Ironically, Dante’s guide to Hell, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, resides in the first circle, called Limbo. Along with him Dante places other excellent ancient poets, such as Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Dante makes clear that these men lived virtuous lives, but because they lived before the time of Christ, they were unbaptized. According to Catholic theology of the Middle Ages, the virtuous unbaptized were unable to obtain Heaven, but instead were relegated to Limbo, where there is no actual punishment but only an eternal sadness to be forever separated from God and Heaven. The idea was that, even though through no fault of their own they were unbaptized and unaware of God and Christ, upon entering Hell they would receive full knowledge of these things, lending to their sorrow. Through Virgil, Dante is demonstrating a common Catholic belief of his time:
My good master said to me, "You do not ask
what spirits these are. Now,
I want you to know before you go farther
that they did not sin, but having merit
was not enough, for they lacked baptism,
which is a portal to that faith you hold."
Dante’s response to Virgil’s speech suggests that he may have balked somewhat at this Catholic concept, as he writes, “Great grief gripped my heart when I heard this.”
However, other people that Dante writes into his Inferno seem to be there for reasons more personal to Dante. A prime example would be Farinata degli Uberti, a soul he and Virgil speak with in the sixth circle, which is reserved for heretics who exclaimed against the immortality of the soul. Although Farinata died a year before Dante’s birth, his family was a political enemy of Dante’s family. In 1260 when Farinata’s party captured control of Florence, Dante’s family was driven out. In The Inferno, Dante describes Farinata as still plagued by twisted hatred, taunting Dante. Farinata argues, feeling self-justified:
"Tell me why the people are so fierce
against my kindred in all their laws."
Then [Dante] to him, "The slaughter and havoc
which dyed the Arbia red
cause such prayers to rise in our temple."
Farinata cannot let go of his bitter, eternal anger, which seems to be part of the souls’ punishments in The Inferno. Dante certainly seems to enjoy putting Farinata in his place, committing him and other heretics to spend eternity in flaming, torturous tombs. Dante could certainly have created a fictitious figure to demonstrate the heretics, or a person well-recognized by the Church for heresy, but he chose to give an example personally meaningful to himself and his family. A bit vindictive to mar the name of your enemy by immortalizing him in literary Hell? Quite so!