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Book IV
Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

2nd edition
Oxford University Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book IV
Note H

Book 4 (continued)

Vol. III
Chapter XII

Boethius and Symmachus


Sources: —

The Anonymus Valesii and the Philosophiae Consolatio of Boethius, described in the text. A handy and scholar­ly edition of the latter by R. Peiper has appeared in Teubner's Series of Greek and Roman Authors (Leipzig, 1871).

Also the Anecdoton Holderi, consisting of a few paragraphs appended to a tenth-century MS. of the Institutiones Humanarum Rerum of Cassiodorus, and apparently copied from a short paper written by Cassiodorus himself. The MS. is now in the Grand-ducal Library at Carlsruhe, and has been ably commented upon by Hermann Usener (Leipzig, 1877).

Guides: —

'Boethius: an Essay' by Hugh Fraser Stewart (1891), an expansion of the Essay which won the Hulsean Prize in 1888, is a very thorough and satisfactory piece of work, especially rich in its account of the Boethius-literature of the Middle Ages. The author puts a rather lower value than I have done on the Anecdoton Holderi.

Boethius and Symmachus not religious martyrs. The greatest mistake, if not the greatest crime, which sullied the fame of Theodoric, was the order given by him for the execution of Boethius and Symmachus. Coming as these executions did so near in time to the imprisonment and death in prison of Pope John, they easily acquired an ecclesiastical colour which did not of right belong to them: and thus these two noble, if somewhat mistaken men, who really perished as martyrs to the great name of Rome and the memory of the world-conquering Republic, have been surrounded  p467 by a halo of fictitious sanctity as martyrs to the cause of Christian orthodoxy.

To clear the ground, it will be well first of all to suffer our previous guide, the Anonymus Valesii, to tell us the tragic story, as it was recounted in ecclesiastical circles at Ravenna about a generation after the event.

After describing Theodoric's residence at Verona, the resort thither of the Jews of Ravenna with their complaint about their ruined synagogue and the stern order for restitution made by the King,​1 the Anonymus thus continues: —

Version of the Anonymus Valesii. 'From this event the devil found occasion to subvert the man [Theodoric] who had been [up to this time] governing the republic well and without cause for complaint. For he presently ordered that the oratory and altar of St. Stephen, at the fountains in the suburb of Verona, should be overthrown. Then he commanded that no Roman should bear any arms, not even allowing them to carry a knife.

Omens. 'Also a poor woman, of the Gothic nation, lying under a porch not far from the palace of Ravenna, gave birth to four dragons: two were seen by the people to be carried along in the clouds from the west to the east, and then to be cast into the sea: two were captured,​2 having one head between them. There appeared a star with a torch, which is called a comet, shining for fifteen days, and there were frequent earthquakes.

'After these things the king began, upon the least occasion that he could find, to flame out in wrath against the Romans. Cyprian's accusation of Albinus. Cyprian, who was then Reporter  p468 to the High Court of Justice,​3 afterwards Count of the Sacred Largesses and Master [of the Offices], urged by cupidity, laid an information against Albinus the Patrician, that he had sent letters to the Emperor Justin hostile to the rule of Theodoric. This accusation he, upon being summoned, denied, and Reply of Boethius. thereupon Boetiusº the Patrician, who was Master of the Offices, said in the King's presence: "False is the information of Cyprian, but if Albinus did it, both I and the whole Senate did it with one accord. It is false, my lord oh King!" Then Cyprian, with hesitation, brought forward false witnesses not only against Albinus, but also against his champion Boetius. But the King laid snares for the Romans, and sought how he might slay them: he put more confidence in the false witnesses than in the Senators. Then were Albinus and Boetius taken in custody at the baptistery of the church [at Ticinum?]. But the King called for Eusebius, Prefect of the city of Ticinum, and passed sentence against Boethius unheard: and soon after sent and ordered him to be killed on the Calventian property.​4 Boethius put to death by torture. A cord was twisted for a very long time round his forehead, so that his eyes started from his head: and then at last in the midst of his torments he was slain with a club.'5

The King's return in high wrath to Ravenna, and his ill‑conceived scheme of sending the Pope to Constantinople  p469 to plead for toleration to the Arians, are next described.6

The Anonymus then continues:

Death of Symmachus, 525; 'But while these things are going on, Symmachus the Head of the Senate, whose daughter Boetius had to wife, is led from Rome to Ravenna. But the King, fearing lest through grief for the loss of his son-in‑law he should attempt anything against his kingdom, caused him to be accused and ordered him to be slain. Then Pope John returning from Justin was badly received by Theodoric and ordered to consider himself in disgrace. and of Pope John, 526. After a few days he died, and as the people were going in procession before his corpse, suddenly one of the crowd fell down, stricken by a demon, and when they had come with the bier to the place where he was, suddenly he stood up whole, and walked before them in the procession. Which when the people and senators saw, they began to cut off relics from the garment [of the Pope]. Thus, amid the extreme joy of the people, was his corpse led out beyond the gates of the city.

The Catholic churches to be given to the Arians. 'Then [another] Symmachus, a Jew, and an official in the royal scholae,​7 at the bidding, not of the king, but of the tyrant, issued orders on the fourth day of the week, the seventh before the kalends of September [26 August], on the fourth indiction, in the consul­ship of Olybrius, that on the following Lord's Day the Arians should take possession of the Catholic basilicas. But He who suffers not His faithful worshippers to be oppressed by the aliens, soon inflicted on him the same sentence as on Arius the author of his religion. The King's illness, and death. The  p470 King was attacked with diarrhoea, and after three days of incessant purgings, on the same day on which he promised himself to invade the churches, he himself lost both kingdom and life. Before he drew his last breath he appointed his grandson Athalaric to the kingdom. His tomb. During his lifetime he made for himself a monument of squared stone, a work of wonderful bigness, and sought for a gigantic stone, which he placed as the crowning of the edifice.'

(Here the Anonymus Valesii abruptly ends.)

The information here given us may be illustrated, if not greatly increased, by the hints as to the life and character of Boethius, which we obtain from his own writings and those of his contemporaries.8

Birth and family of Boethius. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius9 was born at Rome probably in, or very soon after, the year 480.​10 His family was one of the most illustrious in Rome. He belonged to the gens Anicia, which, originally sprung from Praeneste, first emerges to notice in Roman history in the third century B.C., played a respectable, though not important, part in the times of  p471 the Republic, The Anician Gens. and, simply by living on through the wars, proscriptions, and makers of the Empire, became a large and mighty kinship in the fourth century after Christ, when so many of the great names of the Republic had gone out for ever. To this clan belonged Probus, Olybrius, Symmachus, whose names have come under our notice in connection with the history of the later empire. Possibly also both Faustus and Festus, the two rival ministers of Theodoric, styled themselves Anicii.11

Thus his name Anicius indicated a real and genuine connection with one of the noblest families of the Lower Empire. Manlius was meant to carry back his lineage to the Manlii Torquati of the Republic; but here the connection was probably of that vague and shadowy kind which is met with in manufactured genealogies. Severinus was no doubt given to him in honour of one of the holiest names of the fifth century, the saintly hermit of Noricum.

His grandfather (?). A Boethius, probably the grandfather of Severinus Boethius, was, as we have already seen, murdered side by side with his friend Aetius, on that disastrous day when 'the last of Romans' fell, by the orders of the last Theodosian princeling Valentinian III. His father. In the next generation Aurelius Manlius Boethius, after being twice Praefectus Urbi and once Praetorian Prefect, attained the dignity of Consul in 487, during the domination of Odovacar.​12 As this nobleman died in  p472 early middle life, his son, the one who was to immortalise the name, was left an orphan while still a boy. His guardian. Powerful relations, however, undertook his guardian­ship, the most noteworthy of them being Symmachus, who, when Boethius reached manhood, gave him Rusticiana his daughter to wife.

The names of Symmachus and Boethius are so inextricably intertwined by the fate which made their deaths part of the same dark tragedy, that it will be well to interrupt here the story of Boethius in order to give the main facts of the life of his father-in‑law.

Symmachus, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, was sprung, like his younger contemporary, from the great Anician house. The most conspicuous of his ancestors was Symmachus the orator, consul under the great Theodosius in 391, leader of the senatorial party at that day, and one of the last great names of Rome's slowly dying Paganism. and his ancestors. The story might well have been told in the earlier volumes of this history, of his eloquent remonstrance with the young and uncompromising Gratian, against the removal of the altar of Victory from the Senate-house, and of his earnest entreaties to Theodosius and his colleagues to undo the impious work and restore the altar to its place.

A hundred years had wrought great changes in the attitude of the Roman nobles towards the unseen world. The Symmachus with whom we have now to deal — a man in many respects resembling his great ancestor, like him head of the Senate and enthusiastic for its glory — has become an earnest member of the Christian Church, and shows his fidelity to Rome by  p473 upholding the standard of Catholic orthodoxy against the Arian Theodoric.

His generally friendly attitude towards Theodoric. Not, however, that we have any reason to suppose that, during the greater part of his life, Symmachus occupied an unfriendly position to the Ostrogothic government. He supported his namesake, Pope Symmachus,​13 in his controversy with Laurentius, and, during the greater part of that struggle, was no doubt fighting on the same side as the King. His offices, He had held the dignity of Consul in 485 under Odovacar. He became Praefectus Urbi14 under Theodoric, thus attaining the rank of an Illustris; and he also received the proud title of Patricius. By right of seniority he had risen by the year 524 to the venerable position of Head of the Senate,​15 corresponding pretty closely with the high, but unofficial pre‑eminence enjoyed in England by 'the Father of the House of Commons.' and character. A man of correct and stately eloquence, of irreproachable character; the Cato of his age, but with the old Stoic virtues softened and refined by his Christian faith; a diligent student, and the author of a Roman history in seven books, a man also full of fine local patriotism for the great city which was his home, and willing to spend some of his vast wealth freely in the repair of her public buildings — such is  p474 the Symmachus of the age of Theodoric as he is represented to us by his admiring contemporaries.16

The friendship of the elder and younger nobleman, crowned at length by the union which made Boethius the son-in‑law of Symmachus, is a pleasing picture in an age in which we meet with little else than the rottenness of civilisation and the roughness of barbarism.

Career of Boethius. To the career of the younger Senator we now return. Boethius was an ardent student of Greek  p475 philosophy, but we have no evidence that he ever visited Greece. The notion that he actually studied at Athens seems to have been chiefly derived from the misunderstanding of a figurative expression of Cassiodorus as to his familiarity with Greek science.​17 He early attained high rank in the State. Consul at about the age of thirty, and apparently even before that time dignified with the honour of the Patriciate, he was evidently, in those years of adolescence and early middle age, in high favour with the Ostrogothic King. His heart, however, was not in the stately presence-chamber of king or prefect, not with the shouting and excited crowd who lined the dusty hippodrome, but in the delightful retirement of the library. Here, in this temple of philosophy, adorned as its walls were with ivory and glass, did he hold converse deep into the night with the heavenly visitant, who was to come to him again in far other environment and cheer the squalid solitude of his dungeon.18

His literary work. The chief literary object of Boethius was to familiarise  p476 his countrymen with what he deemed best in Greek speculation; carrying on the work which had been commenced by Cicero, and applying it to some writers whom it was harder to treat in a popular manner than those whom Cicero had expanded. He translated, Cassiodorus tells us,​19 Pythagoras for the theory of music, Ptolemy for astronomy, Nicomachus for arithmetic, Euclid for geometry. But the chief work of these prosperous days, and that by which he most profoundly influenced the thoughts of after-times, was his commentaries on the logical treatises of Aristotle. The Categories, the Syllogism, the Analytics, and the Topics, with some minor treatises, thirty books in all, were translated by this indefatigable scholar, heir to one of the greatest names and one of the finest fortunes in Rome, but intent on placing philosophical truth within the reach of his fellow-countrymen. His influence on the schoolmen of the Middle Ages. It seems to have been in great measure through the translations and commentaries of Boethius that the mediaeval Schoolmen made their acquaintance with the philosopher of Stagira. From him, at least in part, they derived the materials for the long war of words between the Nominalists and Realists; though Boethius himself, 'rushing into the battle at once with the valour of his race and his own personal intrepidity, gravely and peremptorily decides a question in which the doctors of Europe for centuries were to engage,​20 by avowing himself a Realist. Boethius's own belief in the absolute existence of the Aristotelian  p477 conception, Genus, Species, Difference, Property, and Accident, is firm and immutable, and the ardour of his conviction impressed itself on many generations of his readers.

Doubtful benefit of his writings. On the whole the encyclopaedic labours of Boethius, though in the very highest degree honourable to the worker, have perhaps been of somewhat doubtful benefit to the world. It has been admirably said, by one well fitted to understand his intellectual position,​21 'Qualities, quantities, magnitudes, multitudes — who does not see that these names were building a prison for Boethius, of which the walls were far higher and more impenetrable than those of the one to which Theodoric consigned him? There was positively no escape, above, below, through ceiling or pavement, for one confined within this word-fortress: scarcely an aperture, one would have thought, for air or light to enter in.' And great as the authority of Boethius was for many centuries on the science of music as known to the ancient world, it seems to be thought, by those best qualified to judge, that his own knowledge of the subject was somewhat inaccurate, and that by going back to the Pythagorean scale he really retarded the scientific development of the art.22

Boethius as a mechanician. But Boethius was more than a mere student, however laborious; more than a populariser of the work of other men, however successful. He was also a highly skilled mechanician — a character which since the days  p478 of Archimedes had not been greatly affected even by the philosophers of Greece, and which a mere Roman noble might have been in danger of despising as beneath his dignity. Whenever Theodoric and his ministers were in want of advice on of a mechanical, or (to use the modern term) on a chemical question, Boethius was the person to whom they naturally had recourse. If Gundobad the Burgundian was to be flattered and awed by an exhibition of Italian skill, Boethius must construct the wonderful water-clock which was to mark out the length of each successive solar day, the orrery (as we should call it) which was to imitate the movement of the solar system.​23 If a skilful player on the cithara was to be sent to the court of Clovis the Frank, Boethius must select the performer.​24 If the life-guards​25 complained that the paymaster was putting them off with coins of inferior weight and fineness, Boethius was called upon, as Archimedes in a similar case by Hiero of Syracuse, to detect the fraud.​26 That these friendly and familiar relations between the subject and his King should terminate in the dungeon, the cord, and the bludgeon, is one of the saddest pages in the history of courts.

In addition to his other occupations, Boethius entered the thorny labyrinth of theological controversy. A debate, which was carried on for many generations, as to the identity of Boethius the philosopher with Boethius the theologian, is now finally settled by the language of the fragment so often referred to,​27 which asserts that 'he wrote a book concerning the holy Trinity, and  p479 some dogmatic chapters and a book against Nestorius. He also wrote a bucolic poem.'

Boethius as a statesman. A nobleman with these various endowments, philosopher, musician, astronomer, mechanician, poet, theologian, and the best writer of Latin prose of his century, was certainly a considerable figure on the stage of history. We have now to consider him in his character of politician — a character which one is disposed to think it would have been well for him and for Italy that he had never assumed. He tells us, in a review of his past career,​28 that it was in obedience to the teachings of Plato that he entered the domain of politics. Plato said that states would be happy if either philosophers were kings or kings philosophers. He had also declared that the wise ought to take a share in political affairs, in order to prevent the disaster and ruin which would fall upon the good if the helm of the State were to be left in the hands of dishonest and immoral men.

His reasons for entering into public life. 'Guided by this authority,' says he in his imagined colloquy with Philosophy, 'I sought to translate into practical and public life the lessons which I had learned from thee in the secrecy of the study. Thou, and the God who breathed thee into the souls of the wise, are my witnesses, that nought moved me to the acceptance of office but the desire to promote the general welfare of my fellow-citizens. Hence came those bitter and implacable discords with scoundrels, and hereby was I strengthened to do what all must do who would keep a clear conscience, despise the anger of the great when I knew that I was championing the right.

 p480  His disputes with wrong-doers. 'How often have I met the rush of Cunigast when coming on open-mouthed to devour the property of the poor! How often have I baffled Trigguilla the royal chamberlain​29 in some course of injustice which he had begun and all but completed! How often have I interposed my influence to protect the poor creatures whom the unbridled avarice of the barbarians was for ever worrying with false accusations!

'Never did any one turn me aside from right to wrong-doing. When I saw the fortunes of the Provincials being ruined at once by private robbery and by the public taxes, I grieved as much as the sufferers themselves. At a time of severe famine, when a rigorous and unaccountable order of "coemption" was like to strike the whole province of Campania​30 with poverty, I commenced in the public interest, and with the knowledge of the King, a struggle against the Praetorian Prefect, which was crowned with success, and led to the abandonment of the coemption.'

In these Boethius co‑operates with Theodoric. The reader will notice that in the above passage Boethius fairly enough attributes to Theodoric knowledge and approval of his attempts to preserve the Provincials of Campania from oppression. And indeed, on comparing this passage with those letters of Cassiodorus​31 which describe the disgrace of Faustus, we can hardly doubt that the latter nobleman is the Praetorian Prefect here referred to, and that Boethius co‑operated with Cassiodorus to obtain at least a temporary suspension of the powers of so grasping and tyrannical a governor.

 p481  Boethius then mentions the case of 'Paulinus, a man of consular rank, for whose wealth the dogs of the palace were hungering and had in fancy already devoured it, but who was rescued by me from their hungry jaws.'

So far we have heard nothing that is not in entire conformity with the uniform tenour of the Various Letters of Cassiodorus, nothing as to which we may not believe that the conduct of Boethius was wise, statesmanlike and in perfect accord with the wishes of Theodoric and his great minister. Both Goths like Trigguilla, and Romans like Faustus, were continually, with Pacha-like voracity, scenting the prey of the subject Provincials, and it needed all the watchfulness and all the courage of the central government at Ravenna to detect and to punish their crimes.

Honours conferred on Boethius and his family. It was no doubt partly in reward of such services, and in order to mark the King's appreciation of the character and attainments of his distinguished courtier, that honours and offices were bestowed on Boethius and his family. His own consul­ship made the year 510 illustrious. In 522 his two sons, Symmachus and Boethius, one bearing his own name, and the other that of his honoured father-in‑law, notwithstanding their extreme youth, were arrayed in the consular robes. The proud father, little dreaming of the ruin which was already nigh at hand, addressed Theodoric from his place in the Senate in a brilliant speech of panegyric.​32 Afterwards, probably on the 1st of November in the same year, Boethius was promoted to the highly important and confidential post of Master of the Offices, which  p482 dignity he held when the storm of royal displeasure burst upon him.

Case of Albinus. We thus come to the case of Albinus. Again Boethius himself shall describe it to us, and while reading his words, it will be well to compare them with the shorter but generally harmonious account given by the Anonymus Valesii.33

'That Albinus the Consular might not undergo punishment upon a foregone conclusion of his guilt, the informers, Cyprian, I set myself against the wrath of the informer Cyprian. Great indeed were the animosities which I thereby sharpened against myself [namely, of Cyprian's party]; but I ought to have been all the safer with the rest [of the Senators], who knew that from my love of justice I had left myself no place of safety with the courtiers.​34 But, on the contrary, who were the informers by whom I was struck down? [They were Senators themselves.] Basilius, Basilius, long ago turned out the King's service, was driven by pressure of debt to calumniate my name. Opilio, Gaudentius. Opilio and Gaudentius, when, on account of their numberless and varied frauds, they had been ordered by a royal decree to quit the country, not choosing to obey, sought the shelter of the sanctuary. This came to the King's ears, and he ordered that, unless by a given day they had left Ravenna, they should be driven forth with a brand of infamy on their foreheads. What more stringent measure could have been adopted? Yet on that very day they laid their information against me, and that information was accepted. Was that a  p483 fitting reward for my services? Did the foregone conclusion to condemn me turn those accusers into honest men? Had Fortune no shame, if not for the innocence of the accused, at least for the villainy of the accusers?

Boethius' account of the charge against him. 'But perhaps you ask in fine, of what crime is it that I am accused. I am said to have desired the safety of the Senate. "In what way?" you ask. I am accused of having prevented an informer from producing certain documents in order to prove the Senate guilty of high treason. What is your advice then, oh my teacher? Shall I deny the charge in order that I may not bring disgrace upon you? But I did wish for the safety of the Senate, and shall never cease to wish for it. Shall I confess? That would be to play into the hands of the informer. Shall I call it a crime to have desired the safety of that venerable order? I can only think of their decrees concerning me as a reason why that should be a crime. But imprudence, though ever untrue to itself, cannot alter the nature of things, and, influenced as I am by the teaching of Socrates, I do not think it right either to conceal the truth or to admit a falsehood.

'How this may be [what may be my duty to the Senate now that it has deserted me,] I leave to be settled by thy judgment and that of the sages. In order that the truth and the real connection of the whole affair may not be hidden from posterity, I have drawn up a written memorandum concerning it. The forged letters to Constantinople. For, as for those forged letters, by which I am accused of having hoped for Roman freedom, why should I say anything about them? Their falsity would have been  p484 manifest if I had been allowed to use the confession of the informers themselves, which is always considered of the greatest weight. For what chance of freedom, pray, is still left to us? Would, indeed, that there were any such chance. [Had I been examined in the King's presence] I would have answered in the words of Canius, who, when accused by Caius [Caligula] of being privy to the conspiracy against him, answered, "If I had known of it, thou shouldst have never known." '​35

Boethius then expresses his wonder that a good God can suffer the wicked thus to triumph over the righteous. As an earlier philosopher had said, 'If there be a God, whence comes evil hither? And if there be none, whence comes good?'

He complains of the Senate's treatment of him. 'But let it be granted that it was natural for evil‑minded men, who were thirsting for the blood of the Senate and of all good citizens, to seek to compass my ruin, because they saw in me the champion of both classes. But did I deserve this treatment at the hands of the Senate also? Since you [O Philosophy] ever present beside me, directed all my sayings and doings, you will remember, I think, that day at Verona, when the King, eager for a general slaughter, laboured to transfer the charge of treason brought against Albinus, to all the Senate. At what great peril to myself did I defend the innocence of the whole order!36  p485 You know that in all this I am putting forth nothing but the truth, and am indulging in no vain boastings. . . . My innocence has been more hardly dealt with than confessed guilt. Scarcely would an avowed criminal find all his judges unanimous against him, nor one disposed to make allowance for the frailty of the human mind, or to remember the inconstancy of Fortune. If I had been accused of wishing to burn the sacred edifices, to slay the priests with impious sword, to plot the murder of all good citizens, I should at least have been confronted with my accusers, and have either confessed my guilt or been convicted before I was punished. But now, at a distance of about 500 miles from my judges, dumb and undefended, I have been condemned to death and the forfeiture of my estate. For what? For too earnest love towards the Senate [my judges]. Assuredly they deserve that no one should ever again suffer on such a charge: a charge which even they who made it, saw to be so far from dishonourable that they were obliged to darken it with the admixture of some wickedness.

Charges of sacrilege and divination. 'They therefore falsely alleged that, in my pursuit of office, I had stained my conscience with sacrilege.​37 Whereas thou, present in my breast, hadst driven base cupidity from thence, and under thy holy eyes there was no room for sacrilege. Thou hadst daily instilled into mine ears and thoughts the great Pythagorean maxim, "Follow God."​38 How could I, whom thou hadst thus been fashioning into the divine likeness, seek to gain the favour of the baser spirits [of  p486 the under-world]? Moreover the innocent retirement of my home, the companion­ship of my honoured friends, the very presence of my father, a man holy and reverend as thou art, should have defended me from the suspicion of such crimes. But, alas! my very friendship with thee lent colour to the charge, and it was for this cause that I seemed likely to have practised divination, because I was known to be imbued with the teachings of Philosophy.'​a

Points proved by the statement of Boethius It will not be needful to repeat to the reader any more of the sad ejaculations of Boethius. Failing that memorandum as to his defence, which he composed, and the loss of which leaves a lamentable gap in our knowledge of his case, we may take these few paragraphs as his plea against his accusers at the bar of history. With all its passionate declamation it does make some points of the story clearer.

not a case of Arian against orthodox, (1) It is plain that Boethius was in no sense a martyr to orthodoxy. He was a Catholic, and Theodoric was an Arian, but that difference of creed had evidently no direct connection with the disgrace and death of the philosopher.

nor of Goth against Roman. (2) Nor was it directly a case of Goth against Roman. The names of Gothic enemies which he mentions — Trigguilla, Cunigast, perhaps 'the dogs of the palace' — are all connected with his earlier life. In this latest act of the drama the 'delatores' against him are all Romans — Cyprian, Basilius, Gaudentius, Opilio. And this agrees with the hints of the Anonymus Valesii, who says that the informer was moved by cupidity; and with the language of Procopius, who declares that the wealth, the philosophic pursuits, the charity and the renown of Symmachus and Boethius,  p487 had stirred up envy in the breasts of spiteful men who laid a false charge against them before Theodoric, that they were plotting a revolution.​39 Though the government is equally responsible on either hypothesis, it was Roman fraud, not Gothic force, which set the powers of government in motion.

He was condemned by the Senate. (3) It was by the Senate that Boethius was condemned to death and proscription. Here, too, the ultimate responsibility is not removed from the king, before whose frown the slavish Senate trembled. As we do not accept it as any apology for the sanguinary deeds of a Tudor prince, that his Parliament was found willing to invest them with the forms of law, so too the condemnation of Boethius, if unjust, stains the memory of Theodoric equally, whether passed by the Conscript Fathers in Rome or by his own Comitatus at Ravenna. But how shall we think of the case if evidence were laid before them which the Senate, with all their good-will to the prisoner, could not ignore? At any rate the interposition of the Senate shows that we have not to do with a mere outbreak of lawless savagery on the part of the Gothic King.

Boethius was condemned partly as an astrologer and diviner. (4) The case was strangely complicated by an accusation against Boethius, that he practised forbidden arts and sought to conjure familiar spirits. Ridiculous as this  p488 accusation seems to us, we can easily see how the pursuits of so clever a mechanician as Boethius would in the eyes of the ignorant multitude give plausibility to the charge. The Theodosian code teemed with enactments against Mathematici,​40 meaning, of course, primarily the impostors who calculated nativities and cast horoscopes. From many allusions in the 'Consolation' we infer that astronomy was to Boethius was the most attractive of all the sciences. He would have been centuries in advance of his age if he had been able to divest his study of the heavenly bodies of all taint of astrological superstition.​41 The insinuation that a profound mathematician must needs possess unlawful means of prying into the future, was of course absurd; but it is not the barbarous ignorance of the Goth, but the superstitious legislation of generations of Christian Emperors, that must bear the blame of this miscarriage of justice.

There is one more witness, (a sad and unwilling witness,) who must be examined, and then the evidence in this mysterious case will be all before the reader. The silence of Cassiodorus tells against Theodoric, Cassiodorus, in all the twelve books of his letters, makes, I believe, no reference, direct or indirect, to the death of Boethius and Symmachus.  p489 This silence tells against Theodoric. Had the execution of the two statesmen been a righteous and necessary act, it is hardly likely that Cassiodorus would have so studiously avoided all allusion to the act itself, and to the share which he, the chief counsellor of Theodoric, may have had in the doing of it. As it is, we may almost imagine, though we cannot prove, that the minister, finding his master bent upon hot and revengeful deed, such as could only mar the good work of their joint lifetimes, retired from active co‑operation in the work of government, and left his master to do or undo at his pleasure, unchecked by a word from him.

but he shows that Boethius has been unjust to his accusers. Yet the evidence of Cassiodorus tells also somewhat against Boethius. The reader has seen in what tints of unrelieved blackness the philosopher paints all those who were concerned in his downfall. The letters of Cassiodorus, written after Theodoric's death, collected and published when their author was retiring from politics, give a very different impression of these men.

His character of Cyprian. Cyprian, the accuser of Albinus, who was forced to become the accuser of Boethius also, appears to have been a Roman of noble birth, grandson of a consul,​42 to have been appointed referendarius in the king's court of appeal, and in that capacity to have had the duty of stating the cases of the litigants, first from one point of view, then from the other. The fairness  p490 with which he did this, the nimbleness of mind with which he succeeded in presenting the best points of each case without doing injustice to the other, often excited the admiration of the suitors themselves. Then, when Theodoric was weary of sitting in his court, he would often mount his horse and order Cyprian to accompany him in a ride through the whispering pinewood of Ravenna. As they went, Cyprian would often, by the King's command, describe the main features of a case which was to come before the Comitatus. In his hands, the dull details of litigation became interesting to the Gothic King, who, even when Cyprian was putting a hopelessly bad case before him, moderated his anger at the impudence of the litigant, in deference to the charm of his counsellor's narration.

Cyprian, after some years' service as Referendarius, was sent on an important embassy to Constantinople, in which he successfully upheld his master's interests at the Imperial Court. He was afterwards, apparently after the execution of Boethius, appointed to the high office of chief Finance Minister of the kingdom.43

Probable explanation of the motives of Cyprian. One would have said that this was the record of a fair and honourable official career, and that he who pursued it was not likely to be a base and perjured informer. Rather does it suggest to the mind the painful position of a statesman who, Roman himself, knew that most other Romans were not dealing faithfully by his Gothic King, but, by underhand intrigues at Constantinople, were seeking to prepare a counter  p491 revolution. His situation would thus be like that of a minister of Dutch William or Hanoverian George; bound in honesty to the king whose bread he is eating to denounce the treasons of the Jacobite conspirators around him, even though they be his countrymen and the king a foreigner. He names Albinus, whose guilt he is certain of. Boethius, the all‑honoured and all‑envied, steps forward, and thinks, by throwing the shelter of his great name over the defendant, to quash the accusation. With regret, but of necessity, Cyprian enlarges his charge, saying, 'Well, if you will have it so — and Boethius too.'

Cassiodorus' term as to Basilius, Let us turn to the characters of the other accusers. It is true that Basilius, 'long ago turned out of the King's service,' may be the same as the Basilius who was accused along with Praetextus of being addicted to magical arts and whose case was handed over to the Prefect of the city for trial.​44 Basilius, however, is a somewhat common name, and we must not be too certain of this identification. and Opilio, who was brother to Cyprian. But as to Opilio, we have strong evidence from Cassiodorus, which makes it almost impossible that the passionate invective of Boethius can be absolutely true. Opilio was evidently the brother of Cyprian, and probably grandson of the consul of 453, who was also called Opilio. In 527, four years after these events, he was raised by Amalasuntha, probably on the advice of Cassiodorus, to the responsible office of Count of the Sacred Largesses, which had been previously held by his brother. In the letters announcing his promotion to this office, the loyalty and truth of character, both of Opilio and Cyprian, are enthusiastically praised. 'Why should  p492 I describe the merits of his ancestors when he shines so conspicuously by the less remote light of his brother? They are near relations, but yet nearer friends. He has so associated himself with that brother's virtues that one is uncertain which of the two one should praise the more highly. Cyprian is a most faithful friend, but Opilio shows unshaken constancy in the observance of his promises. Cyprian is devoid of avarice, and Opilio shows himself a stranger to cupidity. Hence it comes that they have known how to keep faith with their sovereigns, because they know not how to act perfidiously towards their equals. It is in this unfettered intercourse that the character is best shown. How can such men help serving their lords honourably, when they have no thought of taking an unfair advantage of their colleagues?'45

Doubtless these official encomiums are to be received with caution, but, after making all due abatement, it is impossible to suppose that Cassiodorus would have deliberately republished letters, full of such high praises of men whom all his contemporaries knew to be, in truth, the base scoundrels described by Boethius.

Boethius abuses Decoratus, who is highly spoken of by other contemporaries. In connection with this subject we must take also some words of the philosopher with reference to one of his colleagues in office. When he is musing on the vanity of human wishes, and showing why the honours of the State cannot satisfy man's aspirations after happiness, he says, or rather Philosophy says to him,  p493 'Was it really worth while to undergo so many perils in order that thou mightest wear the honours of the magistracy with Decoratus, though thou sawest in him the mind of a base informer and buffoon?' Now Decoratus — the name is too uncommon to make it probable that there were two contemporaries bearing it — was a young nobleman of Spoleto, a man of some eminence as an orator, loyal, faithful, and generous. He died in the prime of life, and the King, who deeply regretted him, sought to repay some part of the debt owing to Decoratus by advancing in the career of office his younger brother Honoratus. Such is the picture of his character which we collect, not only from two letters of Cassiodorus,​46 but also from one of Ennodius,​47 and from the more doubtful evidence of his epitaph.​48 Are all these men's characters to be blasted, because of the passionate words of Boethius in his dungeon? Suggestions as to the real character of Boethius as a politician. Do not these words rather return upon himself, and can we not now see something more of his true character? To me they indicate the faults of a student-statesman, brilliant as a man of letters, unrivalled as a man of science, irreproachable so long as he remained in the seclusion of his library; but utterly unfit for affairs; passionate and ungenerous; incapable of recognising the fact that there might be other points of view beside his own; persuaded that every one who wounded his vanity must be a scoundrel, or at best a buffoon; — in short, an impracticable colleague, and, with all his honourable aspirations, an unscrupulous enemy.

End of the analysis of the case. The reader has now before him all the evidence that  p494 is forthcoming with reference to this most important but most perplexing State-trial. A historian shrinks from pronouncing his own verdict in such a case. His admiration and sympathy are due in different ways both to the author of the sentence and to its victim; and he can only extenuate the fault of Theodoric by magnifying, perhaps unduly, the fault of Boethius. But, after all the analysis that we have been engaged in, some short synthetical statement seems needful for the sake of clearness.

Attempted synthesis. It was probably some time in the year 523 that Theodoric was first informed that some of the leading Senators were in secret correspondence with the Emperor. The tidings came at a critical time. In the previous year the great Ostrogoth had heard of his grandson Segeric's death, inflicted by order of his father, the Catholic King of Burgundy. In May or June of this year came the news that his own sister, the stately Queen of the Vandals, Amalafrida, was shut up in prison by the Catholic Hilderic. Must then 'the aspiring blood' of Amala 'sink in the ground'? Was there a conspiracy everywhere among these lesser lords of the Germans, both against the creed of their forefathers, and against the great Ostrogothic house which had been the pillar of the new European State-system? Such were the suggestions that goaded the old hero almost to madness. He had now just reached the seventh decade of life; and the temper so well kept in curb all through his middle years, since the day when he slew Odovacar, was beginning to throw off the control of the feebler brain of age.

The scene at Verona. Then came the scene of the denunciation of Albinus.  p495 It happened apparently at Verona, most likely in the High Court of Justice (Comitatus) of the King. Boethius generously steps forward to shield Albinus. Cyprian, driven into a corner, reluctantly accuses Boethius also. What were Albinus and Boethius accused of? Of what was it that Albinus and Boethius were accused? This, which should be the plainest part of the whole transaction, is in fact the darkest. None of our authorities really enable us to reconstruct the indictment against the Senators. Boethius shrilly vociferates that he was accused of nothing but 'desiring the safety of the Senate,' which, taken literally, is absurd. But we have seen abundantly how indefinite and anomalous was the tie which bound both the Senate, and in some sort Theodoric himself, to the Empire. Is it possible that the letters which were sent by the senatorial party urged Justin to turn this shadowy senior-partnership into real supremacy, and especially claimed for the members of the Senate that they should be judged only by the tribunals of the Empire, not by those of Theodoric? Some such demand as this would explain the words of Boethius about 'desiring the safety of the Senate.' At the same time it was a proposal which, in the actual circumstances of both realms, meant really treason to Theodoric.

The letters to Constantinople, It seems probable that some letters of this or similar purport were actually signed by Boethius as well as by Albinus and forwarded to Constantinople. Boethius says that the letters which were produced against him were forged. Perhaps, in reality, they were tampered with, rather than forged from beginning to end. It was a case in which the alteration of a few words might make all the difference between that which was  p496 and that which was not consistent with a good subject's duty to Theodoric. perhaps tampered with by Gaudentius. If any such vile work were done, the author of it may have been Gaudentius, the chief object of the vituperations of the philosopher for whom we can produce no rebutting evidence from the pages of Cassiodorus.

Boethius contend by the Senate without a hearing. Whatever the accusation, and whatever the proofs, they appear to have been all forwarded to Rome, where the Senate, with base cowardice and injustice, trembling before the wrath of the King, unanimously found Boethius guilty of treason, and perhaps of sacrilege also. He was never confronted with his accusers, but was all the time lying in prison at Pavia or Calvenzano. Albinus disappears from the narrative, but was probably condemned along with Boethius.

His imprisonment and possible torture. For some reason which is not explained to us Boethius was kept in confinement for a considerable time, probably for the latter half of 523 and the earlier half of 524. The King was evidently greatly enraged against him. Probably the recent consul­ships bestowed on the sons of the conspirator and the flowery panegyric which he had then pronounced on the Theodoric quickened the resentment of the King by the stings of ingratitude and, as it seemed, successful deception. It is possible that the reason for this long delay may have been a desire to wring from Boethius the names of his fellow-conspirators; and if so, we dare not altogether reject the story told by the Anonymus Valesii of the tortures applied to him in the prison. In itself this writer's narrative is not of a kind that commands implicit faith, and one is disposed to set down the story of the twisted cord and the protruding eyes as a fit companion to that told a few lines before  p497 of the woman who gave birth to the dragons, and of their airy passage to the sea. The author is evidently misinformed as to some circumstances of the trial, since he makes the King, not the Senate, pass sentence on Boethius, and represents the sentence as soon​49 carried out, whereas the philosopher undoubtedly languished for considerable time in prison after his condemnation.50

Execution of Boethius. The death of Boethius occurred probably about the middle of 324. We have no means of ascertaining the date more accurately. Mission of the Pope. Then came the ill‑judged mission of the Pope to Constantinople; and before his return, apparently early in 525, the citation of the venerable Symmachus to Ravenna, Execution of Symmachus. and his execution. From the whole tenor of the narrative it is safe to infer that this was much more the personal act of Theodoric than the condemnation of Boethius had been. The evidence, if evidence there was, of conspiracy was probably far slighter. Fear was the King's chief counsellor, and, as ever, an evil counsellor. The course of argument was like that of Henry VIII in his later years, or the Committee of Public Safety in the French Revolution. 'Symmachus has lost his son-in‑law; Symmachus must be disaffected to the monarchy; let Symmachus be prevented from conspiring — by the executioner.' It is clear, from the stories which were floating about in the next generation, that this act was the one which was most severely blamed by contemporaries,  p498 and the one which lay heaviest on the King's own conscience.

In short, from such information as we can collect, it seems right to conclude, —

Conclusion: as to Theodoric, (1) That the death of Boethius, though a grievous blunder, was, according to the principles of self-preservation acted upon by all rulers, not a crime.

(2) That if torture were employed, which is too probable but not proved, such a proceeding was an infamy.

(3) That the death of Symmachus was both a blunder and a crime.

as to Boethius. But while condemning the conduct of Theodoric we may also lament the error of judgment which led the high-minded but visionary Boethius into the field of politics. He had doubtless noble dreams for the future of a reorganized and imperial Italy; dreams which entitle him to reach over eight centuries and clasp the hand of the Florentine poet, the author of the De Monarchia. But in that near future to which politicians must confine their gaze, the restoration of the Empire meant the carnival of the tax‑collectors of Byzantium; the ascendancy of the Church meant the inroads of the fierce and faithless Frank. These evils would have been avoided and centuries of horrors would have been spared to Italy, if the inglorious policy of Cassiodorus, the statesman of the hour, might have prevailed over the brilliant dreams of Boethius, the student and the seer.

The Philosophiae Consolatio. I have purposely reserved to the last, till these matters of political debate were disposed of, the mention of the great work which has made the imprisonment of Boethius for ever memorable — his 'Consolation  p499 of Philosophy.' The title of the book is ambiguous; but it need hardly be said that Philosophy is not the consoled one but the consoler. She indeed, at the end of the dismal tragedy, might well seem to need comfort for the loss of her favourite disciple. But in this book he, still living, describes how she braced and cheered him in his dungeon, when he was tempted to repine at his unmerited downfall, and to murmur at the triumph of the bad, at the apparent forgetfulness of the just Ruler of the world.

Scheme of the book. The scheme of the book is on this wise. The 'author of the bucolic poem,' sick and in prison, employs his lonely hours in writing verses, and thus he sings: —

Prologue. 'I, who once touched the lyre with joyful hand,

Now, in my grief, do tread sad ways of song.

Lo! at my side the tearful Muses stand

To guide my heartfelt elegy of wrong.

No tyrant's wrath deters these guests sublime

From journeying with me all my downward way;

These, the bright comrades of my joyous Prime,

And now, my weary Age's only stay.

Yes: weary Age. For Youth with Joy has fled,

And Sadness brings her hoar companion.

Untimely hours silver o'er my head,

Untimely wrinkles score my visage wan.

Oh! happy they from whose delightful years

Death tarries far, to come, when called, with speed.

But deaf is Death to me, though called with tears:

These tearful eyes he will not close at need.

While still my bark sped on with favouring breeze,

Me, Death unlooked‑for all but swept away.

Now, when all round me roar the angry seas,

Life, cruel Life, protracts her tedious stay.

How oft you named me happy, oh my friends.

Not happy he, whose bliss such ruin ends.'

 p500  Book I, Entrance of Philosophy. Scarce has the mourning philosopher thus uttered his grief in song, when he lifts up his eyes and sees a mysterious form standing beside him. A woman, she seems, of venerable face, with gleaming eyes, with every sign of youthful vigour about her, and yet with something in her countenance which tells of life protracted through untold centuries. Her very stature is mysterious and indefinite. Now her head seems to touch the skies, and now she is only of the ordinary height of men. The raiment which she wears was woven by her own hands of finest gossamer thread, and is dark with age. On the lower hem of her robe is embroidered the letter P, on the upper one T.​51 (These letters, as we afterwards learn, stand for Practical and Theoretical Wisdom.) Upon the robe is embroidered the likeness of steps leading up from the lower letter to the higher.​52 In her right hand, she bears some rolls of parchment; in her left a sceptre.

This is Philosophy, come to reprove and to comfort her downcast disciple. With sublime wrath she dismisses the Muses from the bed‑side of the patient, pouring upon them names of infamy, and declaring that they are aggravating the disease which they pretend to heal. Boethius is her disciple, nourished on the doctrine of Eleia and the Academy, and by her Muses, not by their Siren voices shall his soul be  p501 cured. The Muses venture no reply, but with downcast looks and blushing faces silently depart.

Then Philosophy, sitting on the edge of his bed and looking into his face with sad eyes, sings a song of pity and reproof. 'Alas!' she says, 'for the darkness which comes over the mind of man. Is this he whose glance roved freely through the heavenly labyrinth, who watched the rosy light of dawn, the changes of the chilly moon, who marked the course of the winds, the return of flowery spring and fruitful autumn, and who knew the reason of all these things? Yet now here he lies, with his mind all bedimmed, with heavy chains upon his neck, casting downward his gloomy appearance, and forced to contemplate only the stolid earth beneath him.'

'The time is come,' she continues, 'for the healing art of the physician. Look fixedly at me, and tell me, dost thou know me?' A deadly lethargy oppresses Boethius, and he makes no reply. Then she wipes his streaming eyes: the touch of her hand revives him; he gazes earnestly into her face; he recognises his own and oldest friend, his Muse, his teacher, Philosophy. But why has she come to visit him in this his low estate? She assures him that she never leaves her votaries in their distress, and reminds him by the example of Socrates, Anaxagoras, Zeno, and many more, that to be misunderstood, to be hated, to be brought into prison, and even to death itself by the oppressor, is the customary portion of those who love her. She is come to heal him, but, that she may practise her skill, it is needful that he shall show her all his wound. Then Boethius, in a few pages of autobiography, gives that narrative of his fall from  p502 the sovereign's favour which has been already put before the reader. The remembrance of all his wrongs, the reflection that even the people condemn him and that his good name is trodden under foot of men, forces from him a cry of anguish, and in a song, well-nigh of rebellion against the Most High, he says, 'O God, wherefore dost thou, who rulest the spheres, let man alone of all thy creatures go upon his wicked way, heedless of thy control?'

Philosophy, with face sadder than before, hears this outburst. 'I knew,' she says, 'when I first saw thee that thou wast an exile from thy home, but how far thou hast wandered from the City of Truth I knew not till now. Tell me, dost thou believe in an all‑wise and all‑good Governor of the world?' 'I do,' he answered, 'and will never cast away this faith.' 'But what is the manner of his governing?' Boethius shakes his head, and cannot understand the question. 'Poor clouded intellect!' says Philosophy to herself. 'Nevertheless his persuasion that there is a righteous Ruler is the one point of hope. From that little spark we will yet reanimate his vital heat. But the cure will need time.'

Book II, Fortune and her gifts. 'I see,' said Philosophy, 'that it is the sudden change of Fortune that has wrought this ruin in thy intellect. But it is of the very essence of Fortune to be ever changing. If she could speak for herself she would say, "All those things which you now mourn the loss of were my possessions, not yours. Far from groaning over their departure, you should be thankful to me for having let you enjoy them so long." Think what extraordinary good fortune you have had in life; friends to protect your boyhood, an honoured father-in‑law,  p503 a noble wife, a marriage‑bed blessed with male offspring. Remember that proud day when you went from your home with a son, a consul, on either side of you, begirt by crowds of senators. Remember your oration in the Senate-house in praise of the King, and the glory won by your eloquence. Remember the shouting multitudes in the circus, who acclaimed your lavish gifts.' 'Ah, but that is the very pity of it,' says Boethius: 'the remembrance of these past delights is the sharpest sting of all my sorrows.' 'Courage!' replies his heavenly visitor: 'all is not yet lost. Symmachus, that wise and holy man, whose life you would gladly purchase with your own, still lives, and though he groans over your injuries has none to fear for himself. Rusticiana, whose character is the very image of her father's, lives, and her intense sympathy with your suffering is the only thing which I can consent to call a calamity for you. Your sons, the young Consulars, live too, and at every turn reflect the mind either of their father or their grandfather. After all, even in your present low estate there are many who would gladly change with you. Some secret grief or care preys on almost every heart, even of those who seem most prosperous.'

Then the gifts of Fortune are passed rapidly under review. Money, jewels, land, fine raiment, troops of servants, power, fame, are all subjected to that searching analysis, by which at any time for the last 2500 years philosophers have been able to prove their absolute worthlessness, that analysis in spite of which, after so many centuries, the multitude of men still persist in deeming them of value.

Book III, The nature of the Summum Bonum. The cure now begins to work in the soul of  p504 Boethius, and Philosophy feels that she may apply stronger remedies than the mere palliatives which she has used hitherto. She therefore leads him into a discussion of the Summum Bonum, the supreme good, which all men, more or less consciously, are searching after and longing to possess. There are many things apparently good, which cannot be this one highest good. Wealth cannot be the Summum Bonum, for it is not self-sufficing. Nor office, since it only brings out in stronger relief the wickedness of bad men; since it confers no honour among alien peoples, and the estimation in which it is held is constantly changing even in the same country.​53 Nor can friendship with kings and the great ones of the earth be the Summum Bonum, since those persons themselves lack it. Glory, popularity, noble birth, all are found wanting. The pleasures of the flesh, yea and even family joys, cannot be the Summum Bonum. At this point a certain religious awe comes over the interlocutors. Philosophy sings a hymn of invocation to the Supreme Being, and then leads Boethius up to the conclusion that the Summum Bonum, or Happiness in the highest sense, can be none other than God himself, and that men, in so far as they attain to any real participation therein, are themselves divine. In a somewhat Pantheistic strain, Philosophy argues that all things tend towards God,  p505 and that evil, which appears to resist him, is itself only an appearance.

Book IV, The Moral Government of the world. 'Still,' cries the prisoner in agony, 'my difficulty has not really vanished. I see that the bad do prosper here, and the good are often cruelly oppressed. How can I reconcile these facts with the faith, which I will not abandon, that the world has a Just and Almighty Ruler?' Philosophy, one must admit, answers but feebly this eternal question. She repeats the Stoical commonplaces, that the wise man (or the good man) alone is free, alone is strong; that the evil man, though he sit upon a tyrant's throne, is in truth a slave, that liberty to work wickedness is the direst of all punishments, and that if wicked men could only, as it were, through a little chink of light see the real nature of things, they would cry out for the sorest chastisement, for anything to cleanse them from their intolerable corruption. The thought of a world to come in which the wicked, triumphant in this world, shall receive thereupon reward of their deeds, is somewhat timorously put forward, and does not become, as in the Christian Theodicy, the central point of the reply to the impugner of God's ways.54

Providence and Fate. Philosophy is perhaps nearer to grasping the key of the position, when she enters into a long disquisition on the distinction between Providence and Fate.55  p506 Providence is the supreme, all‑ruling, all‑directing Intelligence, whose ways will be manifestly justified in the end: Fate, the instrument in the hand of Providence, more closely resembles what we understand by the Laws of Nature. To Fate belongs that undeviating order, that rigid binding together of Cause and Effect, which produces what to men seems sometimes hardness or even injustice in the ways of their Creator. Philosophy argues, therefore, that every fortune is, in truth, good fortune, since it comes to us by the will of God. The wise man, when he finds that what men call evil fortune is coming upon him, should feel like the warrior who hears the trumpet sound for battle. Now is the day come for him to go forth, and prove, in conflict with adverse Fate, the strength of that armour with which years of philosophic training have endowed him.

Book V, Foreknowledge and Free-will. Rested and strengthened, Boethius now invites his heavenly guest to cheer him with one of those discussions in which of old he delighted, and to explain to him how she reconciles the divine foreknowledge of all future events with the freedom of human actions. God's knowledge of the future cannot be a mere opinion or conjecture: it must be absolute, certain and scientific. Yet, if He thus foresees my actions for this day, they are fixed, and my power of changing them is only apparent. Thus Necessity is introduced, Free-Will goes, and with it Moral Responsibility. It is useless to utter prayer to God, since the order of all things is already fixed, and we cannot change it. The thought of Divine Grace, touching and moulding the hearts of men, and bringing them into communion with their Maker, goes likewise. All is rigid, mechanical,  p507 immutable.​56 Philosophy's answer to this question is long and subtil, but in the end brings us nearly to the same conclusion which is probably reached, more or less consciously, by the ordinary Theist of to‑day. In all acts of perception, she says, the perceiver himself contributes something from the quality of his own mind: and thus perceptions differ according to the rank held by the perceiver in the intellectual universe. Animals see material things around them, but they do not see in them all that man sees. Where the horse sees only the quartern-measure in which his oats are brought to him, the trained intellect of man sees a circle, roughly representing the ideal circle of mathematics, and is conscious of all the properties inherent in that figure.​57 As our manner of seeing is superior to that of the brutes, so we must train ourselves to think of God's manner of seeing as superior to ours. He can see all future events, both necessary and contingent, and yet not, by seeing them, impart to all the same necessity. Before him, as the Eternal Being, Past, Present and Future lie all outstretched at the same moment.​58 He sees all events which have happened and which shall happen, as if now happening; and thus his foreseeing​59 no more necessitates the  p508 actions foreseen than my looking at a man ploughing on yonder hill compels him to plough, or prevents him from ceasing his occupation.

'And yet, in a certain sense, there is a necessity laid upon men, from the very thought that they are thus doing all in the sight and presence of God: a necessity to lead nobler lives, to avoid vice, to raise their hearts to the true and higher hope, to lead up their humble prayers on high.'

Abrupt end of the Consolation of Philosophy. Here, abruptly, the Consolation of Philosophy ends. We must suppose that when Boethius has reached this point, the step of the brutal goaler is heard at his dungeon-door, the key turns in the lock, the executioner enters, and the Consolations of Philosophy end with the life of her illustrious disciple.

Style of the Consolation. Such is an outline of the argument of the work upon which Boethius employed the enforced leisure of his prison hours. It will at once be seen that it deals with subjects which have ever been of primary interest to the human race. Sometimes the argument reminds us of the book of Job, sometimes of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, sometimes of Pope's 'Essay on Man.' The author's Latin prose is, upon the whole, pure, correct, and intelligible, a delightful contrast to the verbosity of Cassiodorus and the turgid ineptitudes of Ennodius. The snatches of song, in a vast variety of metres, with which the discourse is pleasantly enlivened, show an intimate acquaintance with the tragedies of Seneca, from whom sometimes a poetical phrase, sometimes the central idea of a whole canzonet, is borrowed. The extent of this indebtedness, however, has been sometimes  p509 overstated. The poems belong to Boethius himself, though he has written them with the echoes of Seneca's lyre vividly in his ear; and some of the most beautiful thoughts are entirely his own.60

Character of its philosophy. In the argument of the book Boethius shows himself, as we should have expected, a persistent eclectic. Though Aristotle is his great master, he draws in this book largely from Plato; and often we come upon passages which remind us of the Stoic doctrines which were the favourite subject of ridicule to Horace.

Religious position of Boethius. The religious position of the author has always been a subject of perplexity, and is not less so, now that we know that he is the same person who wrote tractates on subtle points of Christian controversy. He speaks as a Theist, not as a Christian. He speaks throughout as a Theist, a Theist unshaken and unwavering, notwithstanding all the things that seem to make for atheism in the world, but hardly as a Christian. There is no hint of opposition to any Christian doctrine; but on the other hand there is no sign of a willingness to accept the special Christian explanation of the central difficulty of the world. Instead of subtle arguments about the nature of the Summum Bonum, or a proof that bad men cannot be said truly to be at all and therefore it is idle to trouble ourselves about their prosperity, a Christian martyr would inevitably have turned to the remembrance of the Crucifixion, the mocking soldiery, the cursing Jews, and would have said, at the sorest of his  p510 distress, 'He has suffered more for me.' And the same thought would naturally have comforted any man, who, though not a martyr yet holding the same faith, was assailed by any of the lesser miseries of life, and troubled by seeing the apparent ascendency of evil. By him who accepts the fact which the Christian witnesses proclaim it may surely be said with boldness, 'The true Theodicy is the Theopathy.' The Son of God suffering for sin, admits the difficulty of the apparent triumph of evil, but suggests an explanation, which Faith leans upon, though Reason cannot put it into words.

Of all this we have in Boethius not a hint. Perhaps it was precisely because he was something of a scientific theologian, and knew the shoals and currents of that difficult sea in which it was so hard to avoid making shipwreck, one side or another, on the rocks of heresy, that he preferred to sail the wide ocean of abstract Theism. More likely, the feeling of a certain incompatibility between Christianity and polite literature, a feeling which not all the literary eminence of Jerome and Augustine had been able entirely to dispel, a feeling which threw so many of the later historians, Ammianus, Zosimus, Procopius, on the side of heathenism, prevented Boethius from more distinctly alluding than he has done to the Christian solution of his difficulties.

The undogmatic character of the Consolation perhaps contributed to its popularity. Whatever the cause, the undogmatic character of the 'Consolation' had probably something to do with its marvellous success in the immediately following centuries. The Middle Ages were at hand, that era of wild and apparently aimless struggle between all that is noblest and all that is basest in our common  p511 humanity. Many refined and beautiful natures were to go through that strife, to feel the misery of that chaos, in which they were involved. Some, for the larger part, clinging to the religious hope alone as their salvation from the storm, would retire from the evil world around them into the shelter of the convent. But there were some, few perhaps in number in each generation, but many in the course of the centuries, who would elect not to quit the world but to battle with it, not to fly the evil but to overcome it. To such souls the 'Consolation' of Boethius sounded like a trumpet-call to the conflict. It was not the less welcome, maybe, because it did not recall the familiar tones of monk and priest. The wisdom of all the dead pagan ages was in it, and nerved those strong, rather than devout, hearts to victory.

Vast influence of the Consolation on the intellect of the Middle Ages. To trace with anything like completeness the influence of Boethius on the mind of the Middle Ages would require another chapter as long as the present. The mere list of editions and translations of his works, chiefly of his greatest work, in our national library, occupies fifty pages of the British Museum Catalogue. Two names, however, of his English translators, a king and a poet, claim a notice here. King Alfred's translation. King Alfred, probably in the years of peace which followed the Treaty of Wedmore, found or made leisure to interpret the 'Consolation' to his countrymen. 'Sometimes,'​61 as he himself tells us, 'he set word by word, sometimes meaning for meaning, as he the most plainly and most clearly could explain it, for the various and manifold worldly occupations which often busied him both in  p512 mind and body. The occupations are very difficult to be numbered which in his days came upon the kingdom which he had undertaken; and yet when he had learned this book and turned it from Latin into the English language, he afterwards composed it in verse, as it is now done.'​62 The King then explains to his subjects how

'the Goths made war against the Empire of the Romans, and with their kings, who were called Rhadgast and Alaric, sacked the Roman city and brought to subjection all the kingdom of Italy. Then, after the before-mentioned kings, Theodoric obtained possession of that same kingdom. He was of the race of the Amali, and was a Christian, but persisted in the Arian heresy. He promised to the Romans his friendship, so that they might enjoy their ancient rights. But he very ill performed that promise, and speedily ended with much wickedness: which was that in addition to other unnumbered crimes, he gave order to slay John the Pope. Then there was a certain consul, that we call Heretoga,​63 who was named Boethius. He was in book learning and in worldly affairs the most wise. Observing the manifold evil which the king Theodoric did against Christendom and against the Roman Senators, he called to mind the famous and the ancient rights which they had under the Caesars, their ancient lords. Then began he to enquire and study in himself how he might take the kingdom from the unrighteous King, and bring it under the power of the faithful and righteous men. He therefore privately sent letters  p513 to the Caesar at Constantinople, which is the chief city of the Greeks and their king's dwelling-place, because the Caesar was of the kin of their ancient lords: they prayed him that he would succour them with respect to their Christianity and their ancient rights. When the cruel King Theodoric discovered this, he gave orders to take him to prison and therein lock him up.'

After this prelude the royal translator proceeds to describe the sorrow of Boethius and the manner in which it was soothed. It is perhaps a concession to the monastic depreciation of women that the heavenly comforter is introduced as a man who is called Wisdom (sometimes Wisdom and Reason), instead of the noble matron Philosophy.

Alfred's misunderstanding of Theodoric. Few men would have had more sympathy with all that was great in Theodoric than Alfred his fellow-Teuton, had he known the true character of the Amal King, and the nature of the task that he had to grapple with. But three centuries of ecclesiastical tradition had produced so distorting an effect on the image reflected, that, as will be seen, the Theodoric whom Alfred beheld, resembled in scarcely a single feature the Theodoric known to his contemporaries. But notwithstanding this blemish, Alfred's translation of Boethius is a marvellous work. Few things seem to bring us so near to the very mind and soul of the founder of England's greatness as these pages, in which (not always understanding his author and sometimes endeavouring to improve upon him) the King follows the guidance of the philosopher through the mazes of the eternal controversy concerning Fate, Foreknowledge, and Free-will.

 p514  Chaucer's translation (made before 1382). Travelling over five centuries, we find the illustrious and venerable name of Geoffrey Chaucer among the translators of Boethius. In the note prefixed to the work he says, 'In this book are handled high and hard obscure points, viz. the purveyance of God, the force of Destiny, the Freedom of our Wills, and the infallible Prescience of the Almighty; also that the Contemplation of God himself is our Summum Bonum.' Chaucer's notion of the duty of a translator seems to be stricter than King Alfred's; but it may be doubtful whether he has not presented the book in a less attractive guise than the royal translator.

Decline in the fame of Boethius. With the revival of learning in the fifteenth century it was inevitable that the surpassing lustre of the fame of Boethius should suffer some eclipse. When learned men were studying Aristotle and Plato for themselves, the translator and populariser of their philosophies became necessarily a person of diminished importance. Still, however, so fine a scholar as Sir Thomas More cherished the teachings of the Consolation of Philosophy, and was cheered by them in the dungeon to which he was chained by a more tyrannical master than Theodoric.64

 p515  In the following century a Jesuit priest,​65 by an imaginary life of Boethius, somewhat revived his fame, and as a statesman who resisted a heretical sovereign to the death, he was held up as a model for the imitation of English and German Catholics.

In later days the writings of Boethius have ceased to live, except for a few curious students. Yet, whoso would understand the thoughts that were working in the noblest minds of mediaeval Europe would do well to give a few hours of study to the once world-renowned 'Consolation of Philosophy.'

The Author's Notes:

1 See p269.

2 'Duo portati sunt.'

3 Referendarius.

4 Calvenzano, in the territory of Milan, a little distance from Melegnano (Marignan) according to Muratori (Annali, III.340).

5 'Qui accepta chorda in fronte diutissime tortus, ita ut oculi ejus creparent (?), sic sub tormenta ad ultimum cum fuste occiditur.'

6 See p461.

7 'Symmachus scolasticus Judaeus.'

8 The following is the paragraph of the 'Anecdoton Holderi' which relates to Boethius: —

'Boethius dignitatibus summis excelluit. Utraque lingua peritissimus orator fuit: qui regem Theodorichum in senatu pro consulatu filiorum luculenta oratione laudavit. Scripsit librum de sancta trinitate et capita quaedam dogmatica et librum contra Nestorium. Condidit et carmen bucolicum. Sed in opere artis logicae, id est dialecticae, transferendo ac mathematicis disciplinis, talis fuit ut antiquos auctores aut aequipararet aut vinceret.'

9 For the form Boetius there is considerable MS. authority, but Usener has shown that the preponderating authority of MSS. is in favour of Boethius. The common people at Rome had a difficulty in pronouncing th: hence the corruption.

10 See Usener, p40.

11 There is an Anicius Faustus, of the fifth century, in the catalogue in Pauly's Real. Encyclopaedia, 1010. The Anicius Festus is of no later date than A.D. 217.

12 See Usener's Anecdoton Holderi, p44, and the inscription there quoted from the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, V.8120.

13 I think there is no reason to suppose any family tie between the Consul and the Pope (who was a Sardinian by birth). For some reason or other, Symmachus seems to have been a favourite name at this time.

14 This may be considered as proved by the letter addressed to him by the King (Cass. Var. II.14). Perhaps also Variarum IV.6 was sent to him in the same capacity.

15 Caput Senati (sic) is the form used by Ammianus and Anonymus Valesii.

16 The chief authorities for the life of Symmachus are, (1) two affectionate allusions to him in the Philosophiae Consolatio of Boethius (II.3 and 4), who calls him pretiosissimus in generis humani decus, Symmachus; (2) two letters of Ennodius, VII.25, VIII.28 (the latter is not addressed to him, but speaks of sending a letter to him for emendation), and the Paraenesis of the same author (Opusc. VI), in which he praises Symmachus and other members of the Roman nobility in very glowing language; (3) the letters of Cassiodorus (Var. II.14, IV.6 and 51); the last, giving him a commission to repair the Theatre of Pompey at the royal expense, is the one which describes his good deeds to the city of Rome; (4) and most important, the recently discovered memorandum (Anecdoton Holderi, ed. Usener, 1877), in which a contemporary, apparently Cassiodorus himself, thus describes him: —

'Symmachus, patricius et consul ordinarius, vir philosophus, qui antiqui Catonis fuit novellus imitator, sed virtutes veterum sanctissimus religione transcendit. Dixit sententiam pro allecticiis in senatu, parentesque suos imitatus, historiam quoque Romanam septem libris edidit.'

The allecticii for whom Symmachus spoke, were, if Usener's conjecture be correct, the men who had received official promotion in the reign of Odovacar, and whose right to retain the dignity so acquired Symmachus defended.

The 'parent' whose historical activity Symmachus imitated was, according to Usener, Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (who died in 394), an ancestor by the mother's side. But seeing that Olympiodorus (apud Photium, p280, ed. Migne) calls the elder Symmachus λογογράφος, which may mean historian as well as orator, we may perhaps conjecture that we have here an allusion to some lost history written by that ancestor of Symmachus Junior.

17 Var. I.45: 'Sic enim Atheniensium scholas longe positus introisti . . . ut Graecorum dogmata doctrinam feceris esse Romanam.'

18 'Haeccine est bybliotheca [it is Philosophy whom he addresses] quam, certissimam tibi sedem, nostris in laribus, ipsa delegeras, in qua mecum saepe residens de humanarum divinarumque rerum scientia disserebas?' (Phil. Cons. I.4); and again, in Philosophy's reply, 'Itaque non tam me loci hujus quam tua facies movet, nec bybliothecae potius comptos ebore ac vitro parietes quam tuae mentis sedem requiro' (Phil. Cons. I.5).

19 Variae, I.45.

20 I take this quotation from the Rev. F. D. Maurice's 'Mediaeval Philosophy,' from whose sketch of Boethius the greater part of the above paragraph is borrowed.

21 Rev. F. D. Maurice (ubi supra).

22 So says Sir G. A. Macfarren in his article 'Music' in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, where he even asserts that 'the very eminence of Boethius makes it matter of regret that he ever wrote upon Music.'

23 Variae, I.45.

24 Ibid. II.40.

25 Domestici.

26 Variae, I.10.

27 Anecdoton Holderi.

28 Philosophiae Consolatio, I.4.

29 'Regiae praepositum domus.'

30 Equivalent to the Latium and Campania of Republican geography, united.

31 III.0 and 21, and (probably) 27.

32 (Boethius) 'qui regem Theodorichum in senatu pro consulatu filiorum luculenta oratione laudavit' (Anecdoton Holderi).

33 See p468.

34 'Sed esse apud ceteros tutior debui qui mihi amore justitiae nihil apud aulicos quo magis essem tutior reservavi.'

35 I.e. 'I would have made the conspiracy a success.' We do not appear to have any other information about the conspiracy of Canius.

36 'Meministi, Veronae cum rex, avidus exitii communis, majestatis crimen in Albinum delatae ad cunctum senatus ordinem transferre moliretur, universi innocentiam senatus quanta mei periculi securitate defenderim.'

37 'Ob ambitum dignitatis sacrilegio me conscientiam polluisse mentiti sunt.'


39 Σύμμαχος καὶ Βοέτιος, ὁ τούτου γαμβρός, εὐπατρίδαι μὲν τὸ ἀνέκαθεν ἤστην, πρώτω δὲ βουλῆς τῆς Ῥωμαίων καὶ ὑπάτω ἐγενέσθην. Ἄμφω τε φιλοσοφίαν ἀσκήσαντε καὶ δικαιοσύνης ἐπιμελησαμένω οὐδενὸς ἧσσον, πολλοῖς τε ἀστῶν καὶ ξένων χρήμασι τὴν ἀπορίαν ἰασαμένω καὶ δόξης ἐπὶ μέγα χωρήσαντε ἄνδρας ἐς φθόνον τοὺς πικροτάτους ἐπηγαγέτην. Οἷς δὴ συκοφαντοῦσι Θευδέριχος ἀναπεισθείς, ἅτε νεωτέροις πράγμασιν ἐγχειροῦντας, τὼ ἄνδρε τούτω ἔκτεινε καὶ τὰ χρήματα ἐς τὸ δημόσιον ἀνάγραπτα ἐποιήσατο (Procopius, De Bello Gothico, I.1; p11, ed. Bonn).

40 Take for instance Cod. Theod. IX.16.12: 'Mathematicos, nisi parati sint, Codicibus erroris proprii sub oculis Episcoporum incendio concrematis, Catholicae religionis cultui fidem tradere, nunquam ad errorem praeteritum redituri, non solum Urbe Roma, sed etiam omnibus civitatibus pelli decernimus.' This law was passed by Honorius in 409, a year before Alaric's capture of Rome.

41 In fact he half confesses a belief in astrology in the following passage of the 'Consolation': 'Sive igitur famulantibus quibusdam providentiae divinis spiritibus fatum exercetur — seu caelestibus siderum motibus' (IV.6).

42 Opilio. We may fairly assume that the Opilio who was Consul in 483 was grandfather of Cyprian. Whether the Opilio who was Consul in 523 was father or brother of Cyprian we have no means of deciding. The former seems slightly the more probable theory.

43 Count of the Sacred Largesses. The appointment was 'at the third Indiction.' This might be either 509 or 524, but the latter is much the more probable date.

44 Cass. Var. IV.22, 23.

45 'Amicitiis ille praestat fidem; sed magnam promissis debet iste constantiam. Ille quoque avaritia vacuus, et iste a cupiditatibus probatur alienus. Hinc est quod norunt regibus servare fidem, quia nesciunt vel inter aequales exercere perfidiam. . . . Quomodo ergo sub puritate non serviant dominis suis, qui nesciunt illusisse collegis' (Cass. Var. VIII.17).

46 Variarum, V.3 and 4.

47 IV.17.

48 Quoted in the notes to Ennodius, l.c. (Migne, LXIII.78).

49 'Mox'.

50 The literal accuracy of the Anonymus is also rendered doubtful by the fact that both Anastasius Bibliothecarius (in the life of Pope John; Muratori, III.126) and Agnellus (Liber Pontificalis, ed. Holder Egger, p304) speak of Boethius as beheaded.

Thayer's Note: The reader will have noted that, strictly speaking, Anastasius merely says Boethius was killed "with a sword" ("Theodericus Rex haereticus tenuit duos Senatores praeclaros, et ex‑consules Symmachum, et Boëtium, et occidit, interficiens gladio.") — which is still not the cudgel mentioned in the Anonymus Valesianus. Agnellus, however, is unambiguous: Symmachus and Boethius had their heads cut off with axes.

51 In the original Π and Θ for Πρακτική and Θεωρητική.

52 And Boethius adds — but here, I think, his desire to point a moral leads him to spoil his picture — that the lady's garment is all in rags, having been rent by the hands of violent men, who wave as trophies the pieces which they have torn away. These are sects of Philosophy, each of which has got hold of a little fragment of truth which it vaunts as its own.

53 We have here an interesting notice as to the decay of the Praetorship and the Praefectura Annonae, once offices held in high esteem: 'Atqui praetura, magna olim potestas, nunc inane nomen est, et senatorii census gravis sarcina. Si quis quondam populi curasset annonam, magnus habetur: nunc ea praefectura quid abjectius?'

54 'Et magna quidem, inquit, [sunt] supplicia post defunctum morte corpus: quorum alia poenali acerbitate. alia vero purgatoria clementia exerceri puto. Sed nunc de his disserere consilium non est' (IV.4; p102, ed. Peiper). We have here at least one of the sources from which Medieval Theology derived the name and the doctrine of Purgatory.

55 Borrowed from Proclus (see Maurice, Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, II.127, III.23, ed. 1854‑1857).

56 This passage on Divine Grace (V.3, p129, ed. Peiper) is remarkable, both for its Christian sound, and also because in the Augustinian scheme Divine Grace is the agent which destroys, or seems to destroy, Free-will in Man.

57 This precise illustration is not used by Boethius.

58 The distinction here drawn out at considerable length between Eternity and mere indefinite prolongation of Time has an important bearing on some recent theological controversies (Phil. Cons. V.6, pp139‑141, ed. Peiper).

59 'Unde non praevidentia sed providentia potius dicitur, quod porro a rebus infimis constituta quasi ab excelso rerum cacumine cuncta prospiciat.'

60 In making this statement I assume that Peiper's apparently very careful 'Index Locorum quos Boetius ex Senecae Tragoediis transtulit' contains the whole sum of these borrowings. To state, as one writer does, that 'the verses are almost entirely borrowed from Seneca' is surely unfair to the later poet.

61 I quote from the translation in the 'Jubilee' edition of the works of King Alfred the Great.

62 King Alfred made both a prose translation and a metrical one.

63 Duke (Herzog). Cf. Freeman's Norman Conquest, I.591.

64 In Holbein's picture, Sir Thomas More's daughter Margaret is painted with the Consolation of Philosophy in her hand. More himself, when in prison, wrote 'A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation,' evidently in imitation of the famous 'Consolation,' but not proceeding on the same lines. Inasmuch as 'the comforts devised by the old Paynim philosophers were insufficient,' More shows how all needful comfort may be derived from the Christian faith. The book, which is really designed to strengthen the English Catholics under the persecution of Henry VIII, professes to be a dialogue between two Hungarians, an uncle and a nephew, as to the best means of strengthening themselves to endure the persecutions of the Turks.

65 See Note H.

Thayer's Note:

a One is reminded of Apuleius being accused of witchcraft because he brushes his teeth and studies fish (Apologia pro se de magia).

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