Dante’s Paradise: Canto 6 Retelling — Mercury — Roman Emperor Justinian

Chapter 6: Mercury — Roman Emperor Justinian

The saved soul spoke, “The story of the Roman Empire is the story of the Roman Eagle. The Eagle followed the course of Heaven. The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and Aeneas, the prince of conquered Troy, journeyed West to Italy, wed Lavinia, and became an important ancestor of the Roman people.

“Constantine, however, reversed that direction. He took the Eagle Eastward, from Rome to Constantinople. In doing so, he went against the course of Heaven — the Sun travels from East to West, and taking the Eagle to Constantinople reversed that course.

“For approximately 200 years, the Eagle remained in the East, close to Troy, and then my day came, and I and people under my command reconquered Italy for the Empire.

“I was a Roman Emperor; I am still Justinian. I, inspired by God, reformed the Roman law.”

Beatrice thought, The Roman Empire was huge, and in order to better manage it, it was divided into two centers of power. One was the Western Roman Empire, which people call the Roman Empire. Its center was at Rome. Eventually, Rome fell as Germanic tribes made war against the Western Roman Empire. However, the other Empire continued.

The other was the Eastern Roman Empire, which people call the Byzantine Empire. Its center of power was at the city named Byzantium. In Roman times, this city was known as Constantinople. Later, it will officially be known as Istanbul. The supremacy of the Eastern Roman Empire ended in 1204 C.E., when Constantinople was sacked in the Fourth Crusade.

Justinian (485-565 C.E.) was one of the Byzantine Emperors. Two centuries before, Constantine had moved to the Eastern Roman Empire, making his home in Constantinople, which of course was named after him.

Justinian is known as a lawgiver and Roman Emperor. His upbringing was humble. He was born a peasant, but he was adopted at age eight by his uncle Justin. Justin took him to Constantinople and renamed him Justinian. His original name was Petrus Sabbatius.

Justinian has a connection with Ravenna, Italy, where Dante will die. In Ravenna, Justinian ordered beautiful buildings to be created; they are decorated with mosaics. Dante will live in Ravenna at the end of his life. Justinian’s general, Belisarius, was able to conquer Rome, thus making it part of the Empire again and allowing Justinian to create magnificent buildings in Ravenna.

Justinian’s major Earthly accomplishment was having the Roman law codified — put in an orderly fashion. Before Justinian, Roman law was disorderly. Many Emperors had made many laws, and no one really knew what the law was, and so no one had any way of knowing what was legal and what was illegal. Justinian had people clean up the law — get rid of the old, outdated laws, and make sure that the current laws made sense. In addition, he had a commentary and a textbook of the law created — that way, people could study the law and so know what was legal and what was illegal.

One important effect of the Justinian Code is that people began to study it in the 12th century, as city-states and national monarchies developed in Europe. Dante studies the Justinian Code in Florence, and he believes that Italy needs a Roman Emperor to enforce the law. He feels that the Roman law of the Justinian Code is good.

Justinian continued, “Before I was able to accomplish this reform of Roman law, I needed to do other things. For example, I needed to get rid of a heresy that I believed. I believed that Jesus had only one nature. I believed that Jesus had only a divine nature. I should have believed that the incarnated Jesus is fully divine and fully human.

“Fortunately, Pope Agapetus the First was able to correct my heretical thinking. I trusted him. Pope Agapetus was a good spiritual leader, and he helped me to correct my thinking and to establish the right relationship between church and state. Pope Agapetus handled religious questions, while I handled legal, secular questions. And now that I am in Paradise, I can see clearly that Pope Agapetus got the answers to the religious questions right.

“You know that when two statements are contradictory, one statement must be true and the other statement must be false. Both cannot be true. For example, only one of these statements is true: 1) A bachelor is an unmarried man. 2) A bachelor is not an unmarried man.

“As clearly as you know this kind of logic in the living world, so clearly do I know in Paradise that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. What is a mystery in the living world is self-evident in Paradise.

“To be a great ruler, you have to get the answers to the ultimate questions right. If you are going to be a great ruler, you have to think correctly about God. Pope Agapetus helped me to think correctly about God. After I thought correctly about God, I was able to turn my attention to the reform of the Roman law.

“I also delegated authority. I let Belisarius be my general and fight my wars. He was such an able warrior and leader that I knew that God approved of such a delegation of duty. By allowing Belisarius to wage war when needed, I was able to focus on codifying the Roman law. Belisarius really was a good general. He was able to gain control of Italy, which had been overrun by Germanic tribes, and thus I was able to build beautiful buildings in Ravenna.

“By allowing Belisarius to handle war, I was able to devote myself to something that is more valuable: law. I wanted the world to be well governed. To do that, you need to have both the right faith and the right laws.

“I allowed people to do what they do best. The Pope was and is the authority in spiritual matters, and I did not challenge him for power. Belisarius was a very competent general, and I allowed him to lead the troops into battle. I myself was the right person to codify the Roman law, and I did that.

“This answers your first question: Who am I? But now I need to add something more. God supported the Roman Empire, and God wanted the seat of the Empire to be at Rome. Even now, a true Roman Emperor should exist.

“People do not support the Roman Empire nowadays. The Ghibellines have taken the imperial standard as their own, but they do not support the ideal of the Empire. The Guelfs support the French Emperor and try to suppress the imperial standard. Neither the Ghibellines nor the Guelfs deserve praise because neither group supports the ideal of the Empire — an ideal that God supports.

“Courage consecrated the Empire. Aeneas came to Italy, and he fought a war against those who would keep him from fulfilling his God-given destiny of becoming an important ancestor of the Roman people. When Aeneas went to Italy, Aeneas was shown around Latium, which was built on the future site of Rome. Pallas, whose father was Evander, the King of Latium, was old enough to go to war, and his father entrusted him to Aeneas. Unfortunately, Turnus, the leader of the forces arrayed against Aeneas, killed Pallas in battle. Aeneas avenged Pallas’ death by killing Turnus.

“Aeneas established the imperial Eagle at Latium, but his son, Ascanius, moved the Eagle to Alba Longa, where it stayed for more than 300 years. By then, Rome had been built, and three heroes of Alba Longa fought three heroes of Rome to see which city would be superior. Two of the Roman heroes died, but the third Roman hero killed all three of the Alba Longan heroes, and the imperial Eagle went to Rome.

“The early Romans were mainly men, and they needed wives. They invited their neighbors, the Sabines, who would not allow their daughters to marry Roman men, to a festival, and when Romulus (the founder of Rome) gave a signal, the Romans fought off the Sabine men and kidnapped the young Sabine women. Romulus talked to the young Sabine women and convinced them to marry Roman men.

“Seven Kings ruled Rome over the years. Sextus Tarquinius, son of King Tarquinius Superbus, raped Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman, and as a result she committed suicide. Her brother led a rebellion that cast out King Tarquinius Superbus, the last King of the Romans. The Kingship was replaced by a republic, a kind of democracy in which leaders are elected by the people — or at least some of the people.

“The Romans fought often and won. The Eagle defeated Brennus, the leader of Gaul. The Eagle defeated Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, who supported the Greeks.

“Titus Manlius Torquatus led the Romans to numerous victories. Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus was both a great general and a simple farmer. When the Romans ran into trouble, they requested that he leave his farm and lead the Roman soldiers against the enemy. After defeating the enemy, he retired again and worked on his farm.

“The Decii and the Fabii were prominent Roman families who produced many heroes and leaders.

“Scipio Africanus became a hero by defeating the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, who warred against Rome. When Hannibal first went to war against Rome, he achieved a notable feat: He brought war elephants to Italy by crossing the Alps from Spain into Italy. For years he roamed up and down Italy, but eventually Scipio Africanus defeated him in Africa. Again, the Eagle was triumphant.

“The story of Empire is part of your story. Catiline tried to take over political power, but the Roman orator Cicero stopped him. Catiline took refuge at Fiesole, a hill outside Florence, but he was defeated.

“All of us are a part of a much larger story. God has a plan for the world, and you are a part of that plan.

“Big events have consequences on the local level. A war of worldwide importance can definitely have an effect at the local level.

“Pompey fought Julius Caesar for power. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and fought many battles around the Mediterranean. Caesar finally defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalia in 48 B.C.E., Pompey fled to Egypt, and Ptolemy killed him there.

“Julius Caesar defeated the rebels and invaders and gained all the power, but was then assassinated by a number of Romans, including Brutus and Cassius, both of whom are punished in the deepest part of the deepest circle in the Inferno. Brutus and Cassius tried to stop God’s plan for the Roman Empire. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, lots of people suffered and died. Because of the action of Cassius and Brutus, civil war continued in Rome.

“Following the death of Julius Caesar, another power struggle broke out, this time between Octavian Caesar (the grand-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar) and Mark Antony. In 43 B.C.E., at Modena, Octavian defeated Mark Antony. In 41 B.C.E., at Perugia, Octavian defeated Lucius, Antony’s brother.

“After Mark Antony and Octavian had worked together for a while, they began fighting each other. Mark Antony allied himself with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. In 31 B.C.E., Octavian defeated their forces at the Battle of Actium, a naval battle, Mark Antony and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt. Both of them committed suicide, Cleopatra by allowing a poisonous snake to bite her. Octavian became Caesar Augustus. He became the first Roman Emperor. With him, the Roman Republic ended. So did the civil wars.

“From roughly 27 B.C.E. to 180 C.E., Italy was at peace. Of course, fighting occurred on the edges of the Roman Empire, but Italy itself was at peace. This is known as the Pax Romana: the Roman Peace.

“Peace is a great blessing. Life during wartime is rough. Food is scarce to get. Women sell themselves to get enough to eat. Children starve. People kill and are killed.

“When Rome was at war, the doors of the temple of Janus were kept open. Because of Caesar Augustus, the doors were closed.

“Two especially important events occurred.

“First, during the reign of Tiberius, the third Caesar (that is, the second Roman Emperor; the first Caesar was Julius), Jesus Christ was crucified. This paid the price for the sin of Adam, and at the same time Christ’s crucifixion was a new sin.

“Second, in 70 C.E., Titus conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. At the time, Titus’ father, Vespasian, was the Roman Emperor. Later, Titus became Roman Emperor, serving from 79-81 C.E. The destruction of Jerusalem was just vengeance for the death of Christ.

“I began my history of the Roman Empire in the middle by telling about Constantine and myself. Then I went back in time to the beginnings. Now I will jump ahead in time to Charlemagne. From near the end of the first century, we are going 700 years ahead in time.

“Charlemagne defended the Church against a man he dethroned: King Desiderius, the Lombard. In a later age, Charlemagne is called the Holy Roman Emperor, but he called himself simply the Roman Emperor. He became Emperor in 800 C.E. Charlemagne’s story is the continuing story of the Roman Empire.

“Now let’s look at the present age: 1300 C.E. This is another big jump in time.

“The Guelfs and Ghibellines are in conflict in Florence. Both political parties are working against the Empire.

“The Guelfs are supporting the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor. They are against the Empire. The Guelfs are allied with the French — symbolized by the yellow lilies.

“The Ghibellines want power for themselves. The Ghibellines say that they support the Holy Roman Emperor, but they are actually more concerned with getting power for themselves.

“What is needed is the formation of a competent world government. Neither the Guelfs nor the Ghibellines are helping that to happen. Neither the Guelfs nor the Ghibellines can be trusted to properly support the Empire. Political leaders of 1300 C.E. need to realize that.

“The Empire needs to be supported, but it is not being supported.

“You have two questions. I have already answered your first question. Your second question is this: Why am I showing myself to you on this planet that is often hidden from Humankind because it is so close to the Sun?

“This small planet is Mercury. The souls, including myself, who appear before you here were too concerned about lasting fame and so we are not to be found higher in Paradise.

“It is fitting for us souls to be found on Mercury because it is a planet that is often obscured by the Sun. It is much easier to see Venus in the sky — it is the Morning Star and the Evening Star. We souls wanted fame, but now the Sun and Venus often overshadow the planet we are associated with. Of course, we are really in the Mystic Empyrean, but we appear here as a courtesy to you.

“We did good works in the living world. The codification of the Roman law is a task that God wanted to be done. However, I and the other souls were too concerned about achieving Earthly fame while we performed our good works.

“All of us are happy. We see that we have received justice. We see that God doles out in proper proportion the fitting reward for each soul’s merit. We are in Paradise.

“Many voices blend together harmoniously. We souls help to produce the harmony that is seen among the heavenly Spheres.

“One of the souls here is Romeo di Villeneuve, a person who did great deeds, but whose great deeds went unrewarded. The name Romeo means ‘a pilgrim to Rome.’

“Romeo was not nobly born, but he was able to get husbands for the four daughters of a count named Raymond Berenger; in fact, each daughter married a king or the brother of a king. These are the daughters and the nobles they married:

“Margaret married Louis IX ( Saint Louis).

“Eleanor married Henry III of England.

“Sancha married Richard of Cornwall (the brother of Henry III of England).

“Beatrice married Charles I of Anjou.

“However, because of Romeo’s success other people envied him, and he lost his position. Romeo then begged for his bread in exile.

“The world praises Romeo, but if the world knew what was in Romeo’s heart as he begged, the world would praise him more.”

Dante thought, The stories of Romeo, who is in Paradise, and of Pier delle Vigne, who is among the suicides in the Inferno, are similar.

Both Romeo and Pier lost their positions due to the envy of other people.

However, Romeo’s response to losing his position was much different from the response of Pier delle Vigne. Pier, of course, committed suicide, but Romeo went begging for his bread.

Pier delle Vigne is the negative example — how not to react to political misfortune. Romeo is the positive example — how to properly respond to political misfortune.

Note also a reversal. Pier praised Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Here we have a Byzantine Emperor — Justinian — praising Romeo di Villeneuve.

Beatrice thought, Learn from this, Dante. You will be in exile soon, and you will need to taste other people’s bread rather than commit suicide.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:






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16 Responses to Dante’s Paradise: Canto 6 Retelling — Mercury — Roman Emperor Justinian

  1. Pingback: Dante’s Paradise, Canto 6: MERCURY | davidbruceblog #3

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