Paradiso 6 tells the story of the history of the Roman Empire, viewed as Providential/Christian history.
Dante is tracing various genealogies. In the Introduction to Paradiso 5, I discussed the way that Dante took a question about the economics of vows as an opportunity to consider the genealogy from the Old Testament to the new dispensation. I also discussed Dante’s harsh assessment of the Jews in Paradiso 5, viewed not as progenitors but rather as a rival team within Providential history. This harsh assessment will continue in Paradiso 6 and Paradiso 7, where the history that Dante is delineating cannot fail to include the Jews. One wishes that Dante showed in his treatment more of the tolerance and advanced thinking that he shows elsewhere, for instance with regard to pagans (Inferno 4) and homosexuals (Purgatorio 26), and for that matter in his consideration of usury in hell, where all the usurers are Christian despite the cultural associations of usury with Jews (Inferno 17). But he does not.
In the same way that the Old Testament was a precursor to the New Testament and a precursor to the Christian dispensation that will follow and surpass it, so Roman history was intended by God as a preparation for the birth of Christ.
We recall that the sixth canto of each cantica deals with politics and history from the perspective of a progressively larger social entity: Florence in Inferno 6, Italy in Purgatorio 6, and now the Empire in Paradiso 6. The speaker is Justinian I, Roman Emperor from 527-565, based in Byzantium. If you have seen the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, you have seen images of Justinian and his wife Teodora. Dante treats him as the type of the perfect Emperor, focusing in particular on the great legal work, Corpus Iuris Civilis.
The Corpus Juris (or Iuris) Civilis (“Body of Civil Law”) is the modern name for a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence, issued from 529 to 534 by order of Justinian. Though the work as a whole is sometimes referred to as the Code of Justinian, this name is more properly reserved for the first part, which is titled Codex.
The story of the Roman Empire is told by Dante, through the mouth of Justinian who speaks for the entire canto, as the exploits of the eagle, the “aquila” of the Paradiso 6’s first verse. The eagle is the emblem of the Roman Empire, the “sacrosanto segno” (sacred standard [Par. 6.32]), as it races through history. This narrative is complex, because it will encompass the birth of Christ and it is also framed by Justinian in such a way as to be an explicit condemnation of the way that the Empire is used in contemporary politics. Justinian condemns both those who appropriate the standard on their own behalf and those who oppose it, in other words both the Ghibellines and the Guelphs:
perché tu veggi con quanta ragione si move contr’al sacrosanto segno e chi ’l s'appropria e chi a lui s’oppone. (Par. 6.31-33)
you may see with how much reason they attack the sacred standard—those who seem to act on its behalf and those opposing it.
Dante’s account of Roman history, drawn from classical sources, features the eagle—the “segno” or standard of Empire—as the subject of every verb, the critical actor in Providential history:
Rhetorically, moreover, Dante’s use of segno as a personified subject in Paradiso 6 has the effect of making the sign an actor, of achieving a conflation between the signum that represents and the res that does. The string of tercets in which segno governs the verb fare (“Tu sai ch’el fece” [Par. 6.37], “E sai ch’el fé” , “Sai quel ch’el fé” , “E quel che fé” , “Quel che fé” , “Di quel che fé” ) culminates in the lines where the segno, far from being a word, is the active force that constrains Justinian to find the words with which he now speaks: “Ma ciò che ’l segno che parlar mi face / fatto avea prima e poi era fatturo” (But that which the sign that makes me speak had done before and after was to do [82-83]). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 128)
The brisk pace of the narrative slows down at Paradiso 6.82, as Justinian builds to a climax: Dante is preparing to insert the birth of Christ into Roman history. The Providential nature of Roman history is about to become fully apparent.
Nothing that the eagle/Roman Empire did compares to what it did during the time of the third Emperor, Tiberius. At this time, God’s justice conceded to Tiberius and thus to the Roman Empire the glory to exact vengeance for God’s wrath:
ché la viva giustizia che mi spira, li concedette, in mano a quel ch’i’ dico, gloria di far vendetta a la sua ira.(Par. 6.88-90)
for the true Justice that inspires me granted to it—in that next Caesar’s hand— the glory of avenging His own wrath.
God was wrathful because of human disobedience, human trespass. Dante here refers to original sin and to the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We recall the despoiled tree in the earthly paradise, surrounded by the procession calling out “Adamo” and the griffin-Christ that refuses to eat of the tree (see Purgatorio 32). We recall too the gloss of the tree in Purgatorio 33: it is “la giustizia di Dio, ne l’interdetto” (God’s justice, in His interdict [Purg. 33.71]). All these issues now resurface.
God’s wrath was “avenged” by the killing of Christ (who died for the sins of mankind) during the reign of Tiberius (18 September 14 AD – 16 March 37 AD). But the killing of Christ in turn had to be avenged. And so the eagle/Roman empire went with Titus, a military commander who later became emperor, to destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The destruction of Jerusalem is thus the “vengeance” for the “vengeance” of “the ancient sin”, the “vendetta . . . / de la vendetta del peccato antico” (92-93):
Or qui t’ammira in ciò ch’io ti replìco: poscia con Tito a far vendetta corse de la vendetta del peccato antico.(Par. 6.91-93)
Now marvel here at what I show to you: with Titus—afterward—it hurried toward avenging vengeance for the ancient sin.
The killing of Christ, viewed as a form of “vengeance” exacted by God on humankind for original sin, is itself “avenged” by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The language expressing this concept, “vendetta / de la vendetta del peccato antico” (Par. 6.92-93), is deliberately compact and thorny, and Dante-pilgrim will ask Beatrice to explain it in the next canto.
The pilgrim’s query in Paradiso 7 leads to an account of the theology of the Redemption, which is the theology of why Christ had to die to “redeem” or “buy back” humankind after its fall. Indeed, as the theology of the Redemption reminds us, these issues can be framed economically, as in Paradiso 5, rather than militarily, as in Paradiso 6. In other words, rather than referring to “vengeance” we might refer to “payment of debt”.
To reframe the “vengeance of the vengeance of the ancient sin” in economic terms, we should recall that, as Matelda explained in Purgatorio 28, God gave to us humans the earthly paradise as a down payment on blessedness, but we defaulted on the loan:
Lo sommo Ben, che solo esso a sé piace, fé l’uom buono e a bene, e questo loco diede per arr’a lui d’etterna pace. Per sua difalta qui dimorò poco; per sua difalta in pianto e in affanno cambiò onesto riso e dolce gioco.(Purg. 28.91-96)
The Highest Good, whose sole joy is Himself, made man to be—and to enact—good; He gave man this place as pledge of endless peace. Man's fault made brief his stay here; and man's fault made him exchange frank laughter and sweet sport for lamentation and for anxiousness.
Therefore, the “peccato antico” of Par. 6.93 is our original defaulting on God’s loan. Christ’s death (the first “vendetta”) is the payment made to redeem that loan. And the destruction of Jerusalem (the second “vendetta”) is the payment exacted from the Jews as compensation for the killing of Christ.
We note the strange centrality of the economic issues of Paradiso 5: the divine pawnshop set up for the redemption of vows in Paradiso 5 sets the stage for a discourse on Christ’s redemption of human nature in Paradiso 7. In this economic history the Jews are required to pay for an act—the killing of Christ—that was required by Providence to redeem original sin. We will come back to the great injustice of this view in the next canto.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE the history of the eagle jumps 700 years: all the way to 773 CE and to Charlemagne’s battles with the Longobards, arriving ultimately at the contemporary Guelphs and Ghibellines. Justinian, the greatest of lawmakers, concludes by inveighing against the Guelphs and the Ghibellines of Dante’s day (Par. 6.103-08). There must have been some consolation for Dante in imagining that the lawmaker-Emperor in heaven condemns both political parties with which he was so disillusioned.
Justinian’s Providential history ends at verse 108. In the last part of the canto Justinian shows the pilgrim the soul of Romeo, born around 1170 in Provence, and exiled from the court of the lord he faithfully served despite his faithful service. Many have seen in Dante’s poignant evocation of the exiled Romeo, reduced to poverty, a reference to his own life after exile from Florence, a city he served as Romeo served the count of Provence. Again, in Justinian’s concluding affirmation of the praise due to the faithful servitor, who was cast out old and poor to beg his bread, we see the consolations that fantasia can give.