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...
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...to the Romans. Virgil is the conduit through which the tradition of Homeric poets and Greek literature flows. On the other hand, Dante also seems to be describing the deterioration of Virgil’s legacy: the Old Man is "of choicest iron/ except for his right foot, made of baked clay; and he rests more on this than on the left" (XIV.109-111). Furthermore, "down that fissure there are tears that drip" (XIV.113). The tears are metaphors for the flowing away of Virgil’s legacy. The tears form the rivers of hell, which suggests that Dante is using Virgil’s description of hell as a basis for his own vision. By doing so, he builds his reputation but takes away from Virgil’s fame. Dante must stand on his own feet, which is the reason why the Old Man is leaning on his crumbling, "baked clay" foot. Dante’s challenge, then, is upholding Virgil’s legacy while building up his own.
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