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Symposium: Dante and the Greeks

Friday, October 1 – Sunday, October 3, 2010 Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, Washington, DC in Collaboration with the Dante Society of America. With additional support from the Lauro de Bosis Fund Harvard University, the Committee on Medieval Studies Harvard University, and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (Italian Cultural Institute), Washington, DC Organized by Jan Ziolkowski Dumbarton Oaks/Harvard University

Paradiso 6, Aeneas carries imperial standard through gate of Rome, Constantine carries it through gate of Constantinople, Justinian kneels before Pope Agapitus.

This three-day symposium included attention to Dante’s views on ancient Greece and its cultures as well as on medieval Greece and its cultures. Scrutiny was given to the presence of ancient Greek poetry and philosophy (such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle) as well as science (astrology, cosmography, geography) in Dante’s works. In addition, participants explored the Greek characters (drawn indirectly from the ancient Greek mythographic tradition, Homeric epic, and other such sources) that populate Dante’s works, as well as others (such as the Cretan Veglio).

Speakers considered the degree to which such influences were filtered to the Italian poet through Patristic and late-antique texts (by Origen, the Cappadocians, Dionysius the Areopagite, and others), since Dante could have been introduced to at least some of the original ancient literature by way of these intermediaries. The symposium also investigated very broadly the medieval assimilation of Greek thought into Christian culture. This assimilation included Byzantine influences on political thought, particularly on the centrality of the emperor and the empire as ideas and ideals (Justinian and the juridical and political thought of the Eastern Roman Empire). This issue relates particularly, but not exclusively, to Dante's De monarchia.

Beyond a strict concern with Dante lies the challenge of setting him in a broader context with regard to the perception and reception of Greek in the thirteenth-century West. Latin Christians manifested a schizophrenic outlook, instead of a single Greekness there were several, not all of them even interconnected. First of all were the pagan Greeks and then the Byzantine Greeks. Even the Byzantines were far from uniform, since Westerners responded very differently to the traditions of the Greek Church fathers and of their own contemporary Greeks. Thus Greek was not only a past language or culture, but also a present (and often rival) religious and political entity. To each of these layers Latins related somewhat differently. Doctrinal, political, linguistic, cultural, educational matters all played important roles in shaping attitudes, and in this regard travel and diplomacy are perhaps as relevant as translations.



Image Copyright: © The British Library Board, 11901.r.20 (London, B.M. Yates Thompson 36 [mid 15th c.], f. 139r): Paradiso 6, Aeneas carries imperial standard through gate of Rome, Constantine carries it through gate of Constantinople, Justinian kneels before Pope Agapitus