2-7. Cass and Bo

We pause to take a look at two of the most famous subjects of Theodoric the Great. Cassiodorus and Boethius were both officials of the court and inheritors of the Roman traditions. They would have very different careers, but both made their mark on posterity in their own ways.

Fortune turns her wheel. Miniature by the Coetivy Master, 1450-1485. The working of the rota fortuna took up most of the second book of Boethius’ On the Consolation of Philosophy, and would be ubiquitous in medieval thought.

When I sat down to write this episode, I intended it to be about Theodoric’s foreign relations, and how he inserted himself into the role of arbiter and primus inter pares among the post-Roman successor kingdoms. I was going to start that off by talking about sources. So I started writing about sources, and then a thousand words later I realized I was still writing about sources; or more accurately, one of the authors of those sources. After a moment of panic that I was not following the assignment and would have to start all over again, I remembered that I gave myself the assignment, and could change it if I wanted to. So we’ll talk about foreign relations next time. 

This time, we’ll talk about two of the bright stars of Theodoric the Great’s court, Cassiodorus, and Boethius.

Both were of noble Roman birth, both rose to prominence at an impressively young age, and both produced writings that would be influential for a long long time into the future. Cassiodorus for a number of historical and theological writings including his history of the goths; Boethius for The Consolation of Philosophy, which bridges the gap between the classical and medieval world views.

Their biographies give us a window into the workings of the upper reaches of Theodoric’s court, as well as a welcome whiff of personality. So with your permission, or even without it, I shall begin. And I shall begin with Cassiodorus. Known as Cassie to his friends at the bar, and Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator to people about to ask him for money.

Last time when I introduced Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, and I painted a relatively rosy picture. After the hideous bloodletting that removed Odoacer’s supporters and ended the war, Italy enjoyed a much-needed period of peace and stability that it hadn’t seen in nearly a century. If that was your impression, I’m pleased to say that it is pretty much true. Internally, Theodoric’s Italy functioned with a minimum of riot, rebellion, or general disorder.

Much of the credit for that must be given to the people Theodoric chose to run his kingdom. 

Theodoric’s vision was of a double kingdom, with a Roman population working the land, paying the taxes, and administering the country, and a Gothic population alongside, fighting the wars and protecting the people. In this society the Roman upper and middle classes found a natural home that was comfortable and familiar. No matter what they may have thought about their gothic overlord, they could fulfill their god-given place in society by serving the state and ensuring its functions and mores remained Roman. We’ve already talked about Liberius, who had ably administered the Gothic settlement; he continued to serve as praetorian prefect for seven years.

Cassiodorus was born to a family of similar rank, sometime between 485 and 490, at Squillace, way down in the toe of Italy. His family was old and his family was rich, and had remained so through all the chaos that we’ve been through together. Casiodorus’s father, also named Casiodorus, had held office under Odoacer, and around the year 500 was tapped by Theodoric to take the newly open post as praetorian prefect.

Nepotism gets a bad rap these days, but that’s a fairly modern attitude. In ancient and medieval times, it was just the way things worked. As soon as his son was old enough, the elder Cassiodorus appointed him as a consilianus. Think of the job as a kind of ancient paralegal, an assistant to help his father untangle thorny legal questions brought before the prefect. It was a good and fairly traditional start for the young man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty years old at the time. He would have been on track for a career in public service, and a relatively distinguished one probably, but a stroke of luck put him on the high-speed rail to the very top. 

An opportunity arose for the younger Cassiodorus to deliver a speech in praise of Theodoric before an assembly of notable citizens. These panegyrics, many of which survive, are an important source for historians, in some cases the only record of military accomplishments and public works. In 507 Cassiodorus’ speech so impressed the king that he was immediately appointed as quaestor, one of the top dozen or so officials in the kingdom.

If the consilianus was a paralegal, the quaestor was a press secretary, combined with chancery duties. Cassiodorus was responsible for writing and delivering speeches on behalf of Theodoric, handling correspondence, and clothing new laws in the expected Latin forms and flourishes. Cassiodorus had a particular flair for flourishes, and it sometimes led to a certain long-winded smugness that can get tiresome if you let it. These communications services were especially valuable to Theodoric, because as far as we can tell, Theodoric didn’t address the senate directly. One source, called the anonymous Valesianus, claims that he was completely illiterate and used a stencil for his signature. Personally, I cannot believe that a man educated for ten years in the noble houses of Constantinople would not be able to read and write in Greek. Theodoric had to have been at least bilingual, in Gothic and Greek. My suspicion is that he could speak Latin, but since he would have come to it relatively late in life, he never was comfortable enough to use it to address the senate, and probably didn’t write very well either. From there some anti-barbarian bias kicks in in the sources to expand out to “totally illiterate”. I don’t buy the stencil at all, how hard would it be to learn a few latin letters?

All of that is beside the point. As quaestor, Cassiodorus became king Theodoric’s official mouthpiece. Obviously this work brought him into contact with the very highest court circles, both Gothic and Roman. It also kept him very busy. He certainly would have had a cadre of secretaries and scribes to assist him, and probably dictated quite a bit, but still. His was a wide and potentially overwhelming remit.

Cassiodorus, in a manuscript of “The Deeds of Theodoric” dated 1176 or ’77.

He served as quaestor until 511, then took a break for a stint in private life. In 514 though, he was brought back into government with the great honor of a consulship, after which he was granted the highest possible civilian rank of patrician, and appointed magister officiorum, master of offices, one of the two or three highest civilian posts. Somewhere in there he found time to turn thirty.

Along with his official duties, he produced a history of the Romans, followed by the History of the Goths that I keep going on about, the one that Jordanes summarized and preserved for us, though in much abridged and mangled form. The Gothic History was probably composed by commission from Theodoric, for political reasons that I’ll talk about more in the next episode. One quick digression though, people who know their latin prose can be quite snippy about late antiquity and the early middle ages. I’m in no position to judge, my latin runs out at “romanes eunt domus”, but I can confirm that in translation, Cassiodorus can be incredibly over-inflated and cumbersome, and apparently Jordanes is worse.

Cassiodorus carried on as magister under Theodoric’s successors, Amalasuentha and Athalaric, and worked in some capacity for the later Ostrogothic king Witigis. I’m sorry for the plot spoiler, but eventually the Ostrogothic kingdom would fall to the Byzantines, and so Cassiodorus’ public employment came to an end. 

He spent some years in Constantinople, then retired to his hometown, where he founded a monastery and began an earnest contemplation of the Lord, and equally earnest advocacy for education. He also wrote several treatises on the Psalms and the Letters of the Apostles, which found their way in fragmentary form into other works. He died in or around 583, at an impressive age, between 90 and 94.

For us, the most important of his works, and the one which has survived most completely, is the collection of diplomatic and administrative letters from his long career. Known as the Variae, which just refers to “Various Letters”, he compiled it at the very end of his tenure, as it was becoming obvious that the wheels had come off the Ostrogothic kingdom, and that conquest was inevitable. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine that the Byzantine invaders may have some hard questions for the Romans who had collaborated with the Barbarian Regime. Conveniently forgetting, of course, that Theodoric had gone to Italy with Zeno’s blessing in the first place. Historian Peter Heather suggests that we need to look at the Variae in this context. I’m with him on this, Cassiodorus is very careful and deliberate in the letters he selected for inclusion in his memoir. He consistently presents Theodoric and his successors as custodians of Romanitas, and himself as their guide, maintaining the old roman Civilitas and preventing it from being overwhelmed by barbarian rule. It is, in other words, an early example of CYA.

Even if we don’t accept that the Variae were compiled in fear, then it is still certainly a political memoir. And if you think political memoirs contain nothing but truth, justice, and light, then you hang on to that for as long as you can, you pure thing. Come back to us when you’ve gotten just a tiny bit more cynical.

None of that keeps the Variae from being a valuable source and at times an amusing window into the waters in which Cassiodorus swam.

So like what, I hear you ask in moderate frustration. Well I’m glad you asked. Let’s start with this one as an example, a letter from the King to the Senate of Rome:

“Do not, Senators, be too severe in marking every idle word which the mob may utter amidst the general rejoicing. If there is any insult which requires notice, bring it before the prefect of the city; a far better course than taking the law into your own hands.” 

Apparently the city elite were taking exception to some of the heckling they experienced at the races. This letter in particular is weakened a bit by Cassiodorus adding unnecessary intellectual flourishes, which was a habit of his, especially when addressing his social peers, “Men in old times always used to fight with their fists, whence the word pugna, [latin for fight, from pugnus, fist]. Afterwards iron was introduced by king Belus, and hence came bellum [latin for war].” Not terribly helpful or pertinent, and also, in the case of the latter, wrong.

Another letter was addressed to the Roman people, “The circus, on which the King spends so much money, is meant for the public delight, not to stir up wrath. Instead of uttering howls and insults like other nations … let them tune their voices so that their applause shall sound like some vast organ, and even the most brutish of creation delights to hear it…Anyone uttering outrageous reproaches against any senator will be dealt with by the prefect of the city.”

Finally, the letter that was sent to the prefect of the city, named Agapitus:

“The ruler of the city ought to keep the peace and so justify my choice of him. [ooh, snap] Your highest praise is a quiet people…We have issued our oracles to the senate and to the people, that the custom of insulting persons in the Circus be put under some restraint. On the other hand, any senator who shall be provoked to kill a free-born person shall pay a fine. The games are meant to make people happy, not to stir them up to deadly rage. Helladius [a pantomime performer – a clown, basically], is to go forth and afford the people pleasure, and he is to receive his monthly allowance with the other actors of the Green Faction.”

It gives some color, doesn’t it? The rebuke of the senators for being grumpy old farts, the reminder to the crowd that the circus is a privilege, not a right, and could we all use our indoor voices please?, and the reminder to Agapitus that he needs to keep his people in check, with the mild threat to his job at the beginning, . 

But Cassiodorus had a larger point in including these three letters. He’s trying to demonstrate Theodoric’s – and his own – commitment to public order, the highest function of government, in the Roman worldview, while also maintaining fairness. The senators are to settle down and not be so quick to offense, the mob is also to settle down and quit being so obnoxious, and the city prefect is ordered to make sure that senators that go a little overboard are punished. I know, it’s just a fine, but come on, you can’t put rich people in jail, especially for little things like killing peasants. Good thing that that’s changed. The hiring of the pantomimist as an added sop to the hoi polloi is a nice touch as well.

That’s not quite the end of this story, as there is one more letter to Agapitus: “Our serenity is not going to change the arrangements which we have made for the public good. We told [our agents] to choose the most fitting person they could find to be the pantomimist for the Greens. They have done so. He will have his monthly allowance, and let there be peace.”

We don’t know what the objection was to Helladius, but apparently Agapitus was refusing to pay him, and Theodoric had to remind him who was boss. I find it amusing, anyway, though I actually doubt whether theodoric himself got involved at this specific level, it seems like exactly the kind of thing a good subordinate keeps off his boss’s desk. I suspect we are hearing Cassiodorus himself dealing with the problem of over-excited Circus-goers.

Another letter, which I find funny, also in a “more things change, the more they stay the same” kind of way, is this one addressed to “all the Goths and Romans”: “Most worthy of Royal attention is the rebuilding of ancient cities, an adornment in time of peace, a precaution of war. Therefore, if anyone has in their fields stones suitable for the building of walls, let him cheerfully produce them. Even though he should be paid a low rate, he will have his reward as a member of the community, and will benefit thereby.” Government, eh?

I could go through these for the whole episode, and they will take up more space next time as we move to talk about diplomatic stuff, but for now, just as a matter of interest, I want to read from one more:

“The liberality of the prince must be kept firm and unshaken by the arts of malignant men. Therefore any gift which shall be proved to have been given according to our orders by the Patrician Liberius, to you or to your mother, in writing, shall remain in full force, and you need not fear its being questioned.”

This letter was addressed to someone named Romulus. It is possible, and in my mind, probable, that this is Romulus Augustulus, the deposed emperor. He seems to have been made anxious by the change in leadership as Liberius exited his post, and has written to make sure that his stipend will keep coming. This letter, which can’t have been written later than 511, is the last possible reference to the unfortunate boy that surrendered to Odoacer all those years ago. As I think I said at the time, he would have been in his late forties by now, living still in comfortable obscurity near Naples. I just thought it was worth mentioning.

Such a fate would have been deeply, deeply attractive to the second of our two subjects, Boethius, different as it was from his own. 

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was from stock just as noble and familiar with proper table settings as Cassiodorus. Of similar age to Cassiodorus, maybe a few years older, he lost his father at an early age and was adopted by another noble named Symmachus. Boethius cemented his association with Symmachus by later marrying his foster-father’s daughter – proving that the Roman tradition of marriages that seem vaguely icky to us today. Boethius learned to speak and write Greek with great skill, which was becoming less and less common in the west, and spent his early career translating Greek classics into Latin, notably Plato and Aristotle. For a long time afterward, these were the only transcriptions of these works that were available in the West. He entered royal service and like Cassiodorus, rose quickly. Theodoric seems to have recognized talent and had little to no patience for rules of seniority or anything like that. Boethius was a senator by age 25 and named consul in 510, four years before Cassiodorus. 

Boethius being consoled by the allegorical figure of Philosophy.

He appears occasionally in the Variae, given odd jobs that hint at a reputation for good taste and moral uprightness. He’s tasked with sourcing a water-clock to send to the Burgundians as a gift, and a lyre-player to send to the Franks. He investigated allegations of corruption on the part of the captain of the king’s bodyguard. That uprightness kept him in overall good odor with the king, and he was named magister officiorum, but made him few friends at court. Nobody likes the internal affairs guy. A combination of that unpopularity and a shift in international relations brought Boethius’ career to an early and unpleasant end.

The international stuff can wait til next time, except to say that there was a new emperor in Constantinople, Justin I, and his relationship with Theodoric was less than ideal. At a royal council meeting in 523, a senator named Albinus was accused of writing to the emperor with treasonous intent. At this, Boethius rose to defend Albinus, saying, “The charge is false, but if Albinus did that, then so have I and so have I and the whole senate with one accord done it. It is false.” I think what he was going for was to say that if there was treasonous correspondence, it would have come from the whole senate as a body, and since that was clearly ridiculous, then the charge against Albinus was nonsense. Maybe? But he could certainly have worded it better, and the same accusation was leveled against Boethius. Witnesses were produced against him, and Boethius was arrested and imprisoned. A short time later, his father in law was also arrested, and the two were accused of planning to overthrow the king.

Was he guilty? It’s very hard to say at this distance. I have no doubt that he was writing back and forth to Constantinople regularly, as he was deeply engaged in trying to heal the widening rifts between the eastern and western churches, and some of those letters could probably have been interpreted in a negative light if you were disposed against him. The incident doesn’t appear in Cassiodorus’ letters, but the witnesses do, and are described as honorable men, though that may just be a matter of form. Most convincing to me is Boethius’ own words, written while imprisoned at a remote country house. It’s not so much what he says, as the sense of hurt and injustice in the way he says it that convinces me that he didn’t knowingly seek to do his king any harm. Maybe that’s naive of me, if it is, I can live with that.

It didn’t matter, though. After a few months in prison, Boethius was tortured and executed. Several versions of the execution are out there, hanging, beheading, or being beaten to death. He was around 44 years old. It was a sad end for a promising man. 

Before he died, he produced his most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy, a dialogue between himself, languishing in prison, and the personification of philosophy, “a woman of exceedingly venerable countenance.” He complains about his situation, how unfair it is to be treated so, and how depressed he is, all of which is, really, fair enough. She comforts him, and their dialogue focuses heavily on the role of fortune in the life of mankind, as well as wrestling with the old old old question, how can evil exist if God is all knowing and all powerful? It’s worth a read, honestly, or a listen, there’s a free version on Librivox. It’s relatively short, for an audiobook, you can get through it in an afternoon.

Several of The Consolation’s themes would become important in medieval thought, and it was widely read and translated – including by Alfred the Great. Most interestingly, it makes no explicit reference to Christianity, though it does address the creator. It’s not explicitly pagan either, Boethius’ philosophy is compatible both with Christian ethics and theology and their neoplatonic counterparts, it prioritizes personal virtue and integrity as the greatest good, as it can not be taken away. This blending of the Classical tradition with the Christian would be the central pillar supporting medieval Christianity until the Renaissance.

Now I did subject you to plenty of quotes from the Variae, what kind of podcaster would I be if I didn’t do the same with the Consolation? Here we go then, three quotes on the nature of fortune:

“You believe Fortune to have changed towards you; you are wrong. This was always her way, always her nature. Rather in her very mutability she has preserved her true constancy. Such was she when she loaded you with caresses, when she deluded you with the allurements of a false happiness. You have found out how changeful is the face of the blind goddess. She who still veils herself from others has revealed to you her whole character. If you like her, take her as she is, and do not complain. If you abhor her perfidy, turn from her in disdain, renounce her, for baneful are her delusions.”


“You have resigned yourself to the sway of Fortune; you must submit to your mistress’s caprices. What, will you try to stay the swing of the revolving wheel? Oh, stupidest of mortals, if it stands still, it ceases to be the wheel of Fortune.”


“For truly I believe that Ill Fortune is of more use to men than Good Fortune. For Good Fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, … is always lying; Ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she shows her inconstancy. The one deceives, the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favor by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness.” 

These are all from book two of the six. There’s more, much more, and I’ll be honest that the last book, about the nature of free will, is where he lost me, but this theme of the Rota Fortuna, fortune’s wheel, will be pretty much ubiquitous in European culture going forward.

Both Cassiodorus and Boethius can be seen as the last of something. They were products of a  thorough classical education, and of the world view of the Roman aristocrat; literate, civic-minded, arrogant in a very specific way that is qualitatively distinct from the arrogance of the later martial nobility. The attitude had survived transitions from republic to empire, survived the crises of the third century, survived and incorporated the conversion to Christianity. Older writers like to emphasize this. In the late 19th century, the Historian Thomas Hodgkin described Cassiodorus as standing on the border “between the Roman and the Teutonic worlds”. Modern historians aren’t as comfortable with hard lines like that, of course, but it’s hard not to see Hodgkin’s point. The world of the west was changing. It took 75 years after the supposed end of the Roman empire for its death to become truly irreversible, but eventually it did. Cassiodorus lived to see it, Boethius was in a way a victim of it.  The Roman Way would remain as a guide and aspiration to the kingdoms that come after, but the world that could produce Cass and Bo was coming to a close. 



Boethius. 2004. On the Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by H. R. James. N.p.: Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14328/pg14328-images.html.

Cassiodorus. 2006. The Letters of Cassiodorus. Translated by Thomas Hodgkin. N.p.: The Gutenberg Project. https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/18590/pg18590-images.html.

Heather, Peter J. 2014. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders. N.p.: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: