Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus
Roman Statesman and Historian
Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus was born in Scylletium, Bruttium, in the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths (in modern Italy) in around 490. Cassiodorus was a statesman, historian, and monk and is credited with saving Roman culture from impending barbarism.
Cassiodorus was born as the son of a governor during the period of the Ostrogothic kings in Italy. He served as an apprentice to his father until he became a statesman in his own right. In 507 he was appointed quaestor, which was followed by an appointment to consul in 514. In 526 he became the chief of the civil service. He attained his last political post in 533 when he was selected as praetorian prefect. As a statesman under the Ostrogoths, Cassiodorus was interested in public education and developing a sound infrastructure to support it. He was relatively successful in this endeavor and the practices of ancient education continued to survive under barbarian rule. During his time in office, Cassiodorus had a relatively uneventful career that did not foreshadow the great impact he was to have on history. His zeal for public education and his desire to preserve it would continue to be the focus of his life. However, it was not until he retired from political office in 540 that he began his life's most important work in earnest.
After Cassiodorus retired, he became a monk and founded the monastery named Vivarium. The major goal of the monastery was to keep Roman culture alive and to perpetuate it through the ages. While Cassiodorus was neither a great author nor scholar, he provided the impetus for the maintenance and reproduction of cultural texts from Rome. Cassiodorus collected all types of manuscripts and instructed his monks to transcribe these works. It is noteworthy that they copied not only Christian texts, but also works that were considered to be pagan. This practice was significant because it influenced others to do the same, thereby preserving a great many of the ancient works that would not have been saved without this process. This practice was used as a model for other monasteries in the coming centuries. The significance of this cannot be overestimated because, if such a practice had not been undertaken, much of the wisdom and philosophy of antiquity would have been lost in the disintegrating Roman Empire.
The actual works of Cassiodorus fall into two distinct categories. He wrote extensively on historical and political topics, including summations of his edicts when in office. He also wrote texts that were concerned with theology, such as De anima, in which he discusses life after death and the soul. His most influential text, translated as Institutes of Divine and Secular Literature, was written for his monks and seems to be intended as a guide for learning. The first section discusses the study of the scriptures, while the second is an encyclopedia. The latter section was widely read during the Middle Ages and gave an overview of the liberal arts. The format of this book also served as a guide for encyclopedic works for many centuries.
Through his desire for public education, Cassiodorus effectively saved a large portion of the culture of Rome from total loss. Through his own writing and the obligatory writings of his monks, he helped influence others to do the same. Cassiodorus would surely be pleased by the result of his labor, which had a much more far-reaching impact than even he could have imagined.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN