Cassiodorus c. 490-c. 583
(Full name Flavius Magnus Cassiodorus.) Latin prose writer and statesman.
Cassiodorus is best known for dedicating himself and his monastery to the preservation of ancient pagan and Christian texts at a time when Italy was threatened by invaders and its intellectual development was deteriorating. Many scholars have described Cassiodorus as poised between the ancient and medieval worlds. His works are typically divided into two periods: those composed before his retirement from public life, including the Variae Epistolae and the History of the Goths, and those written after he began monastic life, including Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum.
Born into a respected senatorial family from southern Italy, Cassiodorus entered public office. After serving as quaestor, or private secretary, to Theodoric, the Ostrogothic King of Italy, he held the post of magister officiorum from 523 through 526, succeeding Boethius. Under the next king, Ahalaric, he became praetorian prefect, in 533. In 535 and under the rule of another new king, Cassiodorus attempted to establish a theological college in Rome, but the endeavor failed. He retired in 537, devoting himself to religion and scholarship. Byzantine troops took him prisoner in 540 and sent him to Constantinople. He was returned some years later, during the 550s, after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian had captured control of Italy from the Ostrogoths. At this time, Cassiodorus returned to his family's estate and created a hermitage and a monastic institution he named Vivarium. Here Cassiodorus systematized a process by which multiple copies of manuscripts could be transcribed. Under his direction, numerous ancient texts were translated and copied by monks.
Scholars consider the Variae and his History of the Gothsthe most significant works of Cassiodorus's public career. The Variae, a twelve-volume work, consists of letters and state documents written and collected by Cassiodorus during his life in office. Widely viewed as perhaps the most important of Cassiodorus's works of his public life, the History of the Goths was comprised of twelve books, none of which is now extant. A summary exists in the form of Jordanes' Getica. The History portrays the Goths favorably and seems to encourage a peaceful relationship between Goths and Romans. During these years Cassiodorus also composed a philosophical treatise on the nature of the soul, De Anima, as well as Chronica, a survey of world history through the year 519. Institutiones, the central work of his retired life, was designed to instruct his monks on sacred, as well as pagan, scholarship. The first portion of this work focuses on the study of Holy Scripture; the second portion deals with a survey of the liberal arts and provides what may be described as a summary of secular scholarship. In addition to editing various translations of ancient texts and an ecclesiastical history, Cassiodorus also wrote a treatise on spelling, De Orthographia, designed as a tool for copyists.
Many modern critics have asserted that Cassiodorus's achievements have been overlooked and they have attempted to rectify that situation by evaluating his career and influence. Jacob Hammer surveys Cassiodorus's life and writings, and notes that Cassiodorus revived Italy's intellectual life when it was in “utter decay.” Similarly, S. J. B. Barnish focuses on Cassiodorus' influence, maintaining that both before and after he retired from public life, Cassiodorus used his writings to inspire the lay and religious public in matters concerned with politics, religion, and culture. Taking a different approach, Leslie Webber Jones examines literary and historical references to Cassiodorus and his work from the time of Cassiodorus' death through the late thirteenth century, in an attempt to gauge his influence on later culture. Jones finds that in their preservation of the writings of the Church Fathers and ancient Latin writers, Cassiodorus's works proved to be “extremely useful” to the Middle Ages.
Other critics focus their analyses on Cassiodorus's three major works: the Variae, the Institutiones, and the History of the Goths. In his study of the Institutiones, Rand examines the title of the work and various manuscript issues. Rand maintains that Cassiodorus's aim in this work was to nurture the “proper” attitude toward Holy Scripture so that it could be understood and passed on to later generations. Leslie Webber Jones analyzes the content of the work and observes in particular that Cassiodorus was careful to emphasize that secular writers should not be neglected in scriptural study, and that he stressed learning as a way to better understand Scripture. Jones also studies the style and vocabulary of the Institutiones, describing the style as wordy, elaborate, and informed by Cassiodorus's desire for balance.
Offering an introduction to the Variae, Barnish studies the work's compilation, content, character, and style, as well as its reliability as a historical resource. Its political themes, he notes, include Italy's defense, the relationship between the Goths and the Franks, and diplomacy with Byzantium. The style is ornate and rhythmical and demonstrates Cassiodorus's facility and originality in his use of metaphor and digression, Barnish states. The critic does note that, as history, the work is not entirely reliable, as evidenced by examples of its “overt propaganda.” James J. O'Donnell likewise comments on the slant of the Variae, arguing that while Cassiodorus praised the virtues of Gothic rule and emphasized its success, he did not intend the work as a polemical treatise. Similarly, Robin Macpherson notes the use of “politic falsehood” in the work, but maintains that this was a practice typical of the institutional world of late Rome. Macpherson also discusses the language of the Variae, noting the proliferation of abstract nouns, Cassiodorus's use of simple syntax, and his use of action-nouns.
The Gothic history is of major interest to critics despite the fact that it exists only in excerpts and in Jordanes's summary, Getica. Barnish examines Cassiodorus's purpose in writing the History of the Goths, as well as the circumstances surrounding Jordanes' composition of his summary. The work, argues Barnish, was designed to celebrate the Goths, their royal lineage, and their political achievements. Arnaldo Momigliano analyzes the way in which the political atmosphere in Italy influenced Cassiodorus's writings, especially the History of the Goths. Explaining that there existed an awareness of a possible rebellion against the Gothic government of Ravenna, Momigliano asserts that the History of the Goths was intended to advocate pacific coexistence between the Goths and the Romans. Additionally, the critic observes that the political message of the Gothic history reflects that of the Variae, which Momigliano describes as the presentation of the “barbarian” government as the “embodiment of civilized justice and wisdom.”
*De Orthographia (treatise)
*Family History of the Cassiodori (history)
Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum [Institutes of Divine and Secular Literature] 2 vols. (treatise)
Chronica (history) 519
De Anima [On the Soul] (philosophy) c. 537
Variae Epistolae 12 vols. (letters, political documents) c. 537
†History of the Goths. 12 vols. (history)
The Letters of Cassiodorus: A Condensed Version of the “Variae Epistolae” (translated by T. Hodgkin) 1886
†Scholars believe that this work was written before 534 and revised around 551.
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SOURCE: “The New Cassiodorus,” in Speculum, Vol. 13, No. 4, October 1938, pp. 433-47.
[In the following essay, Rand examines textual issues related to Cassiodorus's Institutiones, focusing on the work's title; the “archetype” of the various extant manuscripts and the categories into which the manuscripts may be placed; and the history of the earliest manuscript, as well as that of the codices.]
The significance of Cassiodorus in the history of the transmission of Classical and patristic texts and thus in the history of mediaeval education has long been duly acclaimed. It is he who made sound learning and the copying of books a part of monastic discipline. It is he who saved the ancient Latin authors and the Fathers of the Church for the Middle Ages. He built, of course, on foundations that others had laid.1 Without his aid, the Church might have somehow transmitted its two-fold culture to the ages to come. But as it is, the credit should go primarily to Cassiodorus for this happy result. He came at the moment when the monastery succeeded the university as the centre of education. In fact he had originally intended with the help of Pope Agapetus (535-536) to establish a kind of Christian university, or theological school, in Rome. Some ten years later he founded instead the monastery of Vivarium on his estate at Scylacium in South Italy. His plans for scholarship were transferred...
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SOURCE: “Cassiodorus, the Savior of Western Civilization,” in Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, Vol. 3, No. 1, October, 1944, pp. 369-84.
[In the essay below, Hammer reviews Cassiodorus's literary achievements, praising him for rejuvenating Western intellectual life when it was in “utter decay.”]
Everybody is familiar with the phrase “forgotten man.” I shall speak to-day of a forgotten man, forgotten even by some classicists, a man whose absence is singularly noticeable in Holbrook Jackson's “Anatomy of Bibliomania.” And there certainly he ought to have found a place of honor. My forgotten man is Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, 490-583 (?) a.d., a man who stood on the boundary of two worlds, the ancient and medieval, or as some maintain, the Roman and Teutonic. It may even be said that he stood on the confines of the ancient and modern worlds: in the writings of Cassiodorus the word modernus occurs for the first time.
To understand his role it is necessary to survey certain problems which had beset the Roman world for several centuries past. For the decline of the Roman Empire was not cataclysmic. The deadly action of financial and economic factors paved the way for the decline long before the deposition of the last emperor of the West in 476 a.d. and long before the invasions of the barbarians began to weaken...
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SOURCE: “Notes on the Style and Vocabulary of Cassiodorus's Institutiones,” in Classical Philology, Vol. XL, No. 1, January, 1945, pp. 24-31.
[In the following essay, Jones reviews the content and aims of Cassiodorus's Institutiones and comments that the style of the work is elaborate and characterized by Cassiodorus's desire for balance. Jones then analyzes specific examples of the type of vocabulary used in the work.]
Though many Latin scholars are aware of the unusual importance of Cassiodorus' Institutiones divinarum et humanarum lectionum,1 the difficulties of its style and vocabulary (and even of its syntax) often prevent perfect comprehension. For this reason any light at all on these matters ought to be welcome. It happens that I have been laboring intermittently for several years on an English translation of this very work—its first translation into any language. In the course of my labors I have compiled observations on the style and vocabulary which ought to be useful not merely to those who desire to read the Institutiones but also to those who have other interests in this fascinating but vexing period of transition from Classical Latin to Late Latin. I shall submit these observations below.
Before we proceed to a detailed discussion, it will be wise to outline fully the contents of Cassiodorus' work. It was written at some time...
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SOURCE: “The Influence of Cassiodorus on Mediaeval Culture,” in Speculum, Vol. 20, No. 4, October, 1945, pp. 433-42.
[In the following essay, Jones surveys the literary and cultural impact of Cassiodorus from the years following his death through the end of the thirteenth century, observing that he systematized the process of producing multiple copies of the Scriptures and that he helped to transform the monastery into a theological school.]
That Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator was indeed a remarkable man I hope to make clear in the introduction and notes of my forthcoming translation of his Institutiones. [The translation is now in the hands of the publisher.] His career as a statesman and scholar is in its length and industry almost without parallel. From 503 to 539 a.d., [See my translation for a discussion of C.'s dates and for numerous other Cassiodorian problems.] the period during which he held a succession of important political offices under four Ostrogothic rulers—Theodoric, the regent Amalasuentha, Theodahad, and Witigis, he strove to build a strong Italian state with Gothic and Roman elements working together in complementary and harmonious fashion—a dream utterly shattered by the victories of Belisarius. From 539 to 575, the year in which he died at the advanced age of ninety-five, he spent an equal amount of energy commenting on the Christian Scriptures,...
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SOURCE: “Further Notes Concerning Cassiodorus's Influence on Mediaeval Culture,” in Speculum, Vol. 22, No. 4, April, 1947, pp. 254-56.
[In this essay, Jones lists a number of corrections and emendations to his previous essay (see above).]
That the appearance of my recent article, ‘The Influence of Cassiodorus on Mediaeval Culture,’ Speculum, xx (1945), 433-442, has prompted several friends to send me a few suggestions for its correction and improvement, and many for its amplification is not surprising. One who has the hardihood to attempt to cover a broad field is bound to fall into occasional error. I desire to express here not only my gratitude for the suggestions but the hope that other readers of Speculum will let me have further recommendations. Professor Wilhelm Levison of the University of Durham is responsible for the items listed below under p. 436, notes 3a (in part) and 6, and p. 441, line 9 (‘bishop’); Professor E. A. Lowe of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for the item listed under p. 442, line 4; Professor Alexander Souter of Oxford for the items listed under p. 439, lines 32-35, and p. 439, line 35, end; and Professor B. M. Peebles of St John's College, Annapolis, for most of those which remain. The list of corrections, improvements, and additions follows. The changes outlined here should also be applied, at least in part, to pp. 47-58 of my recent...
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SOURCE: “The Value and Influence of Cassiodorus's Ecclesiastical History,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, January, 1948, pp. 51-67.
[In the essay below, Laistner analyzes the ecclesiastical history edited by and translated under the direction of Cassiodorus, praising his critical skill in selecting the material to be included in the Historia Tripartita.]
Most students of history or literature have had at some time the experience of encountering statements or generalizations made by a writer of an earlier generation and then finding them repeated without question by his successors working in the same field of inquiry. What is more, if dissentient voices have been raised, they have often been overlooked or disregarded. The prevailing estimate of Cassiodorus' Ecclesiastical History affords an excellent example of the manner in which erroneous opinions have been repeated ad nauseam from one generation to the next, although more than thirty years have passed since two scholars of the first rank, Bidez and Parmentier, provided at least some of the evidence needed for a more just evaluation of Cassiodorus' book. There are two essential questions which seem to call for fresh investigation. The first is concerned with the value and accuracy of the compilation, the second with its diffusion during the Middle Ages and its popularity as a work of reference.1
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SOURCE: “Cassiodorus and Italian Culture of His Time,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 41, 1955, pp. 207-45.
[In the essay below, originally delivered as a lecture, Momigliano studies the political atmosphere in Italy during Cassiodorus's career and demonstrates the ways in which the relationship between the Romans and the Goths influenced Cassiodorus's writings. Momigliano observes that in works such as the Gothic History, Cassiodorus intended to support the peaceful coexistence of Goths and Romans.]
When I want to understand Italian history I catch a train and go to Ravenna. There, between the tomb of Theodoric and that of Dante, in the reassuring neighbourhood of the best manuscript of Aristophanes and in the less reassuring one of the best portrait of the Empress Theodora, I can begin to feel what Italian history has really been.1 The presence of a foreign rule, the memory of an imperial and pagan past, and the overwhelming force of the Catholic tradition have been three determining features of Italian history for many centuries. These three features first joined together when Ravenna became the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom. The beginnings of Italian history such as we have known it are contemporary with the building of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, with the martyrdom of Boethius, and with that moving note left by a scion of a great house...
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SOURCE: “The Variae,” in Cassiodorus, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 55-102.
[In the following essay, O'Donnell analyzes the compilation, content, and character of Cassiodorus's Variae, arguing that while Cassiodorus extols the virtues of Gothic rule, the work was not intended as a polemical treatise.]
The collapse of Ostrogothic Italy in the face of Byzantine reconquest casts a shadow over the most important literary product of Cassiodorus' public career. That career, dated according to the documents in the Variae, did not last beyond 537 or 538; his appointment as praetorian prefect had originally been made in 533 in the name of Athalaric under Amalasuintha's influence, but we have seen how that youth died less than a year afterwards, to be followed swiftly to the grave by his murdered mother, leaving Theodahad in control of the kingdom. Theodahad's reign lasted scarcely two years, for it was in 535 that Belisarius set out on the war of reconquest, and by 536 he had advanced as far as Naples and Rome; Gothic dissatisfaction with Theodahad's rule ended in his murder.
If we take the relatively cultured Theoderic and Amalasuintha as the norm of the Amal dynasty, Theodahad was a crude intruder whose efforts to acquire a patina of Roman culture were overshadowed by his murderous instinct for power. But to most of the Goths, Theodahad was an Amal like the...
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SOURCE: “The Genesis and Completion of Cassiodorus's Gothic History,” in Latomus: Revue D'Etudes Latines, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, April-June, 1984, pp. 336-61.
[In the following essay, Barnish studies Cassiodorus's aims in writing his Gothic History, analyzes the circumstances surrounding the work's composition, and discusses how Jordanes came to write his summary of the work.]
The history which Cassiodorus, one of the leading statesmen and literary figures of sixth century Rome, composed to celebrate the race, lineage, and achievements of his Gothic masters, is now known only through the illiterate epitome made and supplemented by Jordanes. Yet, even the so-called Getica are evidence of great value, both for Gothic history, culture, and legend, and for the impression which the barbarians made, or wished to make, on their Italian subjects. Neither that work, nor its original, were written in a political vacuum. In this article, I will investigate the purpose and circumstances with and in which the History was begun and ended, and those which prompted Jordanes to write his summary.
When, in 533, writing for king Athalaric, Cassiodorus announced to the Senate his own appointment as praetorian prefect, he praised his work on the History, especially the genealogy of the Amal kings. In his complementary address to the Senate, he eulogized the regent,...
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SOURCE: “The Work of Cassiodorus after His Conversion,” in Latomus: Revue D'Etudes Latines, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, January-March, 1989, pp. 157-87.
[In the essay that follows, Barnish argues that many of Cassiodorus's writings, particularly those composed after he retired to his monastery, were designed to influence both the lay and clerical public in matters of politics, religion, and culture.]
About the end of the year 537, Cassiodorus, former consul, Roman aristocrat, and elder statesman of that Gothic realm on which the mantle of the western empire had fallen, laid down his last office, the praetorian prefecture of Italy. His time was then being devoted to a collection of the documents which he had drafted as a civil servant. These Variae, he claimed, were meant as a memorial of his own labours and the virtues of his colleagues, and as a model of style for future administrators of less polished education1. This statement can be expanded on. The armies of Justinian were clearly winning their war against the Goths. The fate of the whole native Italian administration, and of such individual collaborators as Cassiodorus was now in doubt. The Byzantines were virtually to abolish the former, and to enquire rigorously into the official frauds and activities of the latter2. The collection may have seemed necessary, both as an apologia for the past, and as a piece of advocacy for...
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SOURCE: “Zeitgeist,” in Rome in Involution: Cassiodorus's “Variae” in Their Literary and Historical Setting, Poznan, 1989, pp. 151–63.
[In the essay below, Macpherson comments on the historical accuracy of the Variae and analyzes the language and style of the work, stating that its tone suited the tastes of the upper classes.]
I. THROUGH THE PRISM
In the Variae Cassiodorus depicts the exemplary character of the brother-courtiers Cyprian and Opilio: they appear with a symmetric perfection which reflects their moral perfection:
He, Opilio, allied and joined himself to his brother's virtues in such a manner that it is uncertain … as to who should derive more praise from the other. One honours his friendships with true faith, but a great trustworthiness belongs to promises made by the other. One is also devoid of greed, while the other is proven to be alien to cupidity. Hence they know how to be loyal to their kings, since they show no treachery to their fellows”.1
Boethius tells us that the pair brought false accusations against him, Opilio in order to extricate himself from impending disgrace “on account of frauds … innumerable” during his term of office. Had Opilio not attacked him, he would the very day after have been driven from Ravenna by the king, branded on the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The “Variae” of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, translated by S. J. B. Barnish, Liverpool University Press, 1992, pp. ix-xxxv.
[In the excerpt below, Barnish offers an overview of the Variae, discussing its style, its reliability as a source of historical information, and various manuscript issues.]
… B. THE VARIAE
1. THE COMPILATION
Our most important documents for the history of Gothic rule in Italy are the Variae of Cassiodorus: twelve books, comprising 468 letters, edicts and model letters (formulae), which the author drafted, between 506 and 538, for Theoderic, Athalaric, Amalasuintha, Theodahad, Witigis, and the Senate, and in his own person as Praetorian Prefect of Italy. In the case of those written for monarchs, he was acting as, or for, the Quaestor, chief legal expert and official publicist.1 He apparently compiled the Variae in 537/8, near the harassed end of his service as Prefect, while war was raging, and Witigis was besieging the Byzantine commander Belisarius in Rome. In a long and conventionally self-deprecatory Preface, he claimed a range of motives for this work: to satisfy the demands of friend—a standard apology; to supply models of official eloquence for future administrators, himself among them; to ensure immortality for those...
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Andersson, Theodore M. “Cassiodorus and the Gothic Legend of Ermanaric.” Euphorion 57, No. 1 (1963): 28-43.
Studies the historical accuracy of the account of the legend of Ermanaric as it is found in Jordanes's summary of Cassiodorus's Gothic history.
Heather, Peter. “Cassiodorus and the Rise of the Amals: Genealogy and the Goths under Hun Domination.” Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989): 102-28.
Attempts to determine the historical accuracy of Cassiodorus's account of Amal genealogy and to assess the reliability of the possible sources used by Cassiodorus.
Hodgkin, Thomas. Introduction to The Letters of Cassiodorus, Being a Condensed Translation of the “Variae Epistolae” of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, pp. 1-67. London: Henry Frowde, 1886.
Detailed overview of Cassiodorus's life and works, with commentary on the Variae, Chronica, and the History of the Goths.
Jones, Leslie Webber. Introduction to An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings, by Cassiodorus Senator, translated by Leslie Webber Jones, pp. 3-63. New York: Octagon Books, 1966.
Biographical account of Cassiodorus, followed by an assessment of his influence on the Middle Ages and a discussion of manuscripts and editions of the...
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