

Page 16. " By other ways, by other ports "

(Canto 3, line 91)

Dante's soul has not been sentenced to eternal damnation, and therefore does not need to cross the Acheron. Other souls gather at the mouth of the Tiber and board a light vessel to the Purgatory island. Detailed descriptions appear in Purgatory Cantos 2 and 25.

Page 16. " there where is power to do That which is willed "

(Canto 3, lines 95-96)

Highlighting the omnipotence of God in the Empyrean.

Page 17. " God they blasphemed and their progenitors, The human race, the place, the time, the seed Of their engendering and of their birth! "

(Canto 3, lines 103-105)

These curses seem biblical in origin, as in Job 3:3, "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived." and Jeremiah 20:14, "Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed."

Page 17. " As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off, First one and then another, till the branch Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils "

The shore of Acheron
Public DomainThe shore of Acheron - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 3, lines 112-114)

Here Dante imitates Virgil in that poet's own description of the throngs on the shores of Acheron in book 6 of the Aeneid: "As many as the leaves that fall in the woods at the first frost of autumn".

Page 20. " The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss "

(Canto 4, line 24)

Dante imagines Hell as a circular, funnel-shaped structure in the Northern hemisphere of the earth. His Inferno is divided into nine "circles", which are then variously subdivided according to different circumstances or specific sins. Like the steps of a Greek amphitheatre, each circle is situated below the preceding, all the way down to the centre of the earth, where Lucifer, king of Hell, is placed. This Canto describes the first circle, the so-called "Limbo", the "edge" of Hell the furthest from its centre. Here dwell virtuous souls who lived before the age of Christ and unbaptized children, who need not be punished but for these reasons still cannot enter Paradise.

Page 20. " 'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest; "

(Canto 4, lines 35-36)

Baptism is the first of the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony) and therefore here termed the "portal" of the faith.

Page 21. " I was a novice in this state When I saw hither come a Mighty One, With sign of victory incoronate "

(Canto 4, lines 51-53)

"A novice in this state", That is to say, relatively newly arrived: Virgil died in 19 BC, 53 years before Jesus' death at 34 years, which by the time of Dante's pilgramage through Inferno in 1300 was 1266 years ago. Jesus is the "Mighty One" referred to here - his name is never mentioned in the Comedy. Dante describes Jesus as he was often depicted in Christian iconography: with a halo around his head marked with the symbol of the Cross, ("with sign of victory incoronate") or sometimes carrying a banner of the Cross in one hand.

Page 21. " Hence he drew forth the shade of the First Parent, And that of his son Abel, and of Noah, Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient Abraham, patriarch, and David, king, Israel with his father and his children, And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much "

(Canto 4, lines 55-60)

"The First Parent" is Adam. Abel, Adam's second son, was a shepherd, while his brother Cain was a farmer. Both of them presented their offerings to God, but only Abel's offerings pleased Him. Out of envy, Cain killed Adam (as described in Genesis 4:1-8), which is why the Comedy describes Abel as saved from Hell by Jesus, while Cain was condemned to the ninth circle of Hell, to which he lends his name, "Caïna".

Noah was a descendant of Adam's third son Seth, described as a honest man without faults. When God witnessed the incurable state of sin among the people of the world he was so angered that he planned on letting the whole world perish in a giant flood, but then ordered Noah to build an ark and let his family escape the catastrophe. (Chapters 5-10 of Genesis).

Moses and the tablets of law
Public DomainMoses and the tablets of law - Credit: José de Ribera
Moses was the one who led the people of Israel away from Egypt and the Pharaoh's persecution to live in Canaan. The book of Exodus tells how he received the ten commandments from God on Mount Sinai and established the laws of the people of God, thereby laying the foundation for the religion of Judaism. Joshua 1:1 refers to him as "the servant of the Lord".

Abram, a descendant of Noahs eldest son Sem, was given the name "Abraham" by God, as described in chapters 11-17 of Genesis, wherein it is said (Genesis 17:5): "the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him ... Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee." Thus he is here referred to as "patriarch", and even today are the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam together labelled as "Abrahamic" religions. He is also called "the obedient" here, because of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac on the command of God - who, however, interfered at the last moment and let Isaac live. (Genesis chapter 22)

David was an 11th/10th century BC king of Israel and Judah. According to conventional dating he succeeded Saul (who had repeatedly conspired against him) as king of Israel in 1003 BC. David was the seventh and youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem and rose to prominence after slaying the giant Goliath in a battle against the Philistines. After occupying Jerusalem, he made the city into his capital and ruled from there for thirty years. David is credited with making improvements to the harp and turning music into an important part of the Jewish sacrifice, and also as the author of the 150 Psalms (see 1, 2 Samuel).

Jacob wrestling with the angel
Public DomainJacob wrestling with the angel - Credit: Gustave Doré
Israel, or Jacob, was one of the twin sons of Isaac, son of Abraham. His brother was Esau. Once, on his way back to the ancestral home together with his family, Jacob wrestled with an angel without being overpowered. He therefore demanded a blessing from the angel, who told him that his name henceforward should be Israel, not Jacob, since he could match strength with God as well as men. See further Genesis chapters 25, 31, 32, 35.

Rachel was the second daughter of Jacob's uncle Laban. Jacob came to him after his father had sent him away to find a wife. When he met Rachel, he immediately fell in love with her. Laban agreed to his proposal and promised to wed Rachel to him if he would work for him seven years. But after toiling seven years to receive Rachel as his bride, Laban gave him Rachel's sister Leah as wife instead, on the grounds that a younger sister cannot be married before an older. However, he would agree to Rachel marrying him seven days after Leah, but only if Jacob would work for him seven more years. In total, Jacob therefore came to work fourteen years for Laban. (Genesis 28, 29).

Page 22. " In the mean time a voice was heard by me "

(Canto 4, line 79)

It is not specified who this voice belongs to, but it might be supposed that it is Homer, the most senior of the poets they are about to meet, speaking.

Page 22. " That one is Homer, Poet sovereign; He who comes next is Horace, the satirist; The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan. "

(Canto 4, lines 88-90)

Homer (maybe 8th century BC) was the preeminent poet of ancient Greece, the author of the famous epic poems "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey". The historical figure is much disputed, with some accounts romanticizing him as a blind beggar-poet, others doubting his existence altogether, instead proposing that the two epics were fashioned from rhapsodic material among the common people. Dante did not know Greek and according to commentators, his understanding of Homer primarily came through the works of Horace and Cicero; in his "Vita Nova," "Convivio" and "De Monarchia" are found borrowings from Homer as quoted in the works of Aristotle and Horace. Dante, who considered Homer among the greatest poets, here portrays him with "falchion in his hand", because of his great skill in composing poems of war.

Horatius reading
Public DomainHoratius reading - Credit: Fyodor Bronnikov

Horace (65-8 BC), full name Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was one of the most important Roman poets. He studied in Greece and was present at the battle of Philippi, where Octavian (later Augustus) and Mark Antony defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius. He was a good friend of Virgil and is remembered for the two books of his "Satires" and two volumes of "Epistles", among others.

Ovid (43 BC - 17/18 AD), full name Publius Ovidius Naso, was another famous Roman poet. For some unknown reason, he was banished in 8 AD to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by emperor Augustus, where he remained until his death. His most famous work is maybe the "Metamorphoses".

Dante with the ancient poets
Public DomainDante with the ancient poets - Credit: Gustave Doré
Lucan (39-65 AD), full name Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, also a Roman poet, was a nephew of the philosopher Seneca the Younger. He is best remembered for his epic poem "Pharsalia" in ten books (taking its name from the decisive Battle of Pharsalus), commemorating the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. At the age of 26, he was accused of treason against the tyrant Nero, which led him to commit suicide. In his work "De vulgari eloquentia", Dante praised him and Ovid as models of literary style and calls him "great poet" in the Convivio.

Page 23. " We came unto a noble castle's foot "

(Canto 4, line 106)

The "noble castle" in Limbo to separate the souls of certain great persons from the rest is an invention of Dante, according to some an expression of his "proto-humanism". There has been a certain amount of debate concerning the exact meaning of the castle. Some think the castle represents science, with the seven walls or seven portals standing for the "seven arts" (often called "the seven liberal arts"): that is, the "Trivium" of grammar, rhetoric and logic and the "Quadrivium" of arithmetic, algebra, astronomy and music. Other commentators separate the walls from the portals, with the walls representing the seven virtues, that is the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, restraint and courage together with the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, while the portals stand for the seven arts. Still others believe the castle stands for philosophy, while the walls (and its portals) represent its seven branches, that is, physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, economics, mathematics and dialectics. Reggio thinks that the castle stands for the noble character of man and points to the passage in the Convivio that says "wherever there is virtue there is nobility", whereby it would be acceptable to view the walls of the castle as representing the seven virtues. Concerning the "rivulet" "defending" the castle, it is often believed it stands for some kind of barrier - that is to say, in order to achieve the superior inner character of man (enter the castle), it is necessary to overcome the lowly thoughts and bad habits which people have.

Page 23. " I saw Electra with companions many, 'Mongst whom I knew both Hector and Aeneas, Caesar in armour with gerfalcon eyes; I saw Camilla and Penthesilea "

(Canto 4, lines 121-124)

The Electra mentioned here is the Pleiad, mother of Dardanus who founded Troy, not the more famous daughter of Agamemnon who is the main character in tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides. Her "companions many" include her illustrious descendants, Hector, Aeneas and Ceasar. Hector was Troy's greatest hero, who instilled great fear in the Greek forces during the Trojan war. He was killed by Achilles; as was the Penthesilea here mentioned, queen of the Amazons, who came to assist the besieged city of Troy.

Page 23. " I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia, And saw alone, apart, the Saladin "

The rape of Lucretia
Public DomainThe rape of Lucretia - Credit: Tizian

(Canto 4, lines 127-129)

"That Brutus" is Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the last Roman king, Tarquinius. The details of his story vary; according to one version, when his friend Collatinus' wife Lucretia was raped by Tarquinius' son Sextus (around 510 BC), she stabbed herself in front of her husband after imploring him to revenge her, which led Brutus and Collatinus to start an uprising among the people of Rome. They succeeded in driving away Tarquinius and abolished the monarchy, instead establishing a republic of patricians. Brutus and Collatinus themselves became two of the first consuls of the new republic. Later, Brutus was forced to sentence two of his own sons to death, after they had been conspiring to restore the monarchy. His death came during a war against Tarquinius' forces: the son of the old king, Aruns and Brutus speared each other to death, maybe in 508 BC.

Julia (83-54 BC) was the daughter of Julius Caesar, famed for her virtue. She was married to Pompey after the breaking-off of a previous engagement.

Marcia was the wife of Roman statesman Cato (95-46 BC). She was divorced by Cato and was instead married to orator and advocate Hortensius, after whose death she returned to Cato. Dante applauded her fidelity and love to her first husband: in the Convivio, he says: "Marcia returned at the beginning of her widowhood to Cato, signifying that the noble soul returns to God at the beginning of senility."

Cornelia declining Ptolemy's crown
Public DomainCornelia declining Ptolemy's crown - Credit: Laurent de la Hyre
Cornelia (c. 190-100 BC) was a classic Roman example of a woman of perfect virtue. She was the daughter of the famous general Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War, and wife of the politician Gracchus. She was noted for her modesty, intelligence and devotion to her sons, Tiberius and Gaius. As tribunes of the Republic, both of these sons incurred patrician opposition for proposing popular reforms of agrarian legislation and were murdered when their reforms failed, in 133 and 121 BC respectively. After the death of her sons, Cornelia devoted herself to the study of Greek and Roman literature, and she is believed to have refused a marriage proposal from Egyptian king Ptolemy shortly after her husband's demise. A famous anecdote concerning her tells of a noblewoman showing off her jewels to her; in response, she pointed to her sons and said: "These are my jewels." The Romans greatly revered her virtuous character and erected a statue of her after her death, bearing the inscription "Mother of the Gracchi". Note that a minority of commentators believe this "Cornelia" to refer to Pompey's fifth wife.

Saladin victorious
Public DomainSaladin victorious - Credit: Gustave Doré
Saladin (1137-1193) was a famous Muslim lord. He became the Sultan of Egypt in 1174, whereafter he conquered Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine. In 1187 he occupied Jerusalem; during the Third Crusade, he fought against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip II of France. He was recognized as a man of many accomplishments, military and civil, winning much respect even in Western countries. Boccaccio speaks well of him in his "Decameron", and Dante, in the Convivio, numbers him among other generous, liberal lords. Probably because of his Muslim faith, Dante describes him as "alone, apart".

Page 24. " When I had lifted up my brows a little, The Master I beheld of those who know "

(Canto 4, lines 130-131)

This "Master" is Aristotle (384-322 BC). In Dante's view, philosophers and scientists were counted as one notch nobler than politicians - accordingly, they sit higher, and he must "lift his brow" to behold them. Dante had the utmost respect for Aristotle, often refers to him as simply "the Philosopher" (as in the Convivio book 4, chapter 8) and says of him that "Aristotle is most worthy of faith and obedience" and "his words are the supreme and highest authority" (also Convivio).

Page 24. " There I beheld both Socrates and Plato "

(Canto 4, line 134)

Socrates (469-399 BC) was the teacher of Plato (427-347 BC), who in turn was Aristotle's teacher. Dante regarded these two as the founders of moral philosophy, as it was perfected later by Aristotle. See further the Convivio.

Page 24. " Democritus, who puts the world on chance, Diogenes, Anaxagoras, and Thales, Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus "
Various Greek philosophers
Public DomainVarious Greek philosophers - Credit: Raphael

(Canto 4, lines 136-138)

Democritus (ca. 460-370 BC), Greek thinker who first formulated the "atomistic philosophy", according to which the universe is an atomic structure assembled from random chaos according to mechanical laws.

It is believed that "Diogenes" can refer either to Diogenes, founder of Cynic philosophy (c. 412-323 BC) or his namesake Diogenes of Apollonia, representative of the Ionian school. Commentator Reggio believes the latter to be the more likely candidate, since he is referred to several times by Aristotle, and also mentioned by St. Thomas in connection with Anaxagoras and Thales, like here.

Anaxagoras (c. 500-428 BC) is renowned as the first to bring philosophy to Athens. He is famous for his theory of reality as consisting of an innumerable amount of fragments or "seeds" and their combination and division. He is said to have been banished for denying the divine nature of the sun and moon.

Thales is remembered as the founder of the Ionian school of philosophy and for his belief that water is the principal constituting element of the universe. He is also famous for his study of eclipses.

Commentators are not in agreement whether the Zeno referred to here is the Stoic Zeno (334-262 BC) or Zeno of the Eleatic school (5th century BC). It is possible that Dante, whose knowledge of Greek philosophers derived from the works of Aristotle, might have thought they were one and the same. For example, the Stoic Zeno is mentioned in the Convivio, but characterized there as "the first and most important" of the "very ancient philosophers", which seems incorrect as the Stoic Zeno was a later philosopher than Aristotle.

Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHeraclitus - Credit: Commons user "Odysses"

Empedocles (ca. 490-430 BC) believed that the universe consisted of the four elements fire, air, water and earth, whose combination and division according to the opposing principles of "love" and "strife" was the source of all things and their transformations. He was also a poet, whose works, like those of Homer, were sung at the Olympic games. According to a legend, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the volcano Etna during an eruption.

Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BC) is remembered for his belief that everything in the universe "flows" or changes, by the force of some divine, eternal power. He and Empedocles are classified as "pre-Socratic" philosophers.

Page 24. " Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I, Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca, Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy, Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna, Averroes, who the great Comment made. "

(Canto 4, lines 140-144)

Dioscorides (1st century AD) was a famous Greek physician and natural historian, remembered for his monumental work on herbal medicine "De Materia Medica".

Orpheus is a poet and musician from Greek mythology, whose beautiful singing according to legend had the power to tame wild beasts, stop rivers from flowing and move insentient stones.

Tully is another of Cicero's names (full name Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC), included here because of his accomplishments in philosophy.

Livy (full name Titus Livius Patavinus, 59 BC - 17 AD), was a historian, remembered for his work on Rome and the Romans.

Seneca (full name Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4 BC - 65 AD) was a famous Roman orator, philosopher and poet. He was a tutor of the tyrant Nero, but was forced to commit suicide after he was suspected to conspire against him. In life he was an adherent of Stoic philosophy and the author of nine tragedies.

Euclid (fl. 300 BC) is remembered as the greatest of the Greek mathematicians, famous for his axioms on geometry.

Ptolemy (ca. 90-178) was a Greek mathematician, phycisist and astronomer. The Geocentric theory of the universe, commonly accepted during the Middle Ages until the Copernican revolution of the 16th century, is often associated with him.

Galen (129-201) was a famous Greek physician. He pioneered the observational method of dissection and vivisection as the basis of scientific medicine. His influence on the science of medicine lasted for over one millennium.

Hippocrates (ca. 460-370), ancient Greek physician, often referred to as the Father of Medicine. A corpus of texts including the "Aphorisms", "Epidemics" and "On Ancient Medicine" are associated with him.

Avicenna (Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, c. 980-1037) was an Persian phycisian and philosopher, among others, regarded as a towering figure of the Islamic Golden Age. He is the author of commentaries on works by Aristotle and Neoplatonic philosophers, which had a considerable influence on 13th century thought. In the field of medicine, his most famous works are "The Book of Healing" and "The Canon of Medicine".

Finally, Averroes (Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, 1126-1198) was another Muslim polymath, author of key works on Aristotelian philosophy and considered an outstanding commentator on Aristotle and the Peripatetic philosophers. His theories were noticed under emperor Frederick II, became widespread in Italy and had a lasting influence on Western thought. He is also remembered for his attempts to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Islam.

Page 25. " Down to the second, that less space begirds, And so much greater dole, that goads to wailing "

(Canto 5, lines 2-3)

In the second circle are punished the souls guilty of sins of the flesh. As Dante's hell is funnel-shaped, each circle is smaller than the preceding one, while the sins of the souls punished are greater. Here Dante hears wailing, instead of the mere sighs of the ghosts of Limbo.

Page 25. " There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls "

Public DomainMinos - Credit: Gustave Doré

(Canto 5, line 4)

In Greek mythology, Minos was a king of the island of Crete, the son of Zeus and Europa. He is associated with justice and severity, and mentioned as early as in the works of Homer as the king of the underworld, judge of deceased souls. In Virgil's Aeneid, Minos likewise appears as an underworld judge ("Minos, the strict inquisitor, appears; And lives and crimes, with his assessors, hears. Round in his urn the blended balls he rolls, Absolves the just, and dooms the guilty souls."); Dante follows Virgil here, but adds to the description by making his Minos into a terrible, long-tailed monster.