Virgil's Aeneid, books 1-4 is recommended reading for this lesson.
Image left (based on a classical Roman bust now in the Vatican Museum): mighty Caesar, stab wounds and gangrene added.
Augustus, far from innocent, preferred to be portrayed as boyish, not unlike a young god.
Image left: a rendering of the Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoon (anonymous, cir. 150 BC), now housed in the Vatican Museum, Rome. As we have the story from Virgil's Aeneid, book 2, the Trojan Laocoon argued that the Trojan Horse should not be brought through the gates into Troy, but as Laocoon was advising the Trojans about this, two giant snakes suddenly came up from the sea and killed him and his sons. The people took it as an omen that the great wooden horse immediately should be brought through the gates into the city, which they did, and Troy was destroyed by it, since the huge horse was full of enemy troops. Laocoon had the right idea about the horse, but he was not free to alter Jupiter's plan for history.
The medieval theory of free will goes back to Augustine at the beginning of the Middle Ages, but artists were slow to adopt the idea in their images of human behavior. Among many common folk, beliefs persisted (and still persist!) that we are visited and controlled by God, devils and other spirits.
Strictly speaking the idea that Adam and Eve sinned is not a medieval invention. Paul speaks of it, but not to make any point about free will. Paul promotes his cult by insisting that, after Adam and Eve, all people are born in sin and can be redeemed from it only through the grace of Christ. Paul's belief expresses a classical understanding of the human condition, that people are in the control of a dead ancestor (Adam) or god (Christ).
Dante's poem usually is called "The Divine Comedy," but that title was added by a publisher almost 250 years after the poem was written. Dante called his poem Commedia ("the comedy"). What the poet meant by comedy was, simply, a story that begins unhappily and ends happily. Dante applied this idea personally: by writing the comedy he could move his state of mind from sour to sweet.
Image left: Virgil, from a classical Roman bust..
Image left: rendering of the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres (completed cir 1250 AD). The site of ancient mother goddess worship, Chartres in the Middle Ages transitioned into a center for the cult of the Virgin Mary. Like Chartres and other lofty medieval cathedrals built on foundations of ruined classical temples, Dante's Commedia begins as an ancient sensory poem of the underworld and it ends as a medieval motorized one in the heavens above.
Virgil's Aeneid approximates Homeric song (in Latin translation)--it borrows extensively from the Iliad and the Odyssey--but its politics are anti-Greek, and it lacks Homer's irony and penetrating observation of human violence. Perhaps Virgil could have achieved all of Homer's effects, if he had tried--he was a very great imitator--but Virgil's agenda was decided by Roman imperialist politics.
"The Holy Roman Empire" was the dream of medieval monarchs to wield the power that Augustus and the Roman emperors of old had held. It came closest to realization through the Frankish king Charlemagne (cir. 742-814, dubbed emperor in Rome 800 AD). Would-be emperors continued to recognize the value of propaganda. Einhard's Life of Charlemagne (cir. 829) is a foundation myth for Charlemagne's empire.
regarded as a precursor to the United Nations Charter with its argument
that peace is secured by uniting all governments into one. Idealism aside,
Dante had quite personal reasons for making this argument.
Mosquitoes hate empires. They killed Henry VII, Virgil and perhaps even poor Dante, too, though he repented his imperialism.
Image left: Dido, from an ancient coin
Image left: Hannibal
Scipio the Elder was rewarded for victory at Zama by being banished for life by envious political enemies in the Roman Senate. He died in exile, perhaps murdered (the same fate as Hannibal), a precedent for Dante's unhappy banishment. Ancient and medieval republics often punished their most successful leaders.
Image left: figurine of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from Troy. This is a 5th century BC artifact from the (pre-Roman) Etruscan culture in what is now Tuscany, a region that includes Dante's Florence.
The thematic relationship between the Iliad and the Odyssey is a relationship between life and death, or sacrificer and victim: killer Achilles journeys toward death but dead Odysseus comes back from it [recall Lesson 7]. Virgil picks up on Homer's death and rebirth theme, as Aeneas buries the Trojan in himself and is reborn as a Roman. This transformation is portrayed as a spiritual conversion of Aeneas by Jupiter.
Image left: Bernini's neoclassical Aeneas and Anchises (1618-1619 AD) now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. Father Anchises carries images of the household gods, the forefathers, who symbolically will be reburied at the new home to strengthen the place. Aeneas is followed by his young son Iulus, Caesar's ancestor and namesake. The statue collapses a thousand years of history into timelessness.
in consciousness, revisited:
On most mornings I am energetic and hurl myself out of the sack as soon as I am conscious, but other mornings I malinger until I have no choice in the matter at all: finally I am compelled to move. On the "good" mornings I'm the active subject of the event of waking up: it seems to me as if I am personally in complete control of starting my day. On "bad" mornings, though, I'm only the passive object of this event. Getting up occurs to me as the thing that must be done, and so my fate has been decided, regardless of what I want. In this passive frame of mind, "my" behavior hardly seems to be my own. It seems to be controlled externally, as if I were under the suggestive power of some hypnotist.
I am conscious of these good and bad mornings--and similarly good and bad afternoons and evenings, too--but consciousness does not tell the whole truth. The fact is that none of our voluntary actions can be simply active or simply passive. Neurology shows that we are wired for very complex, interactive, two-way communication between our thinking part and our sensors:
We can't do anything, voluntarily, unless both the motor and sensory systems are working. If either one of them is taken down by a viral infection, stroke or any impairment, the patient loses all capacity for voluntary action. This total loss occurs even when the other nerve system remains perfectly functional. [More in note 1 below.] So, every voluntary human action in fact is driven by a combination of outputs and inputs.
Why then do we think about human behavior as if it were simply active or simply passive? One answer--the best one that I know--is that we think no more than our language allows us to think. The grammar of English, Latin, Italian and many other languages forces speakers to choose between active and passive voice:
"I opened my eyes."
Rules or habits of sentence structure in these languages reduce people to (1) subjects or (2) objects.
"I thought about getting up."
Because these languages consist only of subjects, objects, and verbs (along with their modifiers), speakers of these languages tend to talk and think in terms of causes and effects.
Actions are moved by subjects, and they move objects. With a few exceptions, this is as much as English and other SVO languages are designed to describe.
Maybe someday grammar will be reformed to solve the false alternatives problems of active/passive voice and subject/object sentence structure. Maybe then we will be enabled by our language to describe ourselves more accurately. Then we may be able to say, and comprehend, that getting out of bed is something that we do that happens to us. But until then, our words will continue to portray us fictitiously, through active motor descriptions ("I opened my eyes and instantly popped out of bed"), or else through passive sensory descriptions ("the rude fire alarm blasted me out of bed"), neither story telling the whole truth.
and motor description
Motor, active descriptions are right at home in modern, capitalist democracies. Individuals in these societies often make themselves the subject of their conversations, though they don't always like to take responsibility for every act.
am the greatest." --Mohammad Ali
A few ancients liked to speak in the self-important, first person active voice, too. Famously, there was Julius Caesar who credited himself with the near-genocide of the Gauls ("I came, I saw, I conquered"), as well as the destruction of his political enemies in Rome. To many ancient Romans, however, deeds like these were too great to have been humanly achievable, and so they worshipped Caesar as a god ("Deified Julius") with temples, rituals and all of the trappings of a bona fide religion.
Soon after Caesar's murder and ascension into heaven, "Deified Augustus" (a..k.a. "son of the divine Julius") gained immortality as the god of peace, who united the entire Mediterranean world under Roman rule. (For Augustus' own account of his glorious deeds, see note 11 below.) As we have seen previously in this course, other deifications resulted from Alexander's empire-building and from testimonies of Jesus' miracles. [Recall "Alexander Amun" in Lesson 9 and "Jesus Christ" in Lesson 15.] Deification was a widespread and very ancient tradition, dating back to Heracles (a primitive hero said to have joined Zeus and the gods in heaven at his death [recall this hero from Lesson 2]) and to nearly all the "divine" kings who ruled in Mesopotamia and Egypt from the beginning of recorded history.
In ancient Western and Near Eastern societies, mere mortals didn't do great things. When great things were done, they can have happened only by or through the intervention of some god or spirit. Accordingly, the ancients described important human events in sensory, passive terms. We have seen quite a few examples in this course:
Normally, when ancient writers discussed themselves at all, they spoke in terms of spirits working upon them. Neither Paul [Lesson 15] nor Augustine [Lesson 15] says, as a modern convert might say, "I decided to become a Christian." They say that Christian belief happened to them one day, and it happened because of a spiritual intervention. Paul didn't want it to happen, but it did; Augustine wanted it to happen, but for a long time it didn't.
In the European Middle Ages, similarly overwhelming experiences of spirits sometimes still happened to people. For example, the crucifix at St Damian's told Francis to repair the church. [Recall the Francis frescoes page.] But by Francis' time (c. 1181 - 1223 AD), this kind of sensory, passive experience seemed miraculous, and not everybody believed in miracles--for instance, the sensible cloth merchant Peitro d' Bernardone, Francis' very down-to- earth father!
The dominant mode of description before the Middle Ages is sensory. Actors don't make things happen. Things happen to them. They are possessed and driven. In terms of the creative creature paradox [recall Lesson 1], they have creative moments, but they basically are creatures. Their behavior is caused by an alien hero, god, voice or other power that they believe to be external, not within the self.
The Middle Ages (our name for the time between the ancient and modern worlds) marks a transition toward motor or active description, toward the magical "creative" side of the creative creature. Human behavior no longer reflects the intervention of meddling gods, ghosts or other spirits; instead it is understood to be driven by forces within the individual self, personal feelings, internal urges or impulses toward sins and virtues. These new internal drives are more controllable than the external drives of the ancients, but they come at a steep price. Selves are accountable for actions and may be punished for them, as in the Inferno and Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri's Commedia (usually misnamed in modern editions as "The Divine Comedy," c. 1313-1321 AD).
The changeover from sensory to motor description in medieval times was a gradual process. Some medieval romances, especially earlier ones, feature the helpless Tristan/Iseult type of lover who is drugged with a love potion or otherwise driven crazy by irresistible erotic desire [Lesson 16]; Chrétien's Lancelot is a sympathetic, driven lover of this early medieval sort. But by the end of the Middle Ages, Sir Thomas Malory's Lancelot is strongly disapproved for his failure to control his lust for Guinevere. This personal fault is one of the altogether human causes that topple Arthur's kingdom, by Malory's account. [Recall Lesson 16; contrast the fall of ancient Troy and Jerusalem, due to angry gods.]
By the High Middle Ages (roughly, after 1200 AD) beliefs in magical drugs, manipulative gods, and spiritual possession itself had been superseded in many circles by a new belief in "free will." This is the theory that individuals possess power ("will") to shape their own actions without predestination or serious interference by gods, devils or other spirits, even including Christianity's God. This idea is critical in the development of modern western secularism.
The loss of the presence of God in the Middle Ages was deeply lamented and sometimes denied. Conservative church authorities throughout the period continued to insist on classical, sensory form in accounts about Jesus (he was God) and about the Christian saints, martyrs and church fathers (they were inspired by God) and about some of their enemies (they were inspired by Satan). Ordinary people, however, were thought to be self-directed, and their actions were described that way. Free will extended even to Adam and Eve. Genesis itself, written long before the Middle Ages, does not mention free will because the idea hadn't been invented, but in medieval Eden stories, usually, Adam and Eve are characterized as sinners. Eve chooses to eat the forbidden fruit, and Adam decides to join the party. They are free to disobey instructions. Neither the Lord nor the serpent makes them eat; the serpent's role is reduced from scapegoat to tempter. [Contrast Paul's classical, sensory idea of events in Eden; see column right.]
The medieval invention of the motor, or free will, did not require story-tellers to invent new stories. Old stories were recycled by reclassifying their spirits or simply removing those spirits. Hero-spirits of ancient literature could be motorized, as in the case of poor old Odysseus who earns a place deep in Dante's hell for taking the wrong side in the Trojan War, from Virgil's point of view. [Recall wicked Odysseus from our moral interpretation of the Odyssey in Lesson 8.] The tale of Troy also could be retold, godlessly, as a moralized romance or romantic tragedy about purely human affairs [as mentioned in Lesson 16].
In the new European culture, people no longer were deified, and very few of them played God. Popes, monks, friars and priests claimed exclusive knowledge of God's will, which they found almost exclusively in very old books. A long time had passed since gospel-Jesus and Paul had promised that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Everybody was afraid to say so, but the Bible was beginning to look less like prophecy and more like history, its events receding further and further into the past.
Because God no longer appeared to be present, the great quest of the period was to seek God, to overcome the world of isolation from God, to find some way to reenter God's presence. The medievals worked frantically hard at getting God to return, as anybody sees who happens to notice a medieval house of God anywhere in Europe, but for all of their fervor they seldom regained the union with God that the ancients had enjoyed with the spirits of classical times. Generally speaking, where the ancient world produced prophets who impersonated or spoke for gods, the medieval world generated mystics who searched for God and claimed to catch occasional glimpses. The rise of mysticism in medieval culture appeared in Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity.
Literate mystics accounted for a large percentage of the literature of the Middle Ages. They did not pretend to speak for God. Instead they wrote about their visions of God, about pilgrims and crusaders seeking God, and about new romance heroes like Sir Percival and Sir Galahad (late comers to Arthur's court) questing for the Holy Grail and other hard-to-find relics of God's lost presence.
Dante Alighieri (Italian, 1265 - 1321 AD) wrote his famous Commedia (meaning "comedy," written cir. 1313-1321 AD) in this tradition of medieval mysticism. The poem tells a story of Dante's pilgrim quest for God, and its final few lines present a brief, not very descriptive vision of God, far up in space beyond the planets. By comparison to almost any classical account of divinities, Dante's God is distant and uninvolved in everyday human affairs.
Not God but Dante himself is the real focus of the Commedia. Dante wrote not only about Dante, as a wayward pilgrim in life, but also for Dante, as an unhappy old man with little reason to live. Producing the Commedia was a personal discipline that Dante used to cheer himself up. This long meditation forced his attention away from suffering (inferno) to its aftermath (purgatory) and then to joy (paradise). No poem better illustrates the new self-centeredness of the Middle Ages.
Medieval writers admired the pre-Christian classics as models of writing technique, but they copied these classics a little less fervently than they copied the New Testament [for NT imitation, see Lesson 16] because pagan spirituality was wrong, they thought. Ancient literature as a whole came to regarded as a kind of sophistry, beautiful form with false content, pleasing superficially but full of dangerous lies. [Compare sophistry in Socrates' Athens: Lesson 11.] They tried to dissociate its charming power of entertainment from its heretical power of instruction.
Like other writers of his time, Dante learned how to write poems, speeches and political propaganda by studying Roman classical writers, including the Roman Empire's poet-in-chief Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 BC - 19 BC). For a time Dante fell under the powerful spell of Virgil's greatest poem, the Aeneid (Latin, written cir. 30 - 19 BC), but the attraction did not last, as we will see. Virgil attracted but did not lead Dante to personal happiness. [Contrast Augustine's enchantment by Paul's book or Francis' enchantment by the gospels: Lesson 15.]
The character Virgil is the pilgrim Dante's guide in the first half of the Commedia, but Virgil can't show Dante much beyond the sensory world, where people are objects, the classical world of punishment and suffering--in sum, the passive voice. While Dante is guided by Virgil in the poem, he is led through hell, where souls are in agony, and into the lower parts of purgatory, where souls suffer remorse. But when Dante loses interest in pains and sorrows and wants to see happiness, Virgil abruptly disappears, and Dante is left to turn on his motor and find the way.
But why did Dante associate Virgil with pain and remorse? And what had attracted him to the Aeneid in the first place? To answer these questions, we must understand a little about Virgil's poem and Dante's life.
The Aeneid is a cult foundation myth created for the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, in the first years of his empire. Augustus gained power in 31 BC, and Virgil is said to have worked on the poem from about 30 BC until his death in 19 BC. [For cult foundation myths, recall Plato's Academy from Lesson 12, Ptolemy's Alexandria from Lesson 9 and the Franciscans' shrine at Assisi from the Francis frescoes page.]
Virgil's Aeneas is the prophet who gradually discovers that this future empire will happen (Aeneid books 1-6) and who obediently fights and marries to serve Jupiter in bringing the divine plan to fruition (books 7-12). Aeneas foresees Rome clearly when he descends into the underworld with the prophetess sibyl (in famous book 6), but he also glimpses it earlier, even at Troy, because of cryptic revelations made to him by his goddess mother, Venus. (Compare Achilles' foreknowledge of the future through tips from his goddess mother Thetis.)
Homer's Aeneas is "pious" in offering sacrifices that are pleasing, and so the gods protect him from the rage of merciless Achilles. [Recall Aeneas of the Iliad from Lesson 6.] Virgil's Aeneas is pious, too, but this piety means learning and obeying Jupiter's plan for human events. This Aeneas would like to die like Achilles in the contagious anger at Troy, but instead he follows the advice of his mother Venus (Roman Aphrodite) to flee the burning city and to find a new home (contrast the advice of Achilles' goddess-mom, Thetis). Venus guides her son to love, and for a time he stays with doting Queen Dido at Carthage, like Odysseus with Calypso. Aeneas would like to stay longer with Dido, but soon he is called away on business by Mercury (Roman Hermes, the messenger god). Duty summons him to Latium, in Italy, to fight for a wife among the Latin people. That's where he is destined to settle so that Augustus later can rise to power over the whole world. (And so that Virgil can write about it!)
The Aeneid is classic, sensory character description: Virgil's Aeneas does as he is told by Venus and Mercury, both of them Jupiter's messengers. Today we can understand Aeneas' acts in a sensory way, too, if we substitute modern genetic determinism for classical mythology. Aeneas these days may appear to be a robot of his genes, much like Lancelot or Tristan or Odysseus or Achilles, or any of a thousand heroes whose lives are dedicated to fighting rivals and to mating without regard to marriage restrictions or geographical boundaries, simply to perpetuate the good old DNA. [Recall genetics and romance from Lesson 16].
But the medievals had a problem with Aeneas. They weren't polytheists or geneticists, so they couldn't explain his behavior in terms of ancient mythology or modern science. They described him in the new medieval way instead, motorizing him with free will. He became for them a model of civic responsibility. Their Aeneas generously gave up Dido for Rome, personal desires for public duties, and sex for reason (Jupiter representing reason). With these new morals attached, Virgil's elegant Latin maintained its place of honor in medieval education.
Obviously, the medievals could have drawn a different moral about Aeneas, and many modern moralists do so. Aeneas deserted Troy, the Trojan army, and Dido, a faithful lover who risked her kingdom and indeed her life for him. Virgil seems oblivious to Aeneas' anti-social conduct, but today we cannot miss it, thanks to the habit of moralizing that we have inherited from the Middle Ages. Once we believe that Aeneas has free will, then he is no prophet, or tool of the gods, and the gods in his ancient story are extraneous--or they exist only as pretexts to excuse his selfishness. Deeds that are entirely voluntary reveal character or personality or mind of the actor, not the plan or desire of any deity.
Free will calls personal behavior into question, and that's a mixed blessing. Dante seems to have spent a lot of time during the last years of his life reviewing and regretting his past. In hindsight, he saw that he had made poor choices throughout his life, including some painfully haunting ones, and one way that he coped with his continuing stress was by inventing fiction. [Recall literature's soothing power of entertainment from Lesson 1.] He tried to put his errors behind him in the first part of the Commedia, Inferno.
Let's open to the worst example. The lowest circle in the inferno is reserved for traitors because Dante's most painful regret was his participation in attempts to overthrow the republic of Florence, the city-state of his birth. Unlike most ancient personalities (and many modern ones too) Dante was capable of explaining his behavior as misconduct--and at least obliquely admitting it to the world.
Before he wrote the Commedia, Dante had hoped that the Roman Empire would be restored in Italy and that he perhaps would become its poet laureate, its Virgil. He had supported the claim of Henry VII of Luxembourg to be the legitimate emperor in all of Italy, a claim resisted by Florence, which bravely held out for continued self-rule as a republic. Henry had declared Florence to be in rebellion against his new empire, and in 1313 he had drawn up an army outside the city for an attack. There's no question which side Dante had favored. As we know from his letters, Dante urged Henry to attack Florence without delay, and he childishly jeered at the Florentines that Henry would ravage their city and tear down their new defensive walls.
Why would Dante write such hateful letters against his fellow citizens?
For about ten years, Dante had been living as an exile from Florence, under a Florentine death sentence, for (allegedly) diverting public funds during his brief political career as a city magistrate and road supervisor. Unlike Socrates, Dante had failed to appear at his trial, and so he had been sentenced to death in absentia, with the sentence to be executed if he ever returned to the city. So he had stayed away, a fugitive in Italian cities unfriendly to Florence, and for years he had hoped that a new regime would topple the republic and reverse his sentence.
During his exile, Dante supported various enemies of the regime in Florence, but his best chance appeared with Henry VII. Dante favored Henry's cause by writing a book on his behalf. On Monarchy (Latin, 1312 AD) predicted that Henry would become the new Augustus Caesar, bringing peace by uniting the world under one government. It urged all people of good will and intelligence to accept Henry's political claims.
As the Emperor was about to attack Florence, however, he must have had second thoughts, Dante's advice notwithstanding. Henry suddenly withdrew the imperial army to nearby Siena, where he promptly contracted malaria and died. The new empire never happened, as far as Florence was concerned, and Dante never wrote its foundation myth. Its foundation was a myth. This rebirth of Augustus' empire was prevented by a mosquito.
Waiting in strange cities for the return of Augustus, Dante wasn't Aeneas. He should have known that Rome was not the Eternal City; he should not have believed Virgilian prophecy any more than Augustine believed it, after Alaric sacked Rome. [Recall Augustine's contrast between fallen Rome and the eternal City of God, Lesson 15.] The magic of the Aeneid had ended his chances of ever going home again.
Dante couldn't really follow Virgil. He couldn't write about the foundation of an empire that hadn't been founded. Or could he? In the end, he discovered that could write about what did exist, his disillusionment, even though Virgil and the classic poets hadn't written such poems before. He could write about hell. [See further below on this page for a descriptive timeline on Dante's life and poetry.]
70 BC. Birth of Virgil in Mantua.
31 BC. Octavian (later known as Augustus Caesar) defeats his last substantial opponents, Antony and Cleopatra, at the Battle of Actium, setting the stage for the Roman Empire.
cir. 30 BC - 19 BC. Virgil composes the Aeneid but never quite finishes it to his satisfaction. Virgil on his deathbed orders that the poem be destroyed, but Augustus denies this dying wish, and instead promotes the poem because it celebrates his rule. The Aeneid prophesies that Rome is an Eternal City.
AD 410. Rome is sacked by Alaric, the first of the "barbarians" to pillage the city in many hundreds of years. Augustine begins writing The City of God to refute pagans who blame the fall of Rome on Christianity. The fall of Rome is usually considered to be the event that ends the classical period and begins the Middle Ages in European history.
622 AD. Muhammad (570-632) founds Islam. The Koran is published a couple of decades after Muhammad's death and ascribed to him.
800 AD. Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III.
827. Muslims conquer Sicily and later take Corsica, Sardinia and most of Spain, setting the stage for later Norman and Crusader responses.
1095. Pope Urban II calls for the first crusade. Crusaders capture Jerusalem in 1099.
1090-1153 AD. Life of Bernard of Clairvaux, the saint who is Dante's last guide in the Divine Comedy. Bernard reinvigorated the Cistercian order and in 1146 preached in support of the Second Crusade. (Dante's great grandfather Cacciaguida was killed in battle in this disastrous crusade which ended in 1148.)
1187 AD. Saladin annihilates the crusader army at the the Battle of Hattin, captures Jerusalem and overruns most other crusader territories in the near east. The passing of the crusader period marks the beginning of the High Middle Ages or High Gothic, a time of the rise of the European nation states, international commerce and Christian religious dissent.
1220. Frederick II of Germany is crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Honorius II. He is deposed, however, by Pope Innocent IV in 1245. The claims of German princes and Italian popes to secular authority in the Italian peninsula are disputed throughout Dante's lifetime.
1265 AD. Dante (a nickname for Durante) Alighieri is born into a landowning family in Florence.
1270. The last significant crusade, the 8th crusade, comes to an end with the death of King Louis IX (Saint Louis). Western Christians retain a few token possessions in the east until the fall of Acre in 1291.
1274 AD. Young Dante sees Beatrice Portinari at a neighborhood May Day party, and he is captivated by her.
1281-3 AD. Death of Dante's father Alighiero. (Dante's mother Bella had died sometime between 1270 and 1275.)
1285 AD. Dante is married to Gemma Donati. Their first child is born in 1287.
1290 AD. Beatrice dies.
1294. Boniface VIII is elected Pope and attempts to assert the temporal as well as spiritual authority of the papacy. Secular leaders throughout the Italian city states line up for him ("Ghibellines") and against him ("Guelphs"). Guelphs control Florence.
1295 AD. Dante completes Vita Nuova, a collection of love lyrics arranged into a narrative sequence about his love for Beatrice.
1300 AD, Easter. The imaginary setting of the Commedia. At this date the real Dante, age 35, is at the height of his political power, an influential leader of the ruling Guelph party in Florence. Later in 1300, however, violent feuding breaks out between several families in the city, and the Guelphs divide into rival factions, known as the White Guelphs (pro emperor) and the Black Guelphs (pro Pope). To restore order, Dante and other city administrators banish several of the Whites and Blacks. Both factions appeal for support to Pope Boniface VIII. The Whites send Dante as their representative, a mission from which he never will return home.
1302 AD. The Pope detains Dante in Rome and sends French mercenaries to help a group of exiled Black Guelphs to seize control of Florence. The Blacks drive the Whites from the city and consolidate their power. Dante is accused of accepting bribes and misappropriating public money. Fearing to return to Florence to face the charges, Dante in absentia is sentenced to banishment and a fine, but the sentence is soon increased to death by burning. He spends the rest of his life in exile. He moves about in Tuscany and then settles for some time in Verona. He plots his return to power in Florence with other exile groups, but nothing ever comes of these plans.
1312 AD. Henry VII of Luxembourg is crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. His authority is acknowledged by many Italian city states but not Florence. Henry declares the Florentine republic to be in rebellion against his empire, and Dante publishes a political treatise, On Monarchy, supporting Henry. Dante's book argues that universal peace requires a universal empire, like that of Augustus Caesar. Virgil's Aeneid is one of the main authorities that Dante cites for this proposition. Dante also argues that the Pope's authority is limited to spiritual matters and should not impinge on secular affairs. (The book is largely remembered today as a seminal work on the separation of church and state.)
1313 AD. Henry VII is Dante's last and best hope to be restored to Florence. But as Henry prepares to assault Florence, he apparently changes his mind and withdraws his army to Pisa, then to Siena where he soon contracts malaria and dies.
1313-1321. With the conclusion of Henry's empire, Dante begins writing the Commedia. (Perhaps, however, as tradition says, the first seven cantos of Inferno had been written prior to Dante's exile from Florence.) The poem is published in at least three installments: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The manuscripts are circulated during Dante's lifetime and begin to gain admirers.
1321 AD. Still in exile, Dante dies of malaria in Ravenna and is buried there.
1350-1355 AD? Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) writes his short essay in praise of Dante, the earliest biographical source on Dante.
1555 AD. An edition published in Venice is the first to add "divine" to the title of Dante's Commedia. For the next 500 years, the great poem is generally known as The Divine Comedy, but in recent years there is growing resistance to the use of this incorrect title.
20th century. In this age of soul searching and grotesque horrors, Dante's place in the canon of world literature is strengthened by Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Salvador Dali and a host of other artists and literary critics.
[For lives of Dante, see R.W.B. Lewis, Dante (Viking Penguin 2001); William Anderson, Dante the Maker (New York: Crossroads 1982); Ricardo Quinones, Dante Alighieri (Twayne's World Authors Series, 1979). For general historical background, see William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, The Medieval World View (New York: Oxford 1983).]
1. The mind/body problem: In "motor man" and "sensory man" cases, the patient is unable to act, even though the use of one or the other nervous system remains completely functional.
For motor man, see the case of Ian Waterman in Cole, J. and J. Paillard, "Living without touch and peripheral informaton about body position and movement" in J.L. Bermudez, A. Marcel and N. Eilan (eds.), The Body and the Self (MIT Press 1995), 245-266. Through an illness Waterman lost muscle sensation everywhere below the neck and learned to move again only by watching intently what his body was doing. If he wasn't watching it closely, his body moved involuntarily because his brain simply didn't know where it was.
For sensory man, stroke victims with paralysis have been able to sense muscles and to desire to move them but not to will the action; the brain simply will not execute the commands. See Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (MIT Press 2002), 37-40.
Medieval culture is a dominant "motor" culture in its asceticism that overvalued the brain and undervalued the rest of the body as contemptible physical matter. More on this later.
2. Free will and determinism. Over what things in your life do you have control? What things in your life are not controllable? Make two lists, differentiating as clearly as you can. (It's not easy to draw the line; for example, is your physical health within your control or not?)
We often blame ourselves for things that are not within our control. Obviously this can be a fundamental, unhealthy error. But how can we tell what's under our control and what's not?
3. Selfhood. Describe yourself. Who are you? To what extent are you in control of your own destiny? To what extent are you a puppet on strings?
4. Rome and the United States: both underwent "apprenticeships" in liberty under the early rule of kings, both established liberty through violent revolutions, both were founded by immigrants, both were expansionistic. Yes? no? Is there a lesson in Rome for the US? Is the lesson that Dante learned about Rome relevant today?
Consider the idea of "manifest destiny" (the God-given right and duty of expansionism) in early American culture, as reflected for instance in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855-1892). Consider George II Bush's policies with respect to universal democracy, globalization, conflict in the Near East and "religious values." Are these Roman holdovers?
5. Virgil, bio: Virgil or Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro), 70-19 B.C., official poet of the Roman Empire was born near Mantua (Italy) and was resident in Rome from 41 B.C. Early life on his father's farm influenced his first poems, the Eclogues (37 B.C.) which idealized rural life in the style of the Alexandrian poet Theocritus. Virgil then turned to realistic and didactic rural poetry in the Georgics (30 B.C.), modeled on Hesiod's Works and Days. After Augustus came to power, Virgil spent the rest of his life working on the Aeneid, an imitation of Homer in dactylic hexameters, for Augustus' court and its famous patron of literature, Mycenas. Aeneas is a model of Roman piety, the determination to overcome personal hardship and loss in order to help Jupiter sustain the Roman Empire.
6. Virgil and Homer: compare and contrast the two stories of the fall of Troy, the one told by the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey [recall Lesson 2] and the one told by Aeneas in books 2 of the Aeneid.
Aeneid intro reading (opening lines in Latin):
Aeneid book 4 reading (Latin): http://wiredforbooks.org/aeneid/
translation (English) of the Aeneid:
Aeneid notes: http://www.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/virgil.html
in the underworld story in art:
Dido story in art: http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~mpm8b/dido/dido.html
Fall of Troy story in art: http://cti.itc.virginia.edu/~mpm8b/fall_of_troy/falltroy.htm
8. Virgil in somewhat more depth: Carthage, Dido and Aeneas' survivor syndrome. Virgil was a talented Alexandrian-style court poet who had the extreme good fortune to work at Rome, rather than Alexandria. He imitated Greek literature in Latin. He understood how the quasi-Homeric story of Alexander the Great had served Ptolemy's political purposes in Alexandria and the Hellenistic kingdom of Egypt [recall Lesson 9]. The Aeneid was his attempt to produce an even better foundation myth for Augustan Rome.
One of the bigger ironies in this enterprise was that Augustus had founded the Roman Empire only by destroying the Ptolemaic one. Augustus had became sole master of the Mediterranean world through a succession of successful military campaigns culminating in his decisive victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. The suicidal Dido in the Aeneid is in part an allusion to Cleopatra, last of the Alexandrian Ptolemies and last of the Pharaohs. The Aeneas who forgets his Roman mission by dallying with this hot African queen is an allusion to Antony, always portrayed in Augustan propaganda as the Roman who had forgotten his duties to Rome, Rome's gods, and his virtuous Roman wife (as fate would have it, Augustus' own sister!).
Of course, Virgil's Carthage also stands for Carthage, the once-formidable enemy of Rome. Carthage had tried to check Rome's expansionism, long before Virgil's time, in the Punic Wars of the 200's BC, wars that Rome very nearly lost. But at the end of the Second Punic War, the victory of Scipio Africanus the Elder over Hannibal at the battle of Zama (202 BC) put an end to the power of Carthage and allowed Rome to emerge as the sole superpower in the western Mediterranean. In the Aeneid Dido's hopeless love for Aeneas and her suicide reflect old Roman biases about the Punic Wars: that Carthage had self-destructed in its futile effort to stand in the way of Rome's divine destiny.
This "self-destruction" was completed in the Third Punic War, 46 years after Zama. The Roman commander in charge of razing Carthage to the ground and enslaving all of its surviving people happened to be the grandson of the victor at Zama. Although he obeyed the Senate's orders to destroy Carthage, Scipio Africanus the Younger was disturbed deeply by it, and he feared for the future of Rome. Well versed in Greek literature, he saw the fall of Carthage in Homeric terms. The destruction of the city was a repetition of the fall of Troy and also a preview of the future fall of Rome.
But Virgil's view of Rome is not Younger Scipio's dark Homeric view or Augustine's equally fatalistic Christian view. His Rome is an inspired Eternal City, not another Troy or Jerusalem. Virgil's art is propaganda, of course, but arguably it helped to stabilize the city which, prior to Augustus, had been plagued by decades of ruinous civil wars between competing warlords. The Aeneid stirred patriotism among people who needed to regroup--at least this is Dante's view of the matter, in his treatise on the benefits of Augustus' empire, On Monarchy.
It's Carthage that Virgil associates with Troy--through Aeneas' story of the fall of Troy, told to Dido at Carthage. This story parallels Demodocus' recital of the fall of Troy in the Phaeacian dining room in the Odyssey, the story that draws tears from Odysseus and sympathy from King Alkinoos "good mind," who provides the sleeper ship and treasure that Odysseus takes home. [Recall Lesson 2.]
In Virgil, the painful memory of the fall of Troy doesn't help. It doesn't produce transportation, gifts, sympathy, humility or anything that Aeneas needs to continue his journey. It wins the admiration and love of Dido, but she's an obstacle to his destiny. She wants him to live in the past. Her palace is full of artwork depicting the Trojan War, and she asks Aeneas to recite the story to her over and over again with a lengthy banquet each night. This exercise only prolongs his unhappy memories, so that he sinks into self-pity and cannot find his sense of purpose or futurity.
Carthage appears to Aeneas as a place of the dead. Like a ghost, he first enters the city wrapped in a goddess' mysterious protective cloud that makes him invisible. He and his fellow Trojans are all amazed to meet one another in the city because each one of them thinks that his comrades have been drowned in Juno's (Hera's) tempest at sea. Virgil's descriptions of these events suggest that Carthage is where souls congregate after death, and that goddess-protected Aeneas is as dead as Odysseus. Indeed, Aeneas' adventure in Carthage with Dido parallels Odysseus' stay in Ogygia with Calypso, whose name means "buried" and whose only desire is to have Odysseus lie in bed with her. The deathbed image in the Odyssey is a parody of heaven, a heaven that Odysseus prefers to leave on the first available boat (if only there were boats!).
But unlike Odysseus, who is dead without knowing it, Aeneas and his companions aren't dead but only feel that they are. The old Trojan self within Aeneas dies and a new proto-Roman self slowly is born. This experience of loss and gradual re-orientation to a changed world is portrayed by Virgil with astute psychological accuracy.
Aeneas' malady is referred to these days as "survivor syndrome." The grieving survivor asks: "Why do I live when others died?" Because we are social animals, following a catastrophe a survivor's first impulse often is to continue in the company of those who have died. (Compare suicidal Achilles after the death of Patroklos.) It takes time for the survivor to accept the fact that the past is gone and is never coming back. It takes more time to imagine a future that will be different from the happy past and yet somehow worthwhile.
Aeneas makes peace with the spirits by a process of understanding why he survived the Trojan War. Because he was spared, he eventually infers that there must be something left for him to do in life. To figure out what it is, he calls on his gods, and after a great deal of calling they finally answer him.
Things aren't as bad as they seem for Aeneas. He's not being punished for crimes by Jupiter (= Zeus), as Homer's Odysseus is punished. He's pursued only by Juno (= Hera) who can make life difficult for him but who cannot alter fate or destiny because she's not in charge in that department. In this bullying role, she is comparable to the frightening but powerless devils in Christianity and other monotheisms. Aeneas needs to cease his anguish over Troy in order to find strength, courage and peace to go forward with purpose. He needs to recognize that he is indeed fortunate, although the fortune he receives is not the fortune that he expected or sought.
Rome lost battle after battle to Carthage and yet she won the Punic Wars. Whole legions were annihilated by Hannibal, but the Romans always fielded new legions in their place. (At least this is the history that Romans tell.) This unbroken determination of the Roman spirit is what Virgil celebrates in Aeneas, the gritty survivor, and this public idealism is what sets the Aeneid completely apart from the Homeric Songs on one hand and Dante's Commedia on the other.
9. Polybius on the gods of the Romans (from The Rise of the Roman Republic, book 6):
But among all the useful institutions, that demonstrate the superior excellence of the Roman government, the most considerable perhaps is the opinion which the people are taught to hold concerning the gods: and that, which other men regard as an object of disgrace, appears in my judgment to be the very thing by which this republic chiefly is sustained. I mean, superstition: which is impressed with all it terrors; and influences both the private actions of the citizens, and the public administration also of the state, in a degree that can scarcely be exceeded. This may appear astonishing to many. To me it is evident, that this contrivance was at first adopted for the sake of the multitude. For if it were possible that a state could be composed of wise men only, there would be no need, perhaps, of any such invention. But as the people universally are fickle and inconstant, filled with irregular desires, too precipitate in their passions, and prone to violence; there is no way left to restrain them, but by the dread of things unseen, and by the pageantry of terrifying fiction. The ancients, therefore, acted not absurdly, nor without good reason, when they inculcated the notions concerning the gods, and the belief of infernal punishments; but much more those of the present age are to be charged with rashness and absurdity, in endeavoring to extirpate these opinions. For, not to mention effects that flow from such an institution, if, among the Greeks, for example, a single talent only be entrusted to those who have the management of any of the public money; though they give ten written sureties, with as many seals and twice as many witnesses, they are unable to discharge the trusts reposed in them with integrity. But the Romans, on the other hand, who in the course of their magistracies, and in embassies, disperse the greatest sums, are prevailed on by the single obligation of an oath to perform their duties with inviolable honesty. And as, in other states, a man is rarely found whose hands are pure from public robbery; so, among the Romans, it is no less rare to discover one that is tainted with this crime. But all things are subject to decay and change. This is a truth so evident, and so demonstrated by the perpetual and the necessary force of nature, that it needs no other proof.
10. Earliest autobiographies, or stories of the self told by the self, were rulers' declarations of their deeds. For example, Augustus Caesar boasts of his accomplishments in terms similar to those used by Egyptian Pharaohs long before Rome was founded. Contrast the style of autobiography found in Dante's Commedia.
The Deeds of the Divine Augustus
Written by Augustus, 14 AD
Translated by Thomas Bushnell, BSG
[The deeds of the divine Augustus, by which he subjected the whole wide earth to the rule of the Roman people, and of the money that he spent for the state and Roman people, are inscribed on two bronze pillars, which are set up in Rome.]
1. In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my
expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed
by the domination of a faction. For that reason, the senate enrolled me
in its order by laudatory resolutions, when Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius were
consuls (43 B.C.E.), assigning me the place of a consul in the giving
opinions, and gave me the imperium. With me as propraetor, it ordered me,
together with the consuls, to take care lest any detriment befall the state.
But the people made me consul in the same year, when the consuls each
perished in battle, and they made me a triumvir for the settling of the
7. I was triumvir for the settling of the state for ten
years. I was first of the senate up to that day on which I wrote this,
for forty years. I was high priest, augur, one of the Fifteen for the
performance of rites, one of the Seven of the sacred feasts, brother of
Arvis, fellow of Titus, and Fetial.
1. All the expenditures which he gave either into the treasury
to the Roman plebs or to discharged soldiers: HS 2,400,000,000.