In part 1 one of Dante's Inferno, "The Dark Wood", the narrator is introduced to a figure:

At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
"Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man." And it replied:

"Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub julio, and bred

in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises' noble son

who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you—why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy

which is the seat and first cause of man's bliss?"
"And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?" My voice grew tremulous:
(translation by John Ciardi, 1954)

I'm a little confused what all the terms that this poet uses mean. What does he mean by "my blood was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan"? What are either of those things? "sub julio" apparently means in the reign of Julius Caesar, but why is it left untranslated?

What are we supposed to understand about this ghost from his introduction of himself?


2 Answers 2


The passage contains a number of curious anachronisms. It seems that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua. Mantua is now the capital of Lombardy, but that name did not come into existence until several centuries after Virgil's death. The name is derived from Longobardus, and the Longobards or Lombards didn't invade Italy until the sixth century.

Another anachronism is the phrase "sub julio" ("sub Iulio" in the Italian text), which means "under Julius". Virgil was probably born in 70 BC, around the time when Julius Caesar began his political career. Caesar didn't rise to power until the civil war that began in 49 BC, so events that took place in 70 BC are not considered to have taken place "under Julius [Caesar]".

Augustus became emperor in 27 BC, when Virgil would have been a grown man, so he did not only "live (...) under Augustus". (Ciardi translated "vissi" in the Italian text as "bred" instead of "lived".)

"[O]ld Anchises' noble son" refers to Aeneas, whose story Virgil told in the Aeneid, written between between 29 and 19 BC (i.e. almost entirely during Augustus's reign).

  • 2
    I thought the question was about Dante's meaning, not about fact-cheecking Dante, or the Virgil character he was quoting.
    – user14111
    Oct 17, 2021 at 5:46
  • So, with all of these anachronisms, what does that say about Virgil?
    – Mithical
    Oct 17, 2021 at 6:43
  • @user14111 Indeed, and my answer explains the meaning of Mantuan, Lombard, sub julio, etcetera.
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 17, 2021 at 16:39

The ghost of the poet Virgil is introducing himself, specifying that he is from the city of Mantua in the province of Lombardy, and that he was born under the reign of Julius Caesar (1). Anchises was the father of Aenias, the hero of Virgil’s most famous work, The Aeneid.

“Sub julio” may be left untranslated to reflect a double meaning in the original Italian. Research on terms in Dante may be accessible here (2).

It seems to be a common tendency in epic poetry - even in other cultures - for characters to provide their own exposition through dialogue in a declarative way, as opposed to indirectly. This contrasts with the detailed information supplied by omniscient third-person narrators in the novel form, centuries later.

What the effect is, is open to subjective interpretation, but we might say it’s a common characteristic of storytelling traditions to provide introductory information about characters, for example, long lists of familial heritage in the Old Testament.

(1) https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-1/

(2) https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.4159/harvard.9780674864184/html

  • Can you explain the "double meaning in the original Italian"? Mar 2, 2022 at 21:49

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