THE history of Cassiodorus was only a small part of a much larger story, of course. By the categories that we are taught in textbooks, his life formed a part of the transition from antiquity to the middle ages, or--in the more melodramatic formulation--the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." But what is striking at the conclusion of a minute examination of Cassiodorus' life and works is just how useless and inapplicable the larger categories are for our purposes. Only at a distance does the world seem simple enough to fit into such comfortable slots; viewed up close, as always, all sense of grand pattern disappears and we are left with a complex network of men and events, of purposes and cross-purposes, an inextricable tangle of success and failure.

Cassiodorus himself comes through the often stiff and artificial prose of his works as a man intent on backing carefully into the future. His concerns seem always to connect the past with the present: the Roman empire with the Ostrogothic kingdom, traditional forms of rhetorical education with the need for religious indoctrination. But for a man so dull and pedantic in his personal style, he was at the same time a great seizer of opportunities and someone who, all unwilling, was on the side of change and innovation.

For example, if the Ostrogoths had settled their dynastic problems and been left to their own devices by Justinian, Italy as a whole might have survived into the middle ages as a considerably more unified and politically viable nation than it in fact did. In such an alternate version of history, Cassiodorus would appear as an important figure in the adaptation of Roman culture to barbarian rule (and Theoderic might be credited with having presided at the-birth of modern Europe).

In his monastic career, Cassiodorus showed the same characteristics. He was never, one feels, a charismatic leader, but an organizer. Had his school of Christian studies at Rome survived, he might indeed almost deserve the reputation that he has wrongly attained as the savior of western civilization. But his impact on medieval culture was less dramatic than that. He was in the main a purveyor of textbooks to posterity.

Cassiodorus was more a doer than a thinker. By most common criteria, he was in fact a failure in most of what he did. The Ostrogothic kingdom for which he labored so long and faithfully was itself only a fading memory long before Cassiodorus himself ever left this world. His school at Rome was fated to a particularly brief existence, while his monastery at Squillace scarcely survived its entrepreneur.

Nevertheless, Cassiodorus was never simply a politician and an administrator. In the course of his life he came to care very deeply about his religion and the way in which it was studied and taught. And if his schemes did not achieve success, by the kinds of standards historians commonly use, Cassiodorus nevertheless must have felt some considerable satisfaction in reflecting on the course of his life (this is palpable in the preface to the De orthographia, as we saw). What he had done, he had done well and faithfully to the best of his abilities. Contingent historical events over which he had no control would to a large extent minimize the influence that Cassiodorus would have on the world at large. But in the end, as Tertullian said, no man is born for another who is destined to die for himself. Cassiodorus might himself have been pleased with greater "success," but at the same time he could have rendered, I venture, a pretty fair account of the way he had succeeded in the end in conducting his own life. By definition, the view from the monastery is meant to be directed towards a heavenly, not an earthly, city. In some ninety-odd years of life, Cassiodorus had become proficient in the ways of both cities, a remarkable achievement in any age.

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