De Monarchia By Dante Alighieri Book II: Chapter III: The Romans As the Noblest People Deserved Precedence Before All Others.

GIOTTO di Bondone 
No. 17 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 1. Nativity: Birth of Christ (detail) 

And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Lk


The Romans as the noblest people deserved precedence before all others.

1. I say with regard to this question, that the Roman people by Right and not by usurpation took to itself over all mortals the office of Monarchy, which men call the Empire. This may first be proved thus: It was meet that the noblest people should have precedence over all others; the Roman people was the noblest;1 therefore it was meet that it should have precedence over all others. The major premise2 is demonstrable, for, since honor is the reward of virtue, and all precedence is honor, all precedence is a reward of virtue.3 It is agreed that men are ennobled as virtues of their own or their ancestors make them worthy. Nobility is “virtue and ancient wealth,” according to the Philosopher in the Politics;4 but according to Juvenal, “Virtue is the one and only nobility of soul.”5 These two definitions grant two kinds of nobility, one’s own and that of one’s ancestors.6

2. By reason of the cause inherent in nobility the reward of precedence is befitting the noble. And as rewards should be commensurate with merits, in consonance with that saying of the Gospel, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,”7 the foremost rank should be to the noblest. As for the minor premise, the testimony of the ancients is convincing, since Virgil, our divine Poet,8 throughout his Aeneid testifies in everlasting remembrance that the father of the Roman people was Aeneas, the famous king; and Titus Livius, illustrious writer of Roman deeds, confirms this testimony in the first part of his volume which begins with the capture of Troy.9 So great was the nobleness of this man, our ancestor most invincible and most pious, nobleness not only of his own considerable virtue, but that of his progenitors and consorts, which was transferred to him by hereditary right, that I cannot unfold it in detail, “I can but trace the main outlines of truth.”10

3. As to his personal nobility, hearken to our poet in the first book of the Aeneid, introducing Ilioneus with the plea, “Aeneas was our king, than whom none other was more just and pious, none other greater in war and arms.”11 Hearken to him again in the sixth, when, speaking of the dead Misenus, Hector’s attendant in war, who entered the service of Aeneas after Hector’s death, he says, Misenus “had followed no lesser fortunes.”12 This compares Aeneas with Hector, whom Homer13 honors above all men, as the Philosopher affirms in that part of the writings to Nicomachus on “types of conduct to be avoided.”14

4. As to his hereditary nobility, it accrues to him from the three continents of the earth through his ancestors and his consorts.

5. Asia ennobled him through his most immediate ancestors, Assaracus and those who had ruled over Phrygia, a region of Asia, as our poet records in these lines of the third book: “After it had seemed good to the gods to overturn the might of Asia and the race of Priam unmeriting their fate.”15 Europe ennobled him through Dardanus,16 most ancient of his ancestors, and Africa through Electra, his most ancient ancestress, daughter of King Atlas of great renown. Concerning both of these facts our poet renders testimony in the eighth book, where Aeneas speaks thus to Evander: “Dardanus, the first founder of the city and father of Ilium, descended as the Greeks deem from Atlantian Electra,17 came among the Teucrians. Electra was sprung from Atlas the mighty, who sustains the heavenly orbs upon his shoulders.”18

6. The bard sings in the third book of Dardanus taking his origin from Europe, saying, “There is a place the Greeks have named Hesperia, an ancient country powerful in arms and fertile in soil, where dwell the Oenotrians. Rumor has it that later generations called the country Italy from the name of their leader. Here is our fatherland; from hence came Dardanus.”19 That Atlas came from Africa, the mountain is witness which there bears his name. This mountain Orosius20 locates in Africa in his description of the world, where he says, “Now its uttermost bound is Mt. Atlas and the Islands which they call the Fortunate.” “Its” refers to Africa, of which he was speaking.

7. I find also that nobility accrued to Aeneas through marriage. His first wife Creusa, daughter of Priam, was from Asia, as may be gathered from the facts quoted above. And that she was his wife our poet implies in the third book, when Andromache thus questions Aeneas concerning his son Ascanius: “What of the boy Ascanius, he whom Creusa bore to thee while Troy was yet smoking? Lives he still? Breathes he the vital air?”21 His second wife was Dido, queen and mother of the Carthaginians in Africa, of whom as Aeneas’ wife the poet sings in the fourth book: “Nor longer Dido dreams of secret love; she calls it marriage, hiding her sin beneath a name.”22 His third wife was Lavinia, mother alike of Albanians and Romans, daughter and also heir of King Latinus, if the testimony of our Poet be true in the last book, where he introduces Turnus conquered, supplicating Aeneas with this prayer: “Thou hast triumphed; and the Ausonians have beheld me vanquished lifting up my hands. Lavinia shall be thy wife.”23 This last consort was of Italy, most excellent region of Europe.

8. With these facts pointed out in evidence of our minor premise, who is not sufficiently convinced that the father of the Roman race, and therefore the race itself, was the noblest under heaven? Or from whom will still be hidden divine predestination in the twofold meeting in one man of blood from every part of the world?

[1. ]Conv. 4. 4. 4: “And because a nature more gentle in governing, more powerful in maintaining, and more subtle in acquiring, than that of the Latin people there never was and never will be, . . . therefore God elected them for this office.” The nobility of Rome has special consideration Conv. 4. 5; Par. 6. 19, 20.

[2. ] “Adsumpta,” the major premise. In paragraphs 2 and 8 the word “subadsumpta” is used for minor premise.

[3. ]Eth. 4. 3. 15.

[4. ]Pol. 4. 8. 9. So we find in Conv. 4, Canz. 3. 2: “This very false opinion among men, that one is wont to call him noble who can say, ‘I was the son or grandson of a truly noble man,’ though he himself were worthless.” In Conv. 4. 7 hereditary nobility is proved to be a thing impossible.

[5. ] Juvenal, Sat. 8. 20. Cf. Conv. 4. 29. 4, where the satire is discussed at some length. Dante speaks again of Juvenal in Purg. 22. 13. His relation to Dante is considered by Moore, Vol. 1, in Studies, pp. 255-258.

[6. ] All of Book 4 in the Convito is given up to an exposition of the nature of nobility, according to the definition of Juvenal rather than that of Aristotle.

Canz. 3. 6: “Nobility exists where Virtue dwells, not Virtue where she is.” Conv. 4. 18. 1: “All the virtues . . . proceed from nobility as an effect from its cause.”

Par. 16. 1: “O small nobility of blood that is ours.”

[7. ]Matt. 7. 2.

[8. ] “Divinus poeta nostra,” or “poeta nostra,” as Virgil is called throughout the De Mon., is but one of the numberless evidences of the affection and reverence Dante felt for the Latin poet. Most beautiful is the well-known tribute in Inf. 1. 79:

“O degli altri poeti onore e lume,
Vagliami il lungo studio e il grande amore,
Che m’ ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
Tu sei lo mio maestro e il mio autore:
Tu sei solo colui, da cui io tolsi
Lo bello stile, che m’ ha fatto onore.”

For Virgil’s place and influence in the Middle Ages see Comparetti, Virgil in the Middle Ages; Sellar, Virgil; and Moore, Studies, Vol. 1. pp. 166-197.

[9. ] Livy 1. 1. As will be seen later in the De Mon., Dante uses Livy freely as an historical authority. Moore writes of Dante’s relation to the Roman historian in Studies, Vol. 1. pp. 273-278.

[10. ]Aen. 1. 342: “Sed summa sequar vestigia rerum.” All modern editions have “fastigia” for “vestigia.”

[11. ]Aen. 1. 544.

[12. ]Aen. 6. 170. For the death of Misenus see Conv. 4. 26. 6.

[13. ] Homer, Il. 24. 259, quoted Eth. 7. 1. 1. Three different times Dante uses these Homeric lines: in the Vita Nuova, § 2; in Conv. 4. 20. 2: “There are men most noble and divine . . . Aristotle proves in the seventh of the Ethics by the text of Homer the poet;” and in the passage of the De Mon. here being considered.

In regard to Dante’s knowledge of Homer see Moore, Studies, Vol. 1. pp. 164-166; Toynbee, Studies, pp. 204-215.

[14. ] In Inf. 11. 79-83 Virgil asks, “Hast thou no memory of those words with which the Ethics handle the three dispositions which Heaven brooks not,—incontinence, malice, and mad beastliness?”

[15. ]Aen. 3. 1.

[16. ] Dardanus was son of Jupiter and Electra of Arcadia, founder of the city Dardania in Troas, and ancestor of the royal line of Troy. Cf. Conv. 4. 14. 9.

[17. ] “Electra, ut Graii perhibent, Atlantide cretus.” Dante inserted an “et” before “Atlantide,” thereby blurring the sense. Moore was the first editor to correct the error. See Toynbee, Studies, p. 280.

Inf. 4. 121: “I saw Electra with many companions, among whom I was aware of Hector and Aeneas; . . . and I saw King Latinus, who was sitting with Lavinia his daughter.”

[18. ]Aen. 8. 134-137.

[19. ]Aen. 3. 163-167.

[20. ] The fourth-century historian, Paulus Orosius, wrote the Historiae Adversum Paganos, one of the chief historical and geographical authorities of the mediaeval centuries, and the source of many of Dante’s statements regarding these two subjects. See Toynbee, Studies, pp. 121-136, and Moore, Studies, Vol. 1. pp. 279-282. The reference here is to Hist. 1. 2. 11.

[21. ]Aen. 3. 339-340. From the latter line, “quem tibi iam Troja peperit fumante Creusa,” modern editors omit the last three words as spurious.

[22. ]Aen. 4. 171-172.

[23. ]Aen. 12. 936-937. In Par. 6. 3 Aeneas is called “the ancient who carried off Lavinia.”