The Aeneid and The Inferno: Social Evolution
Graduate Paper, MIT, (1998)
The afterlife as a residence for souls after death has long been a topic of discussion and debate. This notion intrigues us: It is a concept that we cannot know about except through direct experience, which, once obtained, cannot be shared. Yet this does not prevent us from envisioning its form. Since the earliest Greek Epics, such as Homer’s The Iliad, society has imagined an Underworld, a place beneath the Earth that houses souls. Though our expectations about such a place have changed over the centuries, many of the concepts about the Underworld represented in Greek and Latin poems are still believed today.
The best-known and most influential description of the afterlife is Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In his first book, The Inferno, Dante explores Hell, the place in which sinners reside after they die. His account is heavily derived from Book VI of Virgil’s The Aeneid , which describes Aeneas’s journey into the Underworld. Written over 1400 years apart, the two works share much in their views of life after death, considering the tremendous changes society had gone through during the interim. The differences in their portrayals of the Underworld point to fundamental differences in society’s beliefs about the afterlife during those periods. By comparing and contrasting the depictions of the Underworld, we can examine the evolution of pre-Christian Latin society into the Christian society of the Middle Ages. We can further comment on society’s changing views of sin and evil behavior, and their punishment in the afterlife.