Cassiodorus Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

*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

*Date unknown.

†Scholars believe that this work was written before 534 and revised around 551.


E. K. Rand (essay date 1938)

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...

(The entire section is 8965 words.)

Jacob Hammer (essay date 1944)

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...

(The entire section is 6191 words.)

Leslie Webber Jones (essay date 1945)

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...

(The entire section is 4772 words.)

Leslie W. Jones (essay date 1945)

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 entire section is 4977 words.)

Leslie W. Jones (essay date 1947)

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...

(The entire section is 1105 words.)

M. L. W. Laistner (essay date 1948)

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...

(The entire section is 4847 words.)

Arnaldo Momigliano (lecture date 1955)

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...

(The entire section is 13073 words.)

James J. O'Donnell (essay date 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 18201 words.)

S. J. B. Barnish (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 10560 words.)

S. J. B. Barnish (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 15424 words.)

Robin Macpherson (essay date 1989)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 5064 words.)

S. J. B. Barnish (essay date 1992)

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.]



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...

(The entire section is 7281 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 372 words.)