In a canto uniquely devoted to the problems encountered by Virgil in arranging the transportation of the protagonist from one Circle of hell to another, the actual method of transport, the giant Antaeus, has received less critical attention than one might imagine.(1) Perhaps it is the locutional proclivities of Nimrod (vv. 67-81) that, attracting so much attention, are responsible, but commentators have not paid particularly close heed to Dante's remarkable treatment of Antaeus. The scene is built out of classical sources, but in a way totally unauthorized by any of these, or by any other understanding of them. Reading through this episode with some care, we can see that Dante's Antaeus is developed from the sort of careful yet free-wheeling revision of classical text that we are learning to expect from him. As we move through the three dozen verses devoted to the episode, we may observe the amusing game that Dante develops among the surly giant, his interlocutor Virgil, Dante the reader of Virgilian text, and passages in Virgil and Lucan that are dedicated to gigantism.
97-105. Dante wants to see Briareus because he has read about him in the Aeneid (X.565-67): he has a hundred arms and hands and breathes fire from fifty mouths and breasts. It is important to note that Virgil himself apologizes for this account: dicunt, he says, 'or so they say,' the same tactic that Dante has used when warning us against the excesses of pagan myth-making when he imports it to his own poem (see Inf. XXIX.63; XXXI.4). Dante (both as poet and as character), however, wants to have some fun at his fellow poet's expense. Briareus, Virgil explains (like a host who does not want to produce a particularly embarrassing guest at a party), is way up ahead there, and he looks just like Ephialtes anyway -- there is really not much need to see him, since he would offer no novelty to the protagonist's curious sight. Dante has forced his auctor to apologize for including such unbelievable rot in the divine Aeneid, while allowing Virgil to escape the discomfort of actually having to gaze upon the 'normal,' Dantean version of a proper giant, human in everything but his size. Most commentators do not perceive the humor of this moment. However, for some sense of it, see the glosses of Andreoli (1856) and Trucchi (1936).
Not only is Antaeus a 'normal' giant (we see what Dante has gotten us to assent to by overruling 'excessive' gigantism -- this is a game played endlessly in Don Quijote: an acceptance of 'normal' gigantism), but he is a relatively friendly one, unfettered, we assume, because he did not fight against the gods at Phlegra. Satan never should have taken him on. Nimrod is ineffective, but at least he tries; Ephialtes (rigid in his continuing hostile ferocity -- vv. 106-11) has the right stuff; but this Antaeus is a total loser. As soon as God chose not to bind him, Satan should have found a meaner giant to aid him in his unflagging, if useless, opposition to divinity. The son of Neptune and Gea (Earth), Antaeus was invincible in combat so long as he remained in contact with earth. Hercules, discovering this, was able to hold him free from the earth and kill him, crushing him in his hands.(2)
106-108. Ephialtes is angry, we surmise, either because he thinks Virgil and Dante will have more success bending Antaeus to their purpose than they would have had with him, and/or because Virgil has said that Briareus looks even meaner than he.
109-114. Dante's fear at the angry giant's shaking is so great that he would have died had he not observed that Ephialtes was safely constrained; he and Virgil proceed to the station of Antaeus.
115-124. Virgil begins his captatio of Antaeus by referring to the battle of Zama in 202 B.C., where Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal (revenge for the battle of Cannae in 216 -- see Inf. XXVIII.9-11), thus successfully concluding the second Punic War, which had begun so badly. Needless to say, this (for Dante and any Roman-minded reader) great victory is hardly of a comparable magnitude to that of a giant capturing a lot of lions. Thus the reference to Zama offers a back-handed compliment to Antaeus, who killed his lions in the same place that Scipio defeated Hannibal. (Scipio's importance for Dante is mirrored in the fact that he reappears by name three times in the poem: Purg. XXIX.117, Par. VI.53, Par. XXVII.61.) Nonetheless, Virgil's captatio shows him at the top of his form, and flattery almost gets him all he hopes for. As was not the case with Ulysses, when Virgil could boast that he had written of his exploits (even if not very favorably, he had at least written of the Greek hero -- see Inf. XXVI.80-82), he has not written about Antaeus at all. To make matters worse, he did once mention a certain Antaeus, a soldier in Turnus's ranks, mowed down by Aeneas in his Achilles-like battlefield fury in Aeneid X.561. And, still worse, this mention of an Antaeus who is merely a "walk-on" corpse in Virgil's poem precedes by only four lines Virgil's mention of Briareus. And so here is a poet who has, intrinsically at least, insulted the giant that he now wants to cajole. What to do? Virgil didn't get to be Virgil by failing tests like this one. What he does is borrow from Lucan (of course only we know that he is accomplishing this chronologically impossible feat) in order to praise Antaeus. It was Lucan, not Virgil, who told the tale of Antaeus the lion-killer (Phars. IV.601-2), and it was Lucan, not Virgil, who explicitly compared Antaeus favorably to Briareus, not to mention Typhon and Tityus (the two other giants of whom we are about to hear at v. 124). See Pharsalia IV.595-97: Gea had more reason to boast of this gigantic son, Antaeus, than of the others, Typhon, or Tityus, or fierce Briareus; and she was merciful to the gods when she did not set loose Antaeus on the field at Phlegra. (This detail offers the matter for Virgil's second instance of the greatness of Antaeus.) It can hardly be coincidental that all four of the giants present in Virgil's speech here are also found together in Lucan's text. And so Virgil's two gestures toward Antaeus are both taken from Lucan.(3) It is an extraordinarily amusing moment; one can imagine how Dante smiled as he composed it. Nonetheless, some commentators (e.g., Pézard) deny that this passage is ironic. It is difficult to see with what justice they do so. For what has Virgil really said in praise of Antaeus? You killed a lot of lions right near the place where Rome won one of its greatest military victories; you didn't fight in the battle in which your brothers got killed by the gods.
125-132. Despite Virgil's Lucanian exertions, Antaeus still needs more persuading. Dante, Virgil tells him, can do what he himself did not do: make the giant famous. Perhaps Antaeus was a better reader of classical texts than some imagine; his lip was still curled with disdain after Virgil's praise had ended. But fame is the spur;(4) Antaeus bends and grasps Virgil, in a benevolent replay of his own death scene, when Hercules held him in his hands.
In such ways Dante uses the Antaeus episode to play a literary game with his classical texts and with the figure of Virgil in his poem, forced to take on the role of understudy to the later Lucan in materia Antaei. And while all the twists and turns "make sense" with regard to the poem's essential strategy, one has the feeling that Dante's main purpose here was enjoyment.
(1) But see Georg Rabuse, "Dantes Antäus-Episode, der Höllengrund und das Somnium Scipionis," Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 43 (1961): 18-51. For other important treatments of this canto, if with less on the presence and behavior of Antaeus in it, see André Pézard, "Le chant des géants," Annales du centre universitaire méditerranéen 11 (1957-58): 195-214; Christopher Kleinhenz, "Dante's Towering Giants: Inferno XXXI," Romance Philology 27 (1974): 269-85. This note is based upon materials in my commentary to Inferno, found in the Princeton Dante Project (http://www.princeton.edu/dante), as well as in a new translation (by Robert and Jean Hollander), with my marginalia, scheduled for publication by Doubleday in December 2000.
(2) Pézard, p. 206, points out that Virgil takes pains not to remind Antaeus of Hercules (their duellum is also remembered at Convivio III.iii.7 and Monarchia II.vii.10, inter alia), since such recollection would disturb him. As he exclaims, "Que d'intentions cache'es en ces vers!"
(3) Giorgio Padoan, "Anteo," ED I, pp. 296-97, points out that Lucan is Dante's prime source in this scene.
(4) Rabuse, pp. 30-31, clearly sees the ironic play in this moment, since the fame that Dante grants Antaeus is not glory, but dispraise.