De Monarchia By Dante Alighieri Book II Chapter V: The Roman People In Subduing The World Had In View The Good Of The State And Therefore The End of Right.

The Mystical Nativity 
c. 1500
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 Roman people in subduing the world had in view the good of the state and therefore the end of Right.

1. Whoever contemplates the good of the state contemplates the end of Right, as may be explained thus. Right1 is a real and personal relation of man to man, which maintained preserves society, and infringed upon destroys it.2 That account in the Digests3 does not teach what the essence of Right is; it simply describes Right in terms of practice. If our definition truly comprehends what Right is and wherefore, and if the end of all society is the common good of the individuals associated, then the end of all Right must be the common good, and no Right is possible which does not contemplate the common good. Tully justly notes in the first book of the Rhetoric that “The laws should always be interpreted for the good of the state.”4 For if the laws are not directed for the benefit of those under the laws, they are laws merely in name, they cannot be laws in reality. Law ought to bind men together for general advantage. Wherefore Seneca5 says truly in his book on the Four Virtues, “Law is the bond of human society.” So it is clear that whoever contemplates the good of the state contemplates the end of Right. If, therefore, the Romans had in view the good of the state, the assertion is true that they had in view the end of Right.

2. That in subduing the world the Roman people had in view the aforesaid good, their deeds declare. We behold them as a nation holy, pious, and full of glory, putting aside all avarice,6 which is ever adverse to the general welfare, cherishing universal peace and liberty, and disregarding private profit to guard the public weal of humanity. Rightly was it written, then, that “The Roman Empire takes its rise in the fountain of pity.”7

3. But inasmuch as external signs alone manifest to others the intention of all agents of free choice, and inasmuch as statements must be investigated according to the subject-matter, as we have said before, we shall have evidence enough on the present point if we bring forth indubitable proofs of the intention of the Roman people both in corporate assemblies and in individual persons.

4. Concerning corporate assemblies, in which individuals seem in a measure bound to the state, the solitary authority of Cicero in the second book of Moral Duties is sufficient. “So long,” he says, “as the dominion of the Republic was upheld by benefits, not by injuries, war was waged in behalf either of allies or dominion, for a conclusion either beneficent or necessary. The Senate was a harbor of refuge for kings, peoples, and nations. Our magistrates and generals strove for praise in defending with equity and fidelity the provinces and the allies; so this government might rather have been called a defense than a dominion of the whole world.”8 So wrote Cicero.

5. Of individual persons I shall speak briefly. Can we say they were not intent on the common weal who in sweat, in poverty, in exile, in deprivation of children, in loss of limbs, and even in the sacrifice of their lives, strove to augment the public good?

6. Did not the renowned Cincinnatus leave to us a sacred example, when he freely chose the time to lay aside that dignity which, as Livy says, took him from the plough to make him dictator?9 After his victory, after his triumph, he gave back to the consuls the imperial sceptre, and voluntarily returned to toil at the plough handle behind his oxen. Cicero, disputing with Epicurus in his volume of the Chief Good, remembered and lauded this excellent action, saying, “And thus our ancestors took great Cincinnatus from the plough that he might become dictator.”10

7. Did not Fabricius11 give us a lofty example of withstanding avarice, when, in the fidelity which held him to the Republic, though living in poverty he scorned with fitting words the great mass of proffered gold, repudiated, and refused it? Our poet has made the memory of this deed sure by singing in the sixth book of “Fabricius powerful in penury.”12

8. Was not the example of Camillus memorable, valuing as he did laws above individual profit? According to Livy, while condemned to exile he liberated his harassed fatherland, restored to Rome what the Romans had been despoiled of in war,13 and left the sacred city, though called back by the whole people; nor did he return thither until, by the authority of the senate, was sent to him his permit of repatriation.14 And the poet commends this large-souled man in the sixth book, where he calls him “Camillus, the restorer of our ensigns.”15

9. And did not Brutus first teach that the love of sons and of all others should be subordinated to the love of national liberty? When he was consul, Livy says, he delivered up to death his own sons for conspiring with the enemy.16 In the sixth book our Poet revives the glory of this hero: “In behalf of beauteous liberty shall the father doom to death his own sons instigating new wars.”17

10. Has not Mucius persuaded us that all things should be ventured for one’s country? He surprised the incautious Porsenna, but at the last his own hand, which had failed of its task, he watched as it burned, with a countenance one might wear who gazed upon an enemy in torture. To this Livy also bears testimony, marveling.18

11. Now we name those most sacred martyrs of the Decii, who dedicated their lives an offering for the public good, as Livy recounts, extolling them to the extent not of their worth but of his power.19 And next that ineffable sacrifice of Marcus Cato, the most austere defender of true liberty.20 Because of their country’s safety the darkness of death had no terror for the former two. The latter proved what liberty meant to him, when, in order that the love of freedom might blaze up in the world, he chose rather to depart from this life a free man than without freedom to abide therein. The lustre of all these names shines renewed in the words of Cicero in his writings of the chief Good. Here Tully says of the Decii: “When Publius Decius, chief of his house, a consul, devoted himself to liberty and charged at full speed into the Roman ranks, thought he at all of his own pleasure, when he should take it, and where? Or when, knowing he must die forthwith, he sought his death more ardently than Epicurus believed men should seek pleasure? Had his action not been justly lauded, his son would not in his fourth consulship have followed his example; nor afterwards his son’s son waging war against Pyrrhus21 have fallen in that battle, a consul, offering himself to the Republic the third sacrifice in uninterrupted succession.”22 And in the Moral Duties he said of Cato: “The cause of Marcus Cato was one with those who in Africa surrendered themselves to Caesar; and perchance with them it had been judged a crime had they taken their own lives, seeing that life was a lighter thing to them, and rules of conduct easier. But Cato, who had been endowed by nature with incredible seriousness, who strengthened this with unremitting constancy, and who persevered to the end in any resolution made or purpose undertaken, such a one must rather meet death than look upon the face of a tyrant.”23

[1. ] “Jus” is not adequately translated by “right,” for Dante makes the word include what we mean by justice, law, and at times duty.

[2. ]Eth. 5. 6 concerns itself with political justice or right, the justice which should be practiced by men in society toward one another.

[3. ] The Digests of the Roman law were originally drawn up by Justinian. The “descriptio” or account spoken of here is mentioned in Conv. 4. 9. 3: “It was written at the beginning of the old Digests, ‘The written law is the art of goodness and equity.’ ” The reference may be found in the Dig. de Justitia et Jure 1. 1: “Jus est a justitia appellatum: nam ut eleganter Celsus definit, jus est ars boni et aequi.”

[4. ]De Invent. 1. 38. 68.

[5. ] Seneca is not the author of De Quatuor Virtutibus, but Martin, abbot of Dumiens and Bishop of Braga, who wrote in the latter part of the sixth century two works, De Remediis Fortuitorum and Formula Honestae Vitae sive Quatuor Virtutibus Cardinalibus. In the latter book, c. 4, is the reference: “Justitia non nostra constitutio sed divina lex est, et vinculum societatis humanae.” Cf. Conv. 3. 8. 5, where “the book of the Four Cardinal Virtues” is again used as authority.

[6. ] See note 12 of De Mon. 1. 11.

[7. ] The same sentiment is found in Letter 5. 3: “He is Caesar, and his majesty flows from the font of pity.” The source of this quotation has recently been ascertained by Toynbee to be the Legend of St. Sylvester in the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voragine (Archbishop of Genoa, 1292-1298). See Toynbee, Studies, p. 297. Dr. Albert S. Cook suggests comparison with the Dies Irae of Thomas of Celano, l. 24: “Salva me, fons pietatis.”

[8. ]De Off. 2. 8. 26, 27. From this work of Cicero’s Dante quotes again in the last paragraph of this chapter and in De Mon. 2. 8. 7; 2. 10. 2. It is to the same book Dante owes the idea of sins of violence and sins of fraud as distinguished Inf. 11. 22-60. For an account of Dante’s obligation to Cicero, see Moore, Studies, Vol. 1. pp. 258-273.

[9. ] Liv. 3. 26, 29; Oros. 2. 12. 8. In Conv. 4. 5. 4 the examples of Roman nobility are almost exactly the same as here, though cited in a different order. Moore calls attention to the similarity of this account, and that of Conv. 4. 5. 4, with Augustine’s De Civ. Dei 5. 18. See also Par. 6. 46 for the names of illustrious Romans cited by Justinian as names worthy of being remembered.

[10. ]De Fin. 2. 4. 12. This Ciceronian work Dante always calls De Fine Bonorum. The philosophy of Epicurus is considered by Dante, Conv. 4. 6. 6.

Inf. 10. 14: “In this part have their burial place with Epicurus all his followers, who make the soul dead with the body.”

[11. ] For Fabricius see De Mon. 2. 12, and Purg. 20. 25: “O good Fabricius, thou wouldst rather virtue with poverty than to possess great riches with crime.”

[12. ]Aen. 6. 844.

[13. ] That is, what the Gauls had taken from them.

[14. ] Liv. 5. 32 and 43.

[15. ]Aen. 6. 825.

[16. ] Liv. 2. 5; Oros. 2. 5; Valerius Maximus, Memorab. 5. 8. 1; Aurel. Victor, De Viris Illust. c. 10. Brutus is referred to as the man who in Conv. 4. 5. 4 “condemned his own son to death for love of the public welfare.”

[17. ]Aen. 6. 820.

[18. ] Liv. 2. 12; Val. Max. 5. 12. Mucius has mention, Conv. 4. 5. 4, and Par. 4. 84: “Mucius stern to his own hand; . . . so stout a will is too rare.”

[19. ] Liv. 8. 9; 10. 28, 29; Val. Max. 1. 3; 5. 6; Aurel. Victor 26, 27. These men have a place, Conv. 4. 5. 4, and Par. 6. 47: “Decii and Fabii had the fame which I with good-will embalm.”

[20. ] Cato of Utica, great-grandson of Cato the Censor. Dante’s reverence for this man found expression in many ways. He is made guardian of the gate of Purgatory, and type of the soul liberated from sin by annihilation of the body. See Purg. 1 and 2. In Purg. 1. 73 Virgil recommends Dante to Cato thus: “He goes seeking freedom, which is so dear, as he knows who for it renounces life.”

Conv. 4. 5. 4: “O most sacred heart of Cato, who will presume to speak of thee? Certainly nothing greater than silence can be said of thee.” See also Conv. 3. 5. 8; 4. 6. 5; 4. 27. 2; 4. 28. 2.

[21. ] Pyrrhus is mentioned Par. 6. 44, etc. Cf. De Mon. 2. 10. 5.

[22. ]De Fin. 2. 19. 61.

[23. ]De Off. 1. 31. 112.