David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 6: Mercury — Roman Emperor Justinian”

“Canto 6: Mercury — Roman Emperor Justinian”

  • What do Inferno, Canto 6 (Florentine politics) and Purgatory, Canto 6 (Italian politics) and Paradise, Canto 6 (the politics of the empire) have in common?

Obviously, they have the topic of politics in common. Note that in Paradisewe get the big picture; we learn about the politics of the empire as a whole. In the Inferno, we get the small picture; we learn about the politics of one city only: Florence. In the Purgatory, we get the middle picture; we learn about politics in Italy.

  • Write a short character analysis of Justinian. Who is he, historically?

Pretty obviously, Justinian is an important character. We know that because here in Canto 6 of the Paradisehe is the only speaker. In all other cantos of The Divine Comedy, we have more than one speaker.

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 we 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 empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, which we call the Byzantine Empire. Its center of power was at Byzantium. In Roman times, it was known as Constantinople. Today it is known as Istanbul. The supremacy of the Eastern Roman Empire ended in 1204, when Constantinople was sacked in the Fourth Crusade.

Justinian (485-565) 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. (The boy’s original name was Petrus Sabbatius.)

Justinian does have a connection with Ravenna, Italy, where Dante died. In Ravenna Justinian had beautiful buildings created; they are decorated with mosaics. Dante wrote most of the Paradisein Ravenna near 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.

  • At the end of Canto 5, Dante and Beatrice rose to the planet Mercury, where Dante saw “more than a thousand splendors” (Musa 5.103) or souls. One soul invited Dante to ask questions, and Beatrice also urged Dante to ask questions of the soul. Which two questions did Dante ask?

The souls in Paradise are helpful, as we see here when a soul — and Beatrice — invite Dante to ask questions. Dante in fact asks two questions of the soul:

1) Who are you?

2) Why are you assigned to Mercury?

The soul, who is Justinian, answers Dante’s questions in Canto 6. In fact, Justinian is the only speaker in Canto 6, which consists of a monologue by him.

  • How does Justinian identify himself?

Justinian’s way of identifying himself is not direct:

“After that Constantine the eagle turned

Against the course of heaven, which it had followed

Behind the ancient who Lavinia took,

Two hundred years and more the bird of God

In the extreme of Europe held itself,

Near to the mountains whence it issued first;”

(Longfellow 6.1-6)

One thing we see here is a strong sense of history. Justinian’s story is one that is connected to centuries of history; in fact, it goes back to mythic as well as to historic times. Aeneas is the “warrior who wed Lavinia” (Musa 6.3), and he brought “the bird of God” (Musa 6.5) — that is, the eagle, which represents the Roman Empire — westward, from Troy to Italy.

Constantine, however, reversed that direction. He took the eagle eastward, from Rome to Constantinople. In doing so, he went “against the course of Heaven” (Musa 6.2) — the sun travels from east to west, and taking the eagle to Constantinople reversed that course.

Justinian adds:

“And under shadow of the sacred plumes

It governed there the world from hand to hand,

And, changing thus, upon mine own alighted.

Caesar I was, and am Justinian,

Who, by the will of primal Love I feel,

Took from the laws the useless and redundant;”

(Longfellow 6.7-12)

Note the line “Caesar I was, Justinian I remain” (Musa 6.7). Earthly office is not important in Paradise. What is important is person — how did you use your free will while you were alive on Earth?

  • What was the Justinian Code?

Lines 11-12 of Canto 6 of the Paradiseare very important:

“Caesar I was, Justinian I remain

who, by the will of the First Love I feel,

purged all the laws of excess and of shame.”

(Musa 6.10-12)

Here we have Justinian’s major Earthly accomplishment. He had 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.

Dumb laws do occur, and occasionally it can be a good idea to weed out dumb laws. Here are dumb laws in Ohio, according to <http://www.dumblaws.com/laws/united-states/ohio/&gt;:

  • It is illegal to fish for whales on Sunday.
  • It is illegal to get a fish drunk.
  • Participating in or conducting a duel is prohibited.
  • Breast feeding is not allowed in public.
  • It is illegal for more than five women to live in a house.

Chances are, these dumb laws are no longer in effect. The law “It is illegal to fish for whales on Sunday” is rather silly, I think. I doubt that there are whales in Lake Erie. (By the way, “Erie” is a Native American name that denotes a member of an Iroquois tribe living on the southern shores of the lake.) Also by the way, a man in Athens, Ohio, markets a T-shirt that says, “Surf Ohio.” One of the Beach Boys has worn that T-shirt during a concert. In addition, Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered that logo to be put on some of his T-shirts. (Mr. Schwarzenegger is so big that he had to bring in some of his specially made T-shirts so that the logo could be put on it. I have seen a photograph of Mr. Schwarzenegger holding up a regular X-tra Large T-shirt with the “Surf Ohio” logo on it — the T-shirt is much too small for him to wear.)

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 studied the Justinian Code in Florence, and he believed that Italy needed a Roman emperor to enforce the law. He felt that the Roman law of the Justinian Code was good.

Today, Justinian is probably best known for the Justinian Code — it is his best achievement.

  • How was Justinian able to create the Justinian Code?

Before Justinian was able to create the Justinian Code, he had to get a few other things right first. He had to think correctly about God, and he had to have the right relationship between church and state.

Justinian tells Dante:

“And ere unto the work I was attent,

One nature to exist in Christ, not more,

Believed, and with such faith was I contented.”

(Longfellow 6.13-15)

Before creating the Justinian Code, Justinian had to learn to think correctly about God. In fact, he had to get rid of his heresy. (This heresy is known as the Eutychian or Monophysite Heresy.) Christian dogma regards Christ as having two natures: He is fully human, and He is fully divine. However, Justinian regarded Christ as having only one nature — Dante thought that Justinian believed that Christ was divine, not human.

  • How is Pope Agapetus I able to help Justinian?

Fortunately, a Pope — Agapetus I — was able to correct Justinian’s heretical thinking:

“But blessed Agapetus, he who was

The supreme pastor, to the faith sincere

Pointed me out the way by words of his.”

(Longfellow 6.16-18)

Dante seems to be saying that 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 I really was a good spiritual leader, and we see that Justinian has established the right relationship between church and state. The Pope handles religious questions, while Emperor Justinian handles legal, secular questions. And now that Justinian is in Paradise, he can see clearly that the Pope got the answers to the religious questions right.

  • How is Belisarius able to help Justinian?

Another thing that Justinian did was to give (to delegate) his war powers (“arms”) to a great general named Belisarius. By allowing Belisarius to wage war when needed, Justinian was able to focus on codifying the Roman law. Justinian says,

“And to my Belisarius I commended

The arms, to which was heaven’s right hand so joined

It was a signal that I should repose.”

(Longfellow 6.25-27)

Belisarius really was a good general. He was able to recover Italy, which had been overrun by Germanic tribes, and thus Justinian was able to build beautiful buildings in Ravenna.

By allowing Belisarius to handle war, Justinian is able to devote himself to something that is more valuable: law. Justinian would like the world to be well governed. To do that, you need to have both the right faith and the right laws.

We should note that Justinian is allowing people to do what they do best. The Pope is the authority in spiritual matters, and Justinian does not challenge him for power. Belisarius is a very competent general and Justinian allows him to lead the troops into battle. Justinian himself is the right person to codify the Roman law, and Justinian does that.

  • How does Virgil’s Aeneidinfluence the way that Justinian tells his story?

Justinian has been talking about himself, but now he goes back to ancient times and Aeneas, and then he will carry the story forward to then-modern times — that is, the time of Dante.

This technique of starting in the middle is known as in medias res, and it is the technique that is used in the Aeneid. Virgil starts the story in the middle. Aeneas and his men go to Carthage, then there is a flashback to Troy and their adventures following the fall of the city, and then he picks up his story again and we learn about Aeneas’ adventures in Italy. Of course, Homer started both of his epic poems — the Iliadand the Odysseyin medias res. Virgil followed the same tradition. In a way, Dante did, too, since The Divine Comedyis set in the midpoint of his life. However, Dante does not go back and tell us what happened in the first part of his story (except that we know that he fell in love with Beatrice but she died).

It is interesting also that Book 6 of the Aeneidis about history. Aeneas goes to the Underworld and sees his future descendants and learns something about the future history of Rome. We have a linkage among Inferno6 and Purgatory6 and Paradise6 and Aeneid6.

  • Justinian first tells the early history of Rome, starting before Rome was Rome. First, however, he states that no one has the right to oppose the Roman standard (Musa 6.30-33).

Justinian does not believe that anyone has the right to resist the “sacred standard” (Musa 6.32) of Rome. A standard is the flag carried by a Roman legion. Often, the flag had the letters “SPQR” a Latin abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, which can be translated as “The Senate and People of Rome.”

Dante believed that God supported the Roman Empire. We recall that in two of the mouths of Lucifer in the deepest part of the Inferno are Cassius and Brutus, two people who opposed Julius Caesar. By doing that, they opposed the coming into existence of the Roman Empire.

Justinian tells Dante,

“[…] I am forced to add on something more

to make it plain to you how little cause

have those who move against the sacred standard,

be it the ones who claim it or disdain it.”

(Musa 6.30-33)

“[T]he ones who claim it [the Roman standard] or disdain it” (Musa 6.33) are the Ghibellines and the Guelfs. Mark Musa writes,

The Ghibellines, who supported the Empire, retained the imperial standard as their own, but not necessarily because they supported the ideal of the Empire. The Guelphs, who supported the French emperor and the papal party, attempted to suppress the imperial standard and replace it with their own. Disapproval here is expressed for bothgroups. (75)

  • What is the story of Pallas?

Justinian mentions Pallas, whose story is recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid. Pallas’ father was Evander, the King of Latium. Latium was a city that was founded on the site of what later became Rome. In the Aeneid, Aeneas is shown around Latium, and several important sites of Rome are mentioned during the tour. Pallas was old enough to go to war, and his father entrusted him to Aeneas. Unfortunately, Pallas was killed in battle by Turnus, the leader of the forces arrayed against Aeneas. At the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas avenges Pallas’ death by killing Turnus.

  • What is the rape of the Sabine women?

The early Romans were mainly men (basically, a band of robbers), 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. The word “rape” has the meaning of “kidnap” here. Romulus talked to the young Sabine women and convinced them to marry Roman men.

  • What is the story of Lucretia?

Here there really is rape. Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman, was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of King Tarquinius Superbus. She committed suicide, and her brother led a rebellion that cast out King Tarquinius Superbus, who was the last King of the Romans. The kingdom was replaced by a republic. A republic is a kind of democracy in which leaders are elected by the people (or at least some of the people).

  • What is the story of Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus?

Lucius Quinius Cincinnatus is the Roman after whom Cincinnati, Ohio, is named. He was a great general. He was also 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.

  • What is the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps?

Justinian makes a number of references to Roman history, including a reference to a great Carthaginian general named Hannibal who warred against Rome.

Hannibal was a great Carthaginian general. (He came from the city that Dido founded.) He went to war against Rome, and 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 he was eventually defeated in Africa by Scipio Africanus.

  • What is the story of Pompey?

Pompey fought Julius Caesar for power in Rome. Julius Caesar defeated him at the Battle of Pharsalia in 48 B.C.E., Pompey fled to Egypt, and he was killed there by Ptolemy. Julius Caesar gained all the power, but he was then assassinated by a number of Romans, including Brutus and Cassius.

  • Dante is a part of a much larger story, and so are we.

Justinian tells an awful lot of Roman history, and his main purpose is to glorify the Roman Empire. However, he mentions a seemingly trivial event that happened at Fiesole, which is a hill above Florence. Justinian says,

“Under the eagle, triumphed in their youth

Scipio and Pompey, and it showed its wrath

against the hill against which you were born.”


In ancient times, Catiline tried to take over political power, but the Roman orator Cicero stopped him. Catiline took refuge in Fiesole, but he was defeated.

Justinian is bringing Dante into the story. All of us are a part of a much larger story. We ourselves are a part of the story of the United States (or whatever your country is) and of God.

In addition, we learn that big stories have consequences on the local level. What happens in Washington, D.C. has consequences in Athens, Ohio (my home). National politics has consequences on the local level.

United States President Barack Obama is aware that he is part of a much larger story. In a speech, he said,

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.

 — Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” 18 March 2008


  • What do we learn about Brutus and Cassius from Justinian?

We read,

“From what it wrought with the next standard-bearer

Brutus and Cassius howl in Hell together,

And Modena and Perugia dolent were;”

(Longfellow 6.73-75)

Justinian tells a lot about Roman history. We read about Cassius and Brutus, the sinners who are in two of Lucifer’s mouths in the Inferno. They went against the divinely appointed Roman Empire, and thus God harshly punishes them.

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, lots of people suffered and died. At Modena, Augustus defeated Marc Anthony. At Perugia, Augustus defeated Lucius, Anthony’s brother. Because of the actions of Cassius and Brutus, civil war continued in Rome.

Please note Justinian’s great knowledge. Souls in Paradise have a broader perspective than souls in other places.

  • What is the story of Cleopatra?

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, who allied himself with Cleopatra. Octavian defeated their forces at the Battle of Actium, a naval battle, in 31 B.C.E. 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 is the first Roman Emperor. With him, the Roman Republic ended.

  • What was the “world-wide peace / that kept the gates of Janus temple locked” (Musa 6.80-81)?

From roughly 27 BC to 180 AD, the Roman Empire 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 their bodies to get enough to eat. Children starve. People kill and are killed.

During World War II, the Nazis frequently bombed London. A man saw a woman’s arm in the rubble, and he pulled at it, thinking to unearth a corpse. The arm came out of the rubble. The rest of the woman’s corpse was elsewhere.

The United States is lucky because wars have not recently been fought on our territory.

At Rome was a temple to Janus. During times of peace, the doors of the temple were kept locked. During times of war, the doors to the temple were kept open.

  • Justinian refers to two important events that are connected with the Romans Tiberius and Tiber. Who are these Romans, and what were these events?

These two important events will be discussed in the next canto:

1) During the reign of the third Caesar (that is, the second Roman Emperor; the first Caesar was Julius), Jesus Christ was crucified.

2) 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.

Here are the dates of the first few Roman Emperors:

Augustus31 B.C.E.-14 C.E.


Gaius (Caligula)37-41



Iulius Vindex 68

  1. Clodius Macer68


  1. Nymphidius Sabinus68-69





  • How can I learn to understand all these names and events?

One point here. Unless you already know about Roman history, you may be lost by the references to historically important Romans in this canto. Of course, that is one reason that editions of The Divine Comedycontain notes. (It is also good to have a teacher be your guide through The Divine Comedythe first time you read it, if that is possible.) However, you should be aware that all of us construct a web of knowledge. We learn one fact, then another, and then another. Eventually, these facts construct a web of understanding, and we are able to make the web bigger by adding more facts. In other words, keep learning. It will get easier.

Justinian assumes that Dante the Pilgrim knows his Roman history, and Dante the Poet assumes that his audience knows their Roman history. This is a major compliment to his audience. Of course, Dante’s audience when he wrote is not the same as his audience now. The United States of America did not exist in Dante’s day. USAmericans nowadays seldom study Latin, and they know much less about Roman history than Dante’s contemporary audience did.

  • Justinian takes the story all the way up to the 1st century, and then he jumps to Charlemagne (Musa 6.742-814). That is a major leap.

Certainly a leap of some 700 years is a major leap, but Justinian (485-565 C.E.) started his story in the middle, with his own era, so we do have some of the story in between.

Justinian says,

“And when the tooth of Lombardy had bitten

The Holy Church, then underneath its wings

Did Charlemagne victorious succor her.”

(Longfellow 6.94-96)

Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.) defended the Church against a man he dethroned: King Desiderius, the Lombard.

Charlemagne was the Holy Roman Emperor, but he called himself simply the Roman Emperor. For Dante, Charlemagne’s story is the continuing story of the Roman Empire.

  • What is so bad about the Guelf/Ghibelline conflict?

Another big jump of time in Justinian’s narration takes us to Dante’s own time and the conflict between Guelfs and Ghibellines. It turns out that both political parties are working against the Empire.

The Guelfs, of course, supported the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor. They were against the Empire. (When the Guelfs split into factions, the white Guelfs opposed Pope Boniface VIII, while the black Guelfs supported him. Dante was a white Guelf.)

However, the Ghibellines are also against the Empire. Supposedly, the Ghibellines support the Holy Roman Emperor, but they are actually more concerned with getting power for themselves.

Justinian tells us,

“To the public standard one the yellow lilies

Opposes, the other claims it for a party,

So that ’tis hard to see which sins the most.”

(Longfellow 6.100-102)

The “public standard” (Musa 6.100) is the Roman eagle, the sign of Empire. The Guelfs are allied with the French — symbolized by the “yellow lilies” of line 101 — while the Ghibellines want power for themselves. Note that Dante is criticizing both political parties: the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.

By the way, the Holy Roman Emperor of this time did not impress Dante because he was in Germany and was not interested in Italy.

Dante fully supported world government in his book On World Government. He is against whatever would prevent a competent world government from forming.

  • Which kind of souls can be found on Mercury?

Justinian lets us know which kind of souls can be found on Mercury:

“This little star is made more beautiful

by valiant souls whose zealous deeds on earth

were prompted by desire for lasting fame:”

(Musa 6.112-114)

The “little star” (Musa 6.112) is the small planet Mercury. These souls were too concerned about “lasting fame” (Musa 6.114) and so they are not to be found higher in Paradise. It is fitting for these 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. These souls wanted fame, but now the Sun and Venus often overshadow the planet they are associated with. Of course, these souls are in the Mystic Emporium, but they appear here as a courtesy to Dante.

All of these souls performed great deeds on Earth, but these souls were tainted by being overly concerned with their Earthly honor and fame.

  • Write a short character analysis of Romeo of Villeneuve.

Frequently, we go from the big picture to the little picture in The Divine Comedy. Both the local story and the empire story are related. The same is true of our actions. We are a part of a bigger story.

Justinian, an Emperor, now tells us about a person who did great deeds, but whose great deeds went unrewarded. He tells us about Romeo (whose name means “a pilgrim to Rome”):

“And in the compass of this present pearl

Shineth the sheen of Romeo, of whom

The grand and beauteous work was ill rewarded.”

(Longfellow 6.127-129)

Romeo was not nobly born, but he was able to get noble husbands for the four daughters of a count named Raymond Berenger; in fact, each daughter became a queen. However, because of his success other people envied him, and he lost his position.

These are the daughters and the nobles they married:

Margaret married King Louis IX (St. Louis).

EleanormarriedKing Henry III of England.

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

BeatricemarriedCharles of Anjou.

  • How is Romeo of Villeneuve similar to and different from Pier delle Vigne (Inferno13)?

Both Romeo of Villeneuveand Pier delle Vigne 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 his bread. Justinian tells us:

“And then malicious words incited him

To summon to a reckoning this just man,

Who rendered to him seven and five for ten.

Then he departed poor and stricken in years,

And if the world could know the heart he had,

In begging bit by bit his livelihood,

Though much it laud him, it would laud him more.”

( Longfellow 6.136-142)

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

Note also a reversal. Pier was a spin doctor for Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II — he praised Frederick II. Here we have a Byzantine Emperor praising Romeo of Villeneuve.

  • How is Romeo of Villeneuve similar to and different from Dante?

Dante did not get women married to kings, but he did suffer political misfortune that led him to exile. The situations of Dante and Romeo of Villeneuve are similar.

  • Conclusion: Politics is important in The Divine Comedy.

Politics is important in The Divine Comedy, as we see in Inferno 6 (Florentine politics) and Purgatory6 (Italian politics) and Paradise 6 (the politics of the empire). (Of course, as pointed out above, a linkage also exists with Aeneid 6.)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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