Who is Statius and what is his deal?
Dante begins the canto by locating us in space: he and his travel companions have gone past the angel guarding the staircase between the 5th and 6th terrace, another P has disappeared from his forehead and we are now walking among the gluttonous.
But it will be a while until we actually learn anything about this new environment and the spirits in it.
First, we get a rare note about Dante’s own embodied experience of Purgatory. It’s been already mentioned that according to the (magical) laws of physics on Mount Purgatory, traveling through the lower terraces is significantly more difficult than at the top of the mountain. If you remember, in one of the earlier cantos Dante observes that the staircase between one terrace and the next gets gradually less steep - this is a physical manifestation of the process of purgation. It’s as if to say that the farther a person is from God, the more difficult it is to advance in their journey toward heaven.
On a more personal note, Dante’s “lightness” is also related to the fact that, as it was explained when the first P vanished from his forehead, as Dante completes new stages of his pilgrimage his own soul undergoes a process of purgation. It’s not unusual that he would mention this “freedom from toil” he speaks of in line 8. After all, avarice/greed - symbolised by the she-wolf - is the sin that leads to all the other types of corruption spiritual and social, in Dante’s view. So it’s no big surprise when the conversation returns to the topic of avarice.
As the (now three) poets begin their journey through the 6th terrace, Virgil takes a special interest in Statius. Since the latter showed such great admiration for him, Virgil says that he hopes Statius won’t take offense if he asks a particularly personal question, namely: How can someone as intellectually refined as you harbour such an ugly feeling as avarice?
Statius, after acknowledging the spiritual fallibility of intellectuals, reveals that actually, his sin was not avarice but rather prodigality.
If you’ve been here since our reading of Inferno last year, you will remember that in the 4th circle of hell, avarice and prodigality were punished together. Sinners would push heavy boulders around in a circle, avaricious on one side and prodigal on the other, and they would then crash into each other in the middle, where they shouted insults at one another.
At the time I wrote that the reason behind this coupling is that, although in contrasting ways, both sets of people sinned by having a disproportionate interest in material belongings. Either by hoarding wealth or by spending too much, the avaricious and the prodigal strayed from the Aristotelian concept of moderation.
The same logic applies here, and Statius clarifies that he didn’t end up in Purgatory because of avarice, on the contrary, he spent too much money (which is a kind of greed in its own way). Luckily, he explains, he eventually saw the error of his ways thanks to a verse from Virgil’s Aeneid in which Aeneas condemns the avarice that led Polymnestor to kill the young Polydorus, the son of Priam, who had been entrusted to him alongside a huge amount of riches after the fall of Troy. Once his eyes were open to his prodigality, he explains, Statius quickly repented for the rest of his sins too.
This is unclear to Virgil because, as he says, when Statius wrote the Thebaid there was no trace of Christianity in his poetry. In the real world this is because, as I wrote last week, there is no proof that Statius actually converted. But in Dante’s world, not only did Statius become quite the devout Christian, but he came to his conversion through Virgil’s poetry.
Statius explains that he kept his conversion a secret for fear of persecution, which became rampant during the reign of the emperor Domitian. During that time Statius did his best to help the Christian prophets who got caught spreading the word but he was too scared to come out as a Christian himself. For this reason, he says, he spent an extra 400 years in terrace four where souls atone for sloth (in his case in the sense of a lack of zeal for God).
But the salient theme of Statius’s conversion, real or fictional, is that it was mediated by poetry and more specifically Virgil’s poetry. He says that Virgil’s verses about the beginning of a new race, “born of Heaven”, resonated with the teachings of those preaching Christians that were becoming so popular at the time. Of course, we know that Virgil had no way of knowing about Christ and that he was actually referring to Aeneas and the Italian people. Nonetheless, to Statius Virgil quickly became a guide towards God through his poetry.
It’s hard not to look at this part of the canto as a case of Dante speaking about himself through another character. All this business about Virgil being a guide towards God for a poet who was “lost” in his sinful ways is far too familiar to ignore.
But I think that this part is also another example of Dante’s inner struggle to come to terms with the fact that some people will not make it into the Kingdom of God, no matter how exceptional they were, if they did not accept Christ as their saviour. We’ve already seen this in the 7th circle of hell when Dante met his beloved teacher Brunetto Latini, who besides being gay led an exemplary life.
Virgil’s “sin” is even more innocuous: he was born too early to know about Christianity. And to add insult to injury, his poetry is now a gateway drug into the church for others and he still has to stay in hell. One thing about the Christian god, he does not bend the rules.
After another bit of chit-chat between Virgil and Statius where they catch up on which other ancient literary figures are in hell, the three poets arrive at a tree that tapers like an inverted pyramid, with wide branches at the top that gradually become shorter the closer they get to the trunk. Immediately, the image of a tree in the terrace of gluttony brings to mind the tree of knowledge from the Garden of Eden. But we’ll get more into that in the next canto.
The tree seems to be emitting voices that give examples of restraint, which is the virtue corresponding to gluttony. First, we hear about the Virgin Mary at the Marriage at Cana, where she asks Jesus to help the guests despite her own needs. Then the voice tells of the Roman women who only drank water and of Daniel, who persuaded the children of Israel to live only on lentils and water and received knowledge and skill as a reward from God. Lastly, the voice mentions Saint John the Baptist who lives off of honey and locusts.
With such a menu on the table, I wonder what the gluttons have to do to atone for their disproportionate love of food. Stay tuned xx