Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Boethius (d. 524)

ANICIUS MANLIUS SEVERINUS BOETHIUS’S father was Flavius Manlius Boethius, a patrician of great wealth and influence, who was trusted by the Emperor Odoacer and held the consulship in 487. The father died before his son reached manhood; and the youth was left to the guardianship of his kinsmen Festus and Symmachus, by whom he was carefully educated. He was remarkable early in life for his scholarship, and especially for his mastery of the Greek language, an accomplishment unusual for a Roman of this period. He entered public life when about thirty years of age, but duties of State were not permitted to put an end to his studies. He had married Rusticiana, the daughter of his guardian Symmachus.

The Roman world was now ruled by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. This leader had succeeded to the headship of the Ostrogoths on the death of his father Theodomir in 474. For a time he was a pensioner of the Byzantine court, with the duty of defending the lower Danube; but in 488 he determined to invade Italy and become a sovereign subordinate to no one. By the defeat of Odoacer in 489 he accomplished that end; and desiring to conciliate the Senatorial party at Rome, he called Boethius from his studious retirement, as one who by his position and wealth could reconcile his countrymen to the rule of a barbarian chief.

In 510 Boethius was made consul, and he continued in the public service till after his sons Symmachus and Boethius were elevated to the consulship in 522. Thus far he had enjoyed the full confidence of Theodoric; but in 523 he was thrown into prison in Pavia and his property confiscated, and the Senate condemned him to death. He was later executed. Unfortunately, the only account we have of the causes which led to this downfall is Boethius’s own in the ‘Consolations.’ According to this, he first incurred Theodoric’s displeasure by getting the province of Campania excepted from the operation of an edict requiring the provincials to sell their corn to the government, and otherwise championing the people against oppression; was the victim of various false accusations; and finally was held a traitor for defending Albinus, chief of the Senate, from the accusation of holding treasonable correspondence with the Emperor Justin at Constantinople. “If Albinus be criminal, I and the whole Senate are equally guilty,” Boethius reports himself to have said. There is no good reason to doubt his truthfulness in any of these matters; but he does not tell the whole truth, except in a sentence he lets slip later. Theodoric’s act was no outbreak of barbarian suspicion and ferocity. Boethius and the whole Senate were really guilty of holding an utterly untenable political position, which no sovereign on earth would endure: they wished to make the Emperor at Constantinople a court of appeal from Theodoric, as though the latter were still a subordinate prince. This may not have been technical treason, but it was practical insubordination; and under any other barbarian ruler or any one of fifty native ones, Rome would have flowed with blood. Theodoric contented himself with executing the ringleader, and the following year put to death Boethius’s father-in-law Symmachus in fear of his plotting revenge. Even so, the executions were a bad political mistake: they must have enraged and thoroughly alienated the Senatorial party,—that is, the chief Italian families,—and made a fusion of the foreign and native elements definitively out of the question. We need not blame Boethius or the Senate for their very natural aspiration to live under a civilized instead of a barbarian jurisdiction, even though they had their own codes and courts; but the de facto governing power had its rights also.

In 996 Boethius’s bones were removed to the church of St. Augustine, where his tomb may still be seen. As time elapsed, his death was considered a martyrdom, and he was canonized as St. Severinus.

Boethius was a thorough student of Greek philosophy, and formed the plan of translating all of Plato and Aristotle and reconciling their philosophies. This work he never completed. He wrote a treatise on music which was used as a textbook as late as the present century; and he translated the works of Ptolemy on astronomy, of Nicomachus on arithmetic, of Euclid on geometry, and of Archimedes on mechanics. His great work in this line was a translation of Aristotle, which he supplemented by a commentary in thirty books. Among his writings are a number of works on logic and a commentary on the ‘Topica’ of Cicero. In addition to these, five theological tracts are ascribed to him, the most important being a discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The work which has done most to perpetuate his name is the ‘Consolations of Philosophy,’ in five books,—written during his imprisonment at Pavia,—which has been called “the last work of Roman literature.” It is written in alternate prose and verse, and treats of his efforts to find solace in his misfortune. The first book opens with a vision of a woman, holding a book and sceptre, who comes to him with promises of comfort. She is his lifelong companion, Philosophy. He tells her the story of his troubles. In the second book, Philosophy tells him that Fortune has the right to take away what she has bestowed, and that he still has wife and children, the most precious of her gifts; his ambition to shine as statesman and philosopher is foolish, as no greatness is enduring. The third book takes up the discussion of the Supreme Good, showing that it consists not in riches, power, nor pleasure, but only in God. In the fourth book the problems of the existence of evil in the world and the freedom of the will are examined; and the latter subject continues through the fifth book. During the Middle Ages this work was highly esteemed, and numerous translations appeared. In the ninth century Alfred the Great gave to his subjects an Anglo-Saxon version; and in the fourteenth century Chaucer made an English translation, which was published by Caxton in 1480. Before the sixteenth century it was translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek.

It is now perhaps best known for the place it occupies in the spiritual development of Dante. He turned to it for comfort after the death of his Beatrice in 1291. Inspired by its teachings, he gave himself up for a time to the study of philosophy, with the result of his writing the ‘Convito,’ a book in which he often refers to his favorite author. In his ‘Divine Comedy’ he places Boethius in the Heaven of the Sun, together with the Fathers of the Church and the schoolmen.