Veiled Light: The Politics of Rome and the Root of Jesse
Following the flight from the Moon, Dante and Beatrice arrive in the second sphere, Mercury. In the fifth Canto, Dante likens his arrival on Mercury to a fish-pool. As a new fish attracts the attention of the school so too the new arrivals (Dante and Beatrice) draw the attention of all souls present, “so did I see full more than a thousand splendors draw toward us”. Dante is, unsurprisingly, immediately inquisitive. Mercury, often entirely obscured by the sun is somewhat of an enigma, after all.
Enigmatic too is this canto, which exposes the parallel history of the Roman Empire and the rise of the House of David. Gird up your loins, folks, we’ve got some history to get through.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Arriving at Mercury, Dante exclaims, “but I know not who you are, nor why, O worthy spirit, you have your rank in the sphere that is veiled to mortals by another’s rays” (5.130-135).
I Know Not Who You Are
In the sixth canto, we will follow the eagle, a symbol of God’s power and the primary symbol of the Roman Empire, from its founding by Aeneas through the reign of the Caesars and to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The speaker begins by taking Dante back to the foundation of Christendom, “After Constantine turned back the Eagle counter to the course of the heavens”. You will, of course, remember that, before his deathbed conversion (337ad), the Emperor Constantine transferred the seat of the Roman Empire from the West (Rome, the seat of the papacy) to the East (Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in 330). Before his conversion, Constantine moves the eagle away from the seat of the church, reversing exactly Aeneas’s empire-expanding course from Troy to Italy.
The speaker then introduces himself, thus answering Dante’s first question, “I was Caesar, and am Justinian, who by will of the Primal Love which I feel, removed from among the laws what was superfluous and vain.” One should here note the shifts in tense. Justinian’s official title is unimportant in the heavenly realm. He “was Caesar.” Now, he is Justinian, justice, who still today feels the Primal Love which once inspired his earthly jurisprudence.*
Justinian, looking toward Beatrice’s expanded Christology in Canto VII, further defines himself by his orthodoxy. Before he codified the law, he held the heterodox view that Christ had only one nature—that is, that Christ was fully divine and not fully human (pace the prophets of our day who prefer that Jesus be viewed as only man and not divine!). There is some pride in Justinian’s affirmation that the Bishop Agapetus, “who was the supreme pastor, directed me to the true faith by his words.”
Throughout Canto VI, Justinian plays with themes of light and dark, ignorance and knowledge, truth and untruth. Mercury is a planet of extraordinary light that is nevertheless darkened by the sun. Justinian was a man of darkened ignorance whose view of Christ was transformed by the light of the orthodox two-nature doctrine. There is a duality at play here—a duality only heightened by references to the Aristotelian law of contradictories. The realization of contradictories will become important in Canto VII’s axiomatic discussion of Christ’s two natures. (and the paradoxes held within)
But again, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Nor Why Your Rank is Veiled
Having introduced himself, Justinian spends the bulk of the Canto tracing Roman history from the time before Christ through the passion and the succession of Titus, under whom the Temple was destroyed. The roles of the many players are too complicated to mention here. And indeed, Dante traces the history of the Republic in broad strokes. We follow the rise of Aeneas and the first expansion of the kingdom through Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and victory over Pompey (in this brief statement alone are three years of civil war!). We continue to follow the eagle to the extreme borders of Spain and the Alps, even to Pompey’s death in Egypt. We hear briefly of the betrayers Brutus and Cassius (who “bark” in hell), and of the death of Cleopatra, who turned against the empire by supporting her sons against the rightful heir. Dante’s brief history is meant to serve as preamble to Canto VII, which will expose the great mystery of Christ, a mystery far greater than Rome itself.
Nearing the end of Canto VI, Justinian notes “With him it coursed as far as the Red Sea Shore; with him it set the world in such peace that Janus’s temple was locked.” The “Him” is Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s rightful heir and the initiator of the pax Romana.
This is where it gets interesting.
Get to it, Stuckey, this is Getting a Bit Lengthy
The Roman God Janus is the Italian deity of doorways and protector of the state in war-time. The doors of his temple were to remain open in times of war (the god was said then to be with the armies), and had been locked only twice during the history of the Republic. Under the rule of Augustus, the doors were closed for a third time. This time, though, the Republic would play host to the most important drama in its long history: the birth, adolescence, ministry and death of Christ. All history prior pales when next to this supreme historical moment when the seat of Caesar meets the root of Jesse.
As with the Roman history, here Dante skips over much of Jesus’ history, noting in the end that his death was avenged by another Caesar, Titus, who enacted “vengeance for the vengeance of the ancient sin.” Titus is considered by Dante the avenger of the Passion, for under his reign the Jewish Temple was destroyed (70ad). Orosius’s Roman Histories records the sentiment thusly, “Titus, who had been appointed by the decree of God to avenge the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ…closed the Temple of Janus…it was indeed right that the same honor should be paid to the avenging of the Lord’s Passion as had been bestowed upon His Nativity.”
Dante’s Canto, then, exposes the Divine foresight in appointing the Caesars such that a peace would befall Rome during the time of Jesus’ birth and ministry, and a vengeance would be enacted upon the Jews, who were (wrongly, I hasten to add) blamed for Jesus’ death.
Damnit, Leigh, You Still Haven’t Told Us Why they’re On Mercury
As I’ve noted, the Canto traces the history of the Roman empire to the birth of Christ. It seems to me that Justinian’s primary purpose in telling his story is establishing the means by which the pax was reached, thus setting the scene for The Extraordinary History. His secondary purpose, however, must be to answer Dante’s second question: how on earth did you get here?
After the (extraordinarily confusing) cautionary warning that is the history of the duel between the Guelphs, supporters of the Church, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Empire, Justinian notes, “This little star is adorned with good spirits who have been active in order than honor and fame might come to them.” Mercury, the obscured planet, is occupied by those whose earthly good was motivated by earthly ambition.
Those around whom human history turned are obscured in their heavenly place. Truly, they have received their reward. In eternity the light of their sphere is obscured ever so slightly for, “when desires, thus deviating [from the True Light], tend thitherward, the rays of true love must needs mount upwards less living [or, with less life].”
Yet their joy is no less, for their voices add to the harmony of the spheres, rending the choir of the heavenly realm richer by its presence.
If You Don’t Get to the Point, Stuckey, I’m Giving YOU up for Lent
God is the God of history, of the crossing of the Rubicon and of our own rubicons. God is the God who, amidst the violences of the Empire, prepares the way for the Coming of Christ and who, amidst the chaos of the 21st century, prepares for the Coming-Again of Christ. God is the God of those who presently draw attention to themselves and those who, like Romeo the Pilgrim, prepare the kingdom without reward.
History is God’s.
*Under the leadership of his general, Belisarius, Justinian’s empire expanded into the Vandal territory in Africa and the Goth territory in Italy. He is best known, though, for transforming Roman law.