Although Virgil’s official job title is a "guide" for Dante (does he hold a little flag up so Dante doesn't get lost from his Hell tour?), we all know there is more going on. Virgil quickly goes from tour guide to personal tutor, liaison, and father figure to Dante. And Dante gushes over him in a fanboy-like manner:
[Dante]: "And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?"
I answered him with shame upon my brow.
"O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.
You are my master and my author, you
– the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored." (Inf. I, 79-87)
Even so, Virgil does a tremendous job as the tour guide. In each canto, he does some straight-up lecturing, but Virgil does show-and-tell too, with real-life sinners. He’s quite a speaker, able to convey to Dante such huge concepts as the role of Fortune in the human realm, the internal structure of Hell, the origin of the Underworld rivers, the geography of the earth, and the Harrowing of Hell.
But he’s more than just a lecturer. Virgil knows when to step back and let Dante do the dirty work and learn his lesson the hard way. He doesn’t stop Dante from arguing with sinners or sympathizing with them... though he obviously disapproves of the latter. He's patient with his naive pupil and only begins reprimanding him in the later circles. But he does eventually get fed up with Dante’s crying and swooning and orders him to toughen up.
Enter Virgil the taskmaster. No more Mr. Nice Guy. He rebukes Dante for daring to pity the magicians and the sowers of scandal—even when one of them turns out to be Dante’s fourth cousin twice-removed.
To scare some sense into Dante, Virgil seems to provoke every single "guardian" of Hell they encounter. Minos? Yep. Charon. Him too. Phlegyas? You bet. In fact, he riles up the Minotaur so much that Dante is forced to do the Hellish equivalent of the Pamplona Bull Run. And after the black comedy encounter with the demons, Dante has a healthy fountain of fear for tapping into later. At one point, Virgil even sends Dante away on his own to talk to some sinners while he deals with Geryon. And how does Dante do? Pathetically. When the usurers tell him to scram, Dante raises no argument and runs back to Virgil. Dante wilts without Virgil’s guidance.
But Virgil is not hoping for Dante to get hurt. He does his best to protect Dante, and he does get them safely past every guardian of Hell he incites. Virgil also reigns in his proud boasting when he realizes that he actually needs some guardians’ help, from Geryon and Antaeus for example, to complete their journey. To his credit, he also risks his own life (errr, afterlife?) to make sure Dante escapes the demons.
As stern as Virgil tries to be, we know that deep down inside, he just wants to share a beer with Dante while watching the big game. Virgil likes Dante, and his affection shows in their pseudo-familial relationship. How many times have we heard Virgil call Dante "son," or heard Dante call Virgil "father"? In those moments after Dante condemns a sinner, Virgil practically explodes with pride and we can sense his intense desire to ruffle Dante’s hair or clap him on the back.
Dante is like the son Virgil never had. This comes to light most apparently in their flight from the two-timing demons. In lifting Dante to his chest and carrying him as he sprints toward safety, Virgil becomes a mother figure to the terrified Dante. Hmmm, father and mother? You’re right in guessing that something bigger is going on here. As an unofficial poet laureate of the Romans, Virgil is a kind of patron spirit of Italy. Moreover, as the consummate speaker and writer of Latin—the ancestor language of Italian—Virgil is, in a sense, the fore-father of Dante’s native language. The two poets’ kinship traces back to their respective languages.
As much as Dante wants the title of "world’s greatest poet," Virgil, it seems, has that honor. If you haven’t noticed, the author-Dante hits us over the head with all the linguistic imagery in which Virgil is steeped. First and foremost, there’s that big important passage about Virgil’s "persuasive word":
[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "Go now; with your persuasive word, with all
that is required to see that he [Dante] escapes,
bring help to him, that I may be consoled." (Inf. II, 67-69)
We know this is a weird concept so let’s just recap. The phrase in Italian is "parole ornate" which translates literally as "decorated word." Doesn’t that fit Virgil to a T? We’re talking about the writer of the Aeneid here, the Latin epic to end all epics, and Dante’s all-time favorite book.
We figure that Virgil spent so much time writing the Aeneid—invoking the Muses, speaking in dactylic hexameter, and pulling epic similes out of the air—that he simply got stuck speaking that way. With all his apostrophes, name-dropping, and unintelligible phrases like "the Fishes glitter now on the horizon / and all the Wain is spread out over Caurus," Virgil’s words are indeed "decorated."
Not only that, but Virgil's requests are often granted. That’s where the "persuasive" part comes in. Have you noticed how every time Virgil talks to someone, he gets what he wants? He convinces a scared Dante to come with him to hell (!), he gets half-horse archers to guide him (instead of shooting him), ditto with the demons, he wheedles a free ride out of Geryon, and he sways the murdering giant Antaeus to cup them in his palms like a little sparrow and lower them safely to their destination. That’s some major persuasive power right there.
Dante does, however, introduce doubts about the goodness of this way of talking. Virgil does get locked out of Dis for a reason. His "persuasive word" presupposes a good deal of pride in its speaker. Let’s face it, in order to talk like Virgil, you’ve got to know you’re hot stuff. Otherwise you couldn’t go around calling people "bedraggled harridan[s] […] with shit-filled nails." Which is why he irritates people—namely the inhabitants of Dis.
His rhetoric about having God’s all-access card, along with his general pompousness make him a difficult guy to talk to, much less argue against. Combine that with the fact that his speeches are really long (a drawback of the "persuasive word") and it’s easier to just nod your head and leave.
Another way in which Virgil embodies language is that he speaks for everyone. He’s Heaven’s mouthpiece. In Canto II, he recites word-for-word every order charged to him by the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia, and Beatrice. Not to mention that in recounting Biblical tales, he adds his authorship to God’s. Sometimes, he even speaks for Dante when our poor poet is too green around the gills to talk. We’re constantly reminded that Virgil’s an authority in all things literary.
If you’re not convinced yet, consider the fact that Virgil is always correcting Dante’s speech. When approaching Ciacco, his sole encouragement to Dante is "your words must be appropriate." There’s also that odd moment when he stops Dante from talking to Ulysses just because he’s Greek. Then, in the very next canto, he orders Dante to talk to another guy because he’s Italian. Virgil’s not content with simply being a great orator, but is determined to turn Dante into one.
Isn’t it interesting that in a Christian text, the mentor figure is a pagan? Virgil’s revelation that he is one of the inhabitants of Hell, even if it is only Limbo, makes us pause for a second. Dante’s guide is a sinner? Well, as the text goes on, it becomes apparent that Virgil is far from perfect. He’s proud. He’s long-winded. And sometimes, he’s downright mean. But, unlike the sinners, Virgil’s faults don’t turn us against him. Instead, they endear him to us because his shortcomings are an indication that he’s only human (albeit deader than a doornail). Just like Dante.
So why Virgil? Why a pagan? Why not some nice Christian poet? Milton? Not born yet. Ditto for Donne. Okay, Dante could’ve probably found some Christian writer if he’d really wanted to, but that’s the—he didn’t want to. He loves everything that Virgil represents: the Classics, larger-than-life themes, battles between good and evil, honor, glory, culture, and spirituality.
In case you didn’t know, Virgil’s big theme in the Aeneid is piety or devotion to one’s god. Indeed Aeneas’ most famous epithet, or poetic nickname, is "pious Aeneas." Although Dante is stoutly Christian, his faith is informed by the Classical thinkers. His division of sin into three categories stems largely from Aristotle’s Ethics (which Dante quotes in Canto XI). He also takes a hint from Virgil’s vision of piety, extending his spirituality to include more than just honor paid to God, but also honor shown to one’s family and one’s nation. Just to drive home the point that Dante reveres the Classics, there are passages where Dante refers to the Christian God as "Jupiter" or "Jove," the pagan Roman name for the king of the gods.
Virgil is the most prominent figure of Classicism in the text. But the dialogue between Classical and Christian beliefs is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Inferno. Dante doesn’t delude himself into thinking he can completely reconcile them... but that doesn’t stop him from constantly quoting Classical writers, nor from humbling himself before his idol, Virgil.