When Attila’s empire crumbled at his death (453) the Ostrogoths whom he had subdued regained their independence. The Byzantine emperors paid them to drive other German barbarians westward, rewarded them with Pannonia, and took Theodoric, the seven-year-old son of their King Theodemir, to Constantinople as a hostage for Ostrogothic fidelity. In eleven years at the Byzantine court Theodoric acquired intelligence without education, absorbed the arts of war and government, but apparently never learned to write.64He won the admiration of the Emperor Leo I; and when Theodemir died (475), Leo recognized Theodoric as king of the Ostrogoths.
Leo’s successor Zeno, fearful that Theodoric might trouble Byzantium, suggested to him the conquest of Italy. Odoacer had formally acknowledged, actually ignored, the Eastern emperors; Theodoric, Zeno hoped, might bring Italy back under Byzantine rule; in any case the two leaders of dangerous tribes would amuse each other while Zeno studied theology. Theodoric liked—some say propounded—the idea. As Zeno’s patricius he led the Ostrogoths, including 20,000 warriors, across the Alps (488). The orthodox bishops of Italy, disliking Odoacer’s Arianism, supported the Arian invader as representing an almost orthodox emperor. With their help Theodoric broke Odoacer’s sturdy resistance in five years of war, and persuaded him to a compromise peace. He invited Odoacer and his son to dine with him at Ravenna, fed them generously, and slew them with his own hand (493). So treacherously began one of the most enlightened reigns in history.
A few campaigns brought under Theodoric’s rule the western Balkans, southern Italy, and Sicily. He maintained a formal subordination to Byzantium, struck coins only in the emperor’s name, and wrote with due deference to the Senate that still sat in Rome. He took the title of rex or king; but this term, once so hateful to Romans, was now generally applied to rulers of regions that acknowledged the sovereignty of Byzantium. He accepted the laws and institutions of the late Western Empire, zealously protected its monuments and forms, and devoted his energy and intelligence to restoring orderly government and economic prosperity among the people whom he had conquered. He confined his Goths to police and military service, and quieted their grumbling with ample pay; administration and the courts remained in Roman hands. Two thirds of the soil of Italy was left to the Roman population, one third was distributed among the Goths; even so not all the arable land was tilled. Theodoric ransomed Roman captives from other nations, and settled them as peasant proprietors in Italy. The Pontine Marshes were drained, and returned to cultivation and health. Believing in a regulated economy, Theodoric issued an “Edict Concerning Prices to be Maintained at Ravenna”; we do not know what prices were decreed; we are told that the cost of food, in Theodoric’s reign, was one third lower than before;65 but this may have been due less to regulation than to peace. He reduced governmental personnel and salaries, ended state subsidies to the Church, and kept taxes low. His revenues nevertheless sufficed to repair much of the damage that invaders had done to Rome and Italy, and to erect at Ravenna a modest palace and the churches of Sant’ Apollinare and San Vitale. Verona, Pavia, Naples, Spoleto, and other Italian cities recovered under his rule all the architectural splendor of their brightest days. Though an Arian, Theodoric protected the orthodox Church in her property and worship; and his minister Cassiodorus, a Catholic, phrased in memorable words a policy of religious freedom: “We cannot command religion, for no one can be forced to believe against his will.”66 A Byzantine historian, Procopius, in the following generation, indited an impartial tribute to the “barbarian” king:
Theodoric was exceedingly careful to observe justice … and attained the highest degree of wisdom and manliness. … Although in name he was a usurper, yet in fact he was as truly an emperor as any who have distinguished themselves in this office from the beginning of time. Both the Goths and the Romans loved him greatly. … When he died he had not only made himself an object of terror to his enemies, but he also left to his subjects a keen sense of bereavement and lose.67
In this environment of security and peace Latin literature in Italy had its final fling. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus (480?–573) served as secretary to both Odoacer and Theodoric. At the latter’s suggestion he wrote a History of the Goths,68 which aimed to show supercilious Romans that the Goths, too, had behind them noble ancestors and heroic deeds. Perhaps more objectively Cassiodorus compiled a Chronicon, a chronological history of the world from Adam to Theodoric. At the close of his long political career he published as Variae a collection of his letters and state papers; some a little absurd, some a bit bombastic, many revealing a high level of morals and statesmanship in the minister and his king. About 540, having seen the ruin and fall of both the governments that he had served, he retired to his estate at Squillace in Calabria, founded two monasteries, and lived there as half monk and half grandee till his death at the age of ninety-three. He taught his fellow monks to copy manuscripts, pagan as well as Christian, and provided a special room—the scriptorium—for this work. His example was followed in other religious institutions, and much of our modern treasure of ancient literature is the result of the monastic copying initiated by Cassiodorus. In his last years he composed a textbook—Institutiones divinarum et humanarum lectionum—or Course of Religious and Secular Studies—which boldly defended the Christian reading of pagan literature, and adopted from Martianus Capella that division of the scholastic curriculum into “trivium” and “quadrivium” which became the usual arrangement in medieval education.
The career of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (475?–524) paralleled that of Cassiodorus, except in longevity. Both were born of rich Roman families, served Theodoric as ministers, labored to build a bridge between paganism and Christianity, and wrote dreary books that were read and treasured for a thousand years. Boethius’ father was consul in 483; his father-in-law, Symmachus the Younger, was descended from the Symmachus who had fought for the Altar of Victory. He received the best education that Rome could give, and then spent eighteen years in the schools of Athens. Returning to his Italian villas, he buried himself in study. Resolved to save the elements of a classical culture that was visibly dying, he gave his time—the scholar’s most grudging gift—to summarizing in lucid Latin the works of Euclid on geometry, of Nicomachus on arithmetic, of Archimedes on mechanics, of Ptolemy on astronomy. … His translation of Aristotle’s Organon, or logical treatises, and of Porphyry’s Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle provided the leading texts and ideas of the next seven centuries in logic, and set the stage for the long dispute between realism and nominalism. Boethius tried his hand also at theology: in an essay on the Trinity he defended the orthodox Christian doctrine, and laid down the principle that where faith and reason conflict, faith should prevail. None of these writings repays reading today, but it would be hard to exaggerate their influence on medieval thought.
Moved by his family’s tradition of public service, Boethius dragged himself from these abstruse pursuits into the whirlpool of political life. He rose rapidly; became consul, then patricius, then master of the offices—i.e., prime minister (522). He distinguished himself by both his philanthropy and his eloquence; men compared him with Demosthenes and Cicero. But eminence makes enemies. The Gothic officials at the court resented his sympathy with the Roman and the Catholic population, and aroused the suspicions of the King. Theodoric was now sixty-nine, failing in health and mind, wondering how to transmit in stability the rule of an Arian Gothic family over a nation nine tenths Roman and eight tenths Catholic. He had reason to believe that both the aristocracy and the Church were his foes, who impatiently awaited his death. In 523 Justinian, Byzantine regent, issued an edict banishing all Manicheans from the Empire, and barring from civil or military office all pagans and heretics—including all Arians except Goths. Theodoric suspected that the exception was intended to disarm him, but would be withdrawn at the first opportunity; and he judged the decree a poor return for the full liberties that he had accorded to the orthodox creed in the West. Had he not raised to the highest offices that same Boethius who had written an anti-Arian tract on the Trinity? In this very year 523 he had given to the church of St. Peter two magnificent chandeliers of solid silver as a gesture of courtesy to the pope. However, he had offended a great part of the population by protecting the Jews; when mobs destroyed synagogues in Milan, Genoa, and Rome, he had rebuilt the synagogues at public expense.69
It was in this conjuncture of events that word reached Theodoric of a senatorial conspiracy to depose him. Its leader, he was told, was Albinus, president of the Senate and friend of Boethius. The generous scholar hastened to Theodoric, guaranteed the innocence of Albinus, and said: “If Albinus is a criminal, I and the whole Senate are equally guilty.” Three men of blemished reputation accused Boethius of sharing in the plot, and they adduced a document, bearing Boethius’ signature, which invited the Byzantine Empire to reconquer Italy. Boethius denied all charges, and rejected the document as a forgery; later, however, he admitted: “Had there been any hopes of liberty I should have freely indulged them. Had I known of a conspiracy against the King … you would not have known of it from me.”70 He was arrested (523).
Theodoric sought some understanding with the Emperor. In words worthy of a philosopher king he wrote to Justin:
To pretend to dominion over the conscience is to usurp the prerogative of God. By the nature of things the power of sovereigns is confined to political government; they have no right of punishment except over those who disturb the public peace. The most dangerous heresy is that of a sovereign who separates himself from part of his subjects because they believe not according to his belief.71
Justin replied that he had a right to refuse office to men whose loyalty he could not trust, and that the order of society required unity of belief. The Arians of the East appealed to Theodoric to protect them. He asked Pope John I to go to Constantinople and intercede for the dismissed Arians; the Pope protested that this was no mission for one pledged to destroy heresy; but Theodoric insisted. John was received with such honors in Constantinople, and returned with such empty hands, that Theodoric accused him of treason, and flung him into jail, where, a year later, he died.72
Meanwhile Albinus and Boethius had been tried before the King, adjudged guilty, and sentenced to death. The frightened Senate passed decrees repudiating them, confiscating their property, and approving the penalty. Symmachus defended his son-in-law, and was himself arrested. Boethius, in prison, now composed one of the most famous of medieval books—De consolatione philosophiae. In its alternation of undistinguished prose and charming verse no tear finds voice; there is only a Stoic resignation to the unaccountable whims of fortune, and an heroic attempt to reconcile the misfortunes of good men with the benevolence, omnipotence, and prescience of God. Boethius reminds himself of all the blessings that life has showered upon him—wealth, and a “noble father-in-law, and a chaste wife,” and exemplary children; he recalls his dignities, and the proud moment when he thrilled with his eloquence a Senate whose presiding consuls were both of them his sons. Such bliss, he tells himself, cannot last forever; fortune must balance it now and then with a chastening blow; and so much happiness can forgive so fatal a calamity.73 And yet such recalled felicity can sharpen affliction: “in all adversity of fortune,” says Boethius in a line that Dante made Francesca echo, “it is the most unhappy kind of misfortune to have been happy.”74 He asks Dame Philosophy—whom he personifies in medieval style—where real happiness lies; he discovers that it does not lie in wealth or glory, pleasure or power; and he concludes that there is no true or secure happiness except in union with God; “blessedness is one with divinity.”75 Strangely, there is no suggestion, in this book, of personal immortality, no reference to Christianity or to any specifically Christian doctrine, no line that might not have been written by Zeno, Epictetus, or Aurelius. The last work of pagan philosophy was written by a Christian who, in the hour of death, remembered Athens rather than Golgotha.
On October 23, 524, his executioners came. They tied a cord around his head, and tightened it till his eyes burst from their sockets; then they beat him with clubs till he died. A few months later Symmachus was put to death. According to Procopius,76 Theodoric wept for the wrong he had done to Boethius and Symmachus. In 526 he followed his victims to the grave.
His kingdom died soon after him. He had nominated his grandson Athalaric to succeed him; but Athalaric being only ten years old, his mother Amalasuntha ruled in his name. She was a woman of considerable education and many accomplishments, a friend and perhaps a pupil of Cassiodorus, who now served her as he had served her father. But she leaned too much toward Roman ways to please her Gothic subjects; and they objected to the classical studies with which, in their views, she was enfeebling the King. She yielded the boy to Gothic tutors; he took to sexual indulgence, and died at eighteen. Amalasuntha associated her cousin Theodahad with her on the throne, having pledged him to let her rule. Presently he deposed and imprisoned her. She appealed to Justinian, now Byzantine Emperor, to come to her aid. Belisarius came.