Ravenna, City of Death

The Politician’s Emptiness and Its Consequences

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,

Throughout the sensual world proclaim,

One crowded hour of glorious life

Is worth an age without a name.


THOUGH PRINCES AND PRELATES would no doubt agree about the thrill of being part of an exciting age, rather than one “without a name,” often enough the price of that “one crowded hour of glorious life” proves steep for individuals who fail to rise to the level of high priest or monarch. Dante’s life, though certainly full of color and incident, was—from his exile in 1302 to his death nineteen years later at the age of fifty-six—a life of personal suffering. And that suffering was engendered by the warring prelates and princes whose reckless pursuit of their own wealth and power made life such a misery—and such a prematurely shortened misery—for so many.

In the Comedy, which is Dante’s map of the moral universe, those who treated others unjustly—by grasping at what was not theirs and by lying and dissembling so as to grasp even more—are tormented in the hereafter, just as they so carelessly tormented others in this life. Only in this way can Dante, or anyone else, for that matter, imagine that justice will finally be done. The ultimate expression of the moral economy of the West may be glimpsed in the symbolic scales by which Christ—in many medieval paintings of the Last Judgment—weighs sinners in the balance and assigns them their eternity, thus assuring the discriminating Justice of which the world is incapable and which is the gift of God alone.

On the night of September 13, 1321, Dante died at Ravenna, having migrated two years earlier from Verona to this unique city on the Adriatic. What brought him here we can’t be sure, though Petrarch tells us he had grown weary of the hilarity of Can Grande’s court, filled with mounting numbers of tedious jesters, bibulous buffoons, and fawning courtiers. We know that in his last two years, he had the generous patronage of Guido Novello, Ravenna’s lord, and was able at last to invite his family—wife, three sons, a daughter, grandchildren—to join him. He was, moreover, surrounded by admiring fellow poets and professors in this hushed and ancient settlement that can feel more like a mausoleum than a city. His correspondence with other European intellectuals had become extensive; and the Commedia, now complete and circulating in abundant manuscript copies, was already bringing him praise and fame far beyond that of any other medieval writer.

Thanks to Guido Novello’s generosity, the economic future of his beloved sons was at last secure. His daughter entered a convent at Ravenna and took the name Sister Beatrice—which suggests an unusual closeness to her father and an understanding of his singular psychology, rather than any slight to her mother. Dante ventured forth occasionally on diplomatic missions for his lord. Returning from one of these—a mission to Venice—he chose to make the journey by land rather than by sea. Crossing the pestilent marshes that surround Ravenna, he contracted malaria, reached his home, and died.

More than this we do not know, but we may take the few facts we have as hints that Dante, having found the supernatural peace he hymns in the Paradiso, also found familial peace and human happiness in his last two years. No other European city outside the territories of ancient Greece is remotely like Ravenna, designated in 401 as the capital of the Western empire by the Eastern emperors and built with Oriental munificence in the last centuries of their Italian influence. Today, it rivals anything that remains in Constantinople itself; and its grand domed monuments are an eerie if faithful tribute to Hellenic Christian sensibility. However much of a power center Ravenna may have been in the fifth and sixth centuries, by Dante’s day it had become the sepulchrally quiet coastal town one comes upon today. If Dante was looking to escape the mad hubbub of a well-connected fourteenth-century court and spend time reacquainting himself with the members of his immediate family, all the while in the shadow of great works that enabled him to muse on power past, he could have done no better than move to Ravenna.

Sixth-century mosaic frieze of the emperor Justinian and his court, San Vitale, Ravenna. (Photo Credit 8.1)

Sixth-century mosaic frieze of the empress Theodora and her court, San Vitale, Ravenna. (Photo Credit 8.2)

The octagonal basilica of San Vitale, in particular, is like nothing else in Western Europe—except that Charlemagne imitated it slavishly in building the imposing cathedral in his capital of Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle), hard by Germany’s present border with France. It is instructive to note that the great barbarian monarch imagined that Greek-inspired architecture could lend increased legitimacy to his claim to be Holy Roman Emperor. But San Vitale, the original, possesses in its choir and apse a sumptuous series of mosaics that Charlemagne’s artists were incapable of imitating. Among religious subjects from the Old and New Testaments are two striking processional friezes of the Byzantine court, one of the emperor Justinian with his train of officials, soldiers, and clergy, another—answering the first on the opposite wall—of the empress Theodora with her train of clergy and ladies-in-waiting. It is impossible to decide which of these overbearing imperialists one would more fervently wish to avoid, he as debauched and brutal as the most depraved mafioso, she as cold and cruel as an ice queen. The mosaicist knew the faces he depicted here and took the risk of telling the truth about them, rightly calculating that no one with power to hurt him would catch his drift.

By the time Dante could have beheld these two, he had finished the Commedia; and it would be idle on our part to speculate whether his confrontation with these images would have altered his favorable depiction of Justinian.a Dante was desperate to achieve a just society—in theory, if not in fact. In order to remedy the sad state of things political, one must first, he reasoned, have a model in mind of what a just society would look like. In such a society, he theorized, justice would be universal and applied to all equally. The only power capable of creating such a society was located in the ancient tradition of universal empire. An enlightened Roman emperor, freed from the political interventions of a corrupt papacy, would be the ticket to a better society. For Dante, in his profound meditation on the state of humanity, had come to the conclusion that men and women could not find within themselves the strength to lead truly moral lives if they were forced to live in evil conditions, surrounded by random violence and rank injustice. They needed more supportive environments “in which,” as Peter Maurin would insist in the twentieth century, “it would be easier … to be good.”

Dante, however, had no access to Procopius’s scandalous account of their imperial majesties’ joint reign, the Anekdota (Secret History), which was unavailable in his day in the West—or even in the East, for that matter, for it had been written in secret in the reign of Justinian and passed surreptitiously for centuries from one Greek reader to another—and saw the light of day only in the seventeenth century at Lyons, but with notable omissions that the French editor considered too indecent for publication. “My teeth chatter,” wrote Procopius, “and I find myself recoiling as far as possible from the task; for I envisage the probability that what I am now about to write will appear incredible and unconvincing to future generations.” Even in our day, the murderously shameless lives of the imperial couple, as revealed by Procopius, one of history’s earliest and most engaging gossip columnists, must give a reader pause.

We, however, shall not pause, except to note that it was Justinian’s rationalization of the many accrete contradictions in Roman law and his promulgation of a universal Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) that so impressed Dante. Nor was this a negligible achievement, for it is upon Justinian’s consolidations of Roman law that a majority of the world’s legal systems (outside China and the English-speaking world) are still based. But Dante would have been less impressed had he known of Justinian’s passive indulgence of his wife’s kinky sexual preferences and programmatic cruelties and his endless persecutions of whole populations, as well as of individuals, and his pitiless interventions in non-Roman societies, profound resentment against which paved the way for the triumph of Islam around the Mediterranean.

We end (well, almost end) as we began—in a Greek city. If this book’s Alexandrian Prelude may appear artificial to the reader who first opens to it, I hope its importance may seem more persuasive by book’s end. The matrix of the Western world, the form that gives it shape, is a Greek matrix, the shape of reason, thought, mind, rational inquiry. Its contents, however, flow into this ancient Greek mold from ancient Jewish and early Christian sources and are matters not of mind but of beating heart, moral action and interaction, and fleshly experience. It is in the course of the Middle Ages—and particularly in the twelfth, thirteenth, and early fourteenth centuries—that the contents of the mold jell for the first time to produce an early version of our modern world. It is not a finished version—and perhaps there never will be a finished version. It is, to use a word I relied on heavily in the Introduction, an incarnation; and more recent incarnations will be studied in the volumes still promised in this series.

But this “great central Synthesis of history,” remarked upon by Chesterton, is indeed a synthesis of elements that are, in some degree, opposites. It is not possible to imagine the words of Plato with which the Prelude began escaping from the mouth of any Jew or Christian (or even from any agnostic or atheist who has lived his life in Judeo-Christian society). For a post-Greco-Roman, of whatever variety, the soul (if there is a soul) takes into the otherworld (if there is another world), not its education and culture, but the moral character it has formed over the course of its earthly existence. The modern man or woman, however snobbish, cannot compete for snobbery with an ancient Greek. None of us believes our education, our culture, our mind, to be of such supreme importance. Who-we-are, our final identity, as Dante impresses on us compellingly, is composed not of what we know but of how we have acted toward others. No matter who you are, you cannot re-assume an ancient Greek, or even an ancient Roman, identity. That possibility was forever blotted out when the Romans became the Italians—that is, when they took on a Christian mind and heart, a Christian orientation, a Christian identity, however inchoate, incomplete, unresolved, and even self-contradictory that identity must always be in every age.

No more is it conceivable that any ancient Greek could have spoken the great Torah-based sentiment expressed by Thomas Aquinas at the outset of Chapter 4. The idea of any god worth a candle feeding his worshipers with corn fat and honey (from the rock, yet!) would strike a refined Alexandrian as so primitive and quaint. God, the highest expression of the Spiritual, cannot be concerned with stinking matter in any of its guises.

We are the fortunate inheritors of two profound traditions that cannot be entirely reconciled but must compete with one another down the ages in a never-ending tug-of-war. Science could never have asserted its sensible self within Judeo-Christian society had it not been for the goad that Greek reason provided. Feminism, on the other hand, might well have asserted its relevance without classical influence of any kind, for there was within the Greco-Roman world hardly a whit of feminism anywhere. Artistic realism in its many forms is probably best understood as the result of a combination of Greek natural philosophy (and its obsession with measurement and accuracy) and Christian incarnationalism (and its primary project of finding truth in flesh).

The jumble of the Middle Ages derives to a large extent from the ambiguities of our dual heritage; and the difficulty of making general statements about medieval European culture derives from the same persistent ambiguities. The division of the medieval political establishment into an interlocking puzzle of competing nations, at the threshold of asserting their separate identities, adds to the difficulty. In order to trace consistent themes through so much jumble (and to keep this book to reasonable length), I have been forced to omit or reduce in scope many subjects I had intended to consider. The absent Marjorie Kempe, Hrotswitha, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Dame Julian of Norwich spring to mind, as well as the barely mentioned Maimonides and unnamed poets of the English tradition from Caedmon to William Langland. Chaucer has only a small speaking part, a sorry omission, since I have always thought that the medieval experience I would most wish to have would be to attend a party with him in London during Christmas week. Whole regions—the Iberian, the Scandinavian, and the Eastern European—have been nearly omitted, and vast subjects, such as politics, warfare, torture, and disease, have been given short shrift. Even major incidents in the lives of major characters—such as the politically motivated suppression of the Knights of the Temple (or Templars) by the first Avignon pope or the relationship of Henry II and Thomas Becket—have had to be left out or reduced to a footnote.

Some of the subjects a reader might have expected to find in a book like this were covered in How the Irish Saved Civilization, which ends with the Viking raids of the ninth century, or will be found in the next volume in the series. One of these, the Inquisition, belongs much more to the Renaissance than to the medieval period, when it was relatively tame in its effects. Similarly, the European mistreatment of Jews escalates in Renaissance-Reformation times from relatively benign inattention or generally passive contempt to far more active and frequent persecution.b In this volume, I have not gone much beyond the early fourteenth century, after which a rise in violence, especially in northern Europe, and in death by contagion (the Black Death, or bubonic plague) throughout the continent began to alter Europe irrevocably by wiping out a third to a half of its population. The Great Plague in particular was, as the highly regarded Princeton historian William Chester Jordan calls it, “the death knell of medieval European civilization.”

The reputation of the Middle Ages for thuggish cruelty is largely (if not wholly) undeserved. The humanist intellectuals of the Renaissance who established the category “medieval” intended that it should characterize an age that had neither the accomplishments of the classical period nor those of their “modern” age. All the libelous adjectives hurled by prejudiced historians like William Manchester or even by immensely clever writers like Mark Twain (in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) have their origin among those Renaissance humanists.

Like those humanists, we may pat ourselves on the back for our vast advance in knowledge and for our political enlightenment. In science we have ventured to the heart of material reality, progressing so far as to split the atom, which means that there are men in our world who could obliterate life in whole cities, countries, and continents. Soon there will be more such men, since we are doing such an abysmal job of nuclear arms reduction and control. “More than fifteen years after the end of the cold war,” exclaimedMohamed ElBaradei, director general of the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “it is incomprehensible … that the major nuclear weapon states operate with their arsenals on hair-trigger alert.” The existence around the world of twenty-seven thousand nuclear warheads, many poorly secured, offers the quite thinkable prospect of “devastation of entire nations in a matter of minutes.” Dante imagined that Hell was buried deep inside the earth; today he might wonder if it was rising to the surface. What we face here, of course, is not a scientific challenge but a political one.

We have no Roman emperor, good or bad, to bend to. We have no pope to whom we need pay the slightest heed. Dante believed that the pope should be confined to religious matters and that the realms of church and state should be basically unmixable. If he could have thought of such a thing, he would have approved of our modern secular idea of the political separation of church and state.

Dante also believed that only a great and good emperor, a man of universal understanding, could bring peace and justice to his realms. The kind of emperor he had in mind was more an institution than a single person. If he could have thought of such a thing, he would have found the United Nations, with all its flaws and limitations, closer to his ideal than would be any conceivable monarch.

What preoccupied Dante most of all was the acquisitive, dissembling, violence-prone politician, whether clerical or lay, who could lie to himself and lie to others—creating “a vast tapestry of lies,” as Harold Pinter called it in his Nobel Prize speech—give orders to torture the helpless and banish the innocent while on his way into church, hold men prisoner indefinitely without charging them, execute them boldly and self-righteously, persecute religious and ethnic minorities, refuse to acknowledge the mercenary motives of his closest advisers, abrogate international treaties, pollute whole ecosystems while pretending to do otherwise, and declare his vicious wars just, necessary, and blessed by God. Especially to be feared was the man who did all these things and got away with them because his earnest good looks and earthy sincerity concealed his real intentions from many observers and because he was too powerful to be stopped. Such a man was Philip the Fair, unscrupulous, suspicious, envious, and rigid, who succeeded his father to the French throne in 1285, who regularly blackened the reputation of anyone who dared oppose him, and who fancied himself the “most Christian” of Christian kings.




c. 280–337




c. 480–547






c. 540–604














c. 1122–1204


c. 1123–1190






c. 1160–1216




c. 1200–1280




c. 1221–1274


c. 1225–1274


c. 1235–1303


c. 1240–1302?












c. 1340–1400



a Dante’s wrongheaded assignment of Justinian to Heaven was possible because he knew so little about the man, and what he thought he knew had been so thoroughly corrupted by legendary invention. Similarly, he places Bernard of Clairvaux in Heaven, whereas I would exclude him, despite his undoubted importance, on account of his insufferable self-righteousness. Dante knew far less than we do about the life (as opposed to the pious writing) of Bernard. Bernard had been canonized in 1174, almost a century before Dante was born; and Dante, despite his bad opinion of many popes, took with all seriousness the act of papal canonization. Dante’s assignments to the afterlife are spot on whenever he actually knew someone (e.g., Boniface VIII) but less accurate for those he knew only by their medieval reputations.

b Recent findings by Jewish scholars—for instance, Daniel Baraz, Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, and Norman Cantor in many works—support this view. Cantor’s Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages contains several informative entries, especially “Jews in the Middle Ages.”

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