David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 31: Towering Giants”

“Canto 31: Towering Giants”

  • What is the story of the horn of Roland?

The Song of Roland(La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving work of French literature. It tells the story of Roland, one of the paladins of Charlemagne. Roland leads the rearguard, and he and his men are attacked in a pass. Roland is proud and he does not blow his horn for help until it is too late. He and all of his men are killed.

Dante hears a horn that is louder than thunder. He says that the sound of this horn is more ominous than that of the horn of Roland.

He later finds out that the horn is blown by Nimrod, a giant who attempted to build the Tower of Babel and reach Heaven.

  • Which sins did the giants commit, and how are they punished?

Many giants were guilty of the sin of pride, and they rebelled against their ancient gods just like the angels of Christian mythology rebelled against God.

Dante believes that he sees huge towers in the distance, but Virgil tells him that these are giants. The giants are immersed halfway into the ground. Most of the giants are chained to keep them immobile.

We see how great the evil of the giants is in this passage:

For when the faculty of intellect

is joined with brute force and with evil will,

no man can win against such an alliance.       

(Musa 31.55-57)

This is a lethal combination. A being with great intellect and great strength who wishes to do great evil can cause much destruction. We prefer that criminals who wish to do great evil be stupid and weak.

Briefly, these are some of the giants whom Virgil identifies, and their sins:


Nimrod is the builder of the Tower of Babel. (The Old Testament does not identify Nimrod, the first king of Babylon, as a giant.)

Ephialtes and Briareus

Ephialtes and Briareus: both warred against the ancient gods.

Tityos and Typhon

Tityos and Typhon: both insulted Jupiter/Zeus.


Antaeus refrained from warring against the gods; because he refrained, the gods were able to resist the giants. He is not bound, unlike the other giants. (Not all the guards in the Inferno have been evil. For example, Minos was not evil, and neither was the Centaur Chiron. However, Antaeus would challenge travelers to a wrestling match. He would defeat them, kill them, and collect their skulls to make a temple to his father: the god Poseidon.)

According to John Ciardi,

[The giants] are the sons of earth, embodiments of elemental forces unbalanced by love, desire without restraint and without acknowledgement of moral and theological law. They are symbols of the earth-trace that every devout man must clear from his soul, the unchecked passions of the beast. Raised from the earth, they make the very gods tremble. Now they are returned to the darkness of their origins, guardians of earth’s last depth. (The Divine Comedy240)

We find out that the race of giants is extinct in the living world. Dante the Poet says, “Nature […] cast away the mold / for shaping beasts like these” (Musa, Inferno31.49-50).

  • Who was Nimrod?

Nimrod is the giant behind the building of the Tower of Babel. Here, he speaks gibberish, which is fitting because the building of the Tower of Babel led to many languages being created out of one. Nimrod was so proud that he thought that he could build a tower that would reach Heaven. To stop this from happening, God created many languages instead of the one language that human beings had spoken until that time. Because the workers were now speaking different languages, they were unable to coordinate their actions and so the Tower of Babel was not built.

Dante compares Nimrod’s face to a sculpture of an over-7-foot pine cone — this sculpture is still in the gardens of the Vatican.

Nimrod often blows his horn, causing a sound that “would have made a thunder-clap sound dim” (Musa, Inferno31.13). The sound of the horn is also very ominous. Dante writes that “the sound of Roland’s horn was not as ominous” (Musa, Inferno31.18). The sound of Roland’s horn was ominous indeed; since he did not blow it to summon help until too late, he and his men were wiped out in battle. Roland’s sin in not blowing his horn earlier is the same as that of the giants: pride.

  • How does Virgil treat Nimrod?

Virgil does not treat Nimrod with any respect at all; instead, he calls him “Blathering idiot” (Musa, Inferno31.70). This description is accurate, as apparently Nimrod is unable to form intelligent speech, saying instead a series of syllables that most modern critics think is meant by Dante the Poet to be untranslatable gibberish.

  • Who was Ephialtes?

Ephialtes once fought the gods, and he is chained here. He was so proud that he thought that he could overcome Zeus /Jupiter and the other gods. He and his brother (Otus, a twin) attempted to put one mountain on top of another mountain in order to reach the gods and make war on them. The god Apollo killed both brothers.

  • Who was Antaeus?

Antaeus is another giant. He was strong as long as he touched the Earth, his mother, but he became weak when he was lifted into the air. He used to challenge passersby, kill them, and collect their skulls hoping to eventually have enough to make a temple to Poseidon/Neptune, his father.

Antaeus fought Hercules, who discovered his secret. After hurling Antaeus to the ground a number of times, eventually Hercules lifted him into the air and strangled him. Antaeus did not take part in the war of the giants against the pagan gods, so he is unbound here.

  • How does Virgil treat Antaeus?

Virgil treats Antaeus with some respect. After all, Antaeus is deserving of some respect. He is unchained, so apparently he is a guard here rather than a sinner who is being punished, although of course he killed many humans while he was alive.

Virgil displays a command of rhetoric here. He wishes to persuade Antaeus to let him and Dante down into the lowest Circle of Hell, so he tells Antaeus that Dante, who is still living, can do him the favor of spreading Antaeus’ fame in the living world, which of course Dante did by writing the Inferno.

Virgil also praises Antaeus’ hunting skill. He mentions that Antaeus “once captured a thousand lions as your [Antaeus’] quarry” (Musa, Inferno30.118).

  • How do Virgil and Dante get to the lowest Circle of Hell?

Antaeus lifts them in his hand and lowers them to the final Circle.

  • The Ninth Circle punishes Complex Fraud. Into which four parts can the Ninth Circle be divided?

Here we are in the 9thand final Circle, which is devoted to punishing the sins of complex fraud, in which sinners try to defraud kin/family, country, guests, and/or their lords, including God. We can regard these sinners as traitors.

This 9thCircle is divided into four parts:

1) Caina

Where traitors to their kindred (family) are punished.

2) Antenora

Where traitors to their country are punished.

3) Tolomea

Where traitors to their guests are punished. An alternative spelling of this name is Ptolomea; John Ciardi uses this spelling.

4) Judecca

Where traitors to their benefactors, whether spiritual or temporal, are punished.

Evil will plays a major role in the sin of complex fraud.

On p. 359 of his translation, Mark Musa makes a case that complex fraud = simple fraud + violence. In the lowest Circle of the Inferno, the sinners committed violence or tried to commit violence against kindred (family), country, guests, and benefactors.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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