Dante and Virgil's Relationship in Canto XIV of Dante’s Inferno
In Canto XIV of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil describes the statue of the Old Man of Crete. Dante uses the Old Man of Crete as a metaphor for Virgil’s legacy in order to elucidate the nature of Dante’s and Virgil’s relationship.
In the beginning of the metaphor, Dante carefully and methodically illustrates the grandeur of the Greek empire and Roman civilization. "[Mount Ida] was once chosen," Virgil explains, "as a trusted cradle/ by Rhea for her son" (XIV.100-101). According to Roman mythology, Rhea gave birth to Zeus, who ultimately became the father of all Greek gods and mortal heroes and served as the cornerstone of Greek civilization. Crete, thus, is the "cradle" or birthplace of Greek civilization. In the Aeneid, Crete is also the birthplace of the Roman civilization, a concept that is important because it already begins to point to the greatness of Virgil and his homeland.
The position of the statue of the Old Man provides a straightforward glimpse of the status of Rome and the legacy of Virgil. Standing straight and "erect" (XIV.104), the Old Man "looks at Rome" with his back "turned toward Damietta" (XIV.104-105). The statue’s back faces Damietta, an ancient city in Egypt. What’s more important, though, is that the Old Man is facing Rome. This precise detail makes it clear that Dante the poet wants his contemporary readers to know that Rome is the direction towards which society is converging. The image of the statue looking at Rome "as if it were his mirror" (XIV.105) drives this point further. Within Rome, the Old Man sees a reflection of all of his characteristics; Rome is a natural extension of all the great aspects of the Greek culture, including literature. With these details, Dante is continually reminding the readers of Virgil’s association with Rome, the foothold of society. The Old Man of Crete is a representation of Virgil’s legacy and also a reminder to readers that Virgil has had tremendous influence on Dante.
The connection between Dante and Virgil, however, goes beyond a simple mentor/student relationship. Dante and Virgil are united in their craft, which is to produce literature and communicate through words. They are both poets who, by depicting hell in their works, face the challenge of answering to blasphemy. This common thread is emphasized by the fact the passage about the Old Man is told in the Circle of the Violent Against God. The only way to be violent...