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 ...

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