The historical context for Dante’s Inferno is the centuries-long war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, over whether the emperor or the pope should have more power. Dante’s party, the Guelphs, ostensibly supported the pope, but one faction (the White Guelphs) wanted to limit the pope’s power, while the other faction (the Black Guelphs) didn’t. As individual Italian cities realigned themselves with one party or the other for civic or financial reasons, power changed suddenly, and members of the losing party were often exiled. This happened to Dante prior to his writing the Inferno. When Dante, a White Guelph, traveled to Rome for a political meeting, the Black Guelphs took over Florence and conspired with the pope to have Dante banned.

Dante spent the rest of his life in exile. Dante’s exile plays a significant role in his writing of the Inferno. First, Dante emphasizes that Fortune, a Christianized version of Fate, determines human affairs. As Virgil teaches, human fortune changes swiftly; the lesson enables Dante to bear his own loss of fortune. Second, Dante’s political allegiances influence his placing of sinners in Hell. While honoring noble people who happened to belong to the opposite political party, such as the military leader Farinata, Dante condemns the people responsible for his exile, including the pope. The Inferno thus extends Dante’s political position, arguing that even religious leaders are accountable for their actions.

Read more about the Guelphs in a background essay on Dante and Inferno.