Just and Unjust Punishments in Inferno

Dante and Virgil in Purgatory

Just and unjust punishments are a widely debated topic for Dante critics. Dante, himself, placed all those he deemed to belong to hell in their "respective circles". Many argue that the placements of some people were wrong, while others argue that Dante was aware of what he was doing. Some scholars firmly believe that "Dante wanted only to properly apply the pre-established standard of justice to his interpretation of hell. Another camp, however, contends that Dante is attempting to redefine completely the popular image of hell" (Kameen, 2009). Were some of those eternally damned souls wrongly or rightly accused, like the blind prophet Tiresias of Circle 8, Bolgia 4, or Pier delle Vigne of Circle 7, Round 2?

Dante, the protagonist of the journey, follows the prolific poet Virgil through the nine circles of Hell. Each circle depicts the punished, who must fulfill their eternity through punishments that match their sins of the mortal world. The circles include Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery. As Dante walks through the circles, the punishments witnessed in each circle become far more vile than those witnessed from the previous one. Dante pauses to listen to the damned as he travels into the depths of the non-human realm.

The blind prophet, Tiresias of the ancient Greek city of Thebes, was endowed with the powers of foresight. He looked into Oedipus Rex's future and truthfully foretold what he saw: Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus fulfilled this prophecy by accident, despite his very attempt to do everything in his power to avoid his predicted fate. This displays that Tiresias, “who by his arts” (Inf., Canto XX, Line 40), was not false in his visions. Even when his prophecy came true, Dante still placed the prophet into the circle of the inferno, where he must suffer a deserved fate. The proper punishment to someone with this gift is to walk forever backwards with his head turned around and be blinded, if not already blind in the case of Tiresias, by tears in the eighth circle and fourth bolgia of hell. Despite accurately predicting Oedipus’ life, losing his sight and having to walk backwards is far from an ungrounded punishment for Tiresias and other diviners because, considering the premise that divination is an unnatural power, their sentence would prevent them from seeing anything, whether correct or incorrect, through this unnatural means. Tiresias is also accompanied by his daughter on his walks but he cannot see her, another fitting punishment he must suffer.

Inferno, the Divine Comedy

Opposing the fitting punishment assigned by Dante is that of the unjust. In the seventh circle round two of the Inferno there are those who were violent towards themselves, or, to a greater extent, took their own lives. The victims convicted of such crimes are buried in trees on which the Harpies feed. When one of the Harpies plucks a leaf, or a branch, from the tree, it suffers immense pain and bleeds. Dante is instructed by his guide, Virgil, to uproot a particular tree. Buried in the tree is Pier delle Vigne, who cries out desperately to Dante in anguish, “Why do you break me?” (Inf., Canto XIII, Line 35). From this, it becomes evident that delle Vigne suffers greatly from the wounds that the Harpies inflict. The Wood of the Suicides appears to be an insensitive punishment for those who committed suicide, in the sense that, if those souls were so tortured in life and pushed to self-destruction, they should not have to deal with the incessant torture in hell. The action of Dante breaking the branch is a sobering moment for the traveler. It is at that very moment when he realizes that delle Vigne is losing his sense of self and at the same time he is still going through agonies as intense as those he faced in the mortal world. What is even more sobering is the fact that Virgil asks Dante to break a branch, which evokes a sense of pity in him at such a drastic level that he is almost unable to speak (Sobczak, 2018). It is simply unfair that those poor souls that Dante placed here are resigned to such an unjust punishment in the afterlife.

Whether the punishments that Dante chose to assign to all those suffering in hell are just or not will forever remain up to interpretation. He wrote what he saw fit for each of the souls condemned to eternal damnation and offered his own reasoning for their placement in hell. Yet the examples above are two rather stark comparisons of what is still fair and what is not.


Alighieri, D. (2003). The Inferno, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. New York: Modern Library. Retrieved from https://www.fulltextarchive.com/pdfs/Dante-s-Inferno.pdf

Kameen, J. (2009). Darkness Visible: Dante’s Clarification of Hell. Journal of the Arts & Sciences Writing Program, 2, 37-41.

Sobczak, Alexandra (2018) The Presence of Pity: Course Paper on Dante’s Inferno. Medium. https://medium.com/@asobcza2/the-presence-of-pity-course-paper-on-dantes-inferno-8fc6dab19922

Image Sources

Di Fruosino, Bartolomeo, (1430 and 1435) Inferno, from the Divine Comedy by Dante (Folio 1v) [Painting] Bibliotèque Nationale de France


Morelli, Domenico (n.d.) Dante e Virgilio nel Purgatorio [Painting] La Repubblica Firenzeit. https://firenze.repubblica.it/cronaca/2011/05/29/foto/quadri_libri_e_cortometraggi_tutto_dante-16896924/17/

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Alanna Maier

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