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The Variae of Cassiodorus

"For the theatres and hippodromes and circuses were all closed for the most part—the places in which, as it happened, his wife had been born and reared and educated. And later he [Justinian] ordered these spectacles to close down altogether, even in Byzantium, so that the Treasury might not have to supply the usual sums to the numerous and almost countless persons who derived their living from them. And there was both in private and in public sorrow and dejection, as though still another affliction from Heaven had smitten them, and there was no laughter in life for anyone. And no other topics whatever arose in the conversation of the people, whether they were at home or in the market-place or were tarrying in the sacred places, than disasters and calamities and misfortunes of novel kind in surpassing degree."

Procopius, The Secret History (XXVI.8-11)

The Variae epistolae (AD 538540s) of Cassiodorus are a compilation of the edicts, official letters, and documents that he composed while the private secretary of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, and later as head of the civil service (succeeding his kinsman, the philosopher Boethius). The Variae later were amended for the library at Vivarium, a monastery founded by Cassiodorus sometime after retiring from public life in AD 540, when the Ostrogothic capital at Ravenna fell to the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It is in one of these letters (III.51), sent by Theodoric to the Prefect of Rome about AD 507511, commending to him Thomas the charioteer (who was accused of being a sorcerer, given the number of his victories), that Cassiodorus further elucidates the history and customs of the chariot races at the Circus Maximus in Rome.

The twenty-four races represent the hours of the day; the seven laps, the days of the week; the twelve starting gates, the months of the year; the turning posts, the solstice points at which the sun "turns"; the three metae at each turn, the points of the zodiacal month; the two obelisks, pointing to the sky, the Sun and Moon; the spina dividing the track, the backs of the suffering defeated; its water-filled channel, the sea into which the dolphin lap counters plunge; the two-horse biga, the Moon; the four-horse quadriga, the Sun, both racing around the track as their heavenly counterparts move overhead.

Cassiodorus (and Theodoric) also are aware of the advantages of the Circus.

"Compelled by pressure from the people, I cherish the institution: such gatherings are what they pray for, while they delight in rejecting serious thoughts. For few men are controlled by reason, and few are pleased by a right purpose. The mob, rather, is led to what was plainly invented for oblivion of its cares. For it supposes that whatever serves its pleasure must also be linked to the happiness of the age. Therefore, let us grant the expenses, and not be forever giving from rational considerations. Sometimes it is useful to play the fool, and so control the joys the people long for" (III.51.12-13).

Other letters are equally informative and charming to read.

"For, among the world's incertitudes, this thing called arithmetic is established by a sure reasoning that we comprehend as we do the heavenly bodies. It is an intelligible study, an unchanging science, that both binds the heavens and preserves the earth. For is there anything that lacks measure, or transcends weight? It includes all, it rules all, and all things have their beauty because they are perceived under its standard." (I.10.3)

On preserving the buildings of Rome: "It is useless to build firmly at the outset if lawlessness has the power to ruin what has been designed: for those things are strong, those things enduring, which wisdom has begun and care preserved. And therefore, greater attention must be exercised in conserving than in planning them, since a plan at its outset deserves commendation, but from preservation we gain the glory of completion." (I.25.1)

On speech at the Circus: "But lest, perchance, men of exalted rank should be offended by the babbling of the mob, a distinction must be drawn as to such impertinence. A man who has injured a reverend senator as he passes by his insolence, cursing him when he ought to bless him, must be held responsible for a crime. But who looks for serious conduct at the public shows? A Cato never goes to the circus. Anything said there by the people as they celebrate should be deemed no injury. It is a place that protects excesses. Patient acceptance of their chatter is a proven glory of princes themselves." (I.27.4-5)

On the advantage of gifts (from Theodoric to the king of the Burgundians): "I should not reject requests made by neighbouring kings to please their vanity, since a small expenditure can often purchase more than great riches. For sweetness and pleasure many times produce what weapons fail to do. May it then serve the state, even when I seem to play. For it is for this reason that I am looking for toys, to achieve a serious purpose by their means" (I.45.1). One of these gifts, which Boethius is asked to provide, is a sun-dial. "In this way a small, unmoving circle represents the revolution of the sun's amazing vastness, and equals the sun's flight, although it knows no motion....What has become of the great wonder of hours produced by the light, if it is a mere shadow that indicates them? Where is the glory of that unwearied rotation, if even a piece of metal fixed in a constant place can accomplish it? O the inestimable quality of a science which is mighty enough to disclose the secrets of nature, while it claims to be only playing!" (I.45.8-9)

"For what is more glorious than music, which modulates the heavenly system with its sonorous sweetness, and binds together with its virtue the concord of nature which is scattered everywhere? For any variation there may be in the whole does not depart from the pattern of harmony. Through this we think with efficiency, we speak with elegance, we move with grace. Whenever, by the natural law of its discipline, it reaches our ears, it commands song. The artist changes men's hearts as they listen; and, when this artful pleasure issues from the secret place of nature as the queen of the senses, in all the glory of its tones, our remaining thoughts take to flight, and it expels all else, that it may delight itself simply in being heard." (II.40.2-3)

An admonishment to town magistrates to live in the towns they administer: "Men declare their great delight even in the countryside of this province; do they then have no desire to inhabit its cities? What is the use of men lying hidden, when they have been so refined by education? Boys seek out the assemblies of humane schooling, and, just when they might be worthy of the forum, promptly bury themselves in their country dwellings. They make progress only to unlearn; they become learned to forget; and, while they love the countryside, they do not know how to love themselves. A man of learning should ask where he can live and be famous. No wise man despises an assembly of people in which he knows that he will be praised. Moreover, virtues lack good report, if their merits are unknown among men....Let the cities return, then, to their original glory; let no-one prefer the delights of the countryside to the public buildings of the ancients. How can you shun in time of peace a place for which wars should be fought to prevent its destruction? Who does not welcome a gathering of noblemen? Who does not enjoy conversing with his peers, visiting the forum, looking on at honest crafts, advancing his own cases by the laws, or sometimes playing at draughts, going to the baths with his fellows, exchanging splendid dinner parties?" (VIII.31.6-8)

The penalties of seduction (c. AD 533534): "If a man, by punishable seduction, labours to break up another's marriage, his own union will be held illicit, so that he may instead experience himself the fortune which he, in his malignity, tried to inflict on another. But should he lack married love, I [Athalaric, grandson of Theodoric and king of the Ostrogoths] deny him the right of future matrimony, since he who has dared to behave without restraint in dividing the marriage bed, does not deserve to obtain the benefit of conjugal reverence. But, lest my vengeance should pass by any of those guilty of this crime, should those without hope of present or future marriage attempt anything by cunning devices against another's bedchamber, they are to be deprived of half their property, which is immediately to be applied to the benefit of the treasury. But, if poverty prevents the taking of vengeance against the possessions of some, they are to be punished by exile." (IX.18.4)

"Therefore, since it is clear that rewards feed the arts, I have judged it abominable that anything should be stolen from the teachers of youth; they should instead be incited to their noble studies by an increase in their fees. For the school of grammar has primacy: it is the fairest foundation of learning, the glorious mother of eloquence, which has learnt to aim at praise, to speak without a fault....Grammar is the mistress of words, the embellisher of the human race; through the practice of the noble reading of ancient authors, she helps us, we know, by her counsels. The barbarian kings do not use her; as is well known, she remains unique to lawful rulers. For the tribes possess arms and the rest; rhetoric is found in sole obedience to the lords of the Romans." (IX.21.2-4)

On September 4, 476, Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor of the Roman empire in the west, now reduced to Italy and two northern provinces, was deposed by Odoacer, who sent the young boy into willing exile. Odoacer, in turn, was ousted by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who, after four years of war, entered Ravenna under a flag of truce and personally murdered his rival. As a youth, Theodoric (AD 493526) had been a hostage in Constantinople, where he learned Roman culture and institutions, which he now sought to impart to his own kingdom of Romans and Ostrogoths. At his death, tenuous power passed to his widowed daughter, Amalasuntha, who acted as regent for her young son Athalaric. Aware of her precarious position, she sought support from Justinian, who had been newly installed as emperor of the east. With the death of Athalaric in AD 534, she became queen of the Ostrogoths and elevated her consort (and cousin) Theodahad to the throne, who later had her strangled to death (according to Procopius, at the instigation of Theodora, who feared her as a possible rival). Justinian then invaded Italy and captured Ravenna in AD 540.

It is Justinian and his wife Theodora who are portrayed in the mosaics celebrating the consecration of San Vitale about AD 547. The mosaic of a haloed Justinian and his retinue, twelve in number both soldiers and courtiers, reinforces the analogy of divine kingship and Christ, himself. On his left is Maximian, archbishop of Ravenna; on the right may be his victorious general Belisarius. Between the emperor and his archbishop is Julianus Argentarius, the banker who financed the construction of the basilica.

References: Procopius: The Secret History (1935) translated by H. B. Dewing (Loeb Classical Library); The Letters of Cassiodorus (1886) translation by Thomas Hodgkin; Cassiodorus: Variae (1992) translated by S. J. B. Barnish (only 110 of the original 468 letters are included); The Variae: The Complete Translation (2019) translated by M. Shane Bjornlie.

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