Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 16: Cassiodorus

The iron way crosses the mouth of the valley river. As I had already noticed, it was a turbid torrent, of dull yellow; where it poured into the sea, it made a vast, clean-edged patch of its own hue upon the darker surface of the waves. This peculiarity resulted, no doubt, from much rain upon the hills; it may be that in calmer seasons the Fiume di Squillace bears more resemblance to the Pellena as one pictures it, a delightful stream flowing through the gardens of the old monastery. Cassiodorus tells us that it abounded in fish. One of his happy labours was to make fish-ponds, filled and peopled from the river itself. In the cliff-side where Mons Moscius breaks above the shore are certain rocky caves, and by some it is thought that, in speaking of his fish-preserves, Cassiodorus refers to these. Whatever the local details, it was from this feature that the house took its name, Monasterium Vivariense.

Here, then, I stood in full view of the spot which I had so often visioned in my mind's eye. Much of the land hereabout--probably an immense tract of hill and valley--was the old monk's patrimonial estate. We can trace his family back through three generations, to a Cassiodorus, an Illustris of the falling Western Empire, who about the middle of them fifth century defended his native Bruttii against an invasion of the Vandals. The grandson of this noble was a distinguished man all through the troubled time which saw Italy pass under the dominion of Odovacar, and under the conquest of Theodoric; the Gothic king raised him to the supreme office of Praetorian Prefect. We learn that he had great herds of horses, bred in the Bruttian forests, and that Theodoric was indebted to him for the mounting of troops of cavalry. He and his ancestry would signify little now-a-days but for the life-work of his greater son--Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, statesman, historian, monk. Senator was not a title, but a personal name; the name our Cassiodorus always used when speaking of himself. But history calls him otherwise, and for us he must be Cassiodorus still.

The year of his birth was 480. In the same year were born two other men, glories of their age, whose fame is more generally remembered: Boethius the poet and philosopher, and Benedict called Saint.

From Quaestorship (old name with no longer the old significance) to Praetorian Prefecture, Cassiodorus held all offices of state, and seems under every proof to have shown the nobler qualities of statesmanship. During his ripe years he stood by the side of Theodoric, minister in prime trust, doubtless helping to shape that wise and benevolent policy which made the reign of the Ostrogoth a time of rest and hope for the Italian people--Roman no longer; the word had lost its meaning, though not its magic. The Empire of the West had perished; Theodoric and his minister, clearly understanding this, and resolute against the Byzantine claim which was but in half abeyance, aimed at the creation of an independent Italy, where Goth and Latin should blend into a new race. The hope proved vain. Theodoric's successors, no longer kings, but mere Gothic chieftains, strove obscurely against inevitable doom, until the generals of Juistinian trod Italy into barren servitude. Only when the purpose of his life was shattered, when--Theodoric long dead--his still faithful service to the Gothic rule became an idle form, when Belisarius was compassing the royal city of Ravenna, and voice of council could no longer make itself heard amid tumult and ruin, did Cassiodorus retire from useless office, and turn his back upon the world.

He was aged about sixty. Long before, he had written a history of the Goths (known to us only in a compendium by another hand), of which the purpose seems to have been to reconcile the Romans to the Gothic monarchy; it began by endeavouring to prove that Goths had fought against the Greeks at Troy. Now that his public life was over, he published a collection of the state papers composed by him under the Gothic rulers from Theodoric to Vitigis: for the most part royal rescripts addressed to foreign powers and to officials of the kingdom. Invaluable for their light upon men and things fourteen hundred years ago, these Variae of Cassiodorus; and for their own sake, as literary productions, most characteristic, most entertaining. Not quite easy to read, for the Latin is by no means Augustan, but after labour well spent, a delightful revelation of the man and the age. Great is the variety of subjects dealt with or touched upon; from the diplomatic relations between Ravenna and Constantinople, or the alliances of the Amal line with barbaric royalties in Gaul and Africa, to the pensioning of an aged charioteer and the domestic troubles of a small landowner. We form a good general idea of the condition of Italy at that time, and, on many points political and social, gather a fund of most curious detail. The world shown to us is in some respects highly civilized, its civilization still that of Rome, whose laws, whose manners, have in great part survived the Teutonic conquest; from another point of view it is a mere world of ruin, possessed by triumphant barbarism, and sinking to intellectual darkness. We note the decay of central power, and the growth of political anarchy; we observe the process by which Roman nobles, the Senatorial Order when a Senate lingers only in name, are becoming the turbulent lords of the Middle Ages, each a power in his own territory, levying private war, scornful of public interests. The city of Rome has little part in this turbid history, yet her name is never mentioned without reverence, and in theory she is still the centre of the world. Glimpses are granted us of her fallen majesty; we learn that Theodoric exerted himself to preserve her noble buildings, to restore her monuments; at the same time we hear of marble stolen from palaces in decay, and of temples which, as private property, are converted to ignoble use. Moreover, at Rome sits an ecclesiastical dignitary, known as Papa, to whose doings already attaches considerable importance. One of the last acts of the Senate which had any real meaning was to make a decree with regard to the election of this Bishop, forbidding his advance by the way of Simony. Theodoric, an Arian, interferes only with the Church of Rome in so far as public peace demands it. In one of his letters occurs a most remarkable dictum on the subject of toleration. "Religionem imperare non possumus, quia nemo cogitur ut credat invitus--we cannot impose a religious faith, for no one can be compelled to believe against his conscience." This must, of course, have been the king's own sentiment, but Cassiodorus worded it, and doubtless with approval.

Indeed, we are at no loss to discern the mind of the secretary in these official papers. Cassiodorus speaks as often for himself as for the king; he delights to expatiate, from an obviously personal point of view, on any subject that interests him. One of these is natural history; give him but the occasion, and he gossips of beasts, birds, and fishes, in a flow of the most genial impertinence. Certain bronze elephants on the Via Sacra are falling to pieces and must be repaired: in giving the order, Theodoric's minister pens a little treatise on the habits and characteristics of the elephant. His erudition is often displayed: having to convey some direction about the Circus at Rome, he begins with a pleasant sketch of the history of chariot racing. One marvels at the man who, in such a period, preserved this mood of liberal leisure. His style is perfectly suited to the matter; diffuse, ornate, amusingly affected; altogether a precious mode of writing, characteristic of literary decadence. When the moment demands it, he is pompously grandiloquent; in dealing with a delicate situation, he becomes involved and obscure. We perceive in him a born courtier, a proud noble, a statesman of high purpose and no little sagacity; therewith, many gracious and attractive qualities, coloured by weaknesses, such as agreeable pedantry and amiable self-esteem, which are in part personal, partly the note of his time.

One's picture of the man is, of course, completed from a knowledge of the latter years of his life, of the works produced during his monastic retirement. Christianity rarely finds expression in the Variae, a point sufficiently explained by the Gothic heresy, which imposed discretion in public utterances; on the other hand, pagan mythology abounds; we observe the hold it still had upon educated minds--education, indeed, meaning much the same thing in the sixth century after Christ as in the early times of the Empire. Cassiodorus can never have been a fanatical devotee of any creed. Of his sincere piety there is no doubt; it appears in a vast commentary on the Psalms, and more clearly in the book he wrote for the guidance and edification of his brother monks--brothers (carissimi fratres), for in his humility he declined to become the Abbot of Vivariense; enough that his worldly dignity, his spiritual and mental graces, assured to him the influence he desired. The notable characteristic of his rule was a sanctifying of intellectual labour. In abandoning the world, he by no means renounced his interest in its civilization. Statesmanship having failed to stem the tide of Oriental tyranny and northern barbarism, he set himself to save as much as possible of the nobler part, to secure for happier ages the record of human attainment. Great was the importance he attached to the work of his Antiquarii--copyists who laboured to preserve the manuscript literature which was in danger of utterly perishing. With special reference to their work upon the Scriptures, he tells them that they "fight against the wiles of Satan with pen and ink." And again: "Writing with three fingers, they thus symbolize the virtues of the Holy Trinity; using a reed, they thus attack the craft of the Devil with that very instrument which smote the Lord's head in his Passion." But all literature was his care. That the copyists might write correctly, he digested the works of half a dozen grammarians into a treatise on orthography. Further, that the books of the monastery might wear "a wedding garment" (his own phrase), he designed a great variety of bindings, which were kept as patterns.

There, at the foot of Moscius, did these brethren and their founder live and work. But on the top of the mountain was another retreat, known as Castellense, for those monks who--divina gratia suffragante--desired a severer discipline, and left the coenobitic house to become anchorites. Did these virtuous brothers continue their literary labours? One hopes so, and one is glad that Cassiodorus himself seems to have ended his life down in the valley by the Pellena.

A third class of monks finds mention, those in whom "Frigidus obstiterit circum praecordia sanguis," quotes the founder. In other words, the hopelessly stupid. For these there was labour in the garden, and to console them Cassiodorus recites from a Psalm: "Thou shalt eat the labour of thy hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee." A smile is on the countenance of the humane brother. He did his utmost, indeed, for the comfort, as well as the spiritual welfare, of his community. Baths were built "for the sick" (heathendom had been cleaner, but we must not repine); for the suffering, too, and for pilgrims, exceptional food was provided--young pigeons, delicate fish, fruit, honey; a new kind of lamp was invented, to burn for long hours without attention; dials and clepsydras marked the progress of day and night.

Among the monastic duties is that of giving instruction to the peasantry round about. They are not to be oppressed, these humble tillers of the soil, for is it not written that "My yoke is easy, and my burden light"? But one must insist that they come frequently to religious service, and that they do not lucos colere--worship in groves--which shows that a heathen mind still lingered among the people, and that they reverenced the old deities. Benedict, the contemporary of Cassiodorus (we have no authority for supposing that they knew each other), when he first ascended the mount above Casinum, found a temple of Apollo, with the statue of the god receiving daily homage. Archaeologists have tried to determine at what date the old religion became extinct in Italy. Their research leads them well into the Middle Ages, but, undoubtedly, even then they pause too soon.

Legend says that Cassiodorus attained the age of nearly a hundred years. We may be sure that to the end he lived busily, for of idleness he speaks with abhorrence as the root of evil. Doubtless he was always a copious talker, and to many a pilgrim he must have gossiped delightfully, alternating mundane memories with counsel good for the soul. Only one of his monastic brethren is known to us as a man of any distinction: this was Dionysius Exiguus, or the Little, by birth a Scythian, a man of much learning. He compiled the first history of the Councils, and, a matter more important, originated the computation of the Christian Era; for up to this time men had dated in the old way, by shadowy consulships and confusing Indictions. There is happy probability that Cassiodorus lived out his life in peace; but the monastery did not long exist; like that of Benedict on Monte Cassino, it seems to have been destroyed by the Lombards, savages and Arians. No trace of it remains. But high up on the mountain is a church known as S. Maria de Vetere, a name indicating an ancient foundation, which perhaps was no other than the anchorite house of Castellense.


George Gissing