There is the old story about a boundary line dispute between God and Satan. God suggested that the peaceful way of settling the issue would be a lawsuit. Satan wryly responded, “Where will You get a lawyer?”
Can lawyers go to heaven? What if the person is also a politician and lawgiver?
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the Italian poet and author of The Divine Comedy, says yes, and his candidate is Justinian, the Roman Emperor from 527 to 565. We often date the end of the Roman Empire to 476 A.D., when Flavius Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus—a fall portended by Visigoths sacking Rome several decades earlier in 410 A.D. That Roman Empire lasted over 500 years and ruled 20% of all the earth’s people.
However, 476 A.D. only marks the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The Roman Empire in the East still stood, for another 1000 years, until 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks.
We often call that part of the Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire. However, Dante and his contemporaries called it the Roman Empire, rather than the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled large parts of western Europe in Dante’s time.
Probably its most famous Emperor of the Roman Empire in the East was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus (his Latin name). He was probably the last Emperor to speak Latin. Now, we simply call him, Justinian I. (Perhaps Justinian is a Dickensian name: Giustizia, is similar in spelling, and, in Italian, it means “Justice.” The traditional Italian alphabet, like Latin, does not have a “j.”) Justinian is Saint Justinian the Great in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Italian city of Ravenna became part of this Eastern Roman Empire in 540 A.D., when Justinian’s General, Belisarius, captured it. To this day, Ravenna displays many beautiful mosaics—including images of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, the Empress Theodora—remembrances of its Byzantium past. Theodora is also a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Dante lived among these mosaics.
After he was exiled from Florence, he moved to Ravenna, where he wrote his epic poem, where he then lived, where he died, and where he was buried. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy (originally called “La Commedia” in Italian) in the Tuscan dialect of Italian. His poem helped establish Tuscan as standard Italian, much as Shakespeare, in his plays, helped establish early modern English with his version of English.
Dante’s guide through much of the Divine Comedy, was the Roman Poet Virgil (70 BC–19 BC), the author of the Aeneid. In Book 6 of the Aeneid, where the Trojan warrior Aeneas visits the underworld, Virgil gives us a history of the Roman Empire and its future glory, from Aeneas to Caesar Augustus.
In Canto 6 of the Paradiso, Dante retells this history and updates it to the time of the Emperor Justinian. Canto 6 of the Paradiso has parallels in Canto 6 of the Inferno and Canto 6 of the Purgatorio. Dante has a very careful organization and structure in his work.
The souls in the Inferno admit that they committed wrongs on earth, and they are not sorry about that at all. In Canto 6 of the Inferno, Dante visits one such soul, who discusses the politics of Dante’s native Florence. Dante speaks through the character Ciacco, who “foretells” of Dante’s exile from Florence—an exile that had already occurred when Dante wrote the Comedia. Ciacco also prophesies the later wars and division of Florence, which Dante experienced in his own time.
Unlike Canto 6 of the Inferno, which spoke of the politics of Florence, Canto 6 of the Purgatorio focuses more broadly on the politics of Italy. Souls in the Purgatorio know that their story will have a happy ending, that they will be saved, as they experience spiritual growth while climbing the seven-story mountain to heaven. The seven stories refer to the seven deadly sins, Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. Canto 6 refers specifically the Book 6 of the Aeneid, where Virgil has the Sibyl telling us that prayer cannot “bend the ordinance of heaven.” Prayer can work, says Dante, when we pray to God rather than to the gods. In Canto 6, Dante meets the poet Sordello, who blames the turmoil in Italy on the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperors (who, in Dante’s time, are no longer Roman but German). The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman, nor Empire.
In the Canto 6 of the Inferno, Dante speaks of the politics of Florence, Canto 6 of the Purgatorio moves on to the politics of Italy. Finally, we come to Canto 6 of the Paradiso, where Dante discusses politics of the world, that is, the politics of the Roman Empire. Now, Beatrice is the guide for Dante, the Pilgrim. For this entire Canto, Justinian has the floor. This is the only Canto in all three parts of the Divine Comedy where one person speaks all the lines.
These three Cantos, all numbered 6, give us 666, the number of the Beast in Revelations (13:18), but that may just be coincidence.
Shortly after the Canto begins, Justinian says, “Caesar I was, Justinian I am,” but Justinian is not in heaven because of his conquests (because he was a Caesar) but because he codified and reformed Roman law. He “Rid the laws of what was gross and empty.” He gave us justice and peace.
Justinian did engage in conquest, expanding the Roman Empire, but he did that by delegating military authority to his General Belisarius. Justinian focused on the more important endeavor of codifying and updating Roman law. Justinian is celebrated less for his military victories than for his role as a lawgiver and just ruler. Dante places him in Paradise because Justinian appointed the legal scholars who gave us the Code of Justinian (Corpus Iuris Civilis), published primarily in Latin. It was rediscovered in the West during Dante’s time. Justinian improved, organized, and arranged the law.
Justinian credited Pope Agapetus I (Pope only 10 months, from 535 to 536) who “Directed me back to the one true faith.” Initially, Justinian threatened Agapetus, but the Pope replied that Justinian’s threats “terrify me not.” That resolute and fearless response impressed Justinian, who converted to the traditional Christian belief that Jesus is both divine and human. Agapetus I is a saint in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
Justinian, like Caesar Augustus, gave us peace and just laws. Justinian tells Dante, “It pleased God by his grace to inspire in me,” to “The high task to which I wholly gave myself.” That high task was giving us Roman law, updated and fair. Its influence was so great that by the beginning of the 16th century, modified Roman Law was in force throughout much of Europe, and educated lawyers in the nineteenth century in America and Great Britain studied Roman Law even though it was English common law that governed.
What empire meant to Justinian, Dante tells us, is not personal glory or family riches but peace under a rule of law that is just. Just laws are the earthly symbols of the divine.
The great truths of the world are found in the great literature of the world. If modern day politicians and lawgivers seek Paradise, they should give us peace and just laws.