An Explanation of Dante's Hell
A reader encountering The Inferno without any prior knowledge of the relationship between the Greek and Roman cultures can easily be confused by Dante’s design of Hell. In the upper circles of Hell Dante has placed characters whose sins included lust, wrath, and violence; in the lower, more evil circles are sinners who lied, deceived, and committed treason. To modern-day readers, this categorization of evils may seem backwards, but Dante’s Hell is consistent with Roman thought.
The Romans adopted almost their entire civilization from the Greeks, except their notion of sin. The Greeks felt that a violent act against another human being was the worst form of evil. A good example is the Trojan Horse in Homer’s The Iliad. The Greeks exalted the resourcefulness and inventiveness of the Trojan Horse. The Roman idiom hated the Trojan Horse for its deceitfulness. The Romans held deceit and treason as the worst of all evils and felt physical violence was not as harsh. This belief could stem from the fact that the Roman Empire was so strong that it had nothing to fear from physical violence but was always defeated by treason and treachery.
Dante believed in the Roman idea of evil, so his structure of Hell is consistent. There are lesser examples of Dante’s affection for Roman culture, such as his spelling “Odysseus” with its Latin form, “Ulysses.” Although it may not fit contemporary views of evil, Dante’s Hell is consistent with the Roman ideas of sin.