Cassiodorus Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Cassiodorus lived during the transition period between the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages; he aided in the cultural synthesis of Germanic, Greco-Roman, and Christian cultures. Most important, he was a key conservator of ancient manuscripts for later generations.

Early Life

When the Roman Empire collapsed and fell to invading Goths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals, the Germanic tribes dealt with the Romans in contrasting ways. Vandals in North Africa treated Romans as conquered subjects and sought to destroy their culture. The Ostrogoths in Rome were quite different: Recognizing the value of the existing Greco-Roman culture, they attempted to build on that culture and assimilate what they considered worthwhile. Many had already accepted Arian Christianity and were drawn to the education and the arts of the classical world. To that end, they hired cultured, well-educated Romans to serve in their courts and to preserve the culture of the Roman world. One of the officials who were used in that capacity by Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, was Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus.

Cassiodorus was born about 490 on a luxurious estate on the south coast of the Ionian Sea, near the modern Gulf of Squillace. The temperate climate produced grapes, grains, and olives. Cassiodorus’ grandfather was a Roman general and his father was a wealthy, aristocratic diplomat, esteemed by the king, who was in charge of the imperial lands and, later, of the royal treasury. He was also the governor of Sicily and of Calabria. His family was noted for its honesty and integrity in public service.

Cassiodorus benefited from an excellent classical education and entered public office in the service of the Ostrogothic rulers. He was schooled in Latin and Greek literature and, typical for aristocratic students, in rhetoric. This educational foundation helped to develop Cassiodorus’ literary gifts; he became one of the most distinguished writers of the period.

Cassiodorus was reared a good Catholic, and he remained orthodox all of his life. It is most interesting that he and Theodoric were able to produce a cultural synthesis of Roman, Greek, and Gothic elements. Indeed, one of Cassiodorus’ principal works was History of the Goths (519), which is no longer extant. Theodoric’s Arianism did not cause undue tension with Cassiodorus’ orthodox Catholic faith. Each man respected the other and both wished to see a coexistence between clashing cultures. Theodoric achieved a working relationship between Romans and Goths. He emulated much of the Roman political system, retaining the offices and titles of imperial Rome. The architecture and furnishings of his palace resembled Constantinople. The army was made up of Goths while the civil government was largely composed of Romans. Cassiodorus was a key government administrator.

Life’s Work

Cassiodorus served as his father’s consiliarius, a legal assistant, and Theodoric appointed him, at the age of twenty, a quaestor, the king’s private secretary and legal adviser in the preparation of administrative law. Later, Theodoric made him a consul and in 527 a magister-officiorum, giving him responsibility for polishing the writings and speeches of the quaestors. Cassiodorus’ literary ability was obvious: He worded many public documents and was a confidant of the king. King Athalaric, Theodoric’s grandson, appointed Cassiodorus praetorian prefect for Italy, in effect making him prime minister of the Ostrogothic civil government from 533 to 538. Cassiodorus supervised the collection of taxes and the administration of justice. Vicars, provincial governors, proconsuls, all were subordinate to him.

He ended his public career when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I defeated the Goths in 551 and expanded westward into Italy. After fifteen years in Constantinople, Cassiodorus returned to his family’s estates overlooking the Ionian Sea; in retirement, he began a second career almost as long and productive as his...

(The entire section is 1674 words.)