Dante is the central figure of the Divine Comedy, including Purgatory. The poem, which Dante described as the record of a mystical vision, recounts his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although the poem is mainly an exposition of Dante's philosophical, religious, and political views, it also shows Dante growing as a character. In Purgatory Dante has become less rash and vindictive than he was in the Inferno. He is less willing to pass judgment on the dead and derives much less pleasure from their suffering.
The Roman poet Virgil is Dante's main guide in both the Inferno and Purgatory. Although Virgil led a morally upright life, he died before the advent of Christianity. In Dante's epic this makes Virgil a "virtuous pagan," who does not deserve the punishments of Hell but who lacks the faith to secure a space in Heaven. He is thus assigned to spend eternity in Limbo, a painless border region of Hell. One day, Virgil is summoned by Beatrice to guide Dante on his pilgrimage through the afterlife. Leaving Limbo temporarily, he accompanies Dante down through Hell and up to the summit of Mount Purgatory. His wisdom and strength of character are mingled with quiet sorrow at his eternal exclusion from Heaven.
Beatrice is a fictionalized version of Beatrice Portinari, a young Florentine noblewoman whom Dante loved from afar in real life. Her early death in 1290 left Dante heartbroken, but he paid tribute to his lost love by making her a central figure in his Divine Comedy written years later. Because of her virtuous life, Dante has no problem granting Beatrice a place among the saints. She appears in person toward the end of Purgatory to lead Dante to Heaven, where the last third of the Comedy will take place.
Cato the Younger (Marcus Porcius Cato) is a Roman senator who was historically best known for defying Julius Caesar. He died by his own hand in Utica, Tunisia, after his forces were defeated by Caesar's allies. In Purgatory he stands at the shores of the afterlife and welcomes the penitent dead. Despite being a non-Christian who committed suicide, Cato is present in Dante's Purgatory, rather than in Hell or Limbo. This exceptional treatment shows Dante's admiration for Cato as a strong-willed politician who refused to abandon his principles.
Publius Papinius Statius is a Roman poet associated with the Silver Age of Latin literature. He lived during the latter half of the 1st century CE, in the earliest days of Christianity. Like Virgil, whom he admires, Statius wrote in multiple genres, including epic poetry. In Dante's Purgatory he is a penitent soul in the last stages of his ascent to paradise. Heaven is available to him, and not to Virgil and Cato, because he—unlike they—lived after the establishment of Christianity. Dante insinuates that Statius secretly converted to Christianity, making him among the earliest Romans to do so.