Capaneus: Circle 7, Inferno 14
A huge and powerful warrior-king who virtually embodies defiance against his highest god, Capaneus is an exemplary blasphemer--with blasphemy understood as direct violence against God. Still, it is striking that Dante selects a pagan character to represent one of the few specifically religious sins punished in hell.
Dante's portrayal of Capaneus in Inferno 14.43-72--his large size and scornful account of Jove striking him down with thunderbolts--is based on the Thebaid, a late Roman epic (by Statius) treating a war waged by seven Greek heroes against the city of Thebes. Capaneus' arrogant defiance of the gods is a running theme in the Thebaid, though Statius' description of the warrior's courage in the scenes leading up to his death reveals elements of Capaneus' nobility as well as his contempt for the gods. For instance, Capaneus refuses to follow his comrades in a deceitful military operation against the Theban forces under the cover of darkness, insisting instead on fighting fair and square out in the open. Nevertheless, Capaneus' boundless contempt ultimately leads to his demise when he climbs atop the walls protecting the city and directly challenges the gods: "come now, Jupiter, and strive with all your flames against me! Or are you braver at frightening timid maidens with your thunder, and razing the towers of your father-in-law Cadmus?" (Thebaid 10.904-6). Recalling the similar arrogance displayed by the Giants at Phlegra (and their subsequent defeat), the deity gathers his terrifying weapons and strikes Capaneus with a thunderbolt. His hair and helmet aflame, Capaneus feels the fatal fire burning within and falls from the walls to the ground below. He finally lies outstretched, his lifeless body as vast as a giant's. This is the image inspiring Dante's depiction of Capaneus as a large figure appearing in the defeated pose of the blasphemers, flat on their backs (Inf. 14.22).
Capaneus' continued defiance of Jove in hell draws a harsh response from Virgil, who explains to Dante that this unabated rage only adds to the blasphemer's punishment (Inf. 14.61-72). What do you think? Could Virgil be wrong and Capaneus actually gain a measure of satisfaction from his contempt in the afterlife? Or does the logic of hell require only punishment and suffering?