Boethius Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Adding knowledge of Greek thought to his Christian Roman background, Boethius became one of the most important mediators between the ancient and medieval worlds.

Early Life

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born into the patrician Roman family of the Anicii, whose members figure prominently in Roman history as far back as the Third Macedonian War in the second century b.c.e. The Manlius and Severinus families also could boast of eminent forebears. Boethius’ own father held several important offices under Odovacar, the first Germanic ruler of the Italian peninsula. In 480, the supposed year of Boethius’ birth, the old Roman families were adjusting and contributing to the reign of a “barbarian” king. When Boethius’ father died, perhaps in the early 490’s, another distinguished Roman, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, became the boy’s guardian.

An old tradition that Boethius was sent to Athens to study Greek has no basis in fact; he might as well have been sent to Alexandria, which by the late fifth century had replaced Athens as a center of Greek studies. Wherever he studied, it is clear that Boethius mastered Greek at a time when it was becoming a lost skill in Rome, and in the process he developed a strong interest in the great Greek philosophers on whom Roman thinkers had depended heavily for centuries. It is likely that Plato’s Republic convinced him of the advisability of philosophers entering public life, and he combined an ambitious program of study and writing with public service. As a young man, he married Rusticiana, his guardian’s daughter, with whom he had two sons. Boethius may have met the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, who had displaced Odovacar, in 500 when the ruler, who maintained his headquarters at Ravenna, visited Rome. At any rate, many of the traditional Roman offices persisted, and Boethius rose to the consulship in 510, when he was about thirty.

Life’s Work

Boethius’ earlier writings cannot be dated with any confidence. Of his five theological tractates, De Trinitate (On the Trinity), dedicated to his father-in-law, Symmachus, shows his determination to use reason in support of a doctrine which he recognized as standing firmly on a foundation of Christian faith. His interest in harmonizing revealed religion with the discoveries of pre-Christian thinkers foreshadows the work of the medieval Scholastic philosophers many centuries later. On the Trinity represents his attempt to reconcile for intellectual Christians the seemingly contradictory doctrines that God was one but consisted of three persons.

In addition to the tractates, Boethius wrote on all four subjects of the ancient quadrivium: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, although his works on the last two subjects have not survived. His most voluminous extant works, however, deal with one of the subjects of the trivium: logic. He translated treatises by Aristotle and Porphyry, wrote commentaries on these works as well as on Cicero’s Topica, and produced original monographs on such subjects as categorical syllogisms and systems of logical classification. His overriding ambition, to harmonize the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, probably bogged down amid the pressures of his public career.

After serving as consul, he became a Roman senator according to ancient tradition, and in 520 or 522 he obtained an important post with authority over most other government positions, the magister officiorum, or Master of Offices. This appointment would have involved moving to Theodoric’s court at Ravenna and leaving behind the library at Rome that had sustained his scholarly endeavors. Also in 522, his sons were both appointed as consuls, although Boethius himself at this time could not have been much more than forty years of age.

With family prestige at this high point, Boethius was drawn into the struggle between Italy’s Ostrogothic king and the Roman senate. Theodoric, who had been educated in Constantinople and who owed his kingship to the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno, brought with him a substantial retinue of his Germanic brethren, many of them subscribers to the Arian heresy, which held that Jesus was not coeternal with God the Father. Despite the potential for ethnic and religious conflict, Theodoric established a reputation for tolerance, impartiality, and devotion to the goals of peace and prosperity. Yet it was Theodoric who imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed the renowned scholar and previously trusted official, Boethius.

Like philosophically minded civil servants before and after his time, Boethius found much to distress him in government, including rampant corruption. “Private pillage and public tributes,” as he put it, depleted the treasury, and when he interceded to protect principled officials from the clutches of greedy courtiers, he made influential enemies. His troubles mounted when he rose to the defense of a fellow ex-consul and senator named Albinus, who was suspected of treason. It appears that Boethius was motivated primarily by a desire to defend the reputation of the senate as a whole from suspicions of complicity in the alleged treachery. Boethius apparently admitted to the suppression of evidence which he considered damaging to the integrity of the senate, a course of action inevitably leading to charges against him. Accused of plotting against Theodoric in favor of Justin I, the reigning Eastern emperor, Boethius was conveyed to Pavia in 522 and imprisoned there. Under the strain of a conviction he considered entirely unjustified, he produced his masterpiece, De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). If his previous writings and his government service had made him a notable man, this work commanded the attention of the West for more than a thousand years thereafter.


(The entire section is 2435 words.)