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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 18, §§6‑10
This webpage reproduces a section of
History of the Later Roman Empire

by J. B. Bury

published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. 19, §§1‑3


(Part 5 of 5)

§ 11. Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Benedict

The power of the Ostrogoths was not yet broken. They were soon to regain much that they had lost, and under a new warrior king to wage a war which was well-nigh fatal to the ambitions of Justinian. But before we proceed to the second chapter of the reconquest of Italy, we may glance at the peaceful work of three eminent Italians who shed lustre on the Ostrogothic period, and secured a higher place in the eyes of posterity than the kings and warrior who in their own lifetime possessed the stage.

It is hardly too much to say that Boethius had a more genuine literary talent than any of his contemporaries, either Latin or Greek. We have seen how he composed in prison the "golden volume"​139 which has immortalised him, the Consolation of Philosophy. It was one of the best known and most widely read books throughout the Middle Ages, notwithstanding the fact that it ignores Christianity,​140 though its Platonism has a Christian colouring. It was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred, and into English by Chaucer.141

The Consolation of Philosophy has indeed a considerable charm, which is increased by the recollection of the circumstances in which it was composed. A student who, maintaining indeed a lukewarm connection with politics, had spent most of his days in the calm atmosphere of his library, where he expected to end his life, suddenly found himself in the confinement of a dismal  p217  prison with death impending over him. There is thus in his philosophical meditations an earnestness born of a real need of consolation, while at the same time there is a pervading serenity. Poems, sometimes lyrical, sometimes elegiac, break the discussion at intervals,​142 like organ chants in a religious service.

The problem of the treatise​143 is to explain the "unjust confusion" which exists in the world, the eternal question how the fact that the evil win often the rewards of virtue (pretium scelerisdiadema) and the good suffer the penalties of crime, can be reconciled with a "deus, rector mundi." If I could believe, says Boethius, that all things were determined by chance and hazard, I should not be so perplexed. In one place he defines the relation of fate to the Deity in the sense that fate is a sort of instrument by which God regulates the world according to fixed rules. In other words, fate is the law of phenomena or nature, under the control of the Supreme Being, which he identifies with the Summum Bonum or highest good. His discussion of the subject is not very illuminating — did it really satisfy him?

But the metaphysical discussion does not interest the student of literature so much as the setting of the piece and things said incidentally.​144 Boethius imagines his couch surrounded by the Muses of poetry, who suggest to him accents of lamentation. Suddenly there appears at his head a strange lady of lofty visage. There was marvellous fluidity in her stature; she seemed sometimes of ordinary human height, and at the next moment her head touched heaven, or penetrated so far into its recesses that her face was lost to the vision. Her eyes too were unnatural, brilliant and transparent beyond the power of human eyes,  p218  of fresh colour and unquenchable vigour. And yet at the same time she seemed so ancient of days "that she could not be taken for a woman of our age." Her garments were of the finest threads, woven by some secret art into an indissoluble texture, woven, as she told Boethius, by her own hands. And on this robe there was a certain mist of neglected antiquity, the sort of colour that statues have which have been exposed to smoke. On the lower edge of the robe was the Greek letter Π (the initial of Πρακτική, Practical Philosophy), from which stairs were worked leading upwards to the letter Θ (Θεωρητική, Pure Philosophy). And her garment had the marks of violent usage, as though rough persons had tried to rend it from her and carried away shreds in their hands. The lady was Philosophia; she bore a sceptre and parchment rolls. She afterwards explained that the violent persons who had rent her robe were the Epicureans, Stoics, and other late schools; they succeeded in tearing away patches of her dress, fancying severally that they had obtained the whole garment. Philosophia's first act is to drive out the Muses, whom she disdainfully terms "theatrical strumpets," and she remarks that poetry "accustoms the minds of men to the disease but does not set them free."145

A striking feature of the Consolatio is the interspersion of the prose dialogue with poems at certain intervals, which, like choruses in Greek tragedy, appertain to the proceeding argument. Thus the work resembles in form Dante's Vita Nuova, where the sonnets gather up in music the feelings occasioned by the narrated events. These poems, which betray the influence of Seneca's plays,​146 have all a charm of their own, and metres of various kinds are gracefully employed.

One poem, constructed with as much care as a sonnet,​147 sings of the "love that moves the sun and stars,"

hanc rerum series ligat

terras ac pelagus regens

et caelo imperitans amor,

an idea familiar to modern readers from the last line of Dante's Divina Commedia, but which is as old as Empedocles. As  p219  an example of his metrical devices take two lines of a stanza, where the author is illustrating the return of nature to itself by a caged bird, which, when it beholds the green wood once more, spurns the sprinkled crumbs —

silvas tantum maesta requirit,

silvas tantum voce susurrat.

Immediately after this poem Boethius proceeds, "Ye too, O creatures of earth! albeit in a vague image, yet do ye dream of your origin" (vos quoque, O terrena animalia! tenui licet imagine vestrum tamen principium somniatis).

The delicate feeling of Boethius for metrical effect may be illustrated by the poem on the protracted toils of the siege of Troy and the labours of Hercules. It is written in Sapphic metre, but the short fourth lines are omitted until the end. The effect of this device is that the mind and voice of the reader continue to travel without relief or metrical resting-place until all the labours are over and heavenly rest succeeds in the stars of the concluding and only Adonius —

superata tellus

sidera donat.

If the Consolation had never been written, Boethius would still have had his place in the list of men who have done service to humanity. Possessing the multifarious learning characteristic of the time, he devoted himself especially to the philosophy of the great masters, Plato and Aristotle, and at an early age he conceived the ambitious idea of translating into Latin, and writing commentaries on, all their works.​148 Of this task of a lifetime he succeeded only in completing the logical works of Aristotle, but these translations were of capital importance, in keeping alive the study of logic throughout the Middle Ages,​149 and he raised the question as to the nature of genera and species, which was to be fought out towards the end of that period in the debate between the Nominalists and the Realists. His polymathy carried him into other fields. He translated (perhaps)  p220  the Geometry of Euclid,​150 wrote treatises on arithmetic and music, and even ventured into the region of theological doctrine.​151 Though he was a professing Christian, he did not yield to Symmachus, the illustrious pagan ancestor of his wife, in enthusiasm for the ancients, and his aim was to keep alive in Italy the quickening influence of Greek science.​152 Writing in the year of his consul­ship (A.D. 510), he said, "The cares of office hinder me from devoting all my time to these studies (in logic), but I think it may be considered of some public utility to instruct my fellow-citizens in the subject."153

The other eminent man of letters, who shed a certain lustre on Ostrogothic Italy, Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator,​154 was of inferior fibre to Boethius in literary taste as well as in personal character, but he was no less genuinely interested in intellectual pursuits, and posterity owes him an even greater debt. The Cassiodori, who seem originally to have come from Syria, acquired an estate at Scyllacium (Squillace) on the eastern coast of Bruttii. The great-grandfather of Cassiodorus successfully defended this province and Sicily against raids of the Vandals.​155 His grandfather, a friend of Aetius, was employed on an embassy to the Huns,​156 and we have seen how his father filled high posts under Odovacar and Theoderic. Born himself not long before Theoderic's invasion, he was a boy when his father became Praetorian Prefect​157 and employed him as a legal assistant in his bureau. He won the king's notice by a panegyric which he pronounced on some public occasion, and was appointed to the high office of Quaestor of the Palace at an unusually early age.​158 In this post he conducted the official correspondence of the  p221  king, and in the composition of State documents he found congenial employment for his rhetorical talent. After he laid down this office (A.D. 511), he seems to have taken no part in public affairs (except in the year of his consul­ship, A.D. 514) till the close of Theoderic's reign, when he was appointed Master of Offices.​159 He continued to hold this dignity in the first years of the following reign, and after an interval of retirement​160 he became Praetorian Prefect, and remained in that post during the stormy years which followed, content to play the ignoble rôle of a time-server, apparently as loyal to Theodahad as he had been to Amalasuntha,​161 and on Theodahad's fall turning without hesitation to the rising sun of Witigis. But we have every reason to believe that throughout his career he did not waver in a sincere conviction that Italy was better off under Ostrogothic government than she would have been under the control of Constantinople. It is possible that he retired from public life before the capture of Ravenna, but while he was still Prefect, he published (A.D. 537) a collection of the official letters and State papers, which he had composed during his three ministries.​162 This collection is a mine of information for the administration and condition of Ostrogothic Italy, and we have to thank perhaps the literary vanity of Cassiodorus for the ample knowledge that we possess of Theoderic's policy; but it bears all the signs of having been carefully expurgated. As the work was published when the issue of the war was uncertain, he consulted his own interests by cutting out anything that could offend either the Emperor or the Goths,​163 and it is probable that many documents which would clear up some of our uncertainties as to the relations between Ravenna and Constantinople have been omitted altogether.

Few rhetorical compositions, and perhaps no public documents, offer greater difficulties to the reader when he attempts to arrive  p222  at the plain fact which the author intends to convey. "It is ornament alone," he says in his Preface, "that distinguishes the learned from the unlearned," and, true to this maxim of decadent rhetoric, he obscures the simplest and most trivial statements in a cloud of embellishments. But to appreciate his inflated style we must remember that he was, after all, only improving upon what had been, since Diocletian, the traditional style of the Imperial chancery. We have innumerable constitutions of the fourth and fifth centuries, in which the vices of adornment and contorted phraseology make it a laborious task to discover the meaning. Cassiodorus exerted his ingenuity and command of language in elaborating the sublime style, always frigid, but ludicrously inappropriate to legal documents and State papers.

In his later years Cassiodorus betook himself to his ancestral estate at Squillace,​164 and devoted the rest of a long life to religion and literature. He became a monk and founded two monasteries, one, up in the hills at Castellum, a hermitage for those who desired solitary austerity, the other, built inside the fish-ponds of his own domain and hence called Vivarium, for monks who were content to live in the less strict conditions of a monastic society. At Vivarium, where he lived himself, Cassiodorus introduced a novelty​165 which led to fruitful results for posterity. He conceived the idea of occupying the abundant leisure of the brethren with the task of multiplying copies of Latin texts. There was a chamber known as the scriptorium or "writing-room" in the monastery, in which those monks who had a capacity for intellectual labour, used to copy both pagan and Christian books, working at night by the light of self-filling "mechanical lamps." It is well known that the preservation of our heritage of Latin literature is mainly due to the labours of monastic copyists. The originator of the idea was Cassiodorus. His example was adopted in other religious establishments, and monastic libraries came to be a regular institution.

 p223  Most of the works of Cassiodorus have come down to us. The great exception is his History of the Ostrogoths, in which he attempted to reconstruct a historical past for the Gothic race.​166 Starting with the two false assumptions that the Goths were identical on the one hand with the Getae and on the other hand with the Scythians, he was able to produce, for the records of Greek and Roman antiquity, a narrative which represented them as playing a great part on the stage of history at a time when they were really living in obscurity on the Lower Vistula, utterly beyond the horizon of Mediterranean civilisation.

The principal works of his later years were intended for the instruction of his monks — the Institutions and a treatise on Orthography. The Institutions consisted of two independent parts, of which the first, De institutione divinarum litterarum, was intended as an introduction to the study of the manuscripts of the Bible,​167 and contains an interesting disquisition on the question of correcting the text. The second part is a handbook on the Seven Liberal Arts. The two together offered a general survey of sacred and secular learning.​168 The manual on spelling was composed, for the guidance of copyists, in the ninety-third year of his age (c. A.D. 580).​169 Thus he had lived to see great changes. He had witnessed the complete subjugation of Italy by Justinian, and when, at the age of eighty, he saw many of its provinces pass under the yoke of the Lombard barbarians, it may well have occurred to him that if the Ostrogothic rule had  p224  been allowed to continue this calamity would have been spared to his fellow-countrymen.

While Boethius was immersed in the study of philosophy in his library, with its walls decorated with ivory and glass, and while Cassiodorus was engaged in his political and rhetorical labours in the Palace at Ravenna, another young man, of about the same age as they, who was destined to exert a greater influence over western Europe than any of his Italian contemporaries, was spending his days in austere religious practices in the wild valleys of the upper Anio. St. Benedict, who belonged to the same Anician gens as Boethius, was born at Nursia, in an Apennine valley, about twenty miles east of Spoleto.​170 Sent to Rome to study, he was so deeply disgusted by the corruption of his school companions and by the vice of the great city, that at the age of fourteen he set out with a faithful nurse for the "desert," and at length took up his abode in a cave at Sublaqueum (Subiaco), near the sources of the Anio, where he lived as a hermit. The temptations which he resisted, the perils which he escaped, and the legends which rapidly gathered round him, may be read in the biography written by his admirer, Pope Gregory the Great.​171 After his fame had gone abroad, his solitude was interrupted, for men who desired to embrace the monastic life flocked to him from all parts. He founded twelve monasteries in the neighbourhood of Subiaco. In A.D. 528 he left the peaceful region and went into Campania, where, at Monte Cassino, halfway between Rome and Naples, he found a congenial task awaiting him. Here, notwithstanding all the efforts of Christian Emperors and priests to extirpate the old religions, there still stood an altar and statue of Apollo in a sacred grove, and the surrounding inhabitants practised the rites of pagan superstition. Benedict induced them to burn the grove and demolish the altar and image, and on the height above he founded the great monastery where he lived till his death. The Rule which he drew up for his monks avoids the austerities of Egyptian monasticism, and he expressly says that he wished to ordain nothing hard or burdensome.​172 Within three hundred years this code of laws had superseded all others in western Europe, where it held much the same position as St. Basil's in the East.173

 p225  Benedict himself did not anticipate that the order which he founded would ultimately become the learned order in the Church. He ordained that "because idleness is an enemy of the soul," the brethren should occupy themselves "at specified times in manual labour, and at other fixed hours in holy reading,"​174 but there is no indication that he included in manual labour the transcription of MSS.175 Probably this was not introduced at Monte Cassino till after his death, under the influence of Cassiodorus.


It may be convenient to the reader to have before him a table showing some of the distances on the routes between Italy and the East.

Rome to Brundusium (Via Appia)
Constantinople to Dyrrhachium or Aulon (Via Egnatia)
Rome to Constantinople
+ sea passage of at least 24 hours (total time of the journey — 23 to 26 days), but messengers in haste could do it in between 2 and 3 weeks.
Rome to Ravenna (Via Flaminia)
Ravenna to Aquileia (coast road)
Aquileia to Constantinople (via Poetovio)
Aquileia to Salona
Salona to Dyrrhachium
(These numbers are approximate. Note that a Roman mile = nearly 1½ kilometres.)

The usual rate of travelling, on horseback, varied from 60 to 75 kilometres daily. The regular rate of marching for an army was from 15 to 17 kilometres, but might be considerably more if the army was small or when there was a special need for haste.

The average rate of sailing was from 100 to 150 sea miles in 24 hours.

The Author's Notes:

139 "Not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully," Gibbon, iv p415. On Boethius cp. Ebert, Gesch. der Litt. des Mittelalters,º i.485 sqq.; H. F. Stewart, Boethius.

140 Stewart (op. cit. 106 sqq.) would explain this by the view that the work "is intensely artificial." The verses, he says, are smooth and cold. There is "nothing that suggests a heart beating itself out against the bars of its prison." Thus the book does not express the personal beliefs of the author, who composed simply as a diversion, to pass the time.

141 And after the Middle Ages by Queen Elizabeth. There were early translations in the principal European languages.

142 This form of mixed verse and prose was originated by the Greek Cynic Menippus, and in later literature had been employed by Varro, Petronius, Seneca, and more recently by Martianus Capella the Neoplatonist (fifth century) in his allegorical work "On the nuptials of Philology and Mercury, and the seven liberal arts." It was probably this work that suggested the form to Boethius.

143 Book I contains the story of the writer's personal wrongs, which he relates to Philosophia; Bk. II a discussion on Fortune; Bk. III passes to the Summum Bonum; in Bk. IV Philosophia justifies God's government; Bk. V deals with free will.

144 It is interesting to notice that Dante's famous verses

Nessun maggior dolore

Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria,

come from Boethius (II.IV). It has been pointed out that the idea occurs in Synesius, Ep. 57 (Sandys, Hist. of Classical Scholarship, I.243, n2). Dante assigned to Boethius a place in the Fourth Heaven.

145 Ed. Peiper, p5: hominumque mentes musae assuefaciunt morbo, non liberant.

146 Peiper in his edition gives a list of passages which contain excerpts from or echoes of Seneca's tragedies.

147 ii. viii. p48; it consists of thirty lines thus arranged, 4+4+4+3 = 4+4+4+3.

148 Περὶ ἑρμηνείας, ii.2.

149 We have also his version and exegesis of the Περὶ ἑρμηνείας, in two forms (one elementary, the other for advanced students). His translation of the Isagoge of Porphyry to Aristotle's Categories was a vulgar handbook in the Middle Ages. He also wrote a commentary on Cicero's Topica.

150 He certainly wrote an original treatise De geometria. It is doubtful whether the extant translation of Euclid ascribed to him is really his.

151 De trinitate, and one or two other tracts. It has been supposed that they were written for a literary society which met every week to read and discuss papers; see Stewart, op. cit. p132.

152 Cp. Cass. Var. I.45 (letter of Theoderic, A.D. 509‑510) quascumque disciplinas vel artes fecunda Graecia per singulos viros edidit, te uno auctore patrio sermone Roma suscepit. Here his various literary activities are enumerated. Ennodius addressed Boethius as an indefatigable student quem in annis puerilibus . . . industria fecit antiquum (Epp. vii.13).

153 Comm. in Arist. Cat. ii. Praef. (Migne, P. L. lxiv.201).

154 His contemporaries called him Senator. The facts known about the family and the dates of his career are summarised by Mommsen in the Prooemium to his edition. On his literary work see Hodgkin, Letters of Cassiodorus; Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, I.244 sqq.

155 Var. I.4. Above, vol. I p258.

156 Ib.

157 About A.D. 501.

158 In his early twenties. His Quaestorship falls between the years 507 and 511.

159 About A.D. 523‑524. In this post he also fulfilled many of the duties of Quaestor (cp. ix.25).

160 A.D. 527‑533.

161 In his Oration on the marriage of Witigis, he condemns Amalasuntha for her education of Athalaric (p473): fas fuit illam sub pietatis excusationis peccare.

162 The Variae thus fall into three chronological groups. (1) quaestoriae, 507‑511 = Books i‑iv; (2) magisteriae, 523‑527 = Books v (except last two letters, A.D. 511), viii, ix.1‑14; (3) praefectoriae, 533‑537 = Books ix.15‑25, x, xi, xii. Books vi and vii contain Formulae for admission to various offices of state. In 540 he added to this collection as Book xiii a treatise De anima.

163 Cp. Mommsen, loc. cit. p. xxii.

164 There is a charming description of the situation and amenities of the town of Squillace in Var. XII.15. After the capture of Ravenna in 539 he seems to have gone to Constantinople and lived there for about fifteen years, returning to Italy after the final conquest of Italy by Narses. At least the reference to him in a letter of Vigilius excommunicating two Italian deacons (Mansi, ix.357) seems to imply that he was at Constantinople about 550. Cp. Sundwall, Abh. p156.

Thayer's Note: For those that Latin disagrees with, see this Italian translation.

165 It had indeed been anticipated in the monastery of St. Martin of Tours, where young monks had practised the copying of MSS. (Sulpicius Severus, Vita S. Mart. vii).

166 On this work (in 12 books), which belongs to the period of leisure between 527 and 533, see his Praefatio to the Variae, and Var. IX.25 (originem Gothicam historiam fecit esse Romanam). For the later history of the Goths he drew on their own traditions, and he used the work of Ablabius, who wrote a Roman history in Greek c. A.D. 400 (he is possibly referred to in Var. X.22). The work of Cassiodorus was liberally used by Jordanes, so that we can form an idea of its scope and contents.

167 Cassiodorus went to much expense in procuring MSS. (De ins. I.8). He mentions a large codex containing Jerome's version of the Scriptures, and "it has been conjectured that part of it survives in the first and oldest quaternion of the codex Amiatinus of the Vulgate, now in the Laurentian Library in Florence" (Sandys, op. cit. i.251).

168 These books were written before A.D. 555. Of his other works need only be mentioned his Commentary on the Psalms and his Ecclesiastical History (Hist. Tripartita).

169 For this work he had the advantage of using, besides older treatises, that of his elder contemporary Priscian (an African provincial), whose Panegyric on Anastasius has been referred to above, vol. I p467. Priscian's Grammar was a standard text-book in the Middle Ages. It was transcribed at Constantinople by a pupil in 526‑527. Sandys, op. cit. 258‑259.

170 A.D. 480.

171 Or in Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, IV chap. XVI.

172 See Prologue.

173 Benedict knew Basil's Rule and refers to it (chap. lxxiii).

174 Reg. Ben. chap. xlviii (Gasquet's translation).

175 The rule that no brother is to keep as his own, without the abbot's leave, books or tablets or pens (chap. xxxiii) proves nothing.

Page updated: 21 Apr 20