Review | The Selected Letters of Cassiodorus: A Sixth-Century Sourcebook

G.T. Dempsey


     Brexit now seems never-ending.  I don’t mean Britain’s departure from the EU.  I mean, the departing.   Such a parting of the ways used to be accomplished more expeditiously.  A millennium and a half ago, or so, if you wanted to break away from the western Roman Empire, you simply called in the barbarians.

     In 476, Odoacer, the last in a long line of Germanic strongmen commanding Roman imperial armies in the West, deposed the last emperor, the almost derisively-named Romulus Augustulus.  Eventually, the eastern emperor commissioned Theodoric the Amal, the king of what are known as Ostrogoths, to do something about this.  He did so.  Invading and seizing Italy, he established what amounted to an Ostrogothic kingdom extending well beyond the boundaries of Italy proper, into the upper Danube in the northeast and Provence in the west.  He was, by some measure, the most dominant ruler in the West in his time, lording it over neighboring Visigoths and Franks and Burgundians and assorted other barbarian Germanic tribes.

     But, then, Theodoric wasn’t all that much of an actual barbarian.  He had been educated at the imperial court in Constantinople and, favored by the emperor, he was named a commander of Roman forces in the Balkans.  This was the period when so many Germanic tribal confederations were invited inside the empire to serve as allied (foederati) forces, filling in the security gaps the Roman army itself could no longer cover.

     This was also the midst of Late Antiquity, that transition period from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages, from the fourth to the eighth-century, when the institutions and the political geography which mark out our modern world first emerged and became the norm.  When Christianity became the cultural and moral norm.  When the nation-state became the political norm and the first nation-states in the West began to emerge, all under ‘barbarian’ rule:  Spain, France, England.  Italy itself, under Ostrogothic rule, did not follow this national path; the eastern Emperor Justinian may be primarily to blame for this, as it was his (eventually successful but decades-long) attempt to re-seize Italy for the Empire, which wreaked havoc on the economy and society of the peninsula.  This opened the way for the Lombards, yet another Germanic people, to move into and take control of northern Italy (today’s Lombardy). 

     But Theodoric himself did not see his kingdom as something separate from the Empire.  Rather, his emphasis was on continuing imperial tradition and, in his official documents, he referred to his state simply as res publica.   Much of what we still have of what Theodoric, and his immediate successors, issued as official documents we have thanks to Cassiodorus.   Scion of a long-established family of high-ranking imperial officials, Cassiodorus himself served as consul in 514.  For decades, he drafted most, if not all, of the court’s official correspondence.  He preserved, for future generations, splendid examples of this correspondence in his Variae – letters covering the range of official concerns (hence, the title).

     The editor and translator is a professor of Roman and Late Antique History at Claremont McKenna College, a noted center for the study of early Christianity.  He has already published a translation of the complete Variae.  What he gives us here, as a guide to the study of the period, is a selection organized in some thirteen groupings, such as diplomacy, bureaucratic administration, finance, ecclesiastical matters, cultural affairs.  As Professor Bjornlie notes, ‘The sheer variety of the collection allowed Cassiodorus to interlace the daily concerns and functions of the state with sometimes passing, sometimes profound meditations on virtues, ethics, the balance of nature, and the inheritance of the past.’

     This was a very different world from that of Cicero or Augustus, but, perhaps, one rather familiar to us today.  ‘By the beginning of the sixth century, where a network of prefectures and provinces had previously reported to a central imperial court in Italy, now the mosaic of successor states in Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and Italy often engaged in competitive dialogue.’  Sound familiar?   Much the same could be written of the diplomatic relationships of the successor states of the Soviet Union.  Or, for that matter, of our own relationships with the various nations of Western Europe.  In other words, what Cassiodorus gives us is the means not just to study his world but also to take a comparative look at our own.

     So take this reflection on the pursuit of science, from Cassiodorus’ pen to Boethius, a fellow high government official and, both sadly and to our lasting profit, the great proponent of the consolation that a philosophical outlook can give one: ‘All of the disciplines of learning, every endeavor of the learned, as far as they are able, seeks to know the power of nature.’  Words to the wise, then and now.

Disclaimers: A review copy of this book was received from the publisher.  This site contains affiliate links to products. When you buy something through our retail links, we earn an affiliate commission.  This does not impact our reviews and comparisons.

M. Shane Bjornlie, ed. and trans. The Selected Letters of Cassiodorus:  A Sixth-Century Sourcebook (University of California Press, 2020), pp. ix, 312  ISBN: 9780520297340 (Ppk)
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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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