In this Canto, the Emperor Justinian answers an earlier question of Dante’s. Like a lesson in history, Justinian – the only one who speaks here – lays out for Dante the panorama of the Roman Empire from its beginnings to Dante’s own time.
“When the emperor Constantine brought the Roman eagle standards to the east, he reversed the westward path that had been destined for Aeneas, who married Lavinia. For a hundred and a hundred more years the eagle of Rome remained at the far edge of Europe near the place from which it began its westward flight with the destruction of Troy. There in the east the sacred eagle shaded Constantinople with its wings, ruling the world from there, and passing that rule from hand to hand until it came into my own hands. Caesar I was, Justinian I am, who, by God’s will, purged from the laws of Rome all that was unnecessary.
“Before I re-wrote my Code, I believed only in the divine nature of Christ, not in his human nature as well. But it was the blessed pope Agapetus, God’s highest shepherd, whose enlightened words led me to the true faith. I believed them, and here I see clearly now what he only knew by faith – as you too can see that in a contradictory argument there is a true statement and a false one.
“Once my faith aligned itself with that of the Holy Church, God inspired me to take up the task of reforming our laws, to which I then devoted all my efforts. He also led me to place my armies into the hands of Belisarius and rest from making war. And with this, I have answered your first question, though my answer forces me to tell you clearly that those Guelfs and Ghibellines who now fight against the sacred eagle have little cause – whether they approve or oppose its rule.
“But go back now and consider the great courage that consecrated the eagle’s first flight when the noble Pallas joined Aeneas in the battle against Turnus and was killed. His kingdom became the future empire’s first realm. Furthermore, you know that for more than three hundred years the great eagle of Rome resided in the city of Alba Longa until, after the conflict between the Curiatti and the Horatii, it was won back by the latter and returned to Rome. You also know the history of its growth by conquest during the reign of the seven kings – from the taking of the Sabine women to the outrage against Lucretia.
“You know how famed Romans carried it in victory against Brennus, king of the Gauls, Pyrrhus of Epirus, and a host of other kingdoms. And it pleases me to honor other great men like Torquatus, Quintius the curly-haired, and the families of the Decii and the Fabii. When Hannibal crossed the Alps, where the Po has its source, the eagle decimated his Arabian armies. Both the great Scipio and Pompey triumphed under the eagle standard; and even the place where you were born saw its wrath when nearby Fiesole was destroyed in the battle against the renegade Catiline.
“And then, at the time when Heaven willed to restore the world’s peace, the Roman eagle gave itself to Caesar. Soon, the great rivers of Gaul, from the Var to the Rhine, saw his triumphs. Later, that eagle flew from Ravenna over the Rubicon – an event so momentous no tongue can speak about or pen describe. Then it soared into Spain, striking Pompey’s army; then on to Durazzo, and finally to Pharsalia where it struck Pompey such a blow that even the Nile felt it!
“After Pompey’s defeat, the eagle soared back toward its homeland near Antandros and Troy, where Aeneas set sail. Passing Hector’s grave, it soared now toward Egypt and Ptolemy’s defeat. Then, like lightning, it hit against Juba in Numidia, and from there it moved on toward Spain against the sons of Pompey. This great eagle then boldly empowered the young Augustus who, with the great Antony, set about the destruction of Brutus and Cassius, foul assassains whom Lucifer now chews upon in Hell!
“Then Antony took the famed Cleopatra as mistress. Defeated by Augustus, he ended his life, soon followed by she who fatally suckled the black snake at her bosom. Following this, the young emperor brought the eagle of peace to the whole Mediterranean world from the Red Sea to the western shores. Janus’ temple, always open during war, Augustus closed and locked. But when the eagle came into the hands of Tiberius, what it had already done and what it would do in the future pale in comparison to what it would do now, because the Living Justice granted the eagle the glory of wreaking vengeance for the death of Christ.
“Continue in awe at what I shall now add to what I have told you already. The eagle later flew with Titus to destroy Jerusalem and thus avenge the ancient sin of Adam. And when the Lombard King threatened the Church, the eagle marched to its rescue with the armies of Charlemagne.
“Earlier, I accused your two warring parties. Perhaps now you can better judge them because what you are suffering is a result of their crimes. Your Guelphs replace the eagle with the fleur-de-lis of France, while your Ghibellines claim the eagle as their own. Both parties offend the common good! Let those Ghibellines plot their evil under another banner because those who separate justice from the eagle are not its true followers. And Charles of Anjou should not trust the Guelphs to attack the empire’s eagle because its claws have torn the flesh off lions more fierce than he! How many times do sons weep for their fathers’ crimes? God’s sacred eagle will not be replaced by Charles’ lillies!
“However, let me now tell you that the beauty of this small planet is increased by the light of souls whose valiant deeds on earth – noble as they were – were also prompted by the hope of worldly fame. The more they sought fame the more they strayed from true Love, and thus they burn less intensely here. But it gives us all great pleasure that you see, as we do, the balance between our merits and our reward. True Justice is so fully alive in us that our wills can no longer be bent and led to what cannot content us.
“So many different voices here make our melody sweet, and our lives among the different ranks of the blessèd here in Heaven make for the harmony that sustains these heavenly spheres. Within the precious jewel of this lustrous pearl glows the brilliance of Romeo of Villeneuve whose honorable deeds went mostly unrewarded. Those envious Provençals who slandered him will suffer for their evil words. He walks an evil road who begrudges the good done by another. Thanks to this humble Romeo, the four daughters of Count Raymond Berenger each became a queen. Sadly, though, the Count believed the slander and called this honest soul to make an account of his good stewardship. But Romeo, old and poor, left his post instead, and wandered until he died as a pilgrim begging for his bread. Had the world known what was in this beggar’s heart, he would be praised even more than he is today!”