Ulysses: Circle 8, Inferno 26
Appearing in a single yet divided flame in the eighth pit of circle 8 are Ulysses and Diomedes, two Greek heroes from the war against Troy whose joint punishment reflects their many combined exploits. Dante would have known of these exploits not from Homer's poetry--as the Iliad (recounting the Trojan War) and the Odyssey (telling of Ulysses' ten-year wandering before returning home to Ithaca) were not available to him--but from parts and reworkings of the Homeric story contained in classical and medieval Latin and vernacular works. Virgil, who writes extensively of Ulysses from the perspective of the Trojan Aeneas (Aeneid 2), now as Dante's guide lists three offenses committed by Ulysses and Diomedes: devising and executing the stratagem of the wooden horse (an ostensible gift that--filled with Greek soldiers--occasioned the destruction of Troy); luring Achilles--hidden by his mother, Thetis, on the island of Skyros--into the war effort (for which Achilles abandoned Deidamia and their son); and stealing the Palladium--a statue of Athena which protected the city of Troy--with the help of a Trojan traitor, Antenor (Inf. 26.58-63).
That Virgil is the one to address Ulysses--the "greater horn" of the forked flame (85)--is itself noteworthy. On the one hand, this may simply reflect a cultural affinity between Virgil and Ulysses, two men from--in Dante's view--the ancient world. On the other hand, Virgil's appeal to Ulysses based on whether he was "deserving" of Ulysses in his "noble lines" rings false (Virgil in fact has nothing good to say about the Greek hero in the Aeneid)--so false that some think Virgil may be trying to trick Ulysses by impersonating Homer!
Blissfully ignorant of the Odyssey--and either ignorant or dismissive of a medieval account in which Ulysses is killed by Telegonus, son of the enchantress Circe--Dante invents an original version of the final chapter of Ulysses' life, a voyage beyond the boundaries of the known world that ends in shipwreck and death. However, the voyage itself may or may not be implicated in Ulysses' damnation. Certainly, Ulysses' quest for "worth and knowledge" (120) embodies a noble sentiment, one consistent with Cicero's praise of Ulysses as a model for the love of wisdom (De finibus 5.18.49). Conversely, Ulysses' renunciation of all family obligations (94-9) and his highly effective use of eloquence to win the minds of his men (112-20) may be signs that this voyage is morally unacceptable no matter how noble its goals. You be the judge.
Ulysses, in any case, represents an immensely gifted individual not afraid to exceed established limits and chart new ground. Sound familiar? It is perhaps appropriate that Dante prefaces the presentation of Ulysses with a self-reflective warning not to abuse his own talent (Inf. 26.19-24).