Justinian mosaic from the Church of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Courtesy of Adrian Fletcher.
"Caesar I was, Justinian I am,
Who, by will of the First Love that I feel,
Rid the laws of what was gross and empty.
As Beatrice ascends with Dante to the planet Mercury she becomes more resplendent. There he saw the splendor of many thousands who dwelt there shining with luminosity emanating from their joy. In this heavenly sphere Dante meets the rulers of the world, more specifically the Roman Emperor Justinian who ruled the Roman Byzantine Empire from 527-565 AD. He is renowned for gathering a commission to collect and organize the scattered laws of the Roman Empire into an organized whole in 528-529 AD. Justinian regained control of Italy from the Ostrogoths in 553 AD thus reclaiming Ravenna as its Capital. Dante most surely saw the the majestic mosaic of Justinian in the church of Saint Vitale in Ravenna and was inspired with admiration for this emperor.
Justinian tells Dante that before undertaking this work he believed that Christ had only one nature, the divine nature, but was convinced by Pope Agapetus of the truth that Christ has two natures, divine and human. Justinian goes on to summarize the history of Rome. The Justinian Law Code opens with these words:
"JUSTICE is the constant and perpetual wish to render every one his due. Jurisprudence is the knowledge of things divine and human; the science of the just and the unjust." Justinian distinguishes two basic foundations of all laws: the law of nature in which even animals participate and the law of nations, that is, the laws specifically created by the customs and circumstances of each nation."
The question now arises: Why did Dante place earthly rules in this lower heaven? He places the answer on the lips of Justinian who said:
"This little star is spangled with the spirits
Of those who strove for good but aimed their actions
In order to acquire fame and honor.
And when desires deviate off course
In that direction, the rays of their true love
Must rise on upward with less living force."
Dante wrote his classic to show us the way to God and the life of heaven. He is telling us that the reason we do what we do is important. Do we labor, work and desire for an earthly reason or do we do it for the honor and glory of God? Christ himself has pointed out to us that if we fast and pray to be seen we have already received our reward.
After Justinian disappears, Beatrice sees that Dante is in distress as to how God's just vengeance upon sinful mankind could be avenged with justice. In essence she tells Dante that God in his mercy could have forgiven mankind but this "would have been short of justice, if the Son of God had not Humbled himself to be a human being." (Canto VII.118)
Dante further does not see why some things created by God are subject to death and decay. Beatrice explains that some creatures such as angels and the starry heavens are are immortal because they are immediate creations of God but --
"The souls of beasts, the souls of plants -- all these
Spring from complexion, whence the holy fires'
Motion and light draw forth the potencies."
In this explanation creatures are by nature subject to change and decay, and today we know this to be true even of the stars. This of course was not true for man in the beginning.
6_Venus: Celestial Lovers