In order to understand how Virgil and Dante presented the figure of Ulysses, it is necessary to analyze their respective works in terms of characterization and symbolism. In the Aeneid, of course, Aeneas is a Trojan prince and is the son of Anchises and Venus. His first wife was Creusa by whom he had a son named Ascanius; and his second wife was Lavinia, daughter of Latinus, the king of Italy, by whom he had a posthumous son called Aeneas Sylvius. Aeneas succeeded his father-in-law in the kingdom, and the Romans called Aeneas their founder.
Virgil reveals his interpretation of the Ulysses legend by incorporating some unique plot devices and character traits into the Aeneid, but he also borrows from other sources to weave his tale. For example, when the besieged city of Troy was finally taken by the Greeks after ten years and set on fire, Aeneas, with his father, son, and wife, took flight, with the intention of going to Italy, the original birthplace of the family. The wife was lost, and the old father died on the way, after numerous perils by sea and land. This development of course parallels to a significant extent what happened to Odysseus in the Odyssey.
It is significant that Virgil then had Aeneas and his son Ascanius reach the land of Italy, where Latinus, the reigning king, received the exiles hospitably, and promised his daughter Lavinia in marriage to Aeneas. Virgil’s hero then married Lavinia and succeeded his father-in-law on the throne. This development was obviously constructed by Virgil to be “against” Ulysses, who of course had experiences much less positive than Virgil’s hero, Aeneas.
On the other hand, there are other parallels, for Aeneas visits the infernal regions, a journey which corresponds to what happens to Homer’s hero in the Odyssey, XI. It is also of interest to note, in the context of being “against” Ulysses, that the story of Sinon and the taking of Troy was borrowed from Pisander, as Macrobius informs us, that the loves of Dido and Aeneas were copied from those of Medea and Jason, in Apollonius, and that the story of the wooden horse and the burning of Troy were from Arctinus of Miletus.
Essentially, in analyzing the issues of this discussion, and in assessing to what extent Virgil used Ulysses as a symbol and to what extent he used him as a rounded character, it is illuminating to remind ourselves that the ostensible purpose of Virgil’s Aeneid was to express Rome’s national greatness and destiny by means of a story concerning her legendary origin. This explains why Virgil depicted elements of Ulysses’ adventures that were not depicted in the Odyssey, some of which can not be reconciled with Homer’s plot.
Significantly, the epic was virtually complete, with only some lines left unfinished, when Virgil decided to spend three more years on revision. He set out on a voyage to Greece in order to experience local color for his textual modifications, but contracted a fever immediately, returned to Italy, and died, leaving instructions that the Aeneid should be burnt because he wasn’t happy with it. The Aeneid, and Virgil’s handling of the Ulysses legend, as well as the other elements of the tale, were preserved for posterity only because Augustus commanded the work to be published posthumously.
Shifting our attention at this point from an examination of Virgil’s Aeneid to an analysis of Dante’s Inferno and his handling of the Ulysses legend in the context of his own creative processes, we should note that Dante never read the Odyssey in the original nor in translation, but was familiar with Homer’s plot and was thus aware that Odysseus did reach Ithaca in the Odyssey.
It is also significant that when he was writing this work, Dante was influenced primarily by the classical writers Ovid and Virgil. Although Dante did populate his version of Hell with personal enemies, there were also noble people like Ulysses that he found in Hell. In the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Dante speaks to Ulysses, the great hero of Homer’s epics, now doomed to an eternity among those guilty of Spiritual Theft, along with the False Counselors, for his role in executing the ruse of the Trojan Horse.
Unlike in Homer’s tale, in Dante Ulysses never goes back home. He turns out of the Mediterranean Sea and sails into the Atlantic Ocean until he comes to an island, where he shipwrecks and dies in the search for knowledge and virtue. Subsequently, we find that Dante presents Ulysses, whose sins have been noted to be fraudulent counsel and transgression of God’s ordained limits, as both an anti-crusader, traveling to the wrong city, and as a sodomite, illicitly penetrating boundaries.
In addition to this, it should be noted as well that nearly all of the themes of Canto 26—such as the accounts of the shipwreck, fire, seed, bestiality, and penetration of the city—are commonplace elements of medieval anti-sodomitical literature. Furthermore, Dante aligns Ulysses in Hell with the figure who most strongly represents the danger of sodomy, Brunetto Latini.
Both of these sinners are guilty of linguistic transgression, which is manifested in both Brunetto’s sodomy and Ulysses’s penetration of God’s “cities,” Troy and the divinely ordained limits at the earthly Paradise. Dante indicates very carefully to his readers the close relationship between penetration and crusading through the similar thematics of the cantos of Brunetto, Ulysses, and Dante’s ancestor and crusader, Cacciaguida.
The relation between this construction of crusading and Ulysses’s fraudulent counsel is crystallized by Ulysses’ clear echo of Urban II’s speech, for both speeches assert the importance of not letting love of family hinder them and of remembering the deeds of their ancestors. Dante is, in effect, warning his readers that The City of God needs protection from such wanderers as Ulysses, the anti-crusader and transgressor, but as Dante and Langland recognize, protectors can too easily turn into the penetrators. The perverse dynamic is thus most keenly operative in such a self-consciously Christian poem that seeks to enact a crusade and pilgrimage.
In the context of assessing Ulysses, Dante’s use of the Harpies is also revealing, for these monsters frequently appear throughout Greek mythology and classical poetry, one instance being in Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the Harpies plunder Aeneas on his way to Italy, and predict many calamities that would overtake him. However, as in many other instances throughout the Inferno, Dante takes the classical interpretation of mythological and human figures and gives a more frightening aura to them, which adds to the ambiance of terror in Inferno.
For example, in his interpretation of Ulysses and other classical characters and themes, it is clear that Dante was one of the first great writers who understood the importance of horror in literature. His epic narrative journey, although consisting of three parts, is mostly remembered for the Inferno.
It is even more evident that Dante understood, as Homer and Virgil had, and as his presentation of Ulysses in Hell illustrates, the dark side of human nature. He understood the beast within all of us, and knew that the insanity of the soul interests us because it emancipates us, if only for a short time, from the humdrum of our succinct, bland lives and takes us into a world where the rules of the world break down at the sub-atomic level, and are built back up again, not in God’s image, but in our own sometimes twisted ones.
In conclusion, in Inferno and the Aeneid, Dante and Virgil borrowed the Ulysses legend and incorporated their own themes into their stories and presentations of him in order to make their own points about life, death, hell, and God. Studying this issue is fascinating, for it is so complex, and can be open to so many interpretations, that one hardly knows where to begin or end the discussion.
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