David Bruce: Dante’s PARADISE: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 17: Mars — Cacciaguida’s Prophecy”

“Canto 17: Mars — Cacciaguida’s Prophecy”

  • Which prophecy does Cacciaguida make, and how does Dante react to it?

Now that Cacciaguida has talked about the past and the present, he begins to talk about the future. (Beatrice encourages Dante to ask Cacciaguida questions.)

Dante has had many hints of his upcoming exile throughout the previous cantos of The Divine Comedy, but Cacciaguida tells Dante clearly that he will be exiled. (Souls in Paradise know the future.) As you would expect, this is something that worries Dante.

  • Which prophecies has Dante heard about his future life throughout the Divine Comedy?

On his journey throughout the Inferno and the Mountain of Purgatory, Dante has heard hints of his future exile:


1) Ciacco

In the Inferno, Ciacco prophesied to Dante that after much more fighting, one party will drive out the other party. Then within three years the positions will be reversed, and the party that was victorious will be defeated, and the party that was defeated will be victorious.

2) Farinata

Farinata revealed that Dante will soon be sent into exile — within 50 months. Farinata says,

“But the face of the queen who reigns down here will glow

not more than fifty times before you learn

how hard it is to master such an art; […]”

(Musa Inferno10.79-81)

3) Brunetto Latini

Brunetto Latini prophesied hard times for Dante. He says:

“But that ungrateful and malignant race

which descended from the Fiesole of old,

and still have rock and mountain in their blood,

will become, for your good deeds, your enemy — ”

(Musa Inferno15.61-64)

This prophecy states that both political parties will regard Dante as an enemy. Fiesole is the town where Julius Caesar besieged Catiline. The survivors of the siege founded Florence.

4) Vanni Fucci

As elsewhere in the Inferno, Vanni Fucci predicted coming trouble for Dante and for Florence. Vanni tells Dante of these coming troubles, including the expulsion of the White Guelfs from Florence by the Black Guelfs, and then he added, “And I have told you this so you will suffer!” (Musa Inferno24.151).


1) Conrad Malaspina.

Dante talked with a Guelf, Judge Nino Visconti (died 1296), who wanted his widow, who has remarried, to pray for him. Dante also talked with a Ghibelline, Conrad Malaspina (died c. 1294), who wanted news of the coast of Tuscany, where he had been well known. Dante praised the generosity of the Malaspina family, and Conrad made a prediction: within seven years Dante will have need of that generosity.

2) Oderisi of Gubbio

Oderisi of Gubbio prophesied that Dante will learn the humiliation of begging (Purgatory11.13-141).

3) Bonagiunta Da Lucca

In Canto 24.43-45, the poet Bonagiunta Da Lucca prophesied that a still unmarried woman from his city (the city of Lucca), which is reviled, will make Dante praise it.

  • Note that Cacciaguida speaks of Dante’s exile “in plain words, with clarity of thought” (Musa 17.34) rather than “with dark oracles” (Musa 17.31).

Dark oracles can be misleading, and they can lead people astray. Some oracles (or prophecies) were deliberately ambiguous, so that whatever happened the oracle would be true. For example, Croesus, the King of Lydia, was thinking about attacking Persia. He sent an emissary to the Delphic Oracle to ask whether he should do that. The Delphic Oracle responded that if he attacked Persia, “a mighty empire will fall.” Croesus did attack Persia, whose King was Cyrus the Great, and a mighty empire did fall. Unfortunately, the mighty empire that fell was his own empire. This story appears in Herodotus’ Histories1.92:

It is said that when the Lydian messengers reached Delphi and asked the questions they had been told to ask, the Priestess replied that not God himself could escape destiny. As for Croesus, he had expiated in the fifth generation the crime of his ancestor, who was a soldier in the bodyguard of the Heraclids, and, tempted by a woman’s treachery, had murdered his master and stolen his office, to which he had no claim. The God of Prophecy was eager that the fall of Sardis might occur in the time of Croesus’ sons rather than in his own, but he had been unable to divert the course of destiny. Nevertheless what little the Fates allowed, he had obtained for Croesus’ advantage: he had postponed the capture of Sardis for three years, so Croesus must realize that he had enjoyed three years of freedom more than was appointed for him. Secondly, the god had saved him when he was on the pyre. As to the oracle, Croesus had no right to find fault with it: the gods had declared that if he attacked the Persians he would bring down a mighty empire. After an answer like that, the wise thing would have been to send again to inquire which empire was meant, Cyrus’ or his own. But as he misinterpreted what was said and made no second inquiry, he must admit the fault to have been his own.

Source: http://www.utexas.edu/courses/clubmed/examsourceanal.html

  • How will Dante’s exile occur?

The theme of Canto 17 of Paradiseis Dante’s exile. Cacciaguida both describes Dante’s upcoming exile and advises him about it.

Beatrice tells Dante to ask Cacciaguida questions, and Dante asks him about the veiled warnings that he has been hearing in the Inferno and on the Mountain of Purgatory.

Cacciaguida describes Dante’s exile well. He describes not just facts, but also how Dante’s exile will affect him.

Cacciaguida says,

“Already this is willed, and this is sought for;

And soon it shall be done by him who thinks it,

Where every day the Christ is bought and sold.”

(Longfellow 17.49-51)

Why will Dante go into exile? Because of Pope Boniface VIII. The Pope’s armies will force Dante to go into exile.

The problem with all of that, of course, is that when they do it, they will also try to make sure that they look like the good guys. Cacciaguida continues,

“The blame shall follow the offended party

In outcry as is usual; but the vengeance

Shall witness to the truth that doth dispense it.”

(Longfellow 17.52-54)

One thing that will happen is that the Pope will have good PR for a while. The public will be on the Pope’s side for a while. However, Cacciaguida says that eventually the truth will out, and the public will know Dante’s side of the story. Of course, Dante will tell his side of the story in The Divine Comedy. One of Dante’s purposes in writing The Divine Comedyis to do exactly that.

  • What will be the effects of Dante’s exile on Dante?

Cacciaguida says,

“Thou shalt abandon everything beloved

Most tenderly, and this the arrow is

Which first the bow of banishment shoots forth.”

(Longfellow 17.55-57)

One major effect, of course, is that Dante will leave behind his beloved city, Florence, and he will be separated from his family, at least part of the time.

Cacciaguida also says,

 “And you will know how salty is the taste

of others’ bread, how hard the road that takes

you down and up the stairs of others’ homes.”

(Musa 17.58-60)

This passage is important. One thing it says is that Dante will have to eat different kinds of food than the food he is used to getting in Florence. Dante will be in unfamiliar places. He will eat the food of other people, and he will stay at the homes of other people. Of course, when you do that, you are not home. You are not in control. To an extent, you have to do what other people want you to do.

In addition, Cacciaguida makes a reference to something that most modern Americans would not know. People in Florence do not put salt in their bread, and so when they travel outside of Florence and eat bread, they notice how salty the bread is.

Bread, of course, is important. According to the Bible, bread is the staff of life. Bread is also an important part of the Eucharist (a Christian sacrament in which bread represents the body of Christ and wine represents the blood of Christ).

Much will change for Dante, of course. He traveled to Rome, thinking that he would return to Florence in a few weeks, but he will be exiled from Florence and even the taste of the bread he eats will change.

Worse is to come:

“And that which most shall weigh upon thy shoulders

Will be the bad and foolish company

With which into this valley thou shalt fall;

For all ingrate, all mad and impious

Will they become against thee; but soon after

They, and not thou, shall have the forehead scarlet.”

(Longfellow 17.61-66)

For a while after he was exiled, Dante plotted with other Guelfs about how they could return to Florence. One way, of course, would be to raise an army and fight a battle.

However, Dante soon decided to move on with his life. Some of the people he was dealing with were not nice people. Cacciaguida says,

“Of their bestiality their own proceedings

Shall furnish proof; so ’twill be well for thee

A party to have made thee by thyself.”

(Longfellow 17.67-69)

One thing that Dante has been learning during his journey through the afterlife is to avoid extreme factionalism. The people he had been meeting with turned out to be extreme factionalists of the type that Farinata was in the Inferno.

Eventually, Dante becomes a party of one. He is able to criticize both the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs, and he is able to criticize both the Guelfs and the Ghibellines.

Dante must have been tempted to do a lot to get back into Florence. One way to do that is to raise an army and go to war. Of course, if you do that, lots of people will die, and lots of people will be hurt. Soldiers will die, and their families will be without breadwinners.

You have to ask, Is it worth it? It can be tempting to say, Yes. It can be tempting to think, If I get back into office, then I will do lots of good for lots of people.

However, we need to be careful. Maybe the war is for your own personal benefit, not for the benefit of the people of Florence. It can be easy to fool yourself.

Dante stopped plotting with other people about how to get back into Florence. He stopped engaging in bad factionalism. He learned that other things are important. We should not say, My political party, right or wrong.

Farinata is a person who put himself and his political party first, and look where he ended up.

  • What life mission does Cacciaguida reveal to Dante? (What should Dante do after his supernatural visit to the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise?)

Dante will be able to bring good out of exile. He has been exiled from Florence, but he will be able to learn from the experience, and he will be able to pass on what he learns to other people in his Divine Comedy.

Dante will be able to be like an Old Testament prophet who speaks truth to power. His exile will become a kind of pilgrimage.

In doing this, Dante will make many, many people very, very angry at him. Many, many powerful people will appear in the Infernopart of his Divine Comedy. Their families will still be alive.

Dante will be in exile, which means that he won’t have much to lose. Because he won’t have much to lose, he will have a certain amount of freedom. Not having much to lose means that he can tell the truth. What will someone do if they become angry at him: exile him? He’s already in exile.

  • What advice does Cacciaguida give to Dante about writing what he has seen in the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise?

Dante is a little worried. If he is going to tell his story, he has to tell it the right way if his message is going to endure.

Brunetto Latini wrote for the wrong reasons. He wanted to become famous, and so he wrote to become famous. It worked, but not for long. He was well known when he was alive, but now he would be forgotten if not for his being a character in the Inferno.

What Dante needs to do is to tell the truth. Telling the truth is why the Old Testament prophets are remembered. Dante knows that it will take courage to tell the truth:

 “yet, if I am a timid friend to truth,

I fear my name may not live with those

who will look back at these as the old days.”

(Musa 17.118-120)

If Dante tells the truth, he will make other people angry: “I learned things that, were they to be retold, / would leave a bitter taste in many mouths” (Musa 17.116-117).

Still, in order to be remembered, Dante must tell the truth, even though it will make other people angry.

Cacciaguida encourages Dante to tell the truth. This is something that will help people, although at first people may be angry. We read that Cacciaguida

 […] then replied : “The conscience that is dark

with shame for his own deeds or for another’s,

may well, indeed, feel harshness in your words;

nevertheless, do not resort to lies,

let what you write reveal all you have seen,

and let those men who itch scratch where it hurts.

Though when your words are taken in at first

they may taste bitter, but once well-digested

they will become a vital nutriment.”

(Musa 17.124-132)

Of course, the words that Dante will write are those of The Divine Comedy. Cacciaguida tells Dante to tell the truth in those words. Although some people will sting from the words, nevertheless the words will be beneficial to them.

Here we see the difference between Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet. In Paradise17, Dante the Pilgrim learns what Dante the Poet puts into practice throughout The Divine Comedy.

We have been hearing about bread that nourishes the body in this canto. Now we have heard about Dante’s words, which will nourish the soul and mind.

So did Dante follow Cacciaguida’s advice? Of course, he did. We know that he did because we are still reading The Divine Comedytoday. If Dante had lied, he would be as or a little better well known than Brunetto Latini is remembered today. That is, both men would be known probably only by specialists in Italian literature. Unlike Brunetto Latini, Dante did not write for fame. (Dante did write good poetry before The Divine Comedy, but he would not be the giant of world-class literature he is today if he had not written The Divine Comedy.)

Dante engages in an awful lot of criticism in The Divine Comedy, but his purpose is ultimately creative rather than destructive. If a building is a wreck, tear it down and then build another one in its place. If you have bad habits, get rid of the bad habits so that you can substitute good habits in their place. If the Church needs to be reformed, criticize it so that it can be reformed and become both better and stronger.

Dante’s words will be hard to hear, but they can provide much-needed nourishment.

Cacciaguida was a Crusader with a sword, but he lets Dante know that he must be a Crusader with a pen.


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