The Variae is a work in twelve books containing the collected literary products of Cassiodorus' years in office. It contains letters, proclamations, formulae for appointments, and edicts in which are recorded the military commands, political appointments, judicial decisions, and administrative orders of the Ostrogothic kingdom; most are written in the name of the reigning kings, but some are in Cassiodorus' name.[] Most of these documents (about two-thirds of the total) are not datable except by their position in the collection in relation to documents datable on internal grounds. Very frequently dates and names have been excised from the documents as we have them to make them more edifying and (to Cassiodorus' colleagues and successors in administration) useful. As many of them as can be dated, e.g., appointments to a particular office stated to begin from a specific indiction, can be fixed to three periods: 507- 511, 523-527, and 555-537. These, we deduce, are the periods during which Cassiodorus himself was at Ravenna holding office, in the first instance as quaestor, in the second as magister officiorum, and in the third as praetorian prefect. We assume that Cassiodorus' activity drafting letters for the king would in each case roughly begin and end with his terms in office, that Cassiodorus was only involved in the literary activity preserved in the Variae during those years when he was holding appointive office. This in turn may imply that he did not in fact normally reside at court except when in office; for as we saw in the first chapter, his efforts as a ghostwriter for the king during the last two periods of official activity were supernumerary activities, undertaken as favors because of the high esteem in which his literary style was held. Thus, had he been at court while out of office, he would have been every bit as capable of aiding the quaestorial staff as when holding an official appointment.
We saw in the Ordo generis that Cassiodorus entered public life as consiliarius (a kind of aide-de-camp for legal affairs) to his father during the latter's term as prefect. In fact, that post was descended from that of the assessores in ancient Roman courts, the jurists who sat next to the magistrate on the judicial bench and gave him legal advice on the disposition of cases before him.[] We know so little of the post in the sixth century that it is only a probable assumption that the holder of the office had to have had some legal training before such an appointment. We have seen, however, that Cassiodorus seems to have been unusually young at the time of his appointment, and it is natural to wonder whether most of his legal education might not have come to him on the job; that a father would be allowed to appoint his own son to assist in this way indicates that it was not a post under severe outside scrutiny.
As a result of the oration in praise of Theoderic that Cassiodorus presented at this time, he received his appointment as quaestor. It seems clear that the post was a reward not merely for the loyalty of a sycophant but also for the talent of a polished rhetorician. For the specific function of the quaestor in this age (as the Notitia Dignitatum informs us tersely) was literary: "Under the authority of the quaestor: drafting laws, answering petitions.''[] The Notitia adds that the quaestor did not have his own officium (bureaucratic staff), but could requisition help from other imperial bureaus as necessary. The formula of appointment emphasizes the quaestor's intimate relationship with the king, since it was he who put the desires of the monarch into words that were both rhetorically effective and legally valid (Var. 6.5). Much was indeed made of the importance of rhetoric as a weapon for insuring compliance with decrees by effecting the persuasion of the subjects that the decrees communicated were right and necessary; the quaestor's words should prevail "so that the sword of punishment should be made almost superfluous where the quaestor's eloquence has its way" (Var. 6.5.3). Certainly, great store would be set on presenting the commands of the king in as impeccably correct (both rhetorically and legally) and pleasing a fashion as possible. It was for this virtue, as well as the presumed knowledge of the law, that Cassiodorus, the youthful orator, must have been selected.[] Despite the intellectual demands of the post, the telltale absence of an officium marks the quaestorship as the least lofty of the posts carrying the rank of illustris; for it is an unchanging rule of bureaucratic government that one's dignity and worth are directly proportionate to the number of underlings on hand to do one's bidding.
It is a subject for much speculation and little certain knowledge, to what extent the role of the quaestor was more important under the Ostrogothic kings than under the late emperors. For it would seem that the quaestor's job was in large measure to put the best face on official pronouncements and to look after the sensibilities of the thin-skinned aristocracy. To these ends every appointment to a high office was accompanied by a letter to the senate announcing the appointment and expressing concern for the senators' desire that their company be augmented by the most worthy candidates.[] Even if Theoderic was not illiterate, the presence in his retinue of a polished Latin rhetorician was a valuable asset; but we have no way of knowing how far Cassiodorus went in polishing and elaborating the monarch's thoughts. It is possible that Theoderic could understand little more than the gist of most of Cassiodorus' most polished productions; however that may be, it is clear that the eloquence at least, and perhaps a goodly part of the accompanying philosophy about the nobler purposes of the king's rule, are directly attributable to Cassiodorus. We can recall, moreover, that on his appointment to the prefecture by Athalaric, the letter of appointment recalled Theoderic's fondness for laying aside the cares of state and indulging in philosophical conversation with his learned minister (Var. 9.24.8). Whether we choose to interpret this statement as exaggerated boasting by Cassiodorus, as evidence of the king's own relatively high level of intellectual ability, or as a carefully colored description of a relationship where a comparatively ignorant king listened in silence, if not awe, to the lectures of his bookish friend, the most important information seems to be that at least Cassiodorus thought of himself as a part-time minister of culture to the Gothic kings; that his literary efforts were sought after is the best and only confirmation that such a view has. One sees, however, that his employment as publicist for the court was good politics for maintaining good relations with the restive aristocracy. Theoderic must have found Cassiodorus a valuable tool for keeping him in contact with a faction in his kingdom that he might otherwise not have known.
Most of the letters written for the king in the Variae date to the period of the quaestorship. A total of 187 letters in Books I through V are commonly dated to the 507-511 period, and it is possible that the 72 formulae in Books VI and VII were composed at this time. From the first years as magister officiorum there are 42 letters written in the name of Theoderic. After Theoderic's death, Cassiodorus remained in office for little more than a year, producing the thirty-three letters of Book VIII and the first thirteen or fourteen letters of Book IX; many of those letters were announcements of the death of Theoderic and other documents related to the transfer of power. The remaining eleven letters in Book IX were written after Cassiodorus' appointment as prefect in 533 and before the death of Athalaric in 534. Book X contains all of the letters written in the names of the various monarchs during the last three years that Cassiodorus spent in office. Many of the first letters are pairs, e.g., one written by Amalasuintha to introduce Theodahad, and one by Theodahad to acknowledge his own appointment. There are only four letters in Amalasuintha's name for the six months between her son's death and her own. Twenty-four letters appear in the name of Theodahad as well as two addressed to the empress Theodora by Theodahad's wife and queen, Gudeliva.[] Finally, there are only five letters in Witigis' name: a formal announcement of his election to his Gothic subjects, three diplomatic pieces to Byzantine addressees, and one to all his bishops asking their support for a mission to Constantinople.
There was, therefore, a decline in the volume of Cassiodorus' ghostwriting during his term as prefect especially; but it was at this time that he was for the first time entitled to issue decrees in his own name, and these are collected (to a total of 68) in Books XI and XII of the Variae.
It is thus of comparatively little importance to the study of the Variae to consider Cassiodorus' activity as magister officiorum, since in fact no trace of his activities specifically undertaken as a function of that office comes down to us. It can be reconstructed from remarks about the office in Cassiodorian and other sources that the magister was something remotely like head of the civil service, involved in all the decisions of the realm insofar as they needed facilitating by the bureaucracy; and he frequently attempted to extend the scope of his action, but was not in fact a major force in the making and execution of policy.[] In the Notitia Dignitatum the magister seems to be in charge of certain household troops (but whether this continued under the Goths is to be doubted), the agentes in rebus (a courier service largely replaced by Gothic saiones, probably under Gothic control), and the four principal bureaus of the court in charge of shuffling papers and pushing pencils: the scrinia memoriae, dispositionum, epistolarum, and libellorum. The distinction in function between these offices is difficult to recover at this date, though it surely resided in the form and content of the documents with which each was concerned. The magister officiorum also had charge of the system of post-horses maintained throughout the realm for official purposes (the cursus publicus) and the arsenals.[] There is some trace in Cassiodorus' own formula for the office that the post had something of the functions of a modern ministry of foreign affairs (though his role in meeting foreign ambassadors may have been more a matter of protocol and hospitality than policy) and some authority over provincial governors (Var. 6.6). The office seems to have taken over, as time passed, more and more functions once exercised by the praetorian prefect, due in part to the ambition of the holders of the office, in part to a need to relegate routine bureaucratic functions to the magister while the bulk of the administrative, judicial, and financial authority remained with the praetorian prefect. We have seen how Athalaric related that Cassiodorus' service in this post was enlivened not only by his frequent assistance to the quaestors but also by his ready assumption of a military command when the shores of Italy seemed menaced and there was no one else at hand to do the job (Var. 9.25.9). This glimpse of the practical role of the office under the Goths seems to depict the magister as a kind of chief of staff for the whole government, in charge of making things work and taking burdensome administrative tasks away from king and prefect.9 Of Cassiodorus' own performance in this post, however, this fleeting glimpse is our only direct information.
For Cassiodorus' second extended period out of office, from the end of his term as magister in about 527 until his appointment as prefect in 533, we are more poorly informed than for the first. The evidence becomes generous again only when we examine Cassiodorus' performance as praetorian prefect. He was appointed in 533, apparently to take office from the first of September with the beginning of the official year; the letters concerning his appointment are contained in the Variae, drafted by their subject. Only at this point, a quarter of a century after Cassiodorus entered public life and almost a decade after Theoderic's death, can we begin to think of him as the leading figure of the Ostrogothic civil government. However useful he may have been as quaestor in publicizing and praising Theoderic's actions for a Roman audience, however skillful a manager of bureaucrats he contrived to be as magister officiorum, he was still undeniably outside the narrowest inner circle of power. Not only had he not held the prefecture (though the distinguished Liberius had reached that rank before the age of thirty, while Cassiodorus was nearly fifty in 533), he had not held any of the major portfolios in the financial departments. His actions had been limited in their significance to the government itself, rarely involving intervention in the affairs of the society at large. Even if his influence with Theoderic was as substantial as he himself would have us believe, it could only have been the influence of an adviser, and, to judge by the time he was allowed to spend away from court, an adviser less than vital to the interests of the monarch. And we are not without grounds for supposing that the comparatively hasty departure from office after the change of kings in 526 indicated some reshuffle in the royal cabinet after which Cassiodorus, willingly or not, found himself on the outside once again.
But Amalasuintha, the actual ruler of Italy in her son's regency, did bring back Cassiodorus to the highest rank in 533 and allowed him to publish flowery praise of himself in her son's name. His task can have been anything but easy during these besieged years, but the books of the Variae dealing with the period give the opposite impression. In Cassiodorus' own books, XI and XII, sounds of war are distant indeed;[] the letters collected treat all manner of quite ordinary administrative topics. A large part of Book XI is devoted to letters of appointment for posts in Cassiodorus' own officium; in the same vein are edicts and letters of instruction to lower officials for the conduct of business under the new prefect--all of Book XI may date from the first few months of Cassiodorus' term. In Book XII there are ordinary matters of tax relief, an obscure property case, some construction orders, and a few more appointments. No fewer than four of the letters there have to do with the appointment of officials and the instructions given them for the procurement of delicacies for the royal table (Var. 12.4, 12.11, 12.12, 12.18). Mommsen dated these letters to the period of the prefecture in general, but it is likely that they can be attributed to the reign of Theodahad, who died in 536. For there is not much evidence of contact between Cassiodorus and the martial-minded Witigis (only the five perfunctory letters in his name in Book 1), nor is there much reason to think that the new warrior king was much concerned with the consumption of royal delicacies in a peaceful palace--he had to spend too much time with the troops. Theodahad, on the other hand, always appears to have been a man who enjoyed the perquisites of the throne to the fullest.
Because he insists on including only matters of peaceful import and such a substantial body of material on the administrative details of his assumption of office, Cassiodorus gives us a good picture of the functionings of the officium of the praetorian prefect at this time. The picture is largely theoretical--that is, confined to a description of how things should run, rather than a record of actual performance. Since similar descriptions survive in the Notitia Dignitatum and in the De magistratibus of John Lydus, we can perceive the structure and some of the functions of the office at this period.
This snapshot of administrative structure shows how little really did change. There was some shuffling about of minor responsibilities from office to office, but in general the prefecture remained recognizably similar in the last days of the Gothic kingdom to what it had been more than a century before. The office was the only cabinet post to authorize the holder to issue directives in his own name; these included edicts on judicial affairs and price control (e.g., Var. 11.12). He also supervised the levying of the annual indiction, or general tax, payable in kind throughout the realm; this levy was so important that it was assigned directly to the prefect for collection rather than to a separate ministry (like the others that dealt chiefly with the royal monetary transactions--sacrae largitiones and estates--res privatae). The indictional year began on the first of September, to coincide with the end of the harvest and the beginning of the collection of the tax on that year's crops. Since the entire realm depended on the efficient collection and redistribution of the harvests in the summer and fall before the onset of the winter closed off the seas (by mid-November at the latest) and the world settled down to a long season without economical means of transportation for bulky products, this function of the prefecture was central to the well-being of any government; not only must the troops on the frontier be supplied, but the corps of bureaucrats itself and the royal court had to be the objects of the prefect's efficient (perhaps his most efficient) attention.
The prefect also had important administrative and judicial functions. He appointed and paid provincial governors; and he was authorized to discipline them, as well as to offer direct rescripts to their queries, some of which appear in the last books of the Variae. Finally, he was the highest judge of appeal in all legal matters; this was important under the Gothic kingdom, and still more so in the kingdom's last disorganized years, when royal Justice was untutored in the ways of Roman law and not easily tracked down sometimes in the camps. To whatever extent the ordinary administration of the kingdom progressed in any ordinary way in the war years, the prefect, as the head of that administration, was a figure on whom much would, or at least could, depend.
As indicated, every praetorian prefect was in a position to issue documents in his own name; moreover, the occupant of the government's highest seat would have access to the records of preceding administrations.[] A preoccupation with his own literary activity and the availability of copies of the documents that he had produced over the preceding three decades as quaestor and as informal quaestor's helper eventually led Cassiodorus to the notion of publishing a compilation of those documents as a monument to his public career. In the prefaces with which he adorned this compilation (one at the very beginning, and another before Books XI and XII to introduce his own prefectural documents) there are self-effacing apologias. While it is difficult to descry genuine literary motivations behind such a facade (where the urging of friends was introduced as the motive for publication), and indeed while such a facade may not be without some substantially accurate backing, the role of literary vanity in stimulating such a compilation seems undeniable. If from his earliest years Cassiodorus had been praised on all sides for the facility of his pen, it would be difficult for him to avoid thinking fondly of his accumulated literary production at the close of his career.
To impute such a motive to Cassiodorus, however, requires us to think that he did indeed foresee the proximate end of his public career while he was still at Ravenna with access to the files; it is not in the ordinary course of events for a man in his early fifties to be thinking of imminent retirement. There seems, therefore, to be a definite, if completely unstated, air about the Variae of a man who realized that one phase of his life was coming to an end. Whether this was connected with a growing desire to turn to a more expressly religious style of life or with shrewd estimates of the inevitability of Gothic defeat and the absorption of Italy into a larger political structure in which Cassiodorus could not or would not find a place, the effect is the same. For all the likelihood, however, that such thoughts were occurring to Cassiodorus at this time, they, like the bloody war going on about him, leave no direct trace on the Variae.
For as much as the Variae is a document of the career of one statesman, it is also a semiofficial record of the kingdom itself. The original readers of the Variae were not so concerned with using it as a source to establish the dates and events of Cassiodorus' life, or even to learn about the affairs of the kingdom. Instead, readers in Italy (or even in the east, if such there were) perusing these pages around 540 would see spread out before them a varnished picture of the successes of the Gothic kingdom in Italy reaching back over three decades. The work covers a full generation of the politics of the kingdom and brings to life again in particular the acts and achievements of the dead and sorely missed founder of the Gothic experiment in government. When we read, for example, the first letter of the Variae, in which Theoderic speaks of reconciliation to the emperor Anastasius after a minor skirmish in 508, our attention is riveted on the event itself, to Cassiodorus the editor (as opposed to Cassiodorus the original author) and to his reading public, the letter was a painful reminder of the sad course that events had taken in the years since. In years when Rome was besieged by warring armies, captured and recaptured amid scenes of carnage and destruction, the lofty purposes of Theoderic in encouraging the rebuilding of the ruins of former wars would again evoke an echo of what might have been, what was in fact once beginning to be, before events overtook their shapers. The formulae in Books VI and VII, moreover, are a clear demonstration of the state of bureaucratic "normalcy" that once prevailed in the kingdom, whatever their use to future quaestors may have been.
But while the Variae is a testament to the virtues of the Gothic kingdom, it is a nonpolemical treatise, threading carefully through the events of the preceding decades, glossing over disturbances past and present, emphasizing only the happy and the successful. Thus the omission of any mention of the sad fate of Boethius and Symmachus may have been conditioned by more than Cassiodorus' own reluctance to reveal seamy details of his own advancement at his kinsmen's expense; the crime for which the two nobles were executed was alleged collusion with the eastern empire. Whether or not they had been guilty and whether Cassiodorus felt remorse at his own inability to alter their fates, that aspect of their lives was not an appropriate subject for inclusion in this dossier of success. In addition to literary vanity, then, this new motive appears for Cassiodorus' choice of literary forms for this work; the documents of past years, edited and selected carefully for innocuousness, had an impersonal ring to them that increased the ability of the work as a whole to mollify inflamed sentiments. If such a work was meant to be read in Constantinople and in Rome and in Campanian villas as well as in Ravenna, it would have been extremely difficult to make the case for the Gothic kingdom in the form of a treatise arguing the case as such; even a revised Gothic History, by virtue of its need to treat all of the historical events serially, would have been inappropriate for leading men's sentiments to reconciliation.[] Instead, the Variae as it stands is a work with which no one in the Mediterranean world had reason to take deliberate exception. Theoderic, Athalaric, Witigis, and the Byzantine rulers appear in these pages without stain on their character, always acting honorably and fairly. The only former starring character in the drama on whom any adverse light is thrown is Theodahad, but even this is most indirect; for in the palmy days of Theoderic's reign, letters were addressed to Theodahad three times, and on two occasions the letters were rebukes for the rapacious behavior of Theodahad's men (Var. 4.39, 5.12).[] In both cases, Theoderic makes explicit the need for his own relatives to maintain higher standards of behavior than others.[] This hint of disapproval of Theodahad (these two letters could as easily have been omitted) is undoubtedly a quiet rebuke for the man (already dead at the time of compilation) who had been instrumental in the downfall of the kingdom by his murder of Amalasuintha and who had been on the throne when Justinian opened hostilities. In spite of this, acts of his administration are preserved, in large part addresses to the emperor and empress at Constantinople socking peace and reconciliation. This careful inclusion of initiatives for peace (and the omission of letters, if any there were, of a more belligerent nature) is all part of the attempt to establish and maintain the record of the Ostrogothic kingdom as an enterprise dedicated to the well-being of its people and the empire of which it still confessed itself a part.
We have spoken of the Variae as though it were such a dossier without being very clear about the intended audience. Here again the evidence deserts us. Is it likely that this was a composition intended to win the attention of powerful figures in Constantinople? If so, whom? For ultimately only Justinian could reverse the policy of reconquest; and it is difficult to see how much hope Cassiodorus could have entertained of having his treatise reach the emperor at all, much less of having it convince him to abandon a policy for rehabilitating the ancient glories of the empire that he must have seen, at that particular time, as an almost total success. If the work was not directed to the emperor, or to Constantinople, then to whom in Italy could it have been aimed? With what urgency? Those who had lived under the Ostrogoths must have by that time known fairly clearly what that rule was like; indeed, there must have been few Italians alive who could remember the days before Theoderic arrived almost half a century before, and fewer still who could remember the days when emperors ruled the west. Agents of an imperial ideology in Italy in the late 530's must have been men of great faith indeed, since the last years of the emperors in Italy had not been such as would inspire nostalgic yearning in those who had heard their history. In fact, whatever nostalgia for the empire there could have been in Italy at this time depended on what men had heard (and some possibly seen) in the contemporary empire in the east or what had been handed down by traditions from as far back as the grandfathers of the older men of that time.
One possible circumstance of composition needs to be observed, however. Procopius recounts a debate between Belisarius and Gothic ambassadors at Rome in 537 or 538. The arguments advanced by the Goths at this point resemble very closely the kind of position that Cassiodorus takes in the Variae.[] The written work, coming out at just about the same time as the debate Procopius recounts, might then have been meant to appeal to the Roman aristocracy in land already occupied or threatened by Belisarius.
But such speculation aside, what then are we to make of the work itself? In part we must retreat to our notions of Cassiodorus' unquestionable literary vanity, and in part we must confess that he may have felt only very generally that the record was worth establishing precisely "for the record" while it still could be done. In fact, both of these motives are the ones that appear, disguised in rhetorical coloring, in Cassiodorus' own prefaces.
The most extended apology for the work is the initial preface, where these motives must be pursued behind the billowing garments of Cassiodorian rhetoric.[] Cassiodorus begins by attributing the idea for such a collection to learned men (diserti), who thought he should collect the letters "so that posterity might recognize the burdens I undertook for the common good and the conscientious deeds of a man who could not be bought" (Var., Praef. 1). To this, Cassiodorus replies that such publication might subvert the purpose of establishing his own reputation, if what he had written appeared foolish (insubidum) to later generations. After quoting Horace's dictum (Ars poet. 388) that what is to be published should be held back nine years to give the author ample time for reflection, Cassiodorus elaborates that his literary performance in public documents had been rushed and less than perfect; instead of nine years, Cassiodorus had had scarcely a few hours (Var., Praef. 3-4).[] He emphasizes for a long paragraph the cares that beset him in office, his solicitousness for the welfare of the people, and the consequent defects of his writing. In such words he purports to decline the suggestion to publish.
But the friendly urgings of learned men (never identified) are reintroduced at substantial length in what amounts to direct quotation. They begin by accepting and repeating with added praise the argument that Cassiodorus has been busy in his function as prefect, and add a reference to his extracurricular activity as quaestor's helper; they praise his lack of corruption, is compared to his father's integrity, and they add remarks alluding to his intimacy with Theoderic and the long hours spent in conversation with the monarch. They turn the initial argument in on Cassiodorus, insisting that men already know how busy he was, and that if he could produce anything worth reading under such circumstances, his reputation will be doubly enhanced. They add that his work can serve as a teacher for both the well-prepared and the unprepared holders of offices in the res publica;[] moreover, if he does not act, he will allow the acts of his kings to be obliterated in forgetfulness. "Do not, we pray, let those whom you have addressed on their promotions to the rank of illustris be overcome forever in silence and obscurity" (Var., Praef.. 9). For all this, they ask, "do you still hesitate to publish what you know can be of such great use to others? You are hiding, if we might say so, the mirror in which every future age could examine the quality of your mind" (Var., Praef. 10). The appeal to vanity is capped by a remark that, while sons are often very different from their fathers, "one never finds a man's speech unreflective of his character" (Var., Praef. 10).[] They conclude that after his earlier successes of a literary nature (the Laudes and the Gothic History are enumerated), there is no reason why he should resist the persuasion to publish his records.
In the face of such argument, Cassiodorus owns himself a beaten man. "Be merciful, my readers," he pleads, "and if there is any temerity and presumption here, blame these friends rather than me, for I am in complete agreement with my detractors on these points" (Var., Praef. 12). A description of the work's contents then follows.
For Cassiodorus has collected "whatever I have been able to find written (dictatum) by me on public business while 1 held office as quaestor, magister, or prefect,''[] and arrayed the material in twelve books. To protect others from the "unpolished and hasty addresses" that he is conscious of having produced himself all too often in honoring new appointees, he justifies the inclusion of the sixth and seventh books containing the formulae, "for my own use, late as it is in my own career, and for my successors who find themselves pressed for time" (Var., Praef. 14).[] The contents are reflected in the title, and he devotes the remainder of the preface to explaining his title, Variae,[] which he chose "because we could not use a single style to address such a variety of audiences" (Var., Praef. 15). He identifies three classes of individual readers to whom the individual letters could be addressed, including those "multa lectione satiati," those "mediocri gustatione suspensi," and those last "a litterarum sapore ieiuni"; each must be addressed in a different way "persuasionis causa," so that "it sometimes becomes a kind of artistry, the avoiding of what learned men would praise" (ibid.). The preface concludes with a largely artificial and irrelevant attempt to connect these three kinds of audience with the three traditional levels of ancient style (high, middle, low); this particular schematization is not reflected in the letters themselves.
The other preface included in the Variae, at the beginning of Book XI before the books of Cassiodorus' own publications from his prefecture, seems to postdate the earliest preface by some time, though it is not necessary to assume that earlier portions of the work had been published separately. The evidence for a lapse of time is the mention only here, and not at the beginning where it might rightly belong, of the addition of the treatise De anima to the twelve books of the Variae; that treatise is mentioned here in terms that echo the opening lines of the little treatise itself.
The remainder of the second preface consists chiefly of an excuse for not having more in the way of judicial decisions to include. Cassiodorus had, he explains himself, the assistance of one Felix, a young lawyer whose talent he praises highly, who removed much of the burden of such work from Cassiodorus himself. In particular, his help is credited with having enabled Cassiodorus to give fuller and less fatigued attention to the higher affairs of state (regales curae). Finally, Cassiodorus drapes this praise of Felix with the further admission of his own deficiencies and the arrogance of any author so bold as to publish such material. Here again the excuses ring truer than at first glance if read carefully.[]
However successful the prefaces were in their literary intent, they leave open some questions that we would have been glad to have answered. The most pressing is that of the comprehensiveness of the contents. In the passage quoted above, Cassiodorus claims to have included whatever he had been able to find ("quod ... potui reperire") of those things dictated while he held office as quaestor, magister, and prefect. Are we to take this literally? Is this collection a complete anthology of all such surviving documents? If we assume, as we probably must, that Cassiodorus was still in Ravenna and probably still in office at the time of compilation, and then assume that he had access to the files of the court for gathering these documents, do we then accord to this work credit for being a full chronicle of the public acts of the Ostrogothic kingdom for those years? On balance, we cannot.
First, according to our interpretation of the circumstances in which Cassiodorus came to be involved in quaestorial activities during his last two terms of office, he was almost certainly not involved in all of the literary activity of the quaestor's office; moreover, for the eleventh and twelfth books, he explicitly states that legal decisions were largely drafted by his aide (his consiliarius?). Second, there is an obvious conflict between the express purpose of presenting documents that make either the author or the subject (or preferably both) look good and the claim to have included everything Cassiodorus could find of his compositions. Moreover, a very clear impression comes from reading this work that nothing, nothing whatever, of a controversial nature has been allowed to remain. The most heatedly debated events of the kingdom's history appear indirectly if at all; thus the letter inviting the eider Cassiodorus back to court is itself the major link of evidence in the hypothesis that the prefect Faustus fell from favor as a result of his actions in office at about the time certain of these letters were written; but nowhere is Faustus explicitly criticized.[] Of course the deaths of Boethius and Symmachus are nowhere hinted at, though they appear as addressees of flattering letters; and one would scarcely know, from the exaggerated formality and courtesy of the diplomatic letters, that there were wars being fought in these years. The nearest one gets to warfare are letters reestablishing peace and letters involving the equipping and mustering of troops (included because they reflected well upon the civil officials involved). Left to ourselves, and convinced that these letters represented a balanced picture of the Ostrogothic kingdom from 507 to 537, we would immediately conclude that so peaceful and so happy a realm never existed on the face of the earth; if our attention were then called to the sounds of war echoing from Italy at the very moment of publication, we would be most disagreeably surprised.
From all that we have said so far in this chapter, therefore, it becomes evident that what we have here is an edited transcript of the public record, not the unexpurgated whole. We have already suggested the main lines of the propagandistic purpose that this work was expected to serve, as is apparent from both the contents themselves and Cassiodorus' own prefaces. It is worth repeating that the only on of the major characters on the scene of Italian politics in the sixth century to appear at all to a disadvantage, and that only indirectly, is the dead and--to both sides-- discredited Theodahad.[] Theoderic, Amalasuintha, and Witigis all used murder as an instrument of policy; but only Theodahad's action was universally, if not reviled, at feast disclaimed by 537 or 538. If motives apart from literary vanity are to be accepted for the Variae, as I think they must, Cassiodorus' own explicit claim that his purpose was to enshrine the memories of the notables chronicled therein becomes a declaration of that propagandistic intent, a clear enough statement that the work was seen to seek reconciliation, at the price of a little self-inflicted blindness to the seamier side of affairs.
More of this propagandistic purpose appears in the way m which the collection was arranged. To begin with, the only chronological force demonstrably existing in that arrangement was the division between Cassiodorus' terms of office (though this was violated for a purpose with the last two letters of Book V) and the distinction of monarchs under which they were originally written. Thus, as stated before, the first four books contain documents from Cassiodorus' quaestorship under Theoderic (507-511); Book V, except the last two letters postponed from 511, contains the letters from his term as magister officiorum while Theoderic was still alive;[] Books VI and VII, the geographical center of the work, separating Theoderician books from those of his successors, contain the formulae dignitatum; Book VIII and the first half (letters 1-13 or 14) of Book IX record events of the remainder of Cassiodorus' term as magister (526-527); the remainder of Book IX, terminating in the two letters of his own appointment, contains documents of his term as prefect trader Athalaric (533-534); Book X contains the diverse letters, taken in rough chronological order, trader the several monarchs of the remainder of that term (534-537/8); and Books XI and XII contain his own letters as prefect (533- 537/8).
If the arrangement of letters in the individual books is not strictly chronological, however, there is still a discernible literary pattern.[] (Cassiodorus himself describes the actual composition of the books as involving conscious ordinatio on his part Var, Praef. 13].) The principle at work is that the positions of honor in each book are at the very beginning and at the end.
Books I, II, VIII, and X all begin with letters addressed to the emperor at Constantinople. In Book I, the letter treats for peace after the skirmishes of 505-508; in the second book, the first letter merely announces the consul for the year (and is followed by the other two letters in the dossier on that particular appointment, to the appointee and to the senate); while Books VIII and X each begin by announcing the succession to the throne of a new ruler, Athalaric in the one case, Theodahad in the other. On the other hand, Books III, IV, V, and IX open with letters to barbarian kings. In Book III, there are four such royal communications, all attempting to keep the peace in Gaul; Book IV begins with two unrelated letters to different kings (of the Thuringians and the Heruli); and Books V and IX begin with isolated letters of that nature.[] To confirm the importance of the opening spot in each book, there are no letters to Constantinopolitan emperors that do not hold that spot, except in Book X, where no fewer than ten of the book's thirty-five letters are directed to Justinian and five more to Theodora: but this exception proves the rule, since Book X is the only one written under more than one monarch, and the broad chronological outline takes precedence.
Obviously Books XI and XII could not open with addresses to emperors or monarchs; again the chronological motive seems to take over, since Book XI begins with Cassiodorus' collection of letters announcing his own appointment (though he may obviously be using the place of importance to call attention to his own virtues a little more), and Book XII begins with a relatively general set of instructions to various officials. If emperors only customarily appear in the first spot in a book, barbarian kings can appear elsewhere, but only in one specific location: at the end of a book. Thus Gundobad and Clovis, who are both addressed in letters at the beginning of Book III, also appear as addressees of the letters at the ends of Books I and II, respectively. Furthermore, Transimundus, king of the Vandals, is sent two letters that appear in the Variae at the end of Book V. This apparently deliberate positioning of the non-imperial royal letters calls our attention to the last letters in other books, to see by what right they hold that position. The results are at first diverse. Book III ends with a letter to a comes privatarum named Apronianus, directing him to welcome an aquilegus (water-diviner) coming from Africa; the letter contains a long digression on that special art of divination. Book IV, on the other hand, concludes with a letter to Symmachus, praising his work in reconstructing damaged edifices and particularly commissioning the rebuilding of a theater; then the letter digresses on the nature of the theatrical art, with frequent reference to the science of etymology. Books VI and VII, following the hierarchical order of the offices they describe, conclude with minor offices. The last letter in Book VIII is a directive to one Severus, vir spectabilis, to put down riots in connection with rural, apparently pagan, celebrations in the province of Lucania (not far from Squillace), and contains a digression on a miraculous fountain there; the two preceding letters, also to Severus, also digress readily in praise of various amenities of Cassiodorus' home territory. Book IX is completed by the two fetters to Cassiodorus on his elevation to the prefecture. Book X, always pedestrian, ends with the distressingly plain letters ascribed to Witigis. In Books XI and XII, Cassiodorus chooses to end his personal books with impersonal documents; in the first case with a general amnesty, very possibly issued at Easter 534 during Cassiodorus' first year in office, while in the second case the last four letters dealt with, and the very last letter is an edict establishing remedies for, famine in northern Italy.
Despite their diversity (their "variousness"), it is possible, I hold, to see clear threads connecting these letters.[] To begin with, the first several books end on letters carrying as a unifying theme ideas about various arts and sciences. In Books I and II, the letters to German kings are covering letters for gifts of clocks in the one case and a musician in the other (in both cases furnished by Boethius), while Books III and IV deal with the science of divining and the art of theatrics, respectively. Book V's concluding letters show Theoderic, in his last appearance in the Variae, at his best in reaching a peaceful settlement of an international disagreement; this is the very virtue that is the last thing for which Theoderic was praised in the Getica (Get. 58). Books VIII and IX both end with letters on subjects dear to Cassiodorus himself namely his own home province and his own career's advancement. This self-indulgence is paralleled by the ends of Books XI and XII, both of which show Cassiodorus the prefect to his best advantage, dispensing legal mercy in the indulgence at the end of Book XI, and working diligently to remedy the evils of famine in Italy in Book XII.
Both halves of the Variae, therefore, feature letters at the end of each book designed to put the very best possible face on the Ostrogothic kingdom for its sophistication of culture as well as its benevolence in government. The first five books reflect most favorably on Theoderic himself while the last five books seem to be centered more and more on the person of Cassiodorus himself a tacit recognition that the kingdom was not so well governed at that epoch as to merit making the later kings heroes in quite the way that Theoderic was. It is even possible to see an ironic twist (or apologia pro vita sua) in this transition, perhaps even a hint that with Theoderic gone, Cassiodorus himself was the last guardian of the old values left in the government. If the first letters in each book demonstrate the public grandeur of the kingdom in its negotiations with great monarchs, the last letters give an elegant picture of the whole life of the kingdom and its society. Moreover, by including in these concluding letters the flattering missives to Boethius and Symmachus, Cassiodorus is at least making an attempt to reconcile their mourners to the Gothic kingdom; the praises of his favorite province are couched in a repression of pagan rites that no doubt would please a Byzantine audience still not sure just how fully Christian these people in Italy had remained under Arian rule. And pointing out the amiability of his own administration and his concern for the well-being of the greatest part of the people allows Cassiodorus to show how a besieged regime merits the acceptance and support of his audience, whether Roman or Gothic, Italian or Byzantine.
The frame placed around each book in this way further conditions reactions to the contents of the whole, giving honorable dealings with foreign powers and correct ideas of civilization at home as the poles between which the affairs of the kingdom are set.[] The remainder of the contents, for all their variousness, are remarkably true to the overall guidelines thus tacitly set out. This consistency leads us to believe that all the letters in this collection were chosen according to definite limiting criteria.
More letters dealing with appointments to illustres dignitates appear in the Variae than with any other subject. Some of those honors were virtually empty (cf. the case at Var, 2.15-16), but most are real offices by which the civil affairs of the kingdom were administered. Since for all the highest honors there exist letters in the books of formulae as well as personal efforts in the rest of the work, we are justified in assuming that not every appointment was treated with the same personal touch. Very many of the families honored with personal letters appointing their members to high office are indeed the greatest families of the Ostrogothic realm; these letters commonly provide an occasion for recalling the virtues of ancestors and relatives who have already served the kingdom well.
After the appointments, the next commonest type of letter in the Variae is the decree on a given administrative matter of a more or less routine nature, whether issued spontaneously or in response to a petition. The most common subjects of these documents are private and ecclesiastical lawsuits, with frequent cases involving the conflicting claims to property of feuding heirs or even churches. In one instance, for example, a minor's guardian had apparently accused the youth's brother-in-law of engineering an unfair division of inherited property; the two letters preserved require the parties to come to court and have justice done; a third party is directed to supervise the execution of that justice (Var. 1.7-8).[] Without fail, such cases are adorned in Cassiodorus' letters with the king's solemn promises that he will recognize his duty to protect the weak and secure justice.
Apart from judicial determinations, there is a large collection of royal orders on the interconnected subjects of commerce, transport, taxes, and the grain supply. Here the end in view is the welfare of the people and the establishment of a fair method for providing the fisc with its revenues. Thus, one case agrees to allow the annual payment of the tertiae (tax in lieu of land for Gothic settlers) to be lumped together by its payers with taxes already being paid, since their land had been independently declared immune from actual confiscation and the annual payment will continue indefinitely (Var. 1.14). In another instance, the bishops and honorati of a district left anonymous are charged to cooperate with royal agents in putting an end to speculation in grain that is causing the possessores of the region to suffer (Var. 9.5). Frequently the topic is of particular interest to the court: once Theoderic is heard complaining about an interruption in the supply of sacra vestis, the royal purple cloth (Var. 1.2); other letters speak of procuring delicacies for the king's table from those parts of Italy that have special treats to offer.
Such documents provide the most mundane reading in the Variae. Scattered throughout the first five books, the last half of Book VIII, and throughout Book IX, they provide the background of ordinary benevolence on which the Gothic rule was based. Taken together with letters ordering an end to various abuses of the public post, they fill up the gaps between the more remarkable discussions. For in addition to these ordinary affairs, three other subjects stand out, two of special interest to a specifically Roman audience.
The topic of most general interest is the succession to the throne. Half of Book VIII is filled with documents of Athalaric's succession, including notifications to virtually every constituency (beginning with the emperor Justin) of the death of Theoderic and the orderly transfer of power. Since Athalaric says when appointing Cassiodorus that there were in fact some military scares at this time, we may assume that these letters served at that time a function analogous to that which the Variae was expected to perform a decade later-- the self-justification of the Gothic rule.
The two Roman topics have to do specifically with the circus (and circus factions) and the interest that Theoderic had in the rebuilding of structures damaged in Italy's wars. In the last half of the Variae, the only document concerning rebuilding is Cassiodorus' own letter ordering repair of the Flaminian Way (Var. 12.18). Under Theoderic, however, there had been more leisure and opportunity to attempt (as civilized monarchs should) to repair what Italy had lost, and especially the city of Rome. Twenty-five letters deal with subjects ranging from the ordinary (clearing vegetation from a watercourse [Var. 5.38]) to the decorative (mosaics for Ravenna [Var. 1.6]) to the strictly cultural (the letter to Symmachus praising his earlier rebuilding efforts and enjoining the reconstruction of the theater of Pompey [Var. 4.51]). In one case, Theoderic explicitly allows the use of scattered stonework fallen from ruined buildings in these rebuilding activities, and several other letters involve arrangements for the transportation of materials; clearly the enterprise was one that was both necessary after decades of warfare and neglect and at the same time willingly undertaken. There can be little doubt that such a policy was good politics, since its result would be to associate in the public mind the Gothic regime with the new and refurbished structures it caused to be built throughout Italy. Theoderic's private motives--how much of this was simple expedience, how much royal vanity, and how much a sincere concern for the ancient glories of noble Italy-are hidden from us. Furthermore, the frequent appearance of these letters in the books dating from Theoderic's reign (they exceed 10 percent of the letters in those five books) may be exaggerated by Cassiodorus' own practice of selection; certainly any letters that he could find in which Theoderic appeared as the dedicated rebuilder of Roman Italy would have a strong claim to inclusion in a collection published shortly after the Gothic siege of Rome sustained by Belisarius. Whatever Theoderic's policy really was, the Variae makes it clear that Cassiodorus wanted his king remembered for his unflagging concern for the renovation of Italy's damaged splendor. In this and other respects, Theoderic's reign is made to seem a golden age, and one not long past at that; by implication, it was a golden age recoverable by prudent men.
The other rulers in whose names Cassiodorus wrote do not appear fully enough, or enough to their own advantage, for us to derive a consistent picture of the image that Cassiodorus meant to create for them. It must have been difficult, in the first place, to do this for Athalaric, whom everyone knew to have been in fact a child, and for Theodahad and Witigis afterwards, the documents of whose reigns were too much constrained by circumstance to allow much scope for the display of virtue (though Cassiodorus' selection at least removes almost all the blots from their records, a negative but effective device). Theoderic, on the other hand, does succeed in becoming attached in our minds to an image of the kind of king he was (or was represented to be). Whatever he may have been in real life', the king we meet in the Variae was a gentle man, always happy to praise his subjects for their faithful service to his kingdom and, a fortiori (and the way in which the logical connection is made to seem obvious is usually the acme of Cassiodorus' art as propagandist), to virtue and justice. When he has reason to reproach his subjects, it is with sorrow rather than anger: the voice is that of a gently chiding father, calmly reviewing the principles of good government, finding them sadly lacking, and quietly but forcefully urging the rectification of the unhappy situation.[] We are entitled to believe that Theoderic may have been more vigorous in expressing himself when seen in life; but we see him always in the Variae as Cassiodorus would paint him for us, or rather for the angry, strident warring parties of the time in which he published his anthology.
In every way, then, the Variae, read as a work of contemporary history, presented a picture of life in Italy as it once was--and as it still could be--and which contrasted sharply with the quickly deteriorating reality. There was once a time when a learned king sent erudite directives to his subjects, ruled moderately and justly, and was solicitous of the health and happiness of his kingdom through happy decades. There is not much way of knowing whether this portrait comes close to the truth; but its purpose was not, in fact, objective truth, but the counteraction, by a kind of genteel polemic, of the angry prejudices that were displayed on all sides in the Gothic war. The Variae is thus a kind of final effort in the genre of panegyric by Cassiodorus, but panegyric of a considerably more sophisticated form than any of his earlier efforts. Judged as history the book exhibits many faults; but it is a kind of panegyric of the past that has striking and lasting value. That it succeeded in some measure is best remarked by observing how thoroughly our own present ideas about Theoderic and his kingdom have been conditioned by this one work; even if our suspicions are aroused, it is still against this text alone that they can be tested.
A literary analysis of the book (which must be balanced between considering the works as individual documents and as elements in the whole collection) throws further light on the nature of the work and its particular successes and failures. Some such analysis has, in the past, been based on attempts to identify the literary genre in which the Variae can be formally located.[] It is valuable to begin such a study of the Variae by observing the mixed position it takes between various traditional uses of the epistolary genres. For example, the Variae partakes both of the ancient tradition of the literary epistle as practiced by Pliny or Symmachus (the letters of appointment to high office resemble the documents by which the earlier authors had practiced the religio of polite society), but at the same time it has the formality of chancery rhetoric of more ordinary royal and imperial documents of the sort that survive in bulk from all ages. In fact, the strictly literary use of the epistolary genres dies out for most of the middle ages, reviving only with the twelfth century; in Cassiodorus, however, two different kinds of letter-writing have been welded together to form a new kind of document. For, in fact, late antique chancery style, such as we know its existence, was not as consciously literary as the letters in the Variae. The kind of letter contained in the Variae seems almost to have been invented by Cassiodorus to combine business and pleasure. Each individual letter was from the beginning a little piece of propaganda, as well as an instrument of government. Receiving one of Cassiodorus' letters from the royal messenger denoted the favor one found in the eyes of the king, gave opportunity to delight in a pleasing literary style, and for both reasons inspired reflection on the wisdom and cultivation of the magnanimous monarch.
Thus the propagandistic thrust of the Variae as a published collection was not something altogether new imposed by artful selection and editing at the time of publication; from the first, these letters had been fulfilling many of the purposes that they were then meant to fill again for a new audience when Cassiodorus published the collection. Furthermore, this idiosyncratically propagandistic use of the royal chancery was a skill at which Cassiodorus was particularly adept, beyond the range of the ordinary quaestor. We should note, moreover, that we only see Theoderic granting benefits (e.g., agreeing to hear a legal case or granting tax relief), never denying them. Requests that the bureaucracy (or even the king) rejected were probably not honored with a royal letter of reply. The image of generosity was thus encouraged with no conscious effort at deception and selection of material, for the Variae in fact began with dozens of day-to-day decisions years before.
With the Variae there are many different styles, adapted chiefly to the subject of the letter and the occasion of composition. As stated earlier, it is difficult to see a direct relationship between a recipient's level of education or social status and the level of style of the letter addressed to him; nevertheless, there is doubtless substantial tailoring of the more important letters to the individual recipients in a way that is inaccessible to us, since the private details of the relationships between these people (particularly the high potentates of the court) and their king are lost to history. The most obvious cases of this tailoring are the letters to Boethius and Symmachus, where the whole point of the letters is to flatter the aristocrats by asking their advice and assistance on cultural matters; the king wants to show an interest in such affairs, while deferring to the vanity of those who felt themselves the particular guardians of culture. Of a different nature are the letters at the end of Book VIII to Severus, governor of what is now Calabria, in which Cassiodorus goes on at length about the beauty of his home province; similarly, in the extended description of Squillace upon which we drew in Chapter 1 above, Cassiodorus' addressee has obviously come to expect that the good prefect will grow a little long-winded and lyrical when he has the chance to write about his home town.[] As political documents, these letters in particular may have had some effect in maintaining good relations with the folks back home, but that was undoubtedly minimal compared with the simple literary delight that Cassiodorus would take in the act of composing them. By contrast, when the time came to publish the Variae, these descriptions of a happy and fertile country could doubtless also be read as evidence of the prosperity of Italy under the Goths.
The literary resources that went into composing these rhetorical tours de force were considerable. The most famous example, a favorite with all Cassiodorus scholars, is the query directed to the prefect Faustus about a delay in the arrival of the grain supply (Var. 1.35). The ships in which the grain is to be transmitted are the focus of the trope, which becomes outright allegory. The king wonders aloud what could cause the delay when such favorable weather attends the season for sailing; could it be, he supposes, the sucking-fish that has fixed its teeth in his ships, or the conch from the Indian Ocean? Perhaps the sailors are themselves made languid by the touch of the stingray. "Truly," the king concludes, "men who cannot move must have suffered some such attack." But then, he adds, the sucking-fish is really procrastinating venality, the bite of the conch really insatiable cupidity, and the stingray is fraudulent pretence. "They manufacture delays with corrupt ingenuity, pretending to encounter adverse conditions." The prefect is then strictly directed to look into this situation quickly and make the needed amends, "lest famine might seem to be born of negligence rather than drought."
This letter also contains one of Cassiodorus' trademarks, discussion of natural phenomena. The effect of the various marine creatures on the ship's course is discussed carefully in view of the behavior of the animals, and the figure stands in close relation to the thing allegorized. This attachment to natural history is one of the commonest themes of Cassiodorus' digressions.[] He has at least ten such lengthy digressions on subjects ranging from storms and elephants to the production of purple cloth and the production of amber.[] A large number of these digressions have been shown to derive from the Hexameron of Ambrose, including the case discussed in the paragraph, where Cassiodorus was drawing on a similar treatment in Ambrose of the various fish.[]
It should not be thought that Cassiodorus is not capable of integrating digressive material harmoniously into his work. Two elegant examples demonstrate this. One of the simplest, shortest letters in the collection is a proclamation "to all Goths and Romans and those who command harbors and castles," dating from Cassiodorus' quaestorship (Var. 2.19). In an unknown locality, certain slaves have murdered their own master and dishonored the funerary rites. Theoderic is grieved, comparing human behavior to that of birds: "Alas, the pity men abandon is found even among birds. The vulture, who lives on the corpses of other creatures, for all his great size is friendly with lesser birds and protects them from the attacking hawk, beating him away with his wings and gnashing his beak: and yet men cannot spare their own kind" (Var. 2.19.2-3). This is more than a zoological metaphor chosen arbitrarily to illustrate the cruelty of men to men; Cassiodorus did not leave the metaphor at that, but instead integrated it neatly with the final statement of Theoderic's judgment: "So let him be food for the vultures, who can cruelly seek the slaughter of his shepherd. Let him find such a sepulcher, who has left his master unburied" (Var. 2.19.3). No one, not even Cassiodorus, would call this letter a masterwork of literature; but such a piece, unambitious yet neatly suited to its circumstances, with the verbal details of its metaphorical structure completely worked out and adroitly executed, is perhaps comparable to good lyric poetry for its scope and workmanship, if not for its theme.
It is not, therefore, surprising that Cassiodorus could be as effective and competent in one of his longer efforts with a more consciously literary purpose. The letter to Boethius at the end of Book II, requesting that a musician be found as a gift for Clovis the Frank, is one of the longest letters in the Variae. The business of the letter is transacted in a few lines at the beginning and end; the bulk of the text is a little treatise de musica, with historical and technical material in abundance. The digression begins with the third sentence of the letter and continues for over 120 printed lines (Var. 2.40.2-16). At the end, Cassiodorus calls this little treatise a voluptuosa digressio, then gives Boethius his instructions: "Please name the citharoedus we have requested from you; he will be another Orpheus, taming the hard hearts of these foreigners [gentiles] with sweet music" (Var. 2.40.17). But this precisely calls into question the digressiveness of the whole letter. For the theme of the discussion of music has been its capacity to impart peace to the soul, to represent the peace of celestial harmony; and it is precisely peace that is the goal of the gift itself. In fact, no more competent and learned case could have been made for the suitability of just such a gift at just such a time.
In the same letter there is a parallel case of a well- integrated bit of apparently digressive material, in the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. The familiar tale is repeated, mainly to show the power of music, culminating in Odysseus' successful escape from the Sirens. As Cassiodorus finishes this passage, he has also completed one section of his discourse on the effects that music has on men; he wishes to turn to the music of the Psalter as his next subject. His transition is effected by means of the mythical tale ,lust concluded, turning from the last sentence of the tale to the next topic thus: "He had himself bound to the mast so that he could hear the Sirens' songs with his own ears but still escape the dangers of the sweet voices, prevented as he was from plunging to the foaming waves. In the same way, let us pass from the example of the crafty Ithacan to speak of the Psalter sent from heaven" (Var. 2.40.10-11). The transition is not strictly logical, but the neatness of the figure and its integration into the structure of the letter makes it possible, almost inevitable, that we overlook that. Our attention is propelled along happily without being too explicitly bothered about where it is being headed next.
A more doubtful example of the functional utility of rhetorical figures, and a more revealing specimen of Cassiodorus' practice, is a short letter to Faustus, the praetorian prefect, enjoining tax relief for inhabitants of the Cottian Alps suffering from the depredations of marching Gothic armies; to his command Theoderic adds the brief metaphorical statement that "The river continuously scours its channel and sterilizes it, leaving the surrounding country more fertile for its passing" (Var. 4.36.2). The figure is a neat one again, offering to modern readers, for example, a new way of considering what the effects of such an army's passing must have been like; it is less certain that Faustus really needed to be told such things. What has happened here, instead, is that the format has become fixed, requiring that every letter to come from Cassiodorus' pen have some literary pretensions.
The apparatus of classical learning is another bit of fretwork added to the more colorless business at hand. It is surprising, however, that there is so little formal classical allusion in the Variae. Apart from the silent use of such presumed sources as Ambrose or Pliny for the substance of digressions, there is very little dropping of classical tags, with or without acknowledgment. From the whole work, for example, there are only five explicit mentions of Vergil, three with quotations; and the quotations are not quite verbatim, thus probably from memory.[] The explicit and implicit allusions in the Variae are almost exclusively from Latin literature, with only three allusions to Homeric events to demonstrate any familiarity with Greek legends.
Cassiodorus' other major literary habit is a taste for etymology common in late antiquity and almost extinct today. That this particular trait was Cassiodorus' own is best seen when he makes extensive use of the science again in his Expositio Psalmorum, written far from the dictates of chancery style. One scholar has catalogued etymologies in the Variae ranging from the months of the year to musical terms to the names of provinces; as usual in late antique authors, they contain a mixture of fact and fiction.[]
When all this literary baggage had been collected and Cassiodorus set out to produce one of his little masterpieces, the final effect achieved was neither unpleasing nor ineffective. From the preamble (frequently taking the form of a first premise of a syllogism developed by the letter) through the exposition of the subject (with time out for illuminating digression) to the final determination of the king's will, the line was actually very clear and direct.[] Brevity is the reigning characteristic of the individual documents. The longest letters are those in which Cassiodorus had a personal interest; the longest in the whole collection is only 154 lines long in the most recent edition.[] After that, the longest letters are to Boethius to provide a musician for Clovis and to the senate on the merits and ancestry of Cassiodorus' own father (Var. 2.40 and 1.4). Few of the other letters run to more than a hundred lines; the average length is approximately thirty- five lines. There is a certain tedium that affects modern readers of the Variae for two reasons, one unrelated to the original composition of the letters, the other unrelated to Cassiodorus at all. First, the original letters came to their audience only in small doses; while Cassiodorus argues in his preface that the variousness of the collection makes it read more quickly, even the first readers of the whole work must have felt some discomfort with such a vast collection of short, disconnected letters. But second, the original letters had an attraction that does us little good--that is, their strong topical interest. For us, to whom the events described are long ago and far away, and to whom the individuals are names only a few of which we recognize with any enthusiasm, the main attraction of the work for its contemporary readers is lost. If we can presume for this work, moreover, an audience still in love with rhetoric, the presence of its ornaments in these letters in such liberal and diverse portions was added attraction of no little merit.
The formal shape of the letters has been altered in the course of compiling the whole collection in two ways that lessen their interest for us but that in fact increased their aesthetic attraction in Cassiodorus' eyes. First, there has been a wholesale deletion of names and dates to increase the timelessness of the letters published. Most names of legates to whom diplomatic letters were entrusted are gone, but in one case the names of two barns involved in a lawsuit have been reduced to "illud et illud" anonymity as well (Var. 3.29.2). But by no means are all dates missing, or all names; Cassiodorus the compiler functioned erratically on this one point.
Second, we have also lost the attached breves by which were transmitted particular details of the case for many of the more complicated issues treated.[] In one case the letter preserved in the Variae is almost without significant content, merely exhorting the recipient to obey the commands specified in the attached breves; in another letter the attachment would have given the list of names of persons affected by the royal action (Var. 4.21 and 5.31.1).
Hard linguistic evidence both confirms our estimation of the kind of work this was and gives independent testimony to the level of culture still attained by educated classes of the sixth century. The language of the Variae has been studied from several aspects;[] the sum total of the research demonstrates that the work's ties to Latin literary traditions are as strong in language as in rhetoric and style. Only two Germanic words are used in the whole work, both nouns for specific technical needs (saio for the kind of court functionary who replaced the agens in rebus, and carpa for a fish). There are a great many more words that occur for the first time to our knowledge in Cassiodorus, often formed by adding standard endings to old words to form new nouns (ending in -or, -tio, -tas, -ius) and otherwise orthodox in their Latin derivation. Moreover, very many recently coined nouns in -tio, adjectives in -lis, and adverbs in -ter are used. The most characteristic feature is the use of increasingly abstract words to replace existing words; the new words (whether coined by Cassiodorus or drawn by him from the usage of his day) are weaker in force but (superficially) more specific in meaning than classical equivalents. In addition to all of this, there is the importation of numerous Greek words (though none in such a way as to indicate that Cassiodorus himself knew Greek at this time).[]
In syntax, Cassiodorus similarly represents the trends of the consciously literary language of his age. He runs into occasional trouble on matters of form (his use of the royal "we" is sometimes inconsistent even within a given letter), but he is clearly in command of the language to the extent that anyone was in his age. The vocative case is disappearing, to be replaced by the formal third person (e.g., magnitudo vestra), and the general use of demonstrative pronouns is far more abundant than in Caesar and Cicero. But nothing Cassiodorus does is without precedent in Silver or Late Latin, in the church fathers, or in other acceptable representatives of later style. His is a rhetoric of the schools to a fault, resulting in a highly artificial kind of work.[] There is a tendency, difficult to isolate, to depart from the periodic style in favor of a monotonous alignment of clauses, against the boredom of which the excessive use of consciously flashy figures and language attempts to militate.[]
Whether chancery style was a cause or an effect of some of these developments in the language is an unanswerable question. Certainly there was generally a shrill respect enunciated by all emperors for literary values that they did not always understand fully. Thus government language becomes characterized in general by euphemism and vagueness.[] As an author, Cassiodorus does not transcend the literary faults of his environment; rather, he may be said to have attempted to find ways to circumvent them, to make virtues of the vices that had crept into the language he had been taught. The mannered style of late antique rhetoric was a home for him, a way of reacting against the boredom that sets in when an austere style becomes too familiar and thus contemptible.[]
The most obvious thing about the language of the Variae, however, is perhaps the most important for an understanding of the work as a whole; namely that the language is clearly that of Cassiodorus himself uninfluenced by Gothic elements. This is an important consideration for answering the most important question about the Variae, namely the degree to which these letters reflect the actual policies of the Gothic kings in whose names the bulk of the individual letters were written, and how much they simply show Cassiodorus playing with his rhetorical toys. Some scholars are too ready to assume that the letters can be taken as is to reflect the thoughts of the monarch in whose name they were drafted; others too skeptically assume that Theoderic was an illiterate who could scarcely understand the purport of the letters drafted for him, much less appreciate the literary art. It seems, in light of all that we know about Cassiodorus and Theoderic, that a middle position does least violence to the evidence.
There is unquestionably triteness in even the most intellectually central concepts that appear in the Variae, and with it further evidence of the evisceration of the natural force of language. It has been traditional to see this process at work in the concept of civilitas, which even the most superficial treatments of the Variae have distinguished as a central idea of Theoderician government. Indeed, if Theoderic were entirely responsible for the words uttered in his name, the presence of such a concept would be praiseworthy in the policies of a barbarian. But it is Cassiodorus to whom we must assign responsibility for the intellectual framework of the Variae, and we can be less lenient with triviality on his part. Civilitas is in fact part of a larger scheme of slogans that springs from the whole pattern of denatured language with which Cassiodorus loaded the Variae.
For it must be remarked that, for all the literary care that has gone into the Variae, the effect is not memorable; there is nothing so well put anywhere in these letters that it would bear remembering. There is everywhere in Cassiodorus a nostalgia for the epigrammatic brilliance of Silver Latin rhetoric, but this emotion is couched in a growing wordiness. Every epigram is taken out, examined from all angles, and belabored to death. In the preface to Book XI of the Variae, for example, Cassiodorus quotes a pithy anecdote to Cicero's rhetorical practice: "For that fount of eloquence is said to have declined an invitation to speak by saying that he had not read anything the day before" (Var. 11, Praef. 8). In the context of Cassiodorus' preface the remark has point and purpose, for he is pleading for mercy from his audience for the failings of his own ill-considered, hastily-published writings. But Cassiodorus is not content with Cicero's remark; he must elaborate it through six more sentences. "What can happen to others, if such a marvel of eloquence has to demand the assistance of auctores? Talent grows ever rusty unless refreshed by reading." (This sentence in particular is limited to saying just what Cicero has already been quoted as saying, but saying it less memorably.) "The barn is quickly emptied unless replenished by continuous additions. The treasury is readily emptied unless refilled with money." (Illustrating the line of Cicero, Cassiodorus adds two gratuitous analogies.) "So human invention, when it is not stocked with other people's sayings, is quickly exhausted on its own." (He summarizes the main point again, perhaps misunderstanding it slightly--Cicero would have sought ideas, not words, from his reading. "Anything sweet-smelling in our prose is the flower of our studies, which nonetheless withers if cut off from its source, assiduous reading" (Var. 11, Praef. 8-9). (Finally a connection back to the thread of the preface's argument is made.)
In part the nature of the documents preserved in the Variae is responsible for this rhetorical weakness at the knees. Very many indeed are the royal letters in the Variae whose punch is pulled at the last moment with a final qualifier, in particular in legal cases where the facts admit of some doubt and Theoderic wants to circumscribe the effects of his rescript (e.g., Var. 2.29.2); in a more modern bureaucratic jargon, if anything goes wrong the monarch must preserve his "deniability" and shift the blame that may result from the case onto the shoulders of a bureaucratic underling.
As a matter of simple language, enervated terminology is everywhere apparent, particularly in certain terms that recur frequently; these words are almost totally devoid of denotative content, but they act as signals of royal approval or disapproval. It is precisely the famous slogan civilitas and its parallel terms that provide the best example of this linguistic spinelessness. Civilitas itself always refers in Cassiodorus to the actions of a citizen (as etymologically it should, as Cassiodorus would see). Behaving like a good citizen was something that Theoderic wanted to preach to his Goths, whom he was teaching to pay taxes; his remark, "Civilitas preserved is an honor for the Goths," was addressed to a Gothic military governor in Sicily (Var. 9.14.18).[]
But Theoderic spoke more often of his own virtues than of his subjects', and in edicts and letters laying down the law, more often of wrongdoing to be avoided than virtue to be practiced. As a king and as a representative of Roman imperial traditions, Theoderic would not prescribe civilitas as a model for his own behavior; when he wishes to describe his own magnanimity, the term chosen more often than any other is humanitas-whether as a general quality or as a term for specific acts (even used occasionally in the plural in that restricted sense). This slogan is Ciceronian, of course, though it never really caught on in Latin, perhaps precisely because it was too vague and watery for most political purposes. But Cassiodorus must have thought it appropriate for giving a folksy touch to a lofty monarch, assuring the audience he addressed that the king was at heart decent and kind. At any rate, by a rough count humanitas and its immediate derivatives appear about as often in the Variae as civilitas and its derivatives.[]
A word that appears about four times as often as either of these terms for the kind of behavior one hopes to cultivate is the blanket term for behavior one wants to discourage: praesumptio.[] Etymologically, the term means a taking for oneself of something; in the Variae it usually means to do so in an unlawful or wrongful way. In particular it is a term favored in edicts to describe proscribed behavior; it appears eight times (civilitas appears twice) in the Edictum Athalarici in Book IX, and it appears three times, balanced with three appearances of humanitas, in the edict that ends the Variae (Var. 9.18, 12.28).[] On the rare occasions in the Variae where the word does not refer to wrongdoing, it still has the sense of undertaking something vaguely undesirable; a general getting a new assignment is reminded that youth is benefited by such a task: "Iuvenum siquidem virtus praesumptione laboris animatur..." (Var. 5.25.1). In another case, the presumption is that of the king, presuming the loyalty and integrity of a fiscal officer (Var. 8.23.8).
In the generally negative sense of the Variae, praesumptio is often tied to cupiditas as effect in action of a cause in spirit.[] Praesumptio can include crimes up to and including murder, but in later life Cassiodorus will use the same word to describe the blunders of scribes (Inst. 1.15.6-16). Thus the word has not been strengthened by Cassiodorus in the Variae to serve as a strong rebuke against criminal behavior; rather the rebuke has been weakened so far as to be summarized in the equivocal term.
And so the pattern of clich‚ is complete: humanitas is the kind of behavior the king promises on his part; civilitas is the behavior he preaches as desirable from his citizens; and praesumptio is what he deprecates. These are not the catchwords of a vital political conception or a strong central administration; they are moralistic slogans, slogans that fail to inspire, bits of euphemism that assume definite meanings from being used so often but that in turn at least partially deflate what is being said in the name of verbal nicety.
It is thus in Cassiodorus' clich‚s that we find the traces of his policies. That the soul of his political purposes was thus entrusted to weak and hackneyed language, fortified with euphemism and shored up with triviality, was not a sign of any great strength of purpose or confidence in execution of design. To what extent this weakness mirrored an insecurity of Theoderic we do not know; it may have been imported gratuitously by Cassiodorus, since we have no certain knowledge of the roles that king and courtier played in drafting these documents and the ideas that lay behind them. But Theoderic was apparently pleased by the fainting language in the documents he was given to sign, and it is certain that in the end the weakness of the kingdom did in fact come to reflect the weakness of the language in which it was extolled. Whether it was Theoderic who got the kind of propaganda he deserved, or whether it was the propaganda that was as ineffectual as the government, we do not know.
In either case, the documents were the same precious little things, rhetorically and literarily self-conscious, meant to please, to edify and (usually) not to offend, and similar in their individual purposes to the purpose to which they would be put when collected into the Variae. For their function was nothing less than the justification, in the course of everyday business, of the Ostrogothic rule in Italy, on the grounds of political and imperial legitimacy, and the demonstration of the success of the kingdom when left to its own devices to establish and maintain an orderly society under a humane monarch, in spite of the barbarian origin of its leaders and many of its people. In a sense, therefore, the Variae began as panegyric but ended as a serious brief for the constitutional legitimacy of the whole kingdom, carrying the arguments and the supporting evidence in favor of the continued existence of the kingdom within the Roman empire. For the tragedy of the Ostrogothic kingdom is that precisely that subject of so much modern scholarly speculation, the constitutional position of Theoderic, was never clearly established; the Ostrogoths always occupied an ambiguous, delicately balanced position, in danger of overthrow at any time from several directions. In the end, the most fearful power decided to put an end to the ambiguity. As this was happening, Cassiodorus brought a lifetime of statesman's work to bear in this last work, presenting the case for the Ostrogothic kingdom as strongly and diplomatically as he could. But the forces then in motion were too great, too much beyond the control of individuals, to be called back by the voice of reason and the winged words of rhetoric.
As long as we witness Cassiodorus in his public persona as spokesman to the Latin literary world of the Ostrogothic kingdom, we are only allowed to see him as a diligent optimistic bureaucrat. His concerns are consistently those worldly problems of the conscientious public servant, diversified only by occasional, touching attempts to maintain as much external pomp of the Roman traditions under the new regime as possible. Thus the last letter we have in the collection written in the name of Theodahad, just before that king's murder and replacement by Witigis, just as Italy began again to know the ravages of war after Belisarius' invasion, is a marvelous, erudite, and even amusing discussion of the condition of certain bronze elephants on the Via Sacra at Rome that had fallen into disrepair (Var. 10.30).[] When the king wants to have them repaired, he illuminates his letter with all the hoary legends about the elephant that were handed down from one ancient writer to another (Cassiodorus has what Pliny had, but is independent of him as well). For example, we are told that "a wounded elephant remembers the offense and is said to revenge himself on the perpetrator long afterwards" (Var. 10.30.6). Cassiodorus' elephants adore their creator and serve only good princes, opposing evil ones. In the midst of war, the king took time to speak of these things, and he concluded, "Do not let these images perish, since it is Rome's glory to collect in herself by the artisan's skills whatever bountiful nature has given birth to in all the world" (Var. 10.30.8).
This hopeless effort to preserve a memento of empire at the heart of Rome epitomizes much of what Cassiodorus had been trying to do for thirty years. There is quixotic nobility about this that weighs disproportionately heavy in any assessment of the virtues and vices of the man. If Cassiodorus was not, for most of his career, the most outstanding figure in the rank-conscious society of Romans at the Gothic court, he was still a consistent presence, loyal and ingenious after his own lights, and clearly still faithful until virtually the very end.
Go on to Chapter 4 or return to Table of Contents.