Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 6 | Summary



The soul speaking to Dante now identifies himself as the 6th-century Byzantine emperor Justinian. He recounts his conversion from monophysitism, the belief Christ was entirely divine and "not truly man," under the teaching of Pope Agapetus I. Purged of this error, Justinian says, he went on to do great things in God's name. He then recounts Rome's glorious history, from its mythological origins through the days of the Republic and the Western Roman Empire. The reign of Augustus—the first Roman emperor, widely considered the greatest—contrasts, in Justinian's view, with the dismal and fractious state of Dante's Italy. Justinian is disdainful of the constant fighting over who will control Rome. The present-day political factions, he suggests, are engaged in dishonorable squabbling over the mere "Sign" of imperial rule.


This vital canto is the only one in all 100 in the Commedia spoken in one voice, and not the poet's. Dante seems not to want to interfere with the political information being pronounced by Justinian. Its sixth position among 33 cantos in Paradise is also the same as the sixth cantos in both Inferno and Purgatory, also dealing with political issues and evil machinations of enemies. In Paradise this canto " ... is crucial: it shows by historical example the tenuous but proper connections of the Church and the Empire."

The factions mentioned here, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, are familiar to Dante from his own real-life involvement in their political struggles. A Guelph himself, Dante was active during the civil war between the two groups in late 13th-century Florence. The Guelphs triumphed but soon split into two further factions, the Whites and the Blacks. Siding with the White Guelphs, Dante found himself exiled from Florence in 1302 when the Black Guelphs came to power. The vital point is the need to find the lacking balance between the secular power of the state and the divine authority of the Church. Failure to do so dooms all efforts for peace and stability; it doomed Dante to life and death in exile.

Given this bitter backstory, it's unsurprising to find Justinian voicing his disillusionment with both groups, probably in reflection of Dante's own sentiments. The Ghibellines, whom he chides as crafty and unjust, are to be blamed for their presumption in declaring themselves the successors to the Roman Empire. The Guelphs, however, are little better in Justinian's view, as they have allied themselves with the French, thereby introducing a foreign power into Italian affairs. Justinian's mocking allusions to "tinsel lilies" and "lily flowers" refer to the fleur-de-lis, a stylized lily emblem that represented French royalty from at least the time of Charlemagne.

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