Dante’s Paradiso Canto VI: The History Of The Caesars Divided Into Sixteen Segments

MASTER of the Holy Blood
c. 1530

From Princeton Dante Project

Commentary Par VI 31-33

The outcome of the struggle of the Eagle, a great Hegelian bird moving through history to make manifest the Spirit, is hardly a cause for optimism, at least not at the moment in which Dante is writing. The "covers" of Justinian's historical essay both depict the disastrous present day in Italy. The ensuing narrative of the Eagle's flight through time and space is put to the service of showing that it has become the corrupt emblem of a corrupt party (the Ghibellines of 1300), opposed by equally corrupt Guelphs.Justinian speaks ironically (employing the trope antiphrasis, saying the opposite of what is meant).34-96. The core of the canto, offering what is perhaps the poem's crucial political self-definition, presenting an absolutely unorthodox "history of the Caesars," i.e., one principally shaped by a Christian point of view, is divided into sixteen segments:

(1) death of Pallas (35-36)
(2) Ascanius founds Alba Longa (37-38)
(3) Horatians' victory over the Curiatii (39)
(4) kings: rape of the Sabines (Romulus) (40)
(5) kings: rape of Lucretia (the Tarquins) (41-42)
(6) republic: vs. Gauls of Brennus (43-44)
(7) republic: vs. Tarentini of Pyrrhus (44-45)
(8) republic: Torquatus and Cincinnatus (46)
(9) republic: Decii and Fabii (47-48)
(10) republic: defeat of Hannibal (49-51)
(11) republic: Scipio and Pompey (vs. Catiline) (52-54)
(12) empire: Julius Caesar (55-72)
(13) empire: Augustus Caesar (73-84)
(14) empire: Tiberius Caesar (85-90)
(15) empire: Titus (91-93)
(16) empire: Charlemagne (94-96)

Paradiso Canto VI 31-96

31 'so you may consider if with reason some rebel
32 against that sacred standard, both those opposed
33 and those who take it as their own.
34 'Consider how much valor has made it worthy
35 of reverence, beginning with the hour
36 when Pallas gave his life to give it sway.
37 'You know it made its home in Alba
38 for three hundred years and more until, at last,
39 again for its sake, three made war on three.
40 'And you know what it accomplished under seven kings,
41 from the wrongs done Sabine women to Lucretia's woes,
42 conquering the nearby people all around.
43 'You know what it accomplished when it was held aloft
44 by the noble Romans against Brennus, against Pyrrhus,
45 against the other kingdoms and republics,
46 'so that Torquatus, Quintius -- named
47 for his unkempt locks -- the Decii, the Fabii:
48 all achieved the fame that I am glad to keep.
49 'It brought the pride of Arabs low
50 when they followed Hannibal along the Alpine crags
51 from which, O river Po, you fall.
52 'Under it triumphed youthful Scipio and Pompey,
53 and to that hill beneath which you were born
54 it seemed indeed a bitter sight.
55 'Then, as the time approached when Heaven willed
56 to bring the world to its own state of peace,
57 Caesar, by the will of Rome, laid hold on it.
58 'And what it accomplished, from the Var to the Rhine,
59 the Isère and the Loire and the Seine beheld,
60 as did all the valleys that supply the Rhone.
61 'What it accomplished when it issued from Ravenna
62 and leapt the Rubicon was such a flight
63 that neither tongue nor pen could follow it.
64 'Toward Spain it wheeled in arms,
65 then toward Durazzo, and smote Pharsalia,
66 thus bringing grief to the tepid waters of the Nile.
67 'Antandros and the Simois, where it had set out,
68 it saw again, and the place where Hector lies.
69 Then it roused itself -- at Ptolemy's expense.
70 'From there, like lightning, it fell on Juba,
71 then turned toward the region to your west,
72 where it heard the sound of Pompey's trumpet.
73 'For what it wrought with the one who bore it next
74 Brutus and Cassius bark in Hell,
75 and both Modena and Perugia were aggrieved.
76 'Wretched Cleopatra still weeps because of it.
77 She, fleeing before its advancing front,
78 took from the asp her quick and baleful death.
79 'With him it raced to the shore of the Red Sea.
80 With him it brought the world such peace
81 that the doors of Janus's shrine were locked.
82 'But what the standard that promotes my speech
83 had done before and had yet to do
84 in the mortal realm where it holds sway
85 'comes to seem both small and dim
86 if we observe it, with clear eyes and pure affection,
87 held in the hand of the third Caesar.
88 'For the living justice that inspires me
89 allowed it, in his hand of whom I speak,
90 the glory of the vengeance for His wrath.
91 'Now must you marvel at what I unfold:
92 Afterwards it raced with Titus, doing vengeance
93 upon the vengeance for the ancient sin.
94 'Then, beneath its wings,
95 when Lombard tooth bit Holy Church,
96 Charlemagne, in victory, gave her comfort.


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