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Dante’s Cato: Libertà and the Dialectic of Empires in the Purgatorio


This paper reads Dante’s call for imperial renovatio in the earliest moments of the Purgatorio. Dante’s project allegorizes the search for an ideal temporal empire through the transfiguration of the wayward soul, and uses Cato, the historical figure guarding Purgatory’s terraces, to articulate the sense of urgency with which the empire must be purified of injustice. This paper contends that Cato, a symbol of the political and moral freedom crucial to Dante’s theory of an ideal imperium, is a function of the Commedia’s broader negotiation with contradictory Virgilian and Augustinian historiographical paradigms. Deeply invested in European reform, Dante condemns a past of imperial failure while anticipating spiritual-political redemption. Medieval forms of governance within the Monarchia inform my reading of libertà in Dante’s middle canticle.

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