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Chapter 1 - Just Deserts in the Ancient Pagan Afterlife

from Part I - Chronological Surveys

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2020

Richard Matthew Pollard
Université du Québec à Montréal


The dominant feature of the Greco-Roman afterlife was the idea that justice would be served after death. This chapter outlines the manifestations of that idea of justice in a range of forms from the positive vision of eternal existence in the Elysian Fields to the negative images of criminals suffering tortures without end or relief. Many of the essential concepts of pagan eschatological thought emerged in philosophical and literary texts written in Greek. Elite Roman authors of the late Republic and imperial periods appropriated these ideas to send a strongly moralised message in terms of rewards and punishments in the afterlife. Central texts include Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis and Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6 along with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Statius’ Thebaid. The treatment of the afterlife in these works paved the way for Christianity’s shift from the elite focus of the classical world to include any and everyone in the scope of just deserts after death.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

NON FVI FVI NON SVM NON CVRO (‘I was not; I was; I am not; I don’t care’): the polemical quality of this Latin epitaph implies a certain scepticism about the existence of life after death. But its very fierceness testifies to Roman belief in the afterlife. As scholar of Roman religion John North points out: ‘No one would want an aggressive denial of the afterlife on his tomb unless belief in it was strongly felt by some of the living.’1

Belief in an afterlife is amply attested in Greco-Roman antiquity. Types of evidence include the so-called mystery religions, ritual practices, epitaphs, and a range of literary texts. The first three of these may reflect beliefs that were widespread, whereas the literary texts, because of the limits of literacy in the ancient world, articulate ideas that we can only safely attribute to the elites. The oldest and most influential of the mystery religions was the cult of Demeter at Eleusis in Attica, known as the Eleusinian mysteries, which involved purification, initiation, and the promise of a blessed eternity in the Elysian Fields. Orphism likewise: instructions on gold leaves or plates buried with Orphic devotees directed the dead through the complexities of the Underworld to the Elysian Fields. The Pythagorean sect, named for the sixth-century bce philosopher, which like Orphism had a strong presence in southern Italy (and thus exercised an important influence on Roman culture), maintained a doctrine of reincarnation called metempsychosis, according to which a soul would inhabit a series of bodies. Other mystery cults with strong manifestations during the classical period involved Cybele and Attis, Dionysus/Bacchus, and the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, to which we can add the Persian-inspired cult of Mithras and Christianity from Palestine.

Representations of the afterlife in Greco-Roman literature begin with the earliest extant Greek poems, with both Homer and Hesiod mentioning the house of Hades, lord of the dead and king of the Underworld, and continue through the classical period with increasingly elaborate and sometimes competing visualisations. The dominant feature of the Greco-Roman afterlife was the idea that justice would be served after death. That idea of justice was conceived of in a range of forms, from the entirely positive vision of eternal existence in the Elysian Fields to the entirely negative images of criminals subject to tortures without end or relief. In both Greek and Roman thought, the afterlife was conceived as a kingdom complete with one or more judges (Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus) who would pass sentences on the newly arrived inhabitants of the Underworld. The elements of judgement, punishment, and reward are evident in the most salient texts, including, in Greek, Homer’s Odyssey Book 11 and the writings of the fourth-century bce Greek philosopher Plato, who discusses the immortality of the psyche (soul) in several works, most importantly Phaedrus and Republic, which he ends with a detailed narrative of a vision of the afterlife, the so-called ‘Myth of Er’. Three Latin texts concerning the afterlife, written within a forty-year period during the first century bce, stand as the most important surviving Roman texts: the finale to Book 3 of Lucretius’ epic poem expounding Epicureanism, De rerum natura (‘On the Nature of the Cosmos’); the concluding portion of the statesman and philosopher Cicero’s De re publica, known as the Somnium Scipionis (‘Dream of Scipio’); and Virgil’s narrative of Aeneas’ visit to the Underworld in Aeneid Book 6, when his father, Anchises, describes to him the highly moralised workings of the cosmos. Alongside these high-status and highly serious texts of epic and philosophy, the importance of judgement, punishment, and reward in the ancient conception of the afterlife is confirmed by satirical texts, for example, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (probably written in 54 ce), a Latin skit satirising the deification of the recently deceased emperor Claudius, which depicts Claudius’ post-mortem journey first to heaven and then to the Underworld and sees him sentenced to be a freedman’s slave, and in Greek, Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, dating from a century later, in which justice and equality after death are recurrent themes. These literary texts implicitly or explicitly frame a morality in which past behaviour affects the future and in which people meet their ‘just deserts’ in the afterlife. In this chapter, we will focus on the Latin representations of the afterlife, as they are more important than Greek authors for our understanding of the medieval period, discussing first the afterlife according to Lucretius, Cicero, and Virgil and then the articulations of hell offered in a sequence of influential Latin epics starting with the Aeneid.

As the climax to the first half of his Epicurean epic poem, Lucretius delivers a satirical debunking of the stories of the punishments of sinners in the afterlife by rationalising the stories. What is striking is his focus upon the punishments meted out to the sinners rather than other elements of the infernal paraphernalia. His satire supports the larger project of Epicureanism: to remove fear of death so that people can achieve contentment in this life. It is self-evident that Lucretius would not give such a prominent position to debunking the myths unless such beliefs about potential punishments in the afterlife had a strong hold on his contemporaries. Before we turn to Lucretius’ satire, some background.

All we know of Lucretius is his poem, De rerum natura, a six-book epic written in the 50s bce in which he expounds the materialist philosophy of Epicurus, who established a philosophical community just outside Athens in around 306 bce. Epicureanism was an entirely empirical philosophy which held that there was no providential deity and that the universe was the result of accident. According to Epicurean physics, the cosmos consists only of atoms moving through a void. Everything that exists is the result of random collisions of atoms; differences in colour, texture, flavour, smell, are the result of different combinations of different types of atoms. Consequently, human beings consist of only atoms and void; death constitutes the dissolution of the component atoms of body and soul. According to Epicurean ethical theory, the goal of human life is ‘pleasure’, if pleasure is defined as ataraxia, which denotes ‘freedom from disturbance’. Epicurus advocated avoiding the kinds of pleasure that are neither natural nor necessary, such as the desires for sex, wealth, and high office, because they stir up extreme emotions such as pain, jealousy, and fear; instead, people should live simply by satisfying the natural and necessary desires for food and shelter.

In his poem, Lucretius articulates Epicurean philosophy with an explicit focus on the physical aspects of the world but an implicit moral message. Following Epicurus in regarding fear of death and fear of the gods as the principal obstacles to human happiness, he uses rationalistic arguments regarding the mortality of the soul and the workings of the natural world to assuage these anxieties. In Books 1 and 2 he describes how atoms and void behave by colliding (thanks to the random swerve) and disaggregating again; in Books 3 and 4 he deals with human physiology, including the soul and the senses; and in Books 5 and 6 he accounts for the creation and nature of our world.

Lucretius’ vivid depiction of the afterlife comes in the finale to Book 3, which takes as its starting point the preceding argument that the soul is material and hence mortal, with death simply its annihilation.2 In the final 250 lines (830–1094), Lucretius shifts from expository scientific mode into a more emotional mode, appealing to the heart rather than to the head. He first mocks people’s fears of what might happen to their bodies after death and the conventional laments of mourners, then has a personification of Nature haranguing someone who cannot bear the idea of dying. Then (3.978–9): ‘As for all those torments that are said to take place in the depths of hell, they are actually present here and now, in our own lives’. He cites four classic cases of the punishment of sinners, Tantalus, Tityos, Sisyphus, and the Danaïds, reworking material that dates back to the Odyssey, where Odysseus witnesses the punishments of Tityos, Tantalus, and Sisyphus (11.576–600). Ixion is the only classic case missing; Tantalus is usually represented differently, suffering from the torment of being unable to reach the food and water that surround him (hence the word ‘tantalise’) and the more familiar offence is killing and serving his son to the gods to eat. According to Lucretius, Tantalus, ‘transfixed with … terror at the huge boulder poised above him’ after he stole nectar and ambrosia from the gods, is really the person oppressed by superstitious fear. Tityos, ‘lying in hell forever probed by birds of prey’ who gnaw at his regenerating liver after his attempted rape of the goddess Leto, is really ‘that poor devil prostrated by love … devoured by gnawing jealousy’. Sisyphus, according to myth eternally doomed ‘to push a boulder laboriously up a steep hill only to see it … rolling and bounding down again to … the plain’, is really the politically ambitious man who never succeeds. The husband-murdering Danaïds, who are doomed to ‘pour water into a leaking vessel which can never by any sleight be filled’, really represent people who are never satisfied but always want something more. Lucretius wraps this section up by equating the terrors of hell – such as the dog Cerberus, the Furies, and darkness – with the pangs of conscience and fears of retribution for misdeeds that we experience in this life. Consequently, ‘the life of misguided mortals becomes a hell on earth’ (3.1023).3

Lucretius’ handling of the traditional representations of exemplary punishments in the Underworld reveals elements of the belief system of his contemporaries even as he attempts to argue them out of their fears of the afterlife. The fact that his focus is precisely upon the punishments endured by these infamous sinners demonstrates the moral loading of depictions of the Underworld in Greco-Roman antiquity. Cicero’s depiction of the afterlife in his De re publica, written around the same time as Lucretius’ poem, is similarly moralised, even while being diametrically opposed to Epicurean doctrine: according to Cicero, the only true life is the life that follows death.4

Cicero’s De re publica is his reworking of Plato’s Republic, complete with a vivid dream vision at the end, although Cicero’s dream is significantly different from Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’.5 Unfortunately the six-book philosophical dialogue survives only in fragmentary form, except for the concluding dream vision, known as the ‘Dream of Scipio’ (Somnium Scipionis). This survives thanks to Macrobius’ commentary on the text, written in the early fifth century ce. The importance of Macrobius cannot be overestimated. In the words of Jonathan Powell:

Macrobius’ commentary was one of the encyclopædic works from the late Roman empire that were passed on to the Middle Ages as the chief source of ancient learning. It was itself widely read, and it was the vehicle whereby the Somnium became known as a separate text, at a time when the rest of the De Republica was lost. The cosmology and geography of the Somnium and of Macrobius became, more or less, that of all Western Europe in the Middle Ages.6

It was a crucial conduit of Stoic and Platonic ideas and a foundational text for Neoplatonism.7

Cicero’s dialogue, written during the years 54–51 bce, is set in 129 bce and presents a fictional dream experienced by the Roman military and political leader Scipio Aemilianus twenty years earlier. In the dream, Scipio is taken to a great height to observe the workings of the universe. Initially he is given a view from on high of the North African city of Carthage (the city he would sack, three years later, in 146 bce) (6.11), then he is taken to a higher vantage point from where he can view the Milky Way and the southern stars and from where the earth seems tiny (6.16). At the apogee of his journey he views the movements of the planets and hears the music of the spheres (6.17–19). Then he returns to the earth, initially seeing the five zones of the world (6.20–1) and then focusing on the habitable world (6.21–2).

Scipio’s cosmic journey is conducted by his adoptive grandfather, Scipio Africanus, who appears to him to explain how souls escape from the prison of their own bodies into the only true life, which is life after death. Africanus asserts that ‘for all those who have saved or helped or increased the power of their native land, there is a place set apart in heaven, for them to enjoy eternal life in happiness’ (6.13). Then Scipio’s father, Aemilius Paullus, appears and explains that the passage to heaven cannot be hastened by suicide but that duty entails completing one’s assigned time on earth. Africanus then explains the arrangement of the planets and the working of the ‘music of the spheres’. Finally he emphasises the fragility of earthly glory and of Roman activity in the world, which fades into insignificance once one understands that the soul is immortal. He concludes by urging Scipio that the best life on earth consists of devoting oneself to the preservation of one’s country.

Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis weaves together elements familiar from different strands of Greek thought. From Stoicism comes the idea of the cyclical universe, the sympathy of the different parts of the cosmos, and the concept of a single controlling force, which can be called ‘god’ or ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘nature’. From Orphism comes the powerful idea that the body is the prison of the soul. In Greek, this idea functions as a play on the words sōma (‘body’) and sēma (‘tomb’ or ‘prison’); in Cicero’s hands this becomes ‘These [souls] are alive, having flown out from the bonds of the body, as if from a prison’ (6.14). From Plato comes cosmology and eschatology from the Timaeus, a work Cicero had earlier translated into Latin.8 Plato’s ideas about the immortality of the soul inform De re publica 6.14–16 and 26–9, most strikingly when Cicero puts into Africanus’ mouth a very accurate translation of the passage from Plato’s Phaedrus which argues for the soul’s immortality on the grounds that it is the source of its own motion.9 But despite these clear appropriations of Greek thought, the tone, especially of the finale, is quintessentially Roman in its emphasis on patriotism and duty.10

What is most important for us is that the entire episode is framed in terms of the rewards enjoyed by the good statesman after death. The text immediately preceding the dream narrative has Scipio stating that ‘though awareness of the value of his deeds is the noblest reward of excellence (virtus) for a wise man, yet that divine excellence (divina virtus) longs not for statues made of lead or triumphs with laurels that wither but for rewards of a more permanent and vivid type’ (6.8). And once Scipio has been granted the vision of the workings of the cosmos, he says, ‘now that such a great reward has been shown to me, I shall strive with all the more vigilance’ (6.26). The most emotive articulation comes when Scipio’s father tells his son:

Scipio, you must copy your grandfather here, you must copy me, your father, by revering justice and duty (pietas), duty to parents and family and above all duty to your fatherland. Such a life is the passage to heaven and to this gathering of people who have lived their lives and are now freed from the body and who live in that place which you see … and which you have learned from the Greeks to call the Milky Way.


In other words, Cicero’s representation of the afterlife is designed to urge members of the Roman elite to strive towards the highest standards of moral conduct.

Cicero’s emphasis upon just deserts in the afterlife, especially for those engaged in leadership roles in public life, informs Virgil’s representation of the Underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid. Published after the author’s death in 19 bce, the impact of Virgil’s epic (and his vision of the afterlife) cannot be overstated. As Gian Biagio Conte summarises, ‘Virgil’s Nachleben is Western literature’.11 Among Virgil’s many innovations, two stand as most important for our purposes: first, the level of descriptive detail Virgil gives the realms of punishment and reward, Tartarus and Elysium, and second, the expanded accessibility of these areas to everyday citizens based on their conduct in life. As part of his programme to respond to his epic predecessors, Virgil shifts the motivation of his hero Aeneas from Homeric military valour to a Roman brand of moral virtue, one which emphasises the maintenance of mutual obligations between the individual and his or her family, the gods, and the state. Reflecting this system, Virgil’s Underworld also emphasises the importance of virtuous Roman behaviour in life.

Aeneas is motivated primarily by the Roman virtue of pietas, that is, the submission of self to family, gods, and empire. It is pietas – the desire to see his father again – which drives him on his journey beneath the earth, where he ‘dies’ and rises again (and is eventually assumed into the heavens, a motif familiar from many ancient mystic and religious traditions).12 This katabasis – the Greek word literally means ‘descent’ – crystallises Aeneas’ transformation from Trojan refugee to proto-Roman citizen and represents a deeply personal spiritual journey, the metaphorical process of the death of the former self. But unlike similar medieval afterlife narratives, which emphasise post-vision transformation and conversion,13 Virgil’s purpose was not evangelisation in its strictest sense. After all, the Roman afterlife had no established doctrine or dogma to evangelise, as the vastly different eschatologies of Lucretius and Cicero have shown us. Accordingly the primary concern of Aeneid 6 is not the presentation of a cohesive system of belief, but rather the adaptation of familiar eschatological elements in the creation of a distinctly Roman Underworld, an afterlife which espouses Roman values of the late Republic and early principate.14 For this Virgil looks to a variety of sources, including Stoicism, Epicureanism, Pythagoreanism, Orphism (especially two lost poems about the katabases of Heracles and Orpheus), Plato’s Phaedo, Gorgias, and Phaedrus, and Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey. In such a colourful mosaic we might expect some tension between varying eschatological programmes, but this need not overly concern us. The latter stages of Virgil’s Underworld are unified by a single tenet: poor behaviour is punished and good behaviour (particularly outstanding civic virtue) is rewarded.

Perhaps the best way to explore Virgil’s vision of the afterlife is to take the journey alongside Aeneas. After performing the necessary preliminaries in the gloomy grove of Avernus (the retrieval of the enigmatic Golden Bough (183–211), the burial of a comrade (212–35), and the offering of nocturnal sacrifice to chthonic deities (243–54), that is, the gods associated with the Underworld), Aeneas is led deep beneath the earth by his brisk travel guide, the Cumaean Sibyl Deïphobe. They pass first through the vestibule of the Underworld, filled with fantastic monsters and abstract personifications of suffering (273–94). Next come two famous guardians: the ferryman Charon (295–416) and the three-headed dog Cerberus (417–25), both standard elements of the Underworld from the Greek tradition.

Next the travellers arrive at an area populated by the untimely dead and those who have died violently: crying infants (426–9), the falsely accused, separated from the guilty by the judge Minos (430–3), suicides (434–9), and tragic lovers (among them Aeneas’ former paramour, Dido), who dwell in the Mourning Fields (440–76). This is a familiar grouping of spirits in the Underworld, first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey (11.38–41). Virgil seems to suggest this is the final stop for these souls, which contradicts his later system of punishment and reward. Perhaps they are trapped here because they did not complete the natural term of their life, and are thus unable to be properly judged and segregated in the next stages of the Underworld.15 Ultimately attempts at reconciliation of these distinct eschatologies – the first Homeric, the second a more developed programme shaped by Pythagoreanism and Orphism – are fruitless.16 They coexist as two distinct but equally valid sections in Virgil’s vision of the afterlife.

After passing through the field of heroes (476–547), Aeneas and the Sibyl reach a fork in the path. To the right is Elysium. To the left, Aeneas sees a vast city surrounded by triple ramparts and encircled by the fiery river Phlegethon.17 Beside the city’s iron tower sits the Fury Tisiphone in a blood-wet dress, keeping watch over the gate. The crack of whips, drag of chains, and groans of the tormented are heard from within. This is Tartarus, which yawns down twice as far as Olympus is high (577–9), reflecting the vertically oriented nature of the Roman afterlife. This picture of hell as a pit of extreme depth recurs repeatedly in the Christian tradition. Reserved for the damned, it is the one area of the Underworld which Aeneas cannot enter (no pure soul can). But the Sibyl, as guardian of the grove of Avernus, has been given special knowledge from the chthonic goddess Hecate, and she dictates what she has seen within its walls.

She describes first the judge Rhadamanthus, who extracts confessions from the guilty before handing them over to their torturers, Tisiphone and the other Furies (566–72). Virgil’s list of the damned combines sensational mythological figures and more mundane ‘modern’ sinners, the sort Virgil’s readers might imagine as contemporaries. The mythological sinners are by this point standard elements of literary history, finding their earliest appearances in Homer and Hesiod. Their crimes are largely related to insurrection against the gods, e.g. the Titans (580), the sons of Aloeus (582), and Salmoneus (585–94). We find also Tityos (595) and Ixion and Pirithoüs (601), over whom hangs a threatening crag.

Next Virgil refers to an elaborate feast which cannot be eaten by its guests (602–6). We are reminded of Tantalus, as yet unnamed, and are surprised to find that multiple souls sit at the table. Similarly, many sinners roll the great rock of Sisyphus and hang spread-eagled on the wheel of Ixion (616–17). By extending the punishments of famous mythological sinners to several unnamed sinners, Virgil dissociates specific individuals from specific penalties, and, by extension, opens the threat of Tartarus to anyone who might commit a deserving crime. This concept of a more accessible Tartarus, stemming from Platonic, comedic, and Orphic-Pythagorean influences, constitutes a significant modification to the Homeric model, in which almost all souls go to the collective area of Hades, with Tartarus and the Elysian Fields being reserved for the very worst and the very best. The crimes of these anonymous sinners have a more contemporary feel than those of their outlandish mythological counterparts; their sins centre on familial and civil strife and sexual deviancy (608–14), all familiar enough to Virgil’s audience, given the period of social, political, and moral turbulence through which they had lived.18 The crimes of all the inhabitants of Tartarus, however, share an underlying disregard for the responsibilities dictated by pietas; they all have wronged someone or something to whom they owed respect. In this way, Virgil tailors his representation of Tartarus to his depiction of pietas in the Aeneid.

After the presentation of the Golden Bough to Proserpina (635–6), Aeneas and the Sibyl enter greener pastures, a lovely grove with its own celestial bodies, suffused with purple light (637–41). This paradisiacal meadow is Elysium. The spirits here live in shady woods and fields fresh with flowing water (673–5). These are elements based in the literary topos, or commonplace, of the locus amoenus, literally ‘pleasant place’, a poetic description of an idealised spot as a setting for relaxation and recreation.19 Here, Aeneas and the Sibyl meet famous poets and bards (645–7), valiant soldiers (648–55), those who have endured wounds for their country (660), priests and artists (662–3), and perhaps most strikingly, those who are remembered for their good deeds (664) – again, Virgil emphasises virtuous conduct in life over divine birthright or initiation. Aeneas’ father, Anchises, explains the complex system of metempsychosis. The body is the tomb of the soul, which imprisons and pollutes it during life; this is a familiar Orphic concept expressed by Plato. After death the soul requires purification from its corporeal defilement and is cleansed by the Stoic elements of wind, water, or fire (740–2) in preparation for rebirth. Elysium is not the final stop: for some, it serves as a brief reward for good deeds in life until they drink the waters of forgetfulness and are born into new bodies. For others, who have undergone a long cycle of death and rebirth, Elysium is a precursor for the return to the soul’s ultimate home. This system is generally modelled on Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’ and its Roman iteration, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. To what extent Virgil’s vision reflects the beliefs of his contemporary Romans is unknowable, especially given the paucity and variety of evidence for ancient belief systems mentioned at the start of this chapter. But ultimately, Virgil’s Elysium offers a message of hope. Unless an individual’s behaviour in life was so horrible as to deserve Tartarus or so good as to deserve reunification with the divine being, he or she can expect a pleasant reward in the hereafter.

The instant success of the Aeneid presented a unique problem to Virgil’s successors: how to follow up on such an authoritative and transcendent work?20 We will examine two post-Virgilian epicists, Ovid and Statius, who each offers his own vision of hell and challenges or innovates upon Virgil’s Underworld in his own way.21 Both authors present a variety of chthonic material; we confine our focus to those scenes which reflect our primary theme of reward and punishment for mortals in the afterlife.

We begin with Virgil’s younger contemporary, Ovid, and his epic poem Metamorphoses, a collection of more than 250 mythological episodes which purports to address the creation of the world up to the poet’s own day. The unifying subject of Metamorphoses is transformation, ‘bodies changed into new forms’, a theme which Ovid intends to treat in ‘a continuous flow of words’ (1.1–4). These dramatic shifts in subject matter and narrative style are two of the many ways in which Ovid distinguishes himself from his predecessor. He also avoids directly competing with Virgil by compressing his treatment of narratives addressed in the Aeneid or by skipping them entirely. This tactic can be seen in his treatment of the Underworld in Metamorphoses 4, where we find the epic’s most detailed description of the topography of the afterlife and the organisation of the areas of punishment and reward.22

Book 4 of Metamorphoses flows seamlessly from Book 3, which centres on the founding of the city of Thebes and the unlucky fates of many members of its royal family. After the bloody death of Pentheus at the hands of his own mother and aunt, cult worship of the new god Bacchus has finally been accepted by the city. This angers the wrathful Juno (because Bacchus is an illegitimate child of Jupiter); she is angrier still at the god’s remaining aunt, Ino, for her boastful proselytising of her nephew (4.414–31). She descends into the Underworld to raise the Furies, specifically Tisiphone, to drive Ino mad.

Ovid treats Juno’s approach to the Underworld in two short lines, a striking compression of Virgil’s lengthy preliminaries to Aeneas’ katabasis (4.434–5). The path leads down to the silent realm of the shades; silence is often associated with the infernal realms and is mentioned by Virgil already (Aen. 6.264, 386) (with the notable exception of Tartarus, a noisy place of torture). Spirits who have enjoyed proper burial make their way along this path and past the river Styx. Here Ovid emphasises the vast wasteland of his Underworld. This is quite different from Virgil’s version, in which every level feels purposeful and tightly packed. This meandering nature of the afterlife is underlined by a curious detail: new shades are not sure where to go (4.432–8). They eventually find their way to the focal point of Ovid’s Underworld, the great city of Dis.23 There are thousands of entrances to this city with open gates on every side, reflecting the immense size of the host of the dead (the kingdom of the god of the Underworld is traditionally considered the largest of the kingdoms in the division of the cosmos, as all souls eventually go there). This vision of the afterlife lacks Virgil’s careful segregation of Tartarus and Elysium. Instead, spirits throng around the house of Dis and swarm an anachronistic ‘Roman’ forum. This afterlife is surprisingly urban and modern. Some spirits even continue their earthly trade in imitation of their previous lives (4.439–45).

The bustle of this mundane ‘Elysium’ (a Roman forum is anything but quiet and lovely) stands in stark contrast to Virgil’s idyllic paradise, where souls gather in a natural setting and engage in the pleasant diversions of military exercise, philosophy, and poetry. Perhaps Ovid is here challenging Virgil’s idealised and heavily ‘Grecised’ Underworld, as he does often in his epic, with more or less playful subversion. This divergence aside, Ovid does not completely eschew familiar elements of the Underworld: present are the dog Cerberus (4.449–51) and an area of punishment in which the traditional mythological sinners suffer their usual penalties, though there is no evidence of a judge. Here we find Tantalus, Sisyphus, Ixion, and the Danaïds, who killed their husbands on their wedding night and must eternally fetch water in perforated jars. Ovid does not call this place Tartarus by name, but it is here, in front of the prison gates, that Juno finds Tisiphone and her sister Furies. Tisiphone is already familiar to us as the Fury in Virgil’s Underworld who sits at the gates of Tartarus; here, Juno strikes a deal with her to punish Ino (4.451–78).

This is not Juno’s first contact with the Furies. In Aeneid 7 she summons the Fury Allecto to spur the Italians to war (7.286–571), and Ovid must have this passage in mind. His Juno, however, goes a step further and descends into the Underworld to summon Tisiphone, who begins to take the stand-out role she will enjoy in later epic, particularly Statius’ Thebaid. The Furies are unusually mobile denizens of the Underworld. Traditionally tasked in Greek literature with hounding oath-breakers, perjurers, and murderers (especially within the family), in Latin epic and tragedy we begin to see their role expanded as ‘evil’ agents of punishment associated specifically with Tartarus. Ovid is the first extant classical author to designate Tisiphone as the Fury associated with the house of Thebes; this innovation was accepted and developed further by our next author, Statius.

Written under the reign of Domitian, Statius’ Thebaid (c. 91 or 92 ce) draws from the rich literary tradition of the Theban Cycle, concentrating especially on the civil war between the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, for possession of the throne of Thebes. Statius is highly aware of his debt to his predecessors and reworks their epics heavily in his own text, a characteristic which has in the past caused him to be labelled as derivative. But Statius should not be seen as unoriginal, particularly in regards to his Underworld. In the necromancy episode of Thebaid 4, the seer Tiresias demands of his assistant ‘(Tell) me not of things widely known’, citing the four famous sinners described in the Aeneid and Metamorphoses (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Tityos, and Ixion) (4.536–40). Through Tiresias, Statius indicates his intent to contribute something new to the vision of hell.24 His epic offers novelty in the sheer power of hell in his cosmos: instead of leading heroes beneath the earth on a journey of enlightenment, he raises chthonic punishments normally reserved for the dead up into the world of the living.25

The epic opens with the elderly Oedipus, already blinded and decrepit, a liminal figure somewhere between living and dead (1.48). He summons the infernal entities tasked with punishing sinners: ‘you gods who rule guilty souls and Tartarus, too small for punishments, and [the river] Styx … and Tisiphone’, now promoted to ‘queen’ of hell (1.85), to curse his sons Eteocles and Polyneices, who he feels have ignored him. Specifically, he requests the realisation of the ‘unspeakable crime’ (nefas, a rough opposite of Virgil’s pietas) that consists of brother fighting brother (1.56–87).26 It is Tisiphone who responds to his prayer. Oedipus gives her the crown of Thebes (1.82–3), signalling the power of the infernal deities over mortals in the Thebaid.

The Aeneid is defined by its ordered vision of the cosmos, as reflected in its clear segregation of Tartarus from Elysium and the equally important segregation of the Underworld from the world above. Cosmic order is maintained; the powers of hell punish those who deserve it while remaining firmly under the control of the Olympians.27 In the Thebaid, however, Tartarus and its queen, Tisiphone, enjoy free rein on earth, with Tisiphone driving a great many actions in the plot. The punishments of hell are no longer limited to Tartarus, the Fury’s wrath no longer aimed exclusively at the deserving criminal; as Philip Hardie summarises, ‘Strife within the family turns into the battleground of heaven and hell.’28 The topsy-turvy nature of Statius’ cosmos – and the alarming permeability of the boundaries between hell and earth – is best reflected by an episode in Thebaid 7 and 8 in which an Argive warrior, Amphiaraus, is swallowed up in a chasm in the heat of battle and brought into hell while still alive, much to the confusion of the dead and Dis himself (7.794–823; 8.1–83). Where Virgil extends the threat of Tartarus to the everyday Roman citizen, Statius extends it beyond its geographical limitations under the earth, unleashing the agents of hell to mete punishment on the living before death.

To conclude, many of the essential ideas of pagan thought emerge early on in Orphic and Pythagorean texts written in Greek, including the image of the body as the tomb of the soul, expressed in the Orphic pun on sōma (‘body’) and sēma (‘tomb’), and the Pythagorean principle of the transmigration of souls. In the Greek Hellenistic era (denoting the three centuries following the death of Alexander in 323 bce) emerged contrasting views of the afterlife according to the Stoic and the Epicurean schools: while the Stoic school saw the universe as cyclical and the entire cosmos as connected through the concept of a world soul, the atomic materialism of the Epicureans led them to deny the existence of an afterlife. Roman writers appropriated and developed these Greek philosophical ideas. Both Cicero and Virgil produced intelligent syntheses of elements of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Stoicism, in ways which would be decisive for the development and articulation of Christian thought. The outlier is Lucretius, who chose to champion Epicureanism in his De rerum natura. The fact that he devotes so much effort to dispelling fear of death and the afterlife in the diatribe finale to Book 3 indicates a need to confront the dominant attitudes of his day.

The classical depictions of ‘hell’ provide a strongly moralised message in terms of rewards and punishments. These features certainly manifest in the early Christian, patristic, and medieval periods, possibly as a result of direct or indirect influence. The essential similarity is the use of visions of the afterlife to coerce or encourage particular types of behaviour in this world, hence the ‘just deserts’ of our chapter title. That said, there are several important differences between pagan and Christian ideas of the afterlife. First, body vs soul: Christianity envisages the mass physical resurrection of believers, hence the medieval interest in the body and bodily effects of visions of the afterlife; this contrasts strongly with the pagan emphasis on the soul, especially on burning or washing away the impurities of the body.29 Second, linear vs cyclical time: that difference in turn connects with the single eternity of Christianity, contrasted with the mostly cyclical conception of the Greco-Roman afterlife. Third, future vs now: there are important temporal differences too, with Christianity using the afterlife to focus firmly on the future while ignoring current living conditions, whereas some pagan cults offer improvements to the initiate right away, for example in the worship of Isis (as evidenced by Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 11) and of Mithras. Fourth, heroes vs ‘Everyman’: in Greco-Roman myth it is generally people of elevated status who visit the Underworld and return from katabasis: Orpheus, Heracles/Hercules, Theseus, Aeneas, Scipio. The exception to this is Plato’s ordinary man, Er. By contrast, many medieval texts seem more interested in an ‘Everyman’ approach, perhaps reflecting the egalitarian ideology (although not necessarily practice) of Christianity.30 That said, Virgil takes the first important step in that direction, as we have argued here, by opening the threat of punishment in Tartarus to any and every ordinary Roman citizen. Virgil, the pagan author who was most readily Christianised, appears to extend the afterlife from the elite focus of the classical world to include any and everyone in the scope of just deserts.

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