Ancient Latin literature has reached us along an improbably narrow path. Two millennia of rats, fire and floods were as nothing compared with three historical bottlenecks. Only one of these was technological and, perhaps surprisingly, it was not the invention of the printing press but of the codex. The rapid replacement of papyrus rolls by the bound codices we know as books, complete by the fourth century AD, meant that works out of step with contemporary tastes or needs disappeared forever: papyrus is fragile and decays in damp climates, and while papyri survive in their tens of thousands in Egypt, almost none of them is Latin. The next bottleneck was the Carolingian renaissance. After several centuries during which few texts were copied, Charlemagne’s scholars and scribes transformed caches of old manuscripts into magnificent new codices. They replaced the gorgeous but difficult uncials and half-uncials of late antiquity, and the crabbed and ugly minuscule scripts of the earliest Middle Ages, with a sleek and limpid Caroline minuscule that anyone can read today after a few minutes’ practice. More than two-thirds of the ancient Latin literature we have today was in circulation under Charlemagne’s heirs in the ninth century, and not much that enjoyed a Carolingian revival was subsequently lost. But the corollary is that anything which escaped Charlemagne’s clerics was likely to be lost forever. Most of the classical texts copied in his scriptoria had travelled out of Italy in the wake of his victories there. Pliny’s panegyric to the emperor Trajan is the only Latin masterpiece with a Gallic provenance that arrived at Charlemagne’s court: it had served as a model for eleven less distinguished speeches by local fourth-century worthies. Sixth-century Italy was the bottleneck that counted: it saw a final flourishing of Latin verse and prose, and a winnowing of the ancient heritage.
At the centre of this story is Cassiodorus, a prolific author most famous for the Variae, a collection of letters and memoranda in florid bureaucratese, and The Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning, a stripped-down manual of pious instruction. Besides these, he oversaw the abridgment and translation into Latin of three famous Greek Church histories as well as composing a grammatical treatise, a psalm commentary and a chronicle so austere and colourless that we know he wrote it only because the manuscripts say so. His career was as varied as his body of work. Consul at Rome at an early age, he held high office under Ostrogothic kings, led the community of Latin exiles in Constantinople, and died in his nineties at the monastery he founded on his family estates. With the extreme contrast between the worlds of his youth and his old age, he forms a bridge between antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (called Senator by his contemporaries, but universally known as Cassiodorus since the age of Bede) was born around AD 485 in Bruttium, ancient Calabria. Then, as now, the region was agriculturally rich, but its predominantly rural population was impoverished by rapacious landowners, though not yet the ’Ndragheta. Cassiodorus’ family had an estate near Scyllaceum, an old Roman colony founded beside an even older Greek polis, and now the modern coastal resort of Squillace. The family was of Greek extraction, but had been big men in Bruttium since at least the time of Cassiodorus’ great-grandfather, who inaugurated four generations of distinguished service to the Roman and post-Roman state.
Cassiodorus was born just after the deposition of the last emperor to rule in Italy. Valentinian III, murdered in 455, possessed a dynastic legitimacy none of his would-be successors could claim, and the next couple of decades made an unedifying spectacle. The provinces north and west of the Alps were permanently lost to brigands, condottieri and petty kings. In Italy junior officers bumped one another off, and made themselves or their creatures emperor, each to fail in his turn. Eventually, an officer called Odoacer killed his former colleague Orestes in battle and deposed Orestes’ young son, made emperor barely a year before. The boy was sent into retirement, lucky to be alive, and the poignant irony of his name – Romulus Augustulus, ‘the little emperor’ – has proved impossible for posterity to resist: 476, the year he was removed, has long been seen as the symbolic fall of the Western Roman Empire. It isn’t clear that anyone at the time noticed: the imperial office had delivered nothing of value to its subjects for years. They did notice when Odoacer sent the imperial regalia back to the emperor Zeno at Constantinople with the message that Italy had no need of an emperor and that he, Odoacer, would rule as king on Zeno’s behalf.
Zeno had troubles of his own and was in no position to argue even if he wanted to. Constantinople’s shrugging benediction began more than a decade of peace and stability such as hadn’t been seen for a generation in the lands Odoacer controlled: the Italian peninsula and islands, as well as much of Carinthia, Styria, the Julian Alps and Dalmatia. Like the fifth-century emperors before him, Odoacer tended to stay north of the Apennines: to control the peninsula required holding the Po valley, the great cities of the northern plain from Milan across to Brescia, Verona and Padua, and the mountains’ edge from Pavia to Bologna and on to Ravenna and Rimini. Where the garrisons were, there too was the civil service, with its tax collectors and treasurers and quartermasters. South of the mountains, the peninsula was undefended, the countryside mainly administered by the staffs of senatorial landowners. Odoacer’s regime was generally benign, and the Roman senate experienced a renaissance of sorts, a renewal of authority to match the pomp and circumstance it had always preserved.
That remained true even after Odoacer, ‘heavy with age and wisdom and skilled in the arts of war’ as one source calls him, was deposed and murdered by a rival just as skilled in warfare and more lethally competent at politics. Theodoric the Amal had since the early 470s been a thorn in the side of the Eastern emperors at whose court he was educated. Though he helped Zeno as much as he harmed him, by 488 the emperor had had enough. He offered the governance of Italy to Theodoric and his followers (whom we may for convenience call the Ostrogoths, though they were a pretty diverse lot), if they could take it from Odoacer. Theodoric duly defeated Odoacer at Verona in September 489 and accepted his field army’s surrender at Milan shortly afterwards. He then trapped Odoacer in Ravenna for three years, meanwhile bringing the rest of the Italian state over to his side. The two finally worked out a truce, whereupon Theodoric murdered the older man.
The world south of the Apennines watched this conflict with interest, but was not much affected. It was here that Cassiodorus grew up. He followed the standard educational path of the well-born: basic language training with a household slave, early tuition with a grammaticus near home, then further study with the most illustrious rhetor the family could afford. This venerable curriculum, a standard canon of prose and verse including Virgil, Terence, Sallust and Cicero which was more or less unchanged since the time of Quintilian, remained available despite the political chaos of the recent past, and we have explicit evidence for it from the career of Cassiodorus’ younger contemporary Arator. Of somewhat less exalted rank than Cassiodorus, he became the favourite of Ennodius, a future bishop of Pavia, who sent him to Milan to study rhetoric, the compositional and speaking skills that were the main qualification for a public position. Ennodius’ letters to his protégé give examples of the stock themes Arator was working on: ‘should enemy priests and vestals be released from a captured city?’; should you ‘prosecute a man who starves his father’? Though we don’t know where Cassiodorus studied, his classical education is evident on every page of his writings. It helped launch him on a dazzling career, when he accompanied his father to the court of Theodoric.
Under Odoacer, the elder Cassiodorus had headed each of the big fiscal bureaus in turn, and was serving as a provincial governor when he adroitly switched sides to back the winner, who put him in charge first of Sicily and then of his home province of Bruttium. Theodoric had expected Zeno to recognise him as king of Italy, but the emperor’s death in 491 altered the political landscape. It took five years of negotiation with Zeno’s successor, Anastasius, before, in 497, Theodoric won the recognition he craved and Anastasius returned to Italy all the imperial ornaments Odoacer had sent to Constantinople two decades before. In the meantime, Theodoric had co-opted the senatorial aristocracy just as successfully as Odoacer, or even more so. Theodoric’s Gothic supporters, many thousands of them, were given lands around the great garrison cities of the north, and while we learn of legal disputes over tax obligations, there is no evidence for mass expropriations or other violent disruption. To be a Goth was to be a soldier defending Theodoric’s kingdom, and to be a Roman was to be a civilian and to ensure that the kingdom’s government was maintained in its late imperial mode. Around the end of the fifth century, the elder Cassiodorus came to lead that effort, earning entry to the praetorian prefecture. This was the highest civilian magistracy in the late Roman state, in constant contact with Theodoric and his most trusted advisers. The younger Cassiodorus embarked on his public career as consiliarius to his father, a semi-official adviser and his father’s eyes and ears among the younger factions at court. The role regularly put him in front of the king and, still in his early twenties, he delivered a stirring panegyric (no longer extant) that got him appointed Theodoric’s quaestor.
The quaestor, in this period, was a sort of director of strategic communications, drafting palace announcements and legal rulings, shaping the image the ruler wanted to project. Cassiodorus was in post from perhaps 507 to 511. These were the golden years of Theodoric’s reign, when an explicit ideology of civilitas – civility, Roman-ness, civilisation, the meaning is fluid – hid the reality of a regime founded not on imperial continuity but on the loyalty of Gothic veterans. These were also the years when Theodoric turned himself into the power broker of Western Europe, parcelling out daughters, sisters and nieces as brides to kings and kinglets as far away as Thuringia. The first four books of Cassiodorus’ Variae date from this period, when Theodoric was trying to keep the peace in Gaul among Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks on the other side of the Alps, and they contain the least stultifying letters in the collection. We see the king sending gifts that advertise his realm’s artistic and technological pre-eminence – a water clock to the Burgundians, a citharode to Clovis – and cultivating such distant people as the Aesti in what is now Lithuania. All this used to be read as evidence for an ethnic fellow feeling that dated back to the misty forests of Germanic antiquity. Now we can see it as carefully managed networking, as he aimed to outbid the Vandal kings in Africa, outflank the Franks in Gaul, and make sure the Gothic regime had as many allies in central Europe and along the Danube as the emperor in Constantinople did. Extravagant claims – such as the regime’s diplomacy in the Baltic – were inspired as much by Cassiodorus’ reading of Tacitus as by any realistic knowledge of the Aesti.
Much of the interest of the Variae lies in their deliberately cultured and recherché content, though reading any quantity of late Roman officialese requires a certain masochism, which M. Shane Bjornlie’s translations are literal enough to convey. That said, we should remember that what these letters’ original recipients were seeing was a couple of hundred lines of elegantly mannered prose that flattered their pretensions and folded them into an imagined community of the learned. By grouping his selection into thirteen thematic sections – letters to the emperor and barbarian kings, on taxes and finances, on gender issues and the family, and so on – Bjornlie makes the material as readable as it’s ever going to be, but obliterates the architecture of Cassiodorus’ original. He collected the Variae in middle age, as a monument to a career that belonged to a happier time. He wanted to repudiate the ruin into which the kingdom he served had fallen, and to disguise his own involvement in its least savoury moments.
Cassiodorus concluded his precocious stint as quaestor with a return to the otium, ‘leisure’, of private life, as aristocratic civil servants tended to do between bouts of negotium, ‘business’ or ‘office-holding’. He remained in good standing with Theodoric and was honoured with the consulship of 514. Then, around the year 518 or 519, he reminded the court of his existence with two bravura performances: a now lost Gothic History and a spare and decorous chronicle to celebrate the fruition of Theodoric’s many successes. In 519 two very special consuls were appointed in the Eastern and Western empires: the emperor Justin, who had succeeded Anastasius the previous year, and Theodoric’s son-in-law Eutharic. The significance of this is impossible to exaggerate. Theodoric had already become the father of the barbarian world through the dynastic marriages of his female kin, but he didn’t have a son, a grievous threat to dynastic continuity. But then, in 515, he married his daughter Amalasuntha to the noble Goth Eutharic, whom he had summoned to Italy from Spain. High hopes were rewarded by the birth of a male child, Athalaric, probably in 517. The marriage and birth seemed to guarantee the succession for not just one but two generations. Diplomatic followed on dynastic success, and when Justin succeeded Anastasius he not only patched up relations between the imperial Church and the papacy but adopted Eutharic as his ‘son-by-arms’, a ritual the Eastern court was beginning to use to signal a close though unequal alliance. Cassiodorus’ chronicle, not an official product but a politic self-advertisement, situated the consular pair of 519 at the end of a long list of Roman rulers going back beyond Romulus to Aeneas, Latinus and the beginnings of history. It proclaimed that the Gothic dynasty was the legitimate successor to the emperors, to whose lineage they belonged.
Whatever he might have been hoping, neither the history nor the chronicle propelled Cassiodorus back to the centre of things. In fact, he did not return to office until the high hopes of Eutharic’s consular year had been dashed. After Eutharic’s unexpected death, court factions began jockeying at the prospect of a child king and regency. Theodoric grew saturnine and paranoid, as ageing patriarchs tend to do, his suspicions settling on senators he believed were intriguing with the Eastern court. Among these was the head of the offices of court, the magister officiorum, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, scion of the Anicii, the most exalted of Roman aristocrats, and a prolific translator into Latin of Greek science and philosophy. Expelled from office in 523, the imprisoned Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, one of the great monuments of Western letters, before his execution in 524. Meanwhile, showing the same political agility his father had possessed, Cassiodorus slid into Boethius’ role, serving as magister until 528. These were eventful years during which Cassiodorus witnessed the downfall of old colleagues, the narrowly averted persecution of Catholics by Theodoric, the total breakdown of relations between Italy and the Vandal king in Africa, and finally, in 526, the death of Theodoric and the succession of Athalaric under the regent Amalasuntha. You would know none of this from the letters in the Variae, which studiously erase the intrigues, the murders and the violence, and whitewash Cassiodorus’ role in all of them.
In the same way, the letters Cassiodorus wrote in the name and voice of Athalaric announcing his accession gloss a rocky succession as friendly consensus. In truth, Athalaric’s short reign took place amid the shadow-boxing of court factions. Cassiodorus remained magister for the first two years of the new reign and clearly had the principal role in deciding who was appointed to civil service posts: Arator, who had become a lawyer, entered Athalaric’s government, perhaps in charge of the imperial treasury. His letter of appointment, written in the king’s name by Cassiodorus, is one of many in which Cassiodorus portrays a government functioning as it always had done under a polite and principled king whose extreme youth is largely unmentioned. Other sources disclose a darker reality: a portion of the Gothic aristocracy, emboldened in Theodoric’s old age, was fundamentally hostile to the regency of a woman. They also objected to the classical education Athalaric was receiving, and worked to turn him into the rough and tumble soldier they imagined his grandfather had been. Cassiodorus’ temporary return to otium may have weakened the support for Amalasuntha, and Athalaric turned to drink. His sudden death in October 534, after Cassiodorus’ return to office as praetorian prefect, surprised no one.
What happened next might have turned out very differently had Justin still been emperor. But his nephew and successor Justinian, ambitious, implacable and insecure, had just turned the post-Roman world on its head. Using a rift in the Vandal royal dynasty as an excuse, he launched a war in North Africa that destroyed the Vandal kingdom at a stroke in 534. North of the Alps, the Franks routed and annexed the Burgundian kingdom around Lyon and Geneva, and were hungrily eyeing Ostrogothic Provence. The recall of Cassiodorus to the prefecture had been meant to rally the Roman aristocracy to the royal house, and he did his best to help when, after Athalaric’s death, the leading Goths refused to countenance the queen ruling in her own right. As a partial concession, Amalasuntha plucked her cousin Theodahad from his Etrurian estates and associated him in her rule, expecting a pliant figurehead: he had little in the way of military experience and fancied himself a Platonist and scholar. Displaying unexpected energies, however, he imprisoned Amalasuntha and had her quietly murdered. Justinian pounced, claiming to be defending dynastic legitimacy. His great general Belisarius, fresh from African victories, routed the Gothic garrisons in Sicily in 535 and the following spring drove his way up the boot of Italy to Naples. There he met fierce resistance from the locals, who had no interest in the return of imperial rule, but after a three-week siege his army sacked the city. After fruitlessly seeking peace with Constantinople, Theodahad made for Ravenna when Belisarius marched on Rome, which he entered towards the end of 536. By then Theodahad had been deposed and executed, and another Gothic noble, Witigis, unrelated to the line of Theodoric, was elected king by the army. Cassiodorus performed a panegyric at the wedding of Witigis to Matasuntha, Amalasuntha’s daughter. Afterwards, the new king went promptly to war.
As the Eighth Army found against Kesselring’s Gothic Line, the Apennines are a more formidable obstacle from the south than from the north, and Belisarius’ lightning advance stalled at Rome. Witigis besieged him there for a full year. The last datable letter in the Variae was written in 537 and we do not know how long Cassiodorus stayed loyal to the fading Gothic dream. Belisarius was unable to break free from Rome until one of his officers seized Rimini on the Adriatic coast, an easy march to Ravenna. That threat forced Witigis to lift the siege in March 538 and retreat, with Belisarius accepting his surrender in 540. The royal couple, along with their treasury and many of their courtiers, were sent to Constantinople. Cassiodorus may well have preceded them there and his next decade was spent among the Italians exiled in the imperial city.
Witigis died in Constantinople of natural causes in 542, and Matasuntha was married to a nephew of the emperor. Belisarius’ Italian campaign had been bitterly fought, but if the end result seemed to match the magical triumph in Vandal Africa, this was an illusion. Belisarius had not gone near the great garrison cities of the north and the Gothic leaders there were cowed but not conquered. They elected one of their number king: Totila, who launched a major counter-offensive from Verona in 541. The next decade of warfare is recounted in excruciating detail by the historian Procopius. Aqueducts were severed, walls pulled down, fields stripped, whole cities ruined. Even after Totila and his successor, Teia, were defeated, in 552 and 553 respectively, it was another full decade before the old and embittered Justinian could claim total victory.
That said, with the death of Totila, the Gothic cause looked increasingly forlorn, confined to pockets of fierce resistance, and even during the worst of the fighting Justinian remained confident of ultimate success. This made him all the more eager to bring the Italian Church into conformity with his theological preferences. Pope Vigilius had been installed in 537 by Belisarius, after his predecessor was suspected of conspiring with Witigis. He had remained staunchly on the imperial side, but he could not back Justinian when he strong-armed the Church at Constantinople and most of the Eastern bishops into condemning the works of three long-dead theologians, in the hope of restoring communion with thousands of schismatic Christians in Egypt and the Levant. The Three-Chapters Controversy eventually resulted in Vigilius being bundled off to Constantinople, where he was imprisoned for a decade. Before that, it gave Arator his moment of glory.
After serving at Athalaric’s court, Arator entered the Church, but we do not know whether his decision preceded the Gothic kingdom’s catastrophe or was prompted by it. In 544 he reappeared as a subdeacon in Rome, where with pomp and circumstance he launched his religious epic, the Historia Apostolica. On 6 April, in the chancel in front of St Peter’s tomb in the Vatican basilica, he presented a codex of the Historia to Vigilius, who had it placed in the papal archives by the head of the papal chancery, Surgentius (from whom our account of the episode probably comes). The short reading from the poem Arator gave that day proved so momentously popular that he went on to give four days of public readings. His poem rewrote the Acts of the Apostles with an extreme concentration on St Peter, and thus on the man who claimed to be Peter’s direct successor: Pope Vigilius. It is a blend of epic storytelling, set-piece panegyric and biblical exegesis, and the modern reader will find it exhausting, whether in challenging Latin verse or Richard Hillier’s excellent English translation. Equipped with prose glosses and summaries quite early in its diffusion, the Historia Apostolica was a medieval bestseller. The great interest of the poem is the way its launch and reception provide a real-time commentary on the relationship of the Roman Church to the emperor and the growing assertiveness of Roman bishops in trying to speak for the whole Latin Church.
In the immediate moment, the emperor won: Arator disappeared from view again and Vigilius died just months after having given in to Justinian’s demands. But increasing space for papal independence was, in a twist of historical irony, one major consequence of Justinian’s success in obliterating the Ostrogothic kingdom. Talk by academics or pop historians of ‘Rome resurgent’ is fantasy or imperial identification. Italy was devastated and Byzantine government was about as welcome to those it liberated as we were in Basra and Bagram two decades ago. When in 568 Langobardic armies invaded the peninsula from the Hungarian plain, imperial forces could not stop them carving out a huge territory in the north along with more southerly pockets. Tormented in the Balkans by Avars and Slavs, and in the East by a genuinely resurgent Persia, Justinian’s successors could spare neither the soldiers nor the money to restore their rule outside Ravenna, Rimini and the coastal enclaves of the Mezzogiorno.
It was to one of those enclaves that Cassiodorus returned in the wake of Belisarius’ armies. The years in Constantinople seem to have weaned him off his interest in politics. He gave no encouragement to Jordanes, a Latin-speaking Easterner of Gothic extraction whose Getica made some use of the decades-old Gothic History. How great a use is a matter of dispute among scholars, some of whom desperately want it to be an authentic record of Gothic memory and oral tradition. It is actually a curious farrago of biblical and classical histories with Gothic kings shoehorned in. The results can be unintentionally hilarious, as when the Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris is made to fight the Goths along the Dnieper, but Cassiodorus had lost all interest in such games. The works of his exile were an Exposition of the Psalms and a treatise, De anima. These are highly conventional: the Expositio borrows mainly from St Augustine; De anima, immensely popular in the Middle Ages, is a trot through twelve untaxing questions about the soul, their vaguely Neoplatonist answers long since assimilated into Christian thinking.
Yet it is De anima the announces the theme of the rest of Cassiodorus’ life: it is better to serve Christ than to seize hold of all the kingdoms of the world. He’d tried the one, and now he would devote himself to the other. Far from the sputtering Gothic resistance, unthreatened by invading Langobards, unconcerned with episcopal politics in the ghost town that Rome had become, he built a monastery on his family estates and called it Vivarium. There he gathered hermits to live in prayer on a hilltop, while he, with other less solitary spirits, formed a coenobitic community centred on his private library. Monasticism was not new – St Benedict had founded Monte Cassino a decade earlier – but Cassiodorus placed a far greater emphasis on bookbinding and the copying of manuscripts, as well as on translating and adapting Greek works into Latin. For thirty years, he and those he gathered around him cultivated the land, treated the sick and copied out the works that made their holy mission possible. The manifesto he produced in these years, The Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning, became a guide for medieval education, or rather two guides: the first book on Christian education and the second on those parts of the secular heritage that remained useful to Christians. Many fewer complete manuscripts survive than those containing only one part or the other, and the second book was particularly suited to expansion and augmentation with useful material from Boethius and elsewhere.
Cassiodorus was 93 when he wrote his last work, De orthographia, as derivative as anything he ever wrote and emblematic of the didactic mission of his late years. It was once commonplace to accord him a key role in the manuscript transmission of the Latin classics, and to claim that the library he formed at Vivarium somehow passed to Bobbio, founded near Piacenza in 614 by the Irishman Columbanus, who played an indisputably major part in that transmission. Vivarium may not have outlived its founder, who died around 580, and the fate of its library is unclear. That does not diminish Cassiodorus’ importance. He stood at the centre of the last great flowering of Latin literary culture, which included not just Arator but such figures as Dionysius Exiguus, who compiled the first influential collection of canon law and invented the anno domini reckoning. The Codex Argenteus, written in gold and silver ink on purple-dyed vellum and containing the Gospels in Gothic translation, was made for Theodoric while Cassiodorus was in his pomp. The Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete Vulgate to survive, was modelled on the Codex Grandior from Vivarium, which was brought to Monkwearmouth-Jarrow by Benedict Biscop in 678. Even more important, The Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning were instrumental in saving the classical heritage to which their author was so committed. Their emphasis on the meticulous copying of manuscripts, and the insistence that the reproduction of learning was part of the service a good Christian owed to God, went far beyond anything in the Rule of St Benedict and its analogues. No wonder so many manuscripts of the Institutes itself date to the Carolingian era: the book justified and propelled the Carolingian conviction that the revival of learning would put mankind on the path to salvation. Had his old world not collapsed around him, Cassiodorus might never have found his second vocation as a patron of Christian learning, with incalculable consequences for the transmission of the Latin classics.
The academy can be rather snobbish about translation, one legacy of an era when those who became classicists learned their Latin and Greek young at fee-paying schools. Translations were a poor second best for those not quite clever enough to handle the real thing. For nearly forty years, the Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians have been countering that prejudice, with scrupulous translations and introductions of compressed erudition. A handful of the volumes – Vegetius on the Roman army, for instance, popular with wargamers and re-enactors – sell well, but any appeal to the general reader is incidental: it is hard to imagine Arator coming back in fashion, the Getica is bad literature by the standards of any age, and while the Variae (an inferior selection of which is also in the Liverpool series) contain some sublime occasional pieces, none really transcends its long gone occasion.Yet this is a necessary labour, not because philological training has declined but because the whole scholarly landscape has shifted. Not content to plough a narrow, canonical furrow, ancient and medieval studies have taken a Eurasian, even global turn, and none of us can master all the languages and literatures that bear on particular questions. We need reliable, well-annotated translations, and products of this quality should be recognised as the original contributions they are. A formidable and committed translator, Cassiodorus would surely agree.