Cassiodorus Introduction - Essay


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.”