Commentary on Dante’s Monarchia

Book Two, Chapters vi - xi


Our poet continues, “Right does not extend beyond the power to exercise it.” The Romans ruled and ruled well, but Nature does nothing without an end in view, so Rome was intended to rule. Dante gives a teleological explanation of this concept, pointing out that just as a craftsman makes something for an end and chooses his materials carefully for that purpose, the Romans were “crafted” by Nature for the purpose of ruling others. Regarding the Romans specifically, Vernani jumps in again to point out that Nature certainly took her time in providing Rome for something allegedly so necessary. The delay may, however, be due more to human weakness than Nature’s sloth.

In any case, applying this idea to monarchy in general, fitness to rule is a reliable indicator of the right to rule. For example, the rule of the Hohenzollerns in Prussia was eminently capable. Prussia was orderly and prosperous for most of its history, and survived disasters like the Napoleonic Wars and the 1848 revolts, and even expanded its territory despite an extremely precarious geographical location, ultimately succeeding in unifying the German states, albeit without Austria, which was ruled by a successful dynasty of its own. Their rule only ended with the failure of Wilhelm II, though his rule is usually judged more harshly than deserved (and I must point out that the dynasty’s removal was manifestly unjust; an abdication in favour of a relative may have been reasonable, but Germany and its neighbours were soon reminded of the benefits of monarchical stability compared to the scourge of republicanism, but how unfortunate that few have minded the lesson).

Dante also refers to Aristotle’s Politics, where the philosopher argues that some people are natural rulers and others natural slaves. Dante expands this to include nations, the Romans being the noblest and thus natural rulers, as discussed previously. This opinion is, of course, far outside the Overton Window today, but is obviously true, however much Progressives insist that all men are basically the same and Libertarians cry that each man is the best governor of his own affairs. The mere existence of a welfare class, which is not only a handful of individuals in need but truly an entire class of people dependent on outside assistance, demonstrates that some people are not, in fact, capable of governing themselves either individually or as a community; outside forces have worsened their situation, but certainly did not create it. We can also see that, even when the initial conquest is self-interested, it is to the benefit of less developed nations that their affairs be governed to some extent by others. The lands of the British Empire, for example, were almost all better off under British rule than they were before it; in many cases, they were better off under British rule than after it, as well.

Of course, there’s another side to right not extending beyond the power to exercise it. Rome’s ability to exercise authority had a limit, and it eventually lost what it had. This, I think, is the mortal blow to Dante’s argument that the Roman emperor continues to hold the right to rule - the Mandate of Heaven is difficult to win but easy to lose. Perhaps another nation will be blessed with a sage emperor to establish a universal monarchy, but whoever does it will not be Rome.


Here we begin a new set of arguments. God’s will, Dante explains, can be made known to man in a few ways. Natural law is discoverable by reason alone, but other truths require divine revelation, e.g. via Scripture. It can also be made known as a special grace, and Dante gives a few examples of this. One is by contest, another by drawing lots, as in choosing Matthias to replace Judas as the twelfth Apostle.

Modern readers will balk at this approach. We’ll discuss trial by contest in the next two chapters, but determining divine will by lot seems dubious. Though the Apostles did do so, this was likely an exceptional case, much like how God sometimes communicates to people in Scripture in a dream, but the interpretation of dreams is by no means a normative activity for Christians. I will say, though, that drawing lots is a better method for selecting a leader than voting, at least when limited to a small pool of worthy candidates, because it prevents electioneering.


The first form of contest we’ll discuss is a race, and Rome won the race to rule the world. I suppose we could see the attempts to conquer the world in this way; there have certainly been many rulers who attempted it, and Dante gives several examples. He also refers to the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, in which Caesar orders a census of the entire world, which, presumably, he couldn’t do unless he exercised authority over the world. Honestly, even if we question the legitimacy of determining sovereignty by a contest, conquering the whole world is so difficult and has been tried by so many empires that I’m ready to consider anyone who has the skill and virtue actually to accomplish it to possess the right to rule. Unfortunately, Rome didn’t even quite control the entire known world, much less the entirety of the seven continents. If we allow simply controlling most of the known world, then China also won this race, as did the Mongols.


Next is trial by combat or duelling, which Dante claims is a just means to determine divine will in a conflict in which there is no human judge with jurisdiction to settle the matter, and he provides several examples of such duels in Roman history, as well as the story of David and Goliath.

Now, perhaps I am simply too infected by modernity to appreciate Dante here, but it seems implausible that trial by combat would determine anything more than who is most skilled in combat. The example of David and Goliath is legitimate, but God’s will in that contest is explicitly given in Scripture, and there is no indication that I’m aware of that duelling is to be a legitimate, normative method of resolving disputes. Dante does quote Christ’s saying that “wherever two are gathered in my name, I am there with them,” but Our Lord there speaks of prayer, which is a quite different thing than a duel. Besides, the Church has forbidden duelling for many centuries, including during the Middle Ages, and for good reason, as duels are essentially a combined murder and suicide.

Perhaps we can point to the Hebrew conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua as an example of such trials by combat? This also seems dubious, though. In that case, God explicitly ordered the Hebrews to take the Holy Land, and they did so. The Romans decided to conquer on their own; the other party in their wars did in some cases agree to abide by the results of combat, as Dante points out, but this was certainly not true in all cases. Besides, God is able to command men to do things that we may not take up on our own, and the conquest of the Holy Land is an excellent example of this.

Dante does note that trial by combat is legitimate when both sides fight according to strict rules, and cites Cicero and Vegetius on Roman scrupulousness in their conduct of war. One may object that they were biased and self-serving, but modern historian John Keegan also considered Roman warfare relatively civilised. This does not, however, make duelling in itself valid.


Dante now moves on to explicitly Christian arguments, and writes that whoever assents to an edict acknowledges that the edict is legitimate. Christ chose to be born while his parents complied with Caesar’s census so that He may be enrolled as a mortal like the rest of mankind, and as a Roman subject. If this edict was unjust, though, Our Lord would have assented to an injustice, but this is impossible. Therefore, Caesar’s rule, and by extension Roman rule, was just.

Is it true that when we assent to an edict we give our approval? At first glance, it would seem not. After all, one may consider one’s government illegitimate, yet comply with its edicts not because one approves but because one fears the state’s punishments, much as man might give his wallet to a robber, not because it is right but because he’d rather lose his wallet than get shot or stabbed. Presumably, failing to comply with Caesar’s census would have carried punishments of some kind. When St. Joseph complied with the census, he may have done so out of the obedience due to authority, even if the kingly office was then held by a usurper.

We will discuss Christ’s approval of the Roman Empire more in the next chapter, and at even greater length in the third book, but for now it will suffice to say that this particular example doesn’t stand on its own.


Finally, since Christ died for the sins of the whole world, the punishment he suffered had to be given by the governor of the whole world, i.e. Tiberius Caesar. This is why the sentence of crucifixion was not handed down by Herod, who was merely a local king, but by Pontius Pilate, who was Caesar’s representative. Furthermore, this punishment had to be given by a legitimate authority, otherwise it would simply be a wrong and not a true punishment.

Again, Rome did not rule the entire world, except perhaps in a symbolic sense. More seriously, though, Christ’s death was still a wrong because Christ was innocent.

Now, Dante doesn’t mention this, but there is a strong Biblical argument for Roman authority in the Passion narratives. In St. John’s Gospel (19:10ff) Our Lord is brought before Pilate, who asks, “Dost thou not know that I have power to crucify thee, and power to release thee?” Christ answers, “Thou wouldst not have any power over me at all, if it had not been given thee from above.” Here Christ explicitly confirms that Pilate’s authority was God-given, and this seems to me a certain approval of Roman rule, especially when we also consider Christ’s command to “render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.”

Furthermore, Christ adds, “That is why the man who gave me up to thee is more guilty yet.” The phrase “more guilty” implies that Pilate does indeed have some guilt for giving in to the mob and sentencing to death a man he correctly believes is innocent. However, he is the dispenser of justice, and his punishment of men is part of his duty as the representative of the emperor. The more guilty party is the one that deliberately handed an innocent man over to be killed and pressured a judge to violate his duty. Indeed, this is in keeping with the general conduct of “the people” in Scripture, from urging Aaron to make the golden calf to urging Saul to violate God’s instructions to totally destroy the Amalekites; “crucify him!” is merely the last and greatest example of the sacred authors’ opinion of mob rule.

That brings us to the end of the second book. Next, Dante will address his final question, on whether the emperor depends on the Church for his authority.

Continue to Book Three