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Mercury Image
2. Mercury
Justinian. Cantos 5.115 to 7.9;
Romeo. Canto 6.127-42;
Political 666. Canto 6;
Incarnational Theology. Canto 7.19-120

Study Questions

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Justinian. Cantos 5.115 to 7.9
The emperor Justinian is another figure whose name matches his earthly reputation and his role in Dante's paradise. Iustiniano (Justinian), whose name suggests giustizia (justice), held an important place in the late medieval imagination not only as an illustrious bearer of the Roman empire's "sacred standard" (Par. 6.32) but also as one inspired by God to undertake a "high task" (6.23-4), the monumental codification of Roman law (Corpus Iuris Civilis) in the early sixth century. It is no coincidence that the notion of an essential relationship between words (names) and the things they describe appeared prominently in these legal works (and subsequent commentaries), which were standard texts in the European law schools of Dante's day. From Justinian's canto-length monologue on the flight of the Roman eagle through history, we learn that, like Dante's Ulysses, the emperor is a talented orator driven to worldly achievement by the desire for honor and fame. This combination of activity and motive is in fact characteristic of all the spirits who appear in Mercury (6.112-17). Dante also exploits the medieval legend of Justinian's heresy, his supposed belief that Christ was fully divine but not also fully human, and his subsequent turn to "true faith" through the intervention of Pope Agapetus I (6.13-21). Triggered by Justinian's presentation, Beatrice provides ample discussion of this theological issue in canto 7. Dante spent the final years of his life in Ravenna (his tomb is located there), an Italian city below Venice on the Adriatic coast. Ravenna is famous for the beautiful mosaics of its churches. Several of these images undoubtedly gave Dante ideas for his portrayal of paradise, and others depict the presence of Justinian (with the empress Theodora) in Ravenna after he moved the seat of the Roman empire back to Italy after two centuries in the east (Constantinople).
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Romeo. Canto 6.127-42
Romeo is a character whose story (narrated by Justinian in 6.127-42)--outstanding success based on his merit followed by unjust accusations and ingratitude--poignantly echoes the tale told by suicide Pier della Vigna in hell. And his story certainly elicits an empathetic reaction in Dante, who viewed his own (unjust) exile from Florence in terms similar to those experienced by Romeo. Legend has it that Romeo di Villanova was a modest yet talented political advisor to Raymond Berenger IV (1198-1245), Count of Provence. However, Romeo's success in expanding the count's power and prestige, including the arrangement of advantageous (royal) marriages for each of his four daughters, moved rivals at court to make slanderous accusations, which the count believed to be true. Rather than suffer the indignity of such ingratitude, Romeo (whose name designates a pilgrim on the way to Rome) left the court with his few possessions (mule, staff, a small bag) and, poor and old, took to a life of begging.
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Political 666. Canto 6
Consistent with his attention to symmetry, Dante places increasingly expansive political content in each of the three sixth cantos of the Divine Comedy: Florentine politics in Inferno 6, Italian regional politics in Purgatorio 6, and politics of the Roman Empire in Paradiso 6. That these three political cantos, taken together, are marked with the "number of the beast" (the "666" of Apocalypse 13:18) may not be an innocent statement on the part of a political exile like Dante whose hopes for justice and civic renewal were repeatedly thwarted. On a more positive note, the two unheeded and unnamed "just men" (giusti) praised by Ciacco in Inferno 6.73, and the inhabitants of other cities who--unlike the corrupt Florentines condemned in Purgatorio 6--at least have "justice in their hearts" (giustizia in cuore; Purg. 6.130), now find their celestial realization in this emperor whose name--Iustinïano--matches his deeds in Paradiso 6.
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Incarnational Theology. Canto 7.19-120
It is fitting for Dante to present his most systematic exposition of the Incarnation in Mercury, the sphere named for the ancient messenger god who most resembles the Christian man-god by shuttling back and forth between the heavens and the earth [see "Heaven's Messenger"]. Here Dante, through his spokeswoman Beatrice, addresses one of the fundamental questions of Christian theology: "Why God Became a Man" [Cur Deus Homo], as Anselm of Canterbury famously titles his treatise on the topic. In explaining the relationship of the Incarnation to original sin, Anselm and other medieval theologians usually invoke the so-called "ransom" theory of redemption (payment to the devil for the release of humankind), some version of the church's penitential system, or feudal law (e.g., wergild, the custom of payment proportionate to the station of the offended party). Dante, on the other hand, develops his argument within the context of Roman and medieval history, and he makes an important contribution by presenting the Incarnation as a paradoxical union not only of natures (human and divine) but of choices as well.
Beatrice first claims that satisfaction for original sin could occur in one of two ways: either God does it or humankind does it, with no other option (Par. 7.91-93). However, telling Dante to look into the "abyss of the eternal counsel" (Par. 7.94-95), she then rejects this "either / or" scenario in favor of a "both - and" solution. Through the "magnificent process" (Par. 7.113) in which God chooses to become completely human while remaining completely divine, both God and humankind participate fully in the redemptive process (Par. 7.103-20). The Incarnation, in all its paradoxical glory, lends theological support to Dante's renowned ability, at once exhilarating and exasperating, to "have it both ways" in situations that normally cry out for an "either / or" response.
While developing this original, constructive aspect of incarnational theology, Dante regrettably promulgates one of the most heinous, destructive ideas of Christian thought: the charge of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, an accusation used for centuries even within mainstream Christianity to foment and justify anti-Semitic beliefs and actions. It is on the basis of this "deicidal" argument that Beatrice explains the apparent contradiction raised by Justinian (Par. 6.91-93): how the crucifixion, later avenged through the destruction of Jerusalem, was itself righteous revenge for original sin--how, in other words, "just vengeance was justly punished" (Par. 7.20-21). Insofar as Christ was fully human, humankind's transgression against God was justly punished with the crucifixion; insofar as Christ was fully divine, Beatrice continues, the crucifixion was unjust and was therefore rightly punished with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE (Par. 7.34-45).
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"Cesare fui e son Iustinïano" (6.10)
I was Caesar and am Justinian
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Study Questions
1. The emperor Justinian is the only character who speaks for an entire canto, from start to finish with no narrative interruptions, in the entire Divine Comedy. Justinian is also among the last group of souls referred to with the term ombra ("shade") in the poem (5.106-8). What is it about Justinian's life or the topic of his speech in canto 6 that might account for these facts?
2. Justinian explains that the spirits appearing in Mercury were driven to achieve worthy goals on earth by their desire for honor and fame, thus diminishing the force of their commitment to the highest good, the "true love" (6.112-18). What light does this shed on other characters in the poem, including perhaps Dante himself?
3. A key point in Beatrice's theological lesson in canto 7 is that both mercy and justice were served when God chose "both ways" in redeeming humankind from sin--divine clemency and human punishment--through the Incarnation (7.85-120). What other examples of this "both - and," dialectical way of thinking do you see in the Divine Comedy? Consider cases where Dante seems to accept if not celebrate paradox, to "have his cake and eat it, too."
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