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Christian History Home > 2001 > Issue 70 > The Root of All Kinds of Evil

The Root of All Kinds of Evil
The Inferno is crammed with greedy Florentines receiving their due.
Elesha Coffman | posted 4/01/2001 12:00AM

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Dante proclaims in De Monarchia, "Greed is the extreme opposite of justice, as Aristotle says in the fifth book of his Nicomachean Ethics. Take away greed completely and nothing opposed to justice remains in the will."

As a Catholic and a son of the Roman Empire, Dante believed passionately in justice. But as a Florentine, he knew firsthand how much greed, graft, and gluttony stood in the way of his ideal.

Like many Italian cities, Florence boasted a well-developed economy by Dante's day. It also featured a system of government, codified in 1293 in the ironically titled "Ordinances of Justice," where money translated directly into political power.

In theory, the Florentine system was a popular regime, because neither popes nor nobles held sway. In practice, though, the city lay in the grip of seven commercial guilds: judges and notaries, bankers and cloth traders, money changers, silk merchants, doctors and apothecaries, wool merchants, and fur dealers. A handful of families dominated the guilds, which further consolidated power.

Members of Florence's ruling body, the priorate, were selected solely from the guilds. Individuals could hold office only for short periods of time, with periods of ineligibility in between, but the same men were chosen over and over.

Rich business leaders, or magnates, were known for their power but not for their morality. In common speech, "magnate" often doubled for "tyrant." To make matters worse, ruling families feuded incessantly.

Laborers, who had almost no real rights, resented the upper classes and even staged several uprisings in the fourteenth century.

The behavior of individual magnates did little to buff this image. In the 1330s, for example, members of about two-thirds of the power families were convicted of crimes against communal law, though most were able to purchase pardons.

Guild feuds and depravity touched the lives of all Florentines, but Dante observed them especially closely. His father was a banker or money changer, and his brother-in-law was a moneylender.

An inside job

In 1295 Dante joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries, an influential conglomerate that included writers (because books were sold in drugstores), painters (considered "purveyors of colors," a subset of apothecaries), and the mighty Medicis (a name that literally means "doctors").

By joining a guild, Dante became eligible to serve in the priorate, to which he ascended in the summer of 1300. Unfortunately, by this time the prominent Florentine families had split into warring factions, and part of Dante's job was to keep the peace.

He tried to calm the situation by banishing instigators from both sides, including one of his close friends, the poet Guido Cavalcanti, and one of his wife's kinsmen, Corso Donati. Cavalcanti, with Dante, sided with the White Guelf political party. Donati, with Dante's wife, sided with the Blacks.

Cavalcanti was allowed to return because he said he had been sent to an unhealthy place—a reasonable claim, since he died in August of an illness contracted during exile. This show of mercy would cost Dante dearly, however, when his Black Guelf enemies denounced it as favoritism and charged Dante with corruption.

Whatever charges were brought, the fact was that Dante represented the wrong side in the factional battle. When the Blacks took over in 1302, he simply could not stay in Florence any longer.

Because it was during his exile that he composed the Comedy, and because many of Dante's political enemies appear in the Inferno, some commentators view the poem as an exquisite form of revenge. But political affiliation is not what has earned Dante's Florentine sinners their places in hell. The condemned represent an array of guilds and families, but they do have something in common—fully half of them suffer punishment for money-related offenses.

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