Comparing The Divine Comedy to ancient Greek and Roman Epics, by Charles Geter 02.29.08
The Divine Comedy, (or simply Commedia)
seems drastically different in style than the ancient epics by Homer and Virgil. Yet it is interesting that Dante has constant references to Greco-Roman mythology in his work. Dante drew from much of the classic mythological material, and he refers to them continuously, so much so that knowledge of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology considerably enhances one's enjoyment of the poem. That being said, the layout of the entire work is noticeably different from that of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid.
On the surface, the plot of Commedia has little in common with the work of Virgil. However, on closer inspection, we see that both Dante and Virgil's poems follow a single main character through his entire journey. In Aeneid, that character is Aeneas; In Commedia Dante himself is the protagonist. Both of these contrast with The Iliad, which is about a battle between the Trojans and Achaeans, rather than about a single character's journey. Although we do have similarity between the basic structures of Aeneid and Commedia, Dante's passage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is drastically distinct from Aeneas wanderings. Dante did not intend the story to be understood only in the literal sense; allegorical meaning permeates the entire poem. In contrast, Virgil's Aeneas journeys through an epic adventure, but rarely does the adventure approach any philosophical dimension. It is more rooted in the romance of the action and adventure.
An interesting similarity between Commedia and Aeneid is that both Aeneas and Dante journey through Hell. Aeneas goes to the underworld to see his father Anchises. Dante is led through Hell by Virgil to see the consequences of Sin. Interestingly, Dante's description of Hell has some similarity to Virgil's description of the underworld. And fittingly, Dante writes that Virgil guides him through Hell and answers any questions he might ask about it. This explains why Dante used Virgil's description as a springboard for his own poem, where he elaborates on The Aeneid's comparatively terse sequence in the underworld. In no way does it imply he is less original. Dante's use of the first person is brilliant, and makes the journey more exciting. Commedia is so interesting to read because of the skill with which Dante blends the elements of pagan mythology with the truth of Christianity. He refers to many epic heroes, and other mythological characters of all kinds, and some of them are placed in various circles of Hell. For instance, a prime example is Odysseus, who is put in Hell because of his plots during the Trojan War (he designed the Trojan Horse, and had other cunning plans). Not all of the mythical Greeks and Romans are placed in Hell; some of the suffering souls allude to various mythological characters as well.
The romantic interests are portrayed in quite differently in Aeneid and Commedia. Aeneas love interest, namely Dido, the queen of Carthage is not virtuous; rather, she is shot with Cupid's arrow, and burns with mad desire for the love of Aeneas. Aeneas stays at Carthage for a year but, as he is warned by Mercury to leave Carthage to found Rome, he leaves, and Dido kills herself. The woman who guides Dante through Heaven in the third part of Commedia is a woman whom Dante loved dearly in real life, named Beatrice. She died rather young, but in the poem she guides Dante through the Spheres of Heaven. Dante loved her intensely in an almost spiritual way, and so she has a character that is really good, as opposed to the selfishness of Dido. In a way this is representative of the difference between the two poems. The Aeneid is more concerned with an epic adventure story, while the Commedia transcends this, instead showing the glory of Heaven.
Commedia is an epic, but in a much different sense than the Greek and Roman epics. This is an epic, but a Christian epic that is concerned with where souls go after death. The allegorical sense of the entire poem is a secondary layer beneath the literal meaning, which gives the poem depth. Homer and Virgil were speaking or writing beautiful poetry, but it was more concerned about the exciting and larger-than-life events of the heroes. Apart from a brief sojourn in the afterlife, Aeneas is concerned about founding Rome, basically living the life of a warrior. Homer in The Iliad shows us the battle between the Trojans and Achaeans (later corresponding to the ancestors of the Romans and Greeks, respectively), and apart from describing souls fleeing their bodies, is not particularly concerned with the afterlife. So overall, the ancient poets were writing epics with heroes, admittedly, but they did not make the afterlife their center in the same way as Dante. Dante planned his entire poem around Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, while giving us deep allegorical undertones. What a memorable combination!