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Cassiodorus (or Rather, Cassiodorius) Magnus Aurelius

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Cassiodorus (or rather, Cassiodorius ) Magnus Aurelius, senator, and chief minister to the Ostrogothic princes of Italy, born at Scylacium (Squillace) in Bruttium, 469–470, of a noble, wealthy, and patriotic family. Cassiodorus was brought up under circumstances highly favourable to his education, which included the study of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, mechanics, anatomy, Greek, and the sacred Scriptures. His learning and accomplishments early attracted the notice of Odoacer, the first barbarian ruler of Italy, by whom he was made "comes privatarum," and subsequently"comes sacrarum largitionum" ( Var. i. 4). After the final defeat of Odoacer by Theodoric at Ravenna, 493, Cassiodorus retired to his patrimonial estate in Bruttium, and secured the wavering allegiance of the provincials to the cause of the new ruler; for this service he was appointed by Theodoric to the official government of Lucania and Bruttium. Happy in the art of ruling to the satisfaction of the governed without neglecting the interests of his master, he was summoned, upon the conclusion of his prefecture, to Ravenna, and advanced successively to the dignities of secretary, quaestor, master of the offices, praetorian prefect, patrician, and consul. Meanwhile he enjoyed an intimacy with the prince, which, reflected as it is in his Varieties, has given to that work much of the character and value of a state journal. Illiterate himself, Theodoric employed the eloquent pen of his minister in all public communications, and spent his leisure time in acquiring from him erudition of various kinds ( Var. ix. 24). It would seem to have been the ambition of Cassiodorus, whose genius for diplomacy was consummate, to bring about a fusion between the Arian conquerors and the conquered Catholic population of Italy, to establish friendly relations with the Eastern empire, and possibly to create at Rome a peaceful centre to which the several barbaric kingdoms which had established themselves in Gaul, Spain, and Africa might be attracted. The progress of Theodoric to the capital, where the schism between pope Symmachus and his rival, Laurentius, was then raging, a.d. 500, was probably planned by him in view of this result ( Var. xii. 18, 19; cf. Gibbon, Decl. and Fall, c. 39); but the temper of Theodoric's declining years must have disappointed the hopes of Cassiodorus, and in 524 he resolved to divest himself of his honours, and to seek shelter in his Calabrian retreat from the storm which proved fatal to his co-senators, Boëthius and Symmachus. After the death of Theodoric, 525, Cassiodorus again became conspicuous as the trusted adviser of his daughter Amalasuntha, widow of Eutaric, who acted as regent for her son Athalaric ( Var. ix. 25). By his influence the Goths were kept in subjection to the new rule, notwithstanding the Roman proclivities of Amalasuntha as displayed in the education of the young prince. The threatened danger of an invasion by Justinian was likewise averted by the ready aid of his purse and pen (Procop. B. G. i. 3). Upon the enforced acceptance by Amalasuntha of Theodatus as co-regent, Cassiodorus again submitted to circumstances ( Var. x. 6, 7), and wrote letters soliciting the goodwill of the senate and the emperor (x. 1, 2, 3). He was then praetorian prefect and continued to serve under Theodatus after the untimely death of Athalaric and the treacherous murder of Amalasuntha. One is tempted to suspect the nobleness of a character which, no matter how infamous the ruler, could accommodate itself with such singular tact to every change of government; but Cassiodorus was no mere time-server. His writings shew him to have been animated by a truly patriotic spirit; and if he adapted himself skilfully to the varying humours of the court, it was that he might be able to alleviate the misfortunes of his conquered countrymen.

Upon the triumph of Belisarius and the downfall of the Ostrogoths, Cassiodorus, now 70 years of age, withdrew to his native province and founded the monastery of Viviers at the foot of Mount Moscius, which he describes (xii. 15). For 50 years he had laboured to preserve authority from its own excesses, to soften the manners of the Goths and uphold the rights of the Romans; but, weary of the superhuman task, turned to the cloister for repose and freedom. His activity, however, was not satisfied with the ordinary occupations of monastic life. Hence while the summit of the mountain was set apart for the hermits of the community (monasterium castellense ), there sprang up at its base, beneath his own immediate auspices, a society of coenobites, devoted to the pursuit of learning and science (monasterium vivariense ). He endowed the monastery with his extensive Roman library (Div. Lit. c. 8). The monks were incited by his example to the study of classical and sacred literature, and trained in the careful transcription of manuscripts, in the purchase of which large sums were continually disbursed. Bookbinding, gardening, and medicine were among the pursuits of the less intellectual members of the fraternity ( ib. 28, 30, 31). Such time as he himself could spare from the composition of sacred or scientific treatises he employed in constructing self-acting lamps, sundials, and water-clocks for the use of the monastery. Nor was the influence of his example confined to his own age, institution, or country; the multiplication of manuscripts became gradually as much a recognized employment of monastic life as prayer or fasting; and for this the statue of Cassiodorus deserves an honourable niche in every library. The date of his death is uncertain. He composed his treatise on orthography in his 93rd year ( de Orthogr. praef. ).

Of his extant writings, the twelve Books of Varieties, consisting principally of letters, edicts, and rescripts, are the only work of real importance; apart, however, from the study of these pages, it is hardly possible to obtain a true knowledge of the Italy of the 6th cent. The very style of the writer, possessing, as it does, a certain elegance, yet continually deviating from pure idiom and good taste, is singularly characteristic of the age which witnessed the last flicker of Roman civilization under the Ostrogothic rule. It is as though the pen of Cicero had been dipped in barbaric ink. The general result is artificial and bizarre; but though his meaning is frequently obscured by his rhetoric, his manner is not as unpleasing as is often asserted. It will be sufficient to enumerate here the other writings of Cassiodorus, a more detailed account of which is given in Smith's D. of G. and R. Biogr. (2) Historiae Ecclesiasticae Tripartitae, libri xii., being an epitome of the ecclesiastical histories of Sozomen, Socrates, and Theodoretus, as digested and translated by Epiphanius Scholasticus. (3) Chronicon, chiefly derived from Eusebius, Jerome, and Prosper. (4) Computus Paschalis. (5) Expositio in Psalmos, principally borrowed from St. Augustine. (6) Expositio in Cantica Canticorum, of doubtful authenticity. (7) De Institutione Divinarum Literarum, an interesting work as illustrating the enlightened spirit which animated the monastic life of Viviers. (8) Complexiones in Epistolas Apostolorum, in Acta, et in Apocalypsin, first brought to light by the Marquis Scipio Maffei at Florence, in 1721. (9) De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Literarum. (10) De Oratione et de Octo Partibus Orationis, of doubtful authenticity. (11) De Orthographia. (12) De Anima. Of the lost writings of Cassiodorus the most important appears to have been de Rebus Gestis Gothorum, libri xii., of which we have the abridgment of Jornandes.

The best ed., together with an appendix containing the commentaries discovered by Maffei, is in Migne's Patr. vols. lxix. lxx.


Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Cassiodorus (or Rather, Cassiodorius) Magnus Aurelius'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​c/cassiodorus-or-rather-cassiodorius-magnus-aurelius.html. 1911.
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