“Cato of Utica in Limbo and Purgatory”

This paper was presented on the opening night of the Wisdom Belongs to God and God Everyday and Everywhere conference, held June 18th to 24th, 2017 at the University of King’s College, Halifax.

Bust of Plato

τῷ ὄντι ὁ θεὸς σοφὸς

(Socrates Apologia)

In the celebrated correspondence that Cicero carried on with his friend Atticus (2.1.8), Cicero accuses Cato of speaking “in the Senate as though we were living in Plato’s Republic instead of Romulus’s cesspool”.   This is the Roman Stoic we know as Cato the Younger, also identified as Cato of Utica (in North Africa), the place where Cato chose to die of the wounds inflicted by his own sword.  Cato decided to end his life after the decisive victory of Julius Caesar at the Battle of Thapsus (further South than Utica, on the Mediterranean coast) in April 46 BC.  According to Plutarch, this suicide was particularly gruesome, as it involved Cato’s disembowelling, indeed again by his own hand (lxx).

Famously, at the very beginning of Plato’s Republic, where the correct definition of justice is first attempted, it emerges that the repayment of debts—if left as a principle of justice in isolation from all other considerations—could initiate an action that everyone would agree is more unjust than just.  The example that Socrates uses is that of restoring a borrowed weapon to someone who has become crazed (331c), and is therefore predisposed to violence.  Who could justly agree to hand back a sword under those circumstances, with a foreknowledge of the inevitable vicious result?  Plutarch tells us (lxviii) that, during Cato’s last supper, his son had purloined Cato’s sword from his chamber, and that Cato became increasingly agitated as demands for its return were ignored.  Cato is represented as saying that the actual injustice has been committed by his son (and their servants) in their impertinence in deeming him as “out of his mind”—a charge for which the only actual proof was that Cato had decided to spend his last night studying Plato’s Phaedo—famous for its disquisitions on the immortality of the soul, and its description of the courtesy and fortitude with which Socrates expended his last hours.  Socrates refused to make himself look “ridiculous” by postponing as long as possible the end of a life which was already “forfeit”.

If the reading of this Platonic dialogue of the last hours of Socrates (the most wise and most just) were truly a sign of madness, then the return of Cato’s sword would have been an act of injustice; but, as we know, the sword was returned and then employed, as a more savage and metallic form of “poison”.

Dante by By Sandro Botticelli

Initially, according to Dante’s Commedia, Cato descended into the Underworld, and there in Limbo,  joined his forefathers Socrates (and Plato), before the “harrowing of Hell” fixed his temporal “afterlife” at the base of Mount Purgatory as its Guardian.  After the Harrowing of Hell by Christ was accomplished, two other notable Roman suicides, both in 65 CE, Seneca and Lucan, uncle and nephew, would join the ranks of those great classical figures who inhabit Dante’s Limbo.   It is worth noting that Seneca tried in his final hours, in detail, to imitate what he knew of Socrates’ own passing on his last day.

Dante’s Limbo is situated beyond the border crossing into Hell (the River Acheron) and before the judgments made by Minos, whose forensic assessments determine the sin which is most perfectly expressive of the soul presenting itself for judgment.  Minos serves as the Guardian of Hell (following Vergil’s Aeneid vi.432) in the same way that Cato will offer assistance to those (redeemed) sinners who are brought to the shores of Mount Purgatory.  Vergil, himself, makes an allusion to this when he informs Cato (Purgatory i.77) that Minos has no authority over him, or for that matter any resident of Dante’s Limbo.  Cato was not subject to Minos’ judgment; the same applies to Vergil himself, as also Marcia (Cato’s second wife) now separated from Cato, again, by the (still) temporal division between Heaven and Hell.

Cato the Younger

All the commentators are united in underlining the extraordinary situating of Cato, a pagan, a mortal enemy of Julius Caesar, and a suicide at the very base of Mount Purgatory—in other words, Cato is the first soul which the redeemed espy, and he is the Guardian of the Kingdom of God which they now hope to enter.  Properly speaking, Cato’s residence must be in Limbo with Homer and Aristotle and Julius Caesar, and then with Seneca and Lucan, and, of course, Marcia, his wife.  Limbo is the home of “the virtuous pagans”, and presumably Cato was assigned his sacred and exemplary role at the same time as the patriarchs were snatched out of Hell after Christ’s descent into Limbo.  For Dante, this indicates the hallowed place that Cato occupies within the economy of salvation, treated with the same gracious favour as the children of Israel, who, through law and prophecy, prepared the people of God for the coming of their Messiah.

As will become clear, Cato’s status as a “virtuous pagan” is not in any danger of revision; what is more difficult to digest is that Cato is the first soul we meet after witnessing the everlasting mastication of Brutus and Cassius, in two of Satan’s three mouths: the central one reserved exclusively for Judas Iscariot, the very betrayer of the Son of God Himself.  How can we account for this journey through Hell which has its destination in witnessing the eternal just punishment of Julius Caesar’s assassins?  What can prepare us for the fact that we are then immediately confronted by an implacable adversary of Caesar, who was opposed to everything that Caesar represented, and whose opposition to Caesar was not simply rhetorical, but military?

The only explanation is the one that Dr Robert Crouse offered for many years in his lectures on Dante at the University of King’s College, which is to say that all aspects of Dante’s Commedia are concerned with balance, and then “reciprocity and exchange”.  Julius Caesar, who is himself resident in Limbo, is honoured for his divinely sanctioned role in establishing the conditions necessary for the Roman Empire, and its function in bringing about “the fullness of time”; but that does not make Dante oblivious to the shortcomings of those who are (perhaps unwitting) agents of the divine providence, or their apparent indifference to the “collateral damage” that any resolute unfolding of necessity brings with it.  For Cato, as for the Roman Republicans generally, the terrible causality of “world-historical” agency here is the loss of any vestige of Roman self-government, and essentially, the descent into irreversible tyranny.  So in the space of two cantos, Vergil and Dante traverse two realms, between which there is “a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16: 26)—and in the process are introduced to three of Caesar’s most committed foes.  The difference is that Satan’s meal consists of two deceptive conspirators, while Cato is seen as openly and consistently hostile.

Nor should Cato’s suicide unduly detain us.  Dante’s “wood of the Suicides” in the 13th Canto of the Inferno is not especially the preserve of the famous suicides of classical antiquity, since they could have no knowledge of the Medieval view that the individual human life is understood as a “fief”: that is to say that each unique individual human life is held in trust, that it is never something that the individual “possesses”, nor can it be ever be disposed of as a matter of preference or convenience, since it is a gift from God.  It must be treated in the manner of a “fief”: so it needs to seeded, planted, watered, husbanded, and harvested.  One does not scythe a field of wheat or corn until the planting is ready for harvest.  To do so before the moment of harvest is a feat of nihilistic irrationality, and an act of sacrilege against the gift of life.  Of all this, Cato could have known nothing; his suicide was an “affirmation” that could be described as an “honourable estate”, in defiance of tyranny, and in the defence of liberty.  Julius Caesar, himself, understood this principle perfectly; upon hearing of Cato’s suicide, Caesar is reported (by Plutarch) to have remarked: “Cato, I begrudge you your death, because you begrudged me the sparing of your life.”

This seems to be precisely how Dante, in fact, understood the matter.  Famously, both in Dante’s Convivio and in his de Monarchia, Cato is represented as choosing liberty over a bare “existence” in slavery under a style of Pharonic tyranny.  Cleopatra (a denizen in the 2nd Circle of Hell, immediately after the judgment of Minos, and in the residence of “the lustful”) could be treated in this way with great sympathy.  Her suicide was the means by which Cleopatra could be spared the humiliation of becoming the star attraction in a “Roman Triumph”, in which she could be paraded into the “eternal city” as if she were “chattel”, and a spoil and trophy of war.  Cleopatra, the last adult Pharaoh (brought with her suicide an end to XXXI Egyptian Dynasties and over a quarter millennium of Ptolemaic governance of Egypt).  Her appearance in a Triumph would then be her obvious value, captured like a treasure or sacred vessel—or as depicted on the Rome’s Arch of Titus, like the golden menorah and table of showbread—paraded to the greater glory of imperial Rome and its victorious Caesar.  Death was understood as a courageous defiance of tyranny, not, then, so much despair, as a virtuous statement of a completely free determination of refusing the slavery imposed by the tyrannical conqueror.  Vergil confirms this absolutely in the first Canto’s encounter with Cato: for you, in Utica, Vergil tells Cato, “death was not bitter” (73-74), since Cato’s suicide was not undertaken in despair, but in defiance.

One of Dante’s most enduring sources in his realization of his Commedia is Lucan’s so-called

Pharsalia, properly speaking his “On the Civil War” (epically) recounting the chaos in the Roman world, which begins with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.  Although the epic was never truly completed, it is an invaluable source for Dante’s treatment of the Roman world (hence Lucan’s place of poetic privilege in Limbo, alongside Homer, Vergil, Horace, and Ovid).  The telling moment, in the Pharsalia, occurs when Cato tells Brutus (Book ii.286) that civil war is the “highest crime” [M Fox], and that Cato wishes his blood could “redeem the nations” and “cancel” the debt “incurred by Roman immorality” [JW Joyce]; Cato’s desire is for atonement [MF], redemption and sacrifice [SH Braund], since he wishes to pay “the penalty in full” [MF].  This sacrifice of his life, therefore, must not be seen as a statement of resignation, not as despairing of life; nor is it a giving up on life, and never should it be understood as a renunciation of the value of life.

Book ix of the Pharsalia re-iterates the point without wavering.  The summary (by W.R. Johnson) of the desperate situation in which Cato and his army find themselves, as they are about to enter the Libyan desert, is both succinct and apposite: Cato invites his remaining troops to accept, indeed “enthusiastically” to embrace “his invitation to suffering and sanctity… [Cato] has no need to know the outcome of his march to Utica.  Whether he succeeds or fails is of no concern to him.  What matters is that he yield to the fate that God has in store for him, and that he pursue his path to that fate with courage…” [pp. xxx-xxxi].  According to the same commentator, Cato’s rallying of his soldiers is representative of his “flawless patriotism” which expresses “a union of a love of God and a love of freedom… perfectly.”

This may not be an exact anticipation of Christ’s affirmation that: “I am come that they might have life, and they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10).  Yet this willingness to fulfil the divine vocation courageously, wherever it leads, and whatever it demands, can still be deeply cherished by the subsequent tradition.  As Anthony Esolen (Purg 411) suggests, Cato’s death should not be assessed as his “longing” to enjoy freedom for himself, but as his longing “to restore freedom to others”.  Therefore, the positive moment in his suicide, his sacrifice is not in Cato’s avoiding something, but in his freely giving something that we all long for.

So if we are satisfied that the death by suicide of a “virtuous pagan” is not, in itself, an impediment to the Guardianship of the realm of the Redeemed, perhaps we can now explore the closer particulars of the elevation of the Cato to the office of Judge and Protector of the “City of God”.

Here are the broad principles by which we hope to establish our case:

i.      Cato is the judge and law-giver;
ii.     in his person, Cato is the supreme embodiment of the Platonic cardinal virtues;
iii.   as this embodiment, he also bears, in his person, all the hallmarks of the Republic’s “philosopher-king”;
iv.    furthermore, this devotion to Platonic principles is so complete that even his domestic circumstances conform to the Republic’s principles of the community of family life and procreation;
v.     as with Plato’s decline of the human soul, tyranny in the political, and in the individual human psychology is the greatest evil, and must be resisted diligently, whenever and wherever it manages to establish itself;
vi.    in the ways in which Cato is described (and received by the tradition under which Dante operates), Cato can indeed come to represent a pagan Mosaic figure, with the same authority as a prophet; this insight follows explicitly the various engagements that Dr Wayne Hankey has offered students of all sorts now over a score of years: in particular, I am emphasizing Dr Hankey’s repeated assessments of Philo’s On the Life of Moses, for which I would like to express my gratitude here;
vii.  the rigid, unyielding, and incorruptible moral rectitude, for which Cato is famous and universally admired—almost Kantian in its inflexibility—is the vehicle by which Dante is able—in the ascent from Purgatory to Paradise—to elucidate his profoundly elegant relation both to Classical Antiquity and the ancient virtues, which is to say that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” [ST q1, a8, ad2].

So to examine these claims in order:


Cato is the judge and lawgiver: this follows precisely the instructions of Vergil, in his Aeneid [viii.670], as the cartographer of the Underworld and, in Dante’s Commedia, as the guide through the Afterlife.  Cato is pictured in Elysium has “administering justice” [or “giving the law”]; what adds special authority to this passage is that just two lines earlier the brutal and vilified type of the tyrant, Catiline, the conspirator against established Roman Republican government, is singled out for special mention, with the Furies perpetually “in his face”, as it were.


Dante repeatedly refers us to the exemplary and unflinching virtue of Cato, an assessment canonically present in the first Canto of Purgatory, with the rising of the four stars, that is to say the four cardinal and “civic” virtues which are so central to Plato’s Republic.  Significantly these four stars illuminate the face of Cato, the Guardian.  (The three evening stars of the theological virtues are noted in Canto viii.)


As the embodiment, in an unwavering, courageous and zealous manner, of justice “in the soul”, Cato is treated as the ideal personification of the famous office of Plato’s “philosopher-king”: incorruptible, incapable of losing sight of the goal of justice, or in any way falling subject to a decline of the soul through the attractions of honour or wealth, Cato seems to be uncompromising historical example of the virtue necessary for the actual existence of a just city.  Cato’s spatial proximity to Catiline in the Aeneid is signifcant, since in the history of Rome, Cato insisted that the full burden of Roman law be brought to bear in the repudiation and punishment of the so-called “Conspiracy of Catiline”.


Very remarkably, and a fact to which allusion is made in the first Canto of Purgartory, Cato, with the permission of Marcia’s father, “handed over” Marcia, Cato’s second wife, to his friend Hortensius, after she had borne Cato’s three children.  Various accounts of what was at issue here have been handed down to us.  Some stress Hortensius’ wish—because of his deep admiration for Cato—to strengthen the bonds between them so as to surpass even the closeness of their friendship.  More significant, for our purposes, is the suggestion in Lucan’s Pharsalia (ii.326ff.), that, since Hortensius’ own wife remained childless, the divorce and remarriage was arranged so that Hortensius might have an heir of his own; this Marcia also achieved, only to find herself shortly thereafter, not only divorced, but also a widow.  Famously, Marcia petitioned Cato that she might return to him as his legal spouse, so that, having done her lawful duty now for two husbands, she might have the privilege of being placed in her tomb as “Marcia, wife of Cato” (ii.338).  There are four things that need to be emphasized about this most extraordinary (historical) episode:

a) it does in some measure actually put into practice the highly unusual strictures that Plato’s Republic requires for the maintenance of true justice in families—unencumbered by sentiment and nepotism—only if these strict conditions are met, it is suggested, is it possible to retain the principles of a just city.  (The family circumstances suggested by Thomas More’s Utopia are quite mild and prim by comparison.)

b) The issues of fecundity and barrenness are equally important in their Biblical, as in their epic context.  The figures of Leah and Rachael, and Martha and Mary, are central to the issues raised in the Commedia, and are addressed explicitly in Purgatory Canto xxvii.

c) The involvement of Hortensius in this sharing of families is not an incidental detail, since, like the allusion to Catiline above, it places this discussion firmly in the inheritance of Augustine Confessions: whereas Catiline finds his role in Book ii, Cicero’s exhortation to Hortensius is central to the development of Augustine’s Book iii.  This lost homage to the philosophical life made an indelible impression on the youthful Augustine—in a phrase movingly cited by Dr Hankey—“The booked changed my feelings.  It altered my prayers.” (3.iv.7; Chadwick).

d) This episode concerning Cato’s divorce from, and remarriage to, Marcia becomes an issue in the exchanges between Cato and Vergil in Purgatory.  In a passage that has caused translators a lot of uncertainty (i.83), Vergil, invokes the name of Cato’s Marcia (left behind in Limbo).  Vergil suggests to Cato, that this divinely appointed Guardian ease their passage through his “kingdom”: “for love of her, then, incline towards us” (i.81; Durling).  Significantly, Cato is unmoved, because his former life and her earthly love of him are now placed “beyond the evil river”; Cato did grant her deepest wish in the course of their lives, but no appeal to their earthly union can mean anything whatsoever here.  The fact that, at the same time, in this very first Canto of Purgatory, there is a profound reminder of the beginning of the Inferno (Canto ii), where gracious and abiding love, experienced in life, makes possible Dante’s odyssey through the Afterlife, and his redemptive vision of Paradise.  This sets the tone for our concluding observations of the momentousness of Cato for the theory and structure of Dante’s Commedia.


Since every aspect of Cato’s reputation and influence rests upon his implacable opposition to all forms of tyranny, perhaps this has been sufficiently emphasized.  Read sympathetically Plutarch’s life of “Cato the Younger” can almost be read as if it belonged in a book of “martyrs”.  I can do no better here than simply to cite the assessment of the ancient historian Cassius Dio (died c. AD 235): “Cato, who had proved himself at once the most democratic and the strongest-minded of all the men of his time, acquired greater glory even from his very death.” (Roman History 43.11).


It is a great privilege to be involved in this colloquium under the rubric that “Wisdom belongs to God”.  In an inadequate thank you to Dr Wayne Hankey, may I summarize decades of influence by pointing all participants towards Dr Hankey’s extraordinary engagement with all aspects of ancient and medieval religion and theology.  Without having had the opportunity to hear these analyses on repeated occasions, there would be nothing in my background or training which would permit me to bring into this discussion the name of Philo of Alexandria (who was born just around the time that the historical Vergil died).  Rather than pretending to offer anything that has not simply been purloined, I am going to reproduce directly a decisive extract from one of Dr Hankey’s many presentations (Byzantine Christianity).  In a discussion of Eusebius, Dr Hankey writes:

After comparing [the Emperor Constantine] to Moses, understood through the Life of Moses by Philo, who makes him the perfect Philosopher-King, Legislator, Prophet and Priest, the <living (ensouled) law>, <cosmopolites: citizen of the cosmos> quasi-divine super human mediator between God and the human …

These are the precise principles that are moving Dante in his choice of Cato as Guardian of Purgatory, in my opinion; and, please, consider how many of these offices Cato (according to the tradition) actually occupies: we have no trouble, I submit, recognizing the Legislator, the citizen of the world, the mediator; perhaps Prophet and Priest might be thought more remote; but then we have other considerations offered by Dr Hankey to assist us.  For instance, in analysing Al-Farabi’s Attainment of Happiness, Dr Hankey writes:

For Al-Farabi, as for Plato, rule is an art, for Al-Farabi in the Platonic succession, the king who possesses <the art of ruling the excellent city> (4.15.7.) must be a philosopher. The foundation of the city depends on a human who is both philosopher and prophet, thus having the full development of both the rational and the representational parts of the soul. In this Al-Farabi is operating with a pattern for the ruler found in Philo’s Life of Moses. As for Philo, the combination of the two enables the universal actuality of the ideal city.

This pushes us far beyond the scope of anything that I can hope to do in this submission for our colloquium.  But I find Dr Hankey’s assessment here absolutely convincing, and I do believe that when this assessment is put in place beside Dante’s portrayal of Cato, we do actually find ourselves in the same ancient and medieval context.

For good measure, I would underline the way in which the four stars of Purgatory Canto i illuminate the face of Cato (Exodus 34), that Cato’s final divine feat was a horrific march through the desert, and that the Pharsalia emphasizes (in Book ix) the appalling devastation brought about by the snakes that Cato’s troops encountered in their struggle through the Libyan desert (a reminder, surely, of the plague, and then of the healing power of the “brazen serpent” of Numbers 21 & John 3).

Cato: in the light of Reciprocity and Exchange:

In the commentaries on Purgatory Canto i, there is substantial disagreement as to the final destiny of Cato’s soul; at the end of time, Purgatory will cease to exist, as its place is within the temporal order.  Those inclined to the reverence of Cato emphasize the importance of line 83 in which Vergil speaks of a “brighter” raiment or garment, that may become Cato’s in the final summation of history.  Other commentators see Cato’s role as entirely temporal, and that Cato will indeed rejoin Marcia in Limbo, when this middle kingdom will have disappeared. along with time.  One conundrum, which has, of course, been repeatedly emphasized and analyzed is the positioning of two other “virtuous pagans” Vergil’s Trojan Rhipeus and Roman Emperor Trajan in Paradise, in the Heaven of Jupiter, which is the home of the “just.”

But we do need to consider one final issue, which is the form in which the principles of Cato’s justice (that is to say the four cardinal virtues) are taken up, absorbed or superseded in the ascent of Mount Purgatory.  The simple answer is that the four cardinal virtues are the virtues that are available both to unaided human capacity and human will.  To assist our final assessment of Cato, there is another summary we do need to add to our discussion: I mean the review provided by Giovanni Reale—upon which I also cannot improve.  Therefore, I simply reproduce here what Reale says in Volume 4 of his A History of Ancient Philosophy (p. 384).  Reale writes:

Plotinus, in sum, judged that true wisdom was not simply to live the life of an upright man, but the life of the Gods.

He explicitly writes:

…but our concern is not merely to be “sinless”, but to be God. [Enneads 1.2.6]

The <civic virtues>… on which Plato himself had based his Republic, are for Plotinus simply a point of departure and not of arrival.  Justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance understood in the <political> sense, i.e., in a <civic> sense, they are capacities only of assigning limits and measure to the desires and of eliminating false opinions, hence they are only an indication of the highest Good.  They are a condition for becoming like the Gods, but assimilation to God is something higher…

Higher than <civic virtues> are the virtues understood as <purifications>.  In fact, while civic virtues are limited to moderating the passions, the virtues in sense of purifications liberate us from them and, consequently, permit the soul to unite itself to what it is akin …, i.e., to the Mind (Nous), since such a union can be achieved only by separating oneself from the sensible…”

It is Dr Robert Crouse who first emphasized this philosophical summary, and I reproduce here also as a tribute to his so persuasive and long-standing reading of Dante’s Comedy as a whole.  And this does, indeed, drive our assessment of Cato to its conclusion.

Please, bear these factors in mind:


At the very beginning of our remarks, we allowed that Cicero strongly suggested (in his epistle to Atticus that Cato’s virtue would find itself fully at home in a philosophical work concerned with ideal circumstances, but might be of less utility in an actual human city, even one, apparently, as divinely inspired as Rome.


The name of Dr Robert Crouse was at that time invoked for his repeated emphasis on the need for balance, reciprocity and exchange, in the structure and the realization of Dante’s Commedia, in all its parts.


For this reader, there is really nowhere where is more urgent than in appraising the proximity of Cato and Julius Caesar: in principle, co-inhabitants of Limbo; and yet as mortal enemies, with (antipodal representations of opposition to Julius Caesar in the last canto of the Inferno, and in the first canto of Purgatory.


One ancient model of this appreciation of these two mortal enemies—in which the German language calls their Wechselseitigkeit, rather poorly translated into English, as their full reciprocity is provided in Sallust’s The War with Cataline, written shortly after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.  Sallust recounts the debate between Caesar and Cato before the Roman Senate—of which we even know the exact date: 5th December 63 BC.  Cato, of course, is unwavering in wanting the full weight of the law to fall upon the conspirators; Julius Caesar, on the other hand, advocates for a dispassionate adjudication of the circumstances and the appropriate punishments.  What emerges is that Caesar is both asking the Roman to be flexible and to take “into consideration what conduct would be consistent with their dignity rather than what action could be justified…” [li].  This is a remarkable exchange of views, and while we may admire Cato for his uncompromising rectitude, we also need to acknowledge Caesar’s practical insights and his appeal to what accords with “our dignity”, which, on occasion would imply not actually inflicting the punishment which law permits.


This is beautifully summarised by Sallust himself; of Cato and Caesar, Sallust says:

… in ancestry, age and eloquence, they were almost equal; on a par was their greatness of soul… Caesar was considered great because of his benefactions and lavish generosity, Cato for the uprightness of his life.  The former became famous for his gentleness and compassion; to the latter sternness imparted his prestige.  Caesar gained renown by giving, by relieving difficulties, by forgiving… In one was the refuge for the unfortunate, in the other destruction for the wicked [liv].


When we emerge from the horrors of the Inferno, we are still, in some sense, within the realm of the “destruction of the wicked”; in ascending Mount Purgatory we come ever more into the of “benefactions and lavish generosity… gentleness and compassion”, forgiveness, refuge and sanctuary—which is shamefully condensed summary of the way in which the three stars bring the promise of the four stars to completion, and the way in which grace is the perfection of human nature.


Julius Caesar leaves his footprint all over all aspects of Dante’s Commedia, and we have to thank Sallust’s profound summary of the composite virtues of two mortal foes in order to understand how complete is Dante’s commitment to balance, to reciprocity, and to exchange.


In her life of Catiline, Barbara Levick brings these two sides together perfectly:

Sallust sets Cato’s speech against Caesar’s showing his admiration for the divergent qualities of the two men: conciliation and flexibility on the part of Caesar, stern and inflexible integrity on Cato’s.  [81]



If we put in this way, if we follow the principles under which Caesar operates, then we have a more complete sense of how both Rhipeus and Trajan can be discovered in Canto xx of Dante’s Paradise.  Perhaps this explains why the principles of the divine justice should not only be applied by Cato, but also, under grace, applied to Cato.


The Conclusion of the 1st Canto of Dante’s Purgatory

The final action in this 1st Canto is the completion of Cato’s instructions which have a profoundly ritual aspect: Dante’s face is to be cleaned, and Dante’s wardrobe is to be completed by replacing his lost girdle (Inferno xvi) with a smooth rush.  Here we are entering a peculiarly liturgical moment—really moving away from Cato’s strict rational principles towards the realm of gracious sacrament; here there is both baptism and renewal: cleansing and the comfort of grace.  We have entered now truly entered the realm of Plotinus’ “purifications”, and are able to ascend the mountain fully supported by the divine gift.

All commentators have remarked on the significance of the reed that Vergil plucks on Dante’s behalf:

Oh wonder! for as he [Vergil] plucked the humble plant, it was suddenly reborn, identical, where he had uprooted it. [i.134-136]

Depiction of Virgil

First, of course, there is here the obligatory honouring of Vergil’s Aeneid, as the Sibyl enables Aeneas to gain access to the Afterlife by means of the Golden Bough [vi.133-134], which renews itself as soon as it is plucked.  So the plucked reed is the talisman of authority which will accompany Dante’s climb.  But, also being addressed is the question of the resilience of the reed to its environment: at the shore, under the constant pounding of the surf, the reed is the only plant that can “have life” [l.104] in this place, due to its ability to adapt to the constant pressures at the edge of the ocean, and its ability to absorb the “blows” under which it sustains its growth.  In other words, its continued life and renewal would not be possible under stern rigidity, but only due to its extreme flexibility.

As already suggested Caesar’s footprints are in all places and everywhere in Dante’s Commedia, and Sallust has provided us with the interpretive key: the basis upon which we can build a virtuous life is grounded in discipline, self-control and utter devotion to duty.  The basis upon which we can exercise and life out a virtuous life is grounded in compassion, forgiveness and benefaction.

We are encouraged to make our ascent by this encounter with Cato as our inspiration, but as the ascent itself proceeds, it is Caesar who must be our companion.  Because as the ascent itself proceeds, it is only in the company of “benefactions and lavish generosity” that we shall ever learn the principle under which Purgatory operates:

Zeal in well-doing makes grace green again.

[Purgatory xviii.105; Esolen]

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