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Roman writer, statesman, and monk, b. about 490; d. about 583

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Cassiodorus, Roman writer, statesman, and monk, b. about 490; d. about 583. His full name was Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, the last being a surname. Although of Syrian ancestry, his family had been for at least three generations one of the most important in Bruttium (Southern Italy). His great-grandfather successfully defended Bruttium during the Vandal invasion of 455; his grandfather was signally favored by Valentinian III and Aetius, but chose to retire early from his honorable career, and his father went through all the degrees of the magistracy, at length being made praetorian prefect and a patrician by Theodoric.

Cassiodorus or, more properly, Senator, born on the paternal estate at Scyllaceum (Squillace) in 490 or somewhat earlier, made his first appearance as councillor to the praetorian prefect about 501. A panegyric on Theodoric attracted this prince’s attention, and between 507 and 511 he appointed Cassiodorus quaestor. The rule prohibiting a magistrate of that time to govern his own province was waived by Theodoric in favor of Cassiodorus’s father and again a second time when Cassiodorus himself was made corrector, i.e. governor, of Lucania and Bruttium. Consul in 514, he was minister in 526 when Theodoric died. From the time of his quaestorship he had remained the king’s regular councillor, and he retained his influence throughout the regency of Amalaswintha, who made him presto-Han prefect. But Gothic power was passing through a serious crisis. Athalaric, the son of Amalaswintha, died in 534; Theodahadus, who had been made king by Amalaswintha, had the latter slain and in 536 himself fell a victim to Witiges, who, in turn, was taken prisoner in 540 by Belisarius, the Byzantine general. Cassiodorus decided to retire. Several years previously Benedict of Nursia had founded among the ruins of a temple of Apollo at Monte Cassino a monastery which was to serve as a model for all the West, and it was undoubtedly in imitation of Benedict’s institution that Cassiodorus erected the monastery of Vivarium on his own estate. Here he spent his remaining days, which must have been numerous, as we are told that at the age of ninety-three he was still writing. If born in 490, he could not therefore have died before 583.

The writings of Cassiodorus may be classified according to the two great divisions of his life, namely, his public career and time of religious retirement. While in office he devoted himself to work relating to politics and public affairs. There still remain fragments of two of his panegyrics, which, conformably to an already ancient tradition among Roman office-holders, he dedicated to the Gothic kings and queens. One was addressed to Eutharic, Theodoric’s son-in-law (518 or 519); the other was delivered at Ravenna on the occasion of the marriage of Witiges and Matheswintha (536). A great wealth of instances drawn from Roman history and illustrations from mythology serve the purpose of placing in relief the story of high heroic deeds set forth amid a clatter of empty phrases. In 519 Cassiodorus published a chronicle dedicated to Eutharic, the consul of the year. It is in substance a list of consuls, preceded by a table of the kings of Assyria, Latium, and Rome, and accompanied by a few notes. Cassiodorus uses successively an abridgment of Livy, the histories of Aufidius Bassus, St. Jerome, and Prosper, and the “Chronicle of Ravenna”. The historical comments appended to the names of the consuls are taken at random from these sources without either skill or accuracy. From the year 496 Cassiodorus wrote from his own experience and with a pronounced partiality for the Goths. He betrays the same inclination in his “History of the Goths”, published between 526 and 533 and of which we have only the abridgment edited by Jornandes in 551. Finally, as the bequest of his official career, we have his letters gathered into twelve books, the “Varies”, at the close of 537. This voluminous correspondence does not contain as much historical information as one would expect, dates, figures, names of men and places being frequently omitted as opposed to elegance of style. On the other hand, useless and pompous digressions, commonplaces of ethics or history, form the basis of these compositions. “The reader”, says Mommsen, “often hesitates as to the meaning of what is said and is ever vainly seeking a reason for its being said.” Cassiodorus carefully avoids all concrete details of the troublous time in which he lived, all that might in any way offend either Goths, Romans, or Byzantines. He is even lavish in his praise of those princes who were killing one another: Amalaswintha, Theodahadus, and Witiges. Books VI and VII of the “Varies” are a collection of formulae, the first of a kind quite common in the Middle Ages. These letters were designed for use on any occasion where a magistrate was created, needing only the insertion of new names. The letters in the other books are scarcely more interesting. However, such was the taste of the time, and the correspondence of Symmachus is almost equally insipid.

Cassiodorus seems to have begun his ecclesiastical writings with the “De animti”, which, after 540, he added to the “Variae” as a thirteenth book. This little treatise sets forth the nature and origin of the soul, its vices and virtues, following chiefly the opinions of Claudianus Mamertus and St. Augustine Cassiodorus being still in secular life when he wrote it. He indicates as the first fruit of his conversion a commentary on the Psalms which occupied him for several years. The works composed during his religious retirement reveal his anxiety to make his literary investigations serviceable to his monks; they also manifest a peculiar taste for figures and the symbolism of numbers. The commentary on the Psalms is founded chiefly on the “Enarrationes” of St. Augustine. The “Compplexions in epistolas et acta apostolorum et apocalypsin”—thus named because, in them, instead of commenting verse by verse, Cassiodorus combines several verses in order to paraphrase them—are also compilations; perhaps he refers to this work when he says that he has purged of all heresy an exposition by Pelagius of the Epistle to the Romans. He had the “Jewish Antiquities” of Flavius Josephus translated and also the ecclesiastical histories of Theodoret, Sozomen, and Socrates. He himself made extracts from the translations of these three historians and combined them in the “Hiistoria. Tripartita”, a hasty composition, teeming with errors and contradictions, but nevertheless much used throughout the Middle Ages as a manual of history. In another compilation he united the grammatical treatises and their commentaries ascribed to Donatus with the book of Sacerdos on figures; towards the close of his life Cassiodorus added thereto a treatise on orthography, merely another collection of extracts. The “De compute paschali” of 562 is not his but an anonymous work, added by a copyist to the chronicle of Cassiodorus.

Of all the work achieved by this author in his monastic retreat, what we of today find most interesting is the “Institutiones divinarum et ssecularium litterarum”, written between 543 and 555. His object was to furnish the monks with means of interpreting Holy Writ, but the plan of study which he suggests is far in advance of simple meditation on the Bible. He demands the reading of commentators, of Christian historians, to whom he adds Flavius Josephus, of chroniclers, and of the Latin Fathers. He recommends the liberal arts; he proclaims the merit gained by those who copy the Sacred Books, and outlines the rules to be followed in the correction of the text. Finally, in a second part, he resumes the theory of the liberal arts by following the division worked out by St. Jerome, Martianus Capella, and St. Augustine. He distinguishes the arts, notably grammar and rhetoric, from the sciences, which are arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Dialectics, to which he attributes great importance, he considers part art and part science. Of course, Cassiodorus subordinates the profane studies to theology, but, unlike Isidore, for example, his extracts and compendiums do not dispense the monks from making further researches; they rather provoke such research by referring to books with which he was careful to equip the convent library. It had been his dream to found the first theological faculty in Rome; at least he had the merit of putting in the first rank of monastic occupations intellectual work, to which St. Benedict had allotted no place. During his public career Cassiodorus endeavored to reconcile two races, the Goths and the Romans; in his religious retreat he labored with greater success to harmonize the culture of the ancient with that of the Christian world. Modern civilization was the outgrowth of the alliance brought about by him.


INFLUENCE OF CASSIODORUS UPON CHURCH MUSIC.—In his work on the liberal arts (De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Litterarum) Cassiodorus writes of music under the heading, Institutions musicae, and this latter treatise has been reprinted by Gerbert (Scriptores eccl. de mus. sacr., I) and is particularly valuable for the study of the early beginnings of the music of the Church. Cassiodorus did not go to the original sources—the Greek theoricians—for his knowledge of the Greek system of music, which was the only one then known and which he taught his monks. He borrowed from the Roman author Albinus, whose works are now lost. Cassiodorus, with Boethius, is the chief exponent of the theory of music between antiquity and the early Middle Ages. For this reason his writings are of great assistance to the many students who are occupied in restoring the chant of the Church, especially as to its rhythm, in accordance with the oldest tradition. His works also contain instructive information about musical instruments in use in his time, namely the flute, shawm, bag-pipe, pipe of Pan, and the organ.


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