Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 22

As the three poets move toward the stairs to the sixth terrace, another mark is erased from Dante’s forehead. As earlier Statius had told Virgil of his great affection for him, Virgil tells Statius of his undying friendship for him, as well. And he asks Statius, if he was such an honorable man, how he could end up punished with the avaricious. Statius clarifies this, noting that his sin was prodigality, and that two opposite sins are punished on the same terrace. In a touching moment of gratitude, Statius proceeds to tell Virgil that he owes his conversion and salvation to Virgil’s poetry. Statius also explains that he kept his Christian faith a secret, and for this he was punished for an additional four hundred years. Asked where many of their poet-colleagues are now, Virgil tells Statius that they are with him in Limbo. Arriving at the sixth terrace, the threesome are soon stopped by a great tree in the middle of the road that speaks.

            We had already passed the the angel who directed us to the sixth terrace, and who erased another mark from my forehead. As he did so, he proclaimed blessed those who hunger for righteousness – ending the statement at sitiunt. I was now feeling much lighter than before, and it was easy to follow Virgil and Statius as they moved quickly up the stairs.

            Virgil was speaking: “Love, kindled by virtue’s flame always kindles more love, as long as the first flame was virtue. And so, when Juvenal joined us in Limbo and told me of your love for me, I have continued to love you more than anyone else. And with you here beside me, this climb is a short one. But let me ask you a question – as a friend, and forgive me if I seem rude – tell me how a man like you, with a lifetime of wisdom and virtue – tell me how avarice could find a place in your heart?

            Smiling for a moment, Statius replied: “Your love for me is quite evident. And it’s true that what one sees outside may not reveal the truth within. However, your question assumes my sin was avarice – probably because that is where you found me. Actually, I never committed that sin. For me it was just the opposite. The sin I purged for so many centuries below was prodigality. And the only reason I am not in Hell rolling stones against other sinners is because I changed my ways after reading a passage in your Aeneid where, outraged at human nature, you wrote: ‘Curse you, O lust for gold! To what extremes will you drive the human appetite?’

            “When I came to my senses and realized that one can sin by careless spending, then I repented for that and all my other sins as well. Think about how many, through sheer ignorance, shall find themselves bald on the Last Day – it being too late to repent? But know this: a sin that is opposite a sin that is punished here – both are purged away on the same terrace together. So, though my punishment was to spend centuries among the avaricious, my sin was just the opposite of theirs.”

            “Tell me,” Virgil said, “when you were inspired by the Muse, Clio, to write about the fatal conflict between Jocasta’s twin sons, I don’t think you were yet among the faithful whose faith can save. If this is the case, what light from Heaven or earthly lamp lit your way so that you could travel with the great Fisherman?”

            “It was you, Virgil, who led me to drink the waters of Parnassus,” said Statius. “It was you who lit the path to God for me. You were the one traveling in the dark, holding the light behind you, not for yourself, but so that others could see the way. You were the one who wrote: ‘Now is the world reborn and the procession of the centuries begins again – the first age – and a new generation comes down from Heaven.’ It was because of you that I was a poet, because of you that I was a Christian. Let me explain.

            “At that time in my life, the true faith was beginning to grow; its seeds planted by those messengers of the Kingdom of Heaven. But the words of yours I just quoted fit so well with the message of the new preachers that I often used to listen to them speak. Such holy men these messengers were that I would weep when Domitian persecuted them, and for the rest of my days, I supported them. I learned, by following their example, that there was no other faith but theirs. Mid-way through my Thebiad, I was baptized into the Christian faith, but kept it a secret out of fear. And so, for many years, I pretended to be a pagan. It was for hiding my faith like this that I spent four hundred years with the slothful on the fourth terrace. But now tell me, you who lit the path of virtue I now praise – and while we still have time to climb – where are our poets Terence and Plautus, Caecilius and Varius? Do you know? Are they in Hell? And if they are, where have they been placed?”

            And Virgil replied: “These you mention, along with Persius, me, and many more are with Homer, that prince of poetry favored by the Muses more than anyone else. All of us reside in the first of Hell’s dark circles, and there we often speak about Parnassus, eternal home of those Muses who nourished our poetic gifts. The great Euripides makes his home with us, as do Antiphon, Simonides, Agathon, and all the rest of that brotherhood of Greeks who wear the laurel crown. Also residing there are those from your own works: Antigone, Deiphyle, Argia, sad Ismene, Hypsipyle and Thetis, Manto, and Deidamia and her sisters.”

            Having finished for the moment, and free now from walls and stairs, Virgil and Statius stood silently on the sixth terrace looking around to see what was there. By now it was beyond mid-morning, when my guide said: “Let’s proceed, as we have on the terraces below, with the edge of the cliff to our right.” Following our custom, then, we moved on with more certainty since Statius was with us now and he agreed. So, the two poets walked ahead of me, talking about the art of poetry, while I followed them, listening carefully to everything they said.

            Soon, however, their pleasant conversation was interrupted by the appearance of a great tree in the middle of the road. It was filled with fruit, and its lovely fragrance filled the air. You know how a fir tree tapers more and more toward its top. Well, this one did the opposite – it tapered downward. I suppose that was to stop the souls there from climbing it. And from high up on the wall a stream of clear water poured down into the topmost branches.

            As Virgil and Statius approached that tree, a voice from within it shouted at us: “You may not eat or drink here.” Then in a moment, it continued: “At the wedding feast, Mary was more concerned with the guests than with her own words – which now plead on your behalf. In ancient Rome, women were satisfied with plain water as their drink. And Daniel, scorning food, gained wisdom. The first age of man was golden; acorns filled the hungry, and any stream satisfied thirst. In the wilderness, locusts and honey were the food of John the Baptist – for which he is famous, as the Gospel tells you.”