Canto 12

THE place where to descend the precipice
We came, was rough as Alp, and on its verge
Such object lay, as every eye would shun.

As is that ruin, which Adice's stream
On this side Trento struck, should'ring the wave,
Or loos'd by earthquake or for lack of prop;
For from the mountain's summit, whence it mov'd
To the low level, so the headlong rock
Is shiver'd, that some passage it might give
To him who from above would pass; e'en such
Into the chasm was that descent: and there
At point of the disparted ridge lay stretch'd
The infamy of Crete, detested brood
Of the feign'd heifer: and at sight of us
It gnaw'd itself, as one with rage distract.
To him my guide exclaim'd: "Perchance thou deem'st
The King of Athens here, who, in the world
Above, thy death contriv'd.  Monster! avaunt!
He comes not tutor'd by thy sister's art,
But to behold your torments is he come."

Like to a bull, that with impetuous spring
Darts, at the moment when the fatal blow
Hath struck him, but unable to proceed
Plunges on either side; so saw I plunge
The Minotaur; whereat the sage exclaim'd:
"Run to the passage! while he storms, 't is well
That thou descend."  Thus down our road we took
Through those dilapidated crags, that oft
Mov'd underneath my feet, to weight like theirs
Unus'd.  I pond'ring went, and thus he spake:

"Perhaps thy thoughts are of this ruin'd steep,
Guarded by the brute violence, which I
Have vanquish'd now. Know then, that when I erst
Hither descended to the nether hell,
This rock was not yet fallen.  But past doubt
(If well I mark) not long ere He arrived,
Who carried off from Dis the mighty spoil
Of the highest circle, then through all its bounds
Such trembling seiz'd the deep concave and foul,
I thought the universe was thrill'd with love,
Whereby, there are who deem, the world hath oft
Been into chaos turn'd: and in that point,
Here, and elsewhere, that old rock toppled down.
But fix thine eyes beneath: the river of blood
Approaches, in the which all those are steep'd,
Who have by violence injur'd."  O blind lust!
O foolish wrath! who so dost goad us on
In the brief life, and in the eternal then
Thus miserably o'erwhelm us.  I beheld
An ample foss, that in a bow was bent,
As circling all the plain; for so my guide
Had told.  Between it and the rampart's base
On trail ran Centaurs, with keen arrows arm'd,
As to the chase they on the earth were wont.

At seeing us descend they each one stood;
And issuing from the troop, three sped with bows
And missile weapons chosen first; of whom
One cried from far: "Say to what pain ye come
Condemn'd, who down this steep have journied?  Speak
From whence ye stand, or else the bow I draw."

To whom my guide: "Our answer shall be made
To Chiron, there, when nearer him we come.
Ill was thy mind, thus ever quick and rash."

Then me he touch'd, and spake: "Nessus is this,
Who for the fair Deianira died,
And wrought himself revenge for his own fate.
He in the midst, that on his breast looks down,
Is the great Chiron who Achilles nurs'd;
That other Pholus, prone to wrath."  Around
The foss these go by thousands, aiming shafts
At whatsoever spirit dares emerge
From out the blood, more than his guilt allows.

We to those beasts, that rapid strode along,
Drew near, when Chiron took an arrow forth,
And with the notch push'd back his shaggy beard
To the cheek-bone, then his great mouth to view
Exposing, to his fellows thus exclaim'd:
"Are ye aware, that he who comes behind
Moves what he touches?  The feet of the dead
Are not so wont."  My trusty guide, who now
Stood near his breast, where the two natures join,
Thus made reply: "He is indeed alive,
And solitary so must needs by me
Be shown the gloomy vale, thereto induc'd
By strict necessity, not by delight.
She left her joyful harpings in the sky,
Who this new office to my care consign'd.
He is no robber, no dark spirit I.
But by that virtue, which empowers my step
To treat so wild a path, grant us, I pray,
One of thy band, whom we may trust secure,
Who to the ford may lead us, and convey
Across, him mounted on his back; for he
Is not a spirit that may walk the air."

Then on his right breast turning, Chiron thus
To Nessus spake: "Return, and be their guide.
And if ye chance to cross another troop,
Command them keep aloof."  Onward we mov'd,
The faithful escort by our side, along
The border of the crimson-seething flood,
Whence from those steep'd within loud shrieks arose.

Some there I mark'd, as high as to their brow
Immers'd, of whom the mighty Centaur thus:
"These are the souls of tyrants, who were given
To blood and rapine.  Here they wail aloud
Their merciless wrongs.  Here Alexander dwells,
And Dionysius fell, who many a year
Of woe wrought for fair Sicily.  That brow
Whereon the hair so jetty clust'ring hangs,
Is Azzolino; that with flaxen locks
Obizzo' of Este, in the world destroy'd
By his foul step-son."  To the bard rever'd
I turned me round, and thus he spake; "Let him
Be to thee now first leader, me but next
To him in rank."  Then farther on a space
The Centaur paus'd, near some, who at the throat
Were extant from the wave; and showing us
A spirit by itself apart retir'd,
Exclaim'd: "He in God's bosom smote the heart,
Which yet is honour'd on the bank of Thames."

A race I next espied, who held the head,
And even all the bust above the stream.
'Midst these I many a face remember'd well.
Thus shallow more and more the blood became,
So that at last it but imbru'd the feet;
And there our passage lay athwart the foss.

"As ever on this side the boiling wave
Thou seest diminishing," the Centaur said,
"So on the other, be thou well assur'd,
It lower still and lower sinks its bed,
Till in that part it reuniting join,
Where 't is the lot of tyranny to mourn.
There Heav'n's stern justice lays chastising hand
On Attila, who was the scourge of earth,
On Sextus, and on Pyrrhus, and extracts
Tears ever by the seething flood unlock'd
From the Rinieri, of Corneto this,
Pazzo the other nam'd, who fill'd the ways
With violence and war."  This said, he turn'd,
And quitting us, alone repass'd the ford.


  1. This refers to two notorious robbers, Rinier da Corneto and Rinier Pazzo, who plagued northern Italian roads in the 13th century. Pazzo was excommunicated after he robbed a bishop and his followers who were traveling to Rome and killed most of the group.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (318–272 BCE), was the second cousin of Alexander the Great. Twice he lead groups of Italian Greeks in attacks on Rome—in 280 and 279. Although successful in these battles, he was unable to establish a foothold in Italy. He is the origin of the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" because, after the battle of Asculum in 279, he is reported to have said, "One more such victory and we are undone," meaning that he won a battle but lost too many troops to carry on the war.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. Sextus Pompey (67 – 35 BCE), the son of Pompey the Great, was known as the "Sicilian Pirate" because after the murder of Julius Caesar he commandeered a Roman fleet and began raiding Italian coastal towns.  

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Attila the Hun (406–453 CE) was known in the Middle Ages as Flagellum Dei (the Scourge of God) because of his success in conquering major parts of the eastern and western Roman Empire. Dante, as almost all Europeans were in the Middle Ages, is unaware that Attila actually allowed an unusual amount of freedom of religion and cultural expression in his conquered territories. Nonetheless, Attila's cruelty remains his defining characteristic in the annals of world history.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. In other words, the level of moat-blood is low enough for them to cross the river.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. Nessus refers to Guy de Montfort (1244–1288 CE), Count of Nola, who fought, along with his father and elder brother, against the forces of King Henry III of England. Both his father and brother were killed in the Battle of Evesham (1265 CE), and de Montfort was badly wounded. He and his brother, Simon de Montfort, later avenged themselves against their cousin, Henry, Prince of Cornwall, who fought against them at Evesham,  murdering the prince as he begged for mercy in a church. For this treacherous murder of a kinsman, Dante places him with the violent sinners.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. These sinners in the bloody river committed such egregious acts that, as a fitting punishment, they are allowed to emerge only to the level of their throats.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. Virgil refers to Nessus, the Centaur, who is their guide and protector in this part of Hell.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. Obizzo d'Este (1247–1293 CE) was a Guelph leader in northern Italy, murdered when his son smothered him with a pillow. Why Dante, who knows better, refers to the murderer as Obizzo's stepson is not clear, but Dante may have wanted to make the crime seem less horrific because Obizzo is, after all, a Guelph, and therefore a member of Dante's political party.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. "Azzolino" is a reference to Ezzolino da Romano (1194–1259 CE), the son-in-law of Frederick II and a Ghibelline leader in northern Italy. Among other atrocities, he was accused of burning to death over 10,000 Paduans. In 1255, Pope Alexander IV launched a crusade against him.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. This is a reference to Dionysius the Elder (432–367 BCE), king of Sicily, known for his relentless cruelty to his own subjects. His appearance among those damned for their violence is no surprise.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. Alexander's inclusion in Hell might be a surprise to readers of Dante. In earlier works, Dante praised Alexander for his generosity and his ability to rule effectively a large territory. In Inferno, however, Dante has Alexander being punished for his cruelty and violence.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. There is a slight bit of irony here. Chiron asks Nessus to serve as a guide to Dante and Virgil. The last time Nessus agreed to such a task, he was murdered. The fault was his: he was killed because, when he carried Hercules's wife across a river, he tried to rape her.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. Virgil refers to Beatrice, who sent him and Dante on this journey. In Canto 1, Beatrice explains, I' son Beatrice che ti faccio andare—translated as, "I am Beatrice, who makes you go."

    — Stephen Holliday
  15. The centaur's "two natures" are his human half and his horse half. The human part, his torso and head, begins at mid-chest.

    — Stephen Holliday
  16. Chiron is noting that Dante is able to move things with his body as he walks, a result of the flesh-and-blood character of his existence. By contrast Virgil, a spirit, looms incorporeally over the infernal terrain.

    — Stephen Holliday
  17. The violent sinners in the river of blood are allowed to emerge by a length equivalent to the gravity of their sins. If they stick their heads or bodies too far above the surface, one of Centaurs shoots an arrow at them to keep them at the proper height above the surface.

    — Stephen Holliday
  18. In Greek myth, Nessus is the centaur whom Hercules trusted to take his wife, Deianira, across a river. Nessus subsequently attempted to rape her. Hercules killed Nessus with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Hydra, but Nessus avenged himself on Hercules by giving Deianira a cloak soaked in his poisoned blood and telling her to give the cloak to Hercules if she ever doubts his fidelity. The blood in the cloak caused such pain that Hercules essentially committed suicide.

    — Stephen Holliday
  19. The mythical Chiron is, like the centaurs, half-man and half-horse. However, he is entirely different in character: wise, just, and knowledgeable in medicine and music. He is the teacher of Achilles, Jason, and Asclepius (known for his medical expertise).

    — Stephen Holliday
  20. Centaurs are half-man, half-horse creatures known for their violence. In this circle of Hell, they patrol the moat, ready to shoot arrows at the sinners in the moat who try to climb out.

    — Stephen Holliday
  21. Virgil has just described Christ's Harrowing of Hell, one of the consequences of which is the dislodging of rocks on the mountain sides.

    — Stephen Holliday
  22. Virgil cleverly reminds the Minotaur, who is blocking their way, of his death by Theseus—the "King of Athens." This so enrages the Minotaur that he starts biting himself and ignoring his duty to guard the pass into this section of Hell.

    — Stephen Holliday
  23. This is an allusion to the wife of King Minos of Crete, Pasiphae, who fell in love with a beautiful white bull and desired to mate with him. She asked Daedalus, a great artisan, to construct the shell of a "fake" heifer; she climbed into this shell and mated with the bull.  The result of this liaison was the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature consumed by rage. King Minos had Daedalus construct a maze, called the Labyrinth, to keep the Minotaur. Because Athenians had killed King Minos's son, Androgeos, Minos required Athens to send seven young men and women each year to Crete to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. One year, Theseus, with the help of Ariadne, Minos's daughter, entered the Labyrinth as a sacrifice and killed the Minotaur. The Minotaur stands as a symbol of animalistic rage and violence.

    — Stephen Holliday
  24. Dante and Virgil are entering Circle 7, in which the violent are punished.

    — Stephen Holliday