The Zealots were a band of resistance fighters in Roman Judea, active from 6–73 CE, who sought to expel the occupying Romans by any means necessary. A subgroup, called Sicarii (Violent Men or Dagger Men) in Latin, killed people opposed to this war.
According to historian Josephus, the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than surrender to the Romans or keep fighting on under siege, but modern archaeological investigation has revealed this probably didn’t happen. Regardless, because of this probable urban legend, the word “zealot” now refers to any rigid fanatic for a political, religious, or other cause.
Medieval Italy was beset by zealots, in the form of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. They’d been fighting since 1125, the result of a German power struggle between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor spilling over into another region. Even long after the Pope and Emperor had patched things up, people continued fighting and drawing rigid lines for the next few centuries.
Each side believed they were in the right and that the other side was unacceptably wrong, to the point of needing to be quashed and brought to heel. They saw no room for compromise or agreeing to disagree peacefully. When Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a Ghibelline, married his daughter to a Guelph to try to secure his power against hostile enemies, he instantly became persona non grata and started down the tragic, violent path which ultimately led to his starvation death in prison.
Ugolino della Gherardesca and his Sons in the Tower of His Starvation, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1830
Even after the Guelphs emerged victorious as the leaders of Florence (Firenze) after the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, it still wasn’t good enough. Before long, they began bickering among themselves and split into White and Black factions.
According to legend, it all began when someone yelled at his nephew for throwing a snowball. A few days later, the nephew hit his uncle. The uncle didn’t think it was a big deal, but his son Focaccia did. Focaccia went after his cousin, cut off his hands, and killed his cousin’s father. All because of a petty little fight about a snowball.
Black Guelphs teamed up with Prince Charles of Valois, brother of King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, to seize control of Florence while Dante was with a White Guelph delegation to the Pope in Rome. Much of Florence was destroyed during their dominance-asserting rampage, and many White Guelphs were tried on phony charges, found guilty by kangaroo courts, heavily fined, killed, and/or condemned to exile. Some, like Dante, were tried in absentia.
Dante had his property and money seized, which meant he had no way of paying that huge fine even if he’d wanted to. After he refused a 1315 offer of amnesty, on the grounds that it would mean admitting to crimes he was innocent of, orders were put out to behead him if he were caught.
When his four children came of legal age, they were sent into exile too, deemed guilty by association.
There’s a teaching that the Second Temple, while obviously physically destroyed by the Romans, was truly destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. This internecine bickering tore apart the Jewish community from within. Sects like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots constantly clashed, and were unable to unite as a single front against their common enemy.
Too many times throughout history, people have forgotten we’re all created in the image of God and share a common humanity, a Divine spark within each of us. They divide the world into Self and Other, and never the twain shall meet. Once zealously committed to a cause, it’s a quick leap to dehumanising and mistreating the other side.
In De Monarchia, Dante idealistically dreams of a unified world ruled by an enlightened Emperor guided by pure love, charity, justice, and selflessness. When we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine potential, since we were created in the image of God, and God is one.
Dante believed God created us to make full use of our highest intellectual potential, and that it’s easier to do this when we have universal peace. We can’t accomplish this beautiful, lofty ideal very easily if we’re beset by strife, wars, political fights, and rigid zealots who can’t accept any views but their own.
Let us strive to see beauty and truth in everything and everyone instead of behaving like zealots. Our every step should be guided by the force behind everything in creation, “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”