Chapter 2: Cassiodorus under Theoderic

CASSIODORUS' public career can most usefully be studied in two parts, corresponding first of all to his years as panegyrist and functionary under Theoderic and then (in the next chapter) to his service as praetorian prefect in the war-torn years after Theoderic.

There is a certain preciosity about everything Cassiodorus wrote for publication during his public life. The letters of the Variae, as we shall see, are mannered and baroque in style, almost overloaded with rhetorical frippery -- so much so that the ordinary government business they were meant to discuss can almost be forgotten by the reader.

It is important to emphasize this preciosity before turning to the formal literary productions of Cassiodorus in the reign of Theoderic. There are three such works -- the Laudes, the Chronica, and the Gothic History-- of which only the least interesting survives intact. Furthermore, the surviving fragments of the Laudes are too short to judge very clearly.[[1]] The two fragments that survive seem to be from panegyrics delivered on the naming of Eutharic as heir apparent and on the marriage of Witigis and Mathesuentha.

We are inclined today to disparage the panegyric as a literary genre; historians who chafe at the allusive mention of otherwise unrecorded events in such rhetorical set-pieces are not often charitable to their authors. But the very existence of the form as a recognized literary genre certainly goes a long way toward excusing the individuals who made use of it; modern sensitivities are offended by the resolutely obsequious tone of such speeches and all too often refrain from appraising the literary performance of an individual by attacking the vices of the genre. When, as in the case of Cassiodorus, we know little more than that the speeches were written and that they conformed to the laws of the genre, we are likely to take them merely as evidence of the author's fawning subservience to the powers he praised.

Yet we know too little of the criteria by which such literary pieces were judged by their contemporaries. Clearly no one, neither author, nor subject, nor audience, expected anything other than praise of the panegyric's subject to issue forth. Since, moreover, the ordinary delivery of such an oration was not a gratuitous action of an enthusiastic citizen but a formally staged literary event at the royal court, the willingness to lend one's talents to the production of such a work was often little more than a declaration of active loyalty to the regime in power. It was to be expected that the praise contained in the speech would be excessive; the intellectual point of the exercise (and very likely an important criterion in judging it) was to see how excessive the praise could be made while remaining within boundaries of decorum and restraint, how much high praise could be made to seem the grudging testimony of simple honesty.

To the extent, moreover, that panegyric was not produced as part of a court's routine and was at times a spontaneous contribution of the author (perhaps submitted in written form), the same standards would be applied with the practical purpose of evaluating the talents and the loyalty of the individual making the submission; in that case the obvious purpose of such an attempt to call royal attention upon oneself was the advancement of one's political hopes. We are explicitly told that this was the technique by which Cassiodorus won advancement to the important post of quaestor while still in the vicinity of his twentieth year (Ordo gen., lines 27-31). We are prone to assume that Cassiodorus and his rhetorical talents were unique in his land and time;[[2]] in fact, there were doubtless still numerous young men working their way into the fringes of the court possessed of more education than experience and looking for a way to make themselves conspicuous.

We would know more of the role of these orations in the career of Cassiodorus if more of them survived and if we could be absolutely sure that they were written by him. The two surviving fragments were obviously written in different circumstances almost two decades apart. The rise of Eutharic took place during the period of seeming obscurity between Cassiodorus' quaestorship and his appointment as magister officiorum; as we shall see, he was active on other, similar literary fronts at the same time. The marriage of Witigis and Mathesuentha, an effort to legitimize the rise of Witigis by a connection with the family of the Amals (Mathesuentha later married a nephew of Justinian, for the same sort of reason), took place during the difficult days of the war with Justinian's forces, when Cassiodorus was still at court as praetorian prefect. In this case particularly, the role of such fancy rhetoric was clearly to add to the formality of the occasion, to emphasize (probably for publication) the conclusions that the general public was meant to draw from the union extolled. How and when these documents were published (in other words, how they came to be collected in manuscript in such a way as to survive into our time) is not known. It is at least possible that the publication of such a collection, like the later publication of the Variae, was a deliberate propagandistic act, glorifying the Gothic regime in a time of crisis. This possibility is slightly reinforced by the way in which the Laudes in general are referred to in the preface to the Variae: "You [sc. Cassiodorus, addressed by anonymous friends] have often spoken panegyrical addresses [laudes] to kings and queens with the approval of all who heard; you set down Gothic history in twelve books, plucking a bouquet of happy memories. Since you were successful in those endeavors..." (Var., Praef 11, emphasis added). The collection and publication of the orations would have been easier to accomplish than the editing of the Variae and would logically have preceded the larger work, even if stemming from the same conception and purpose.

The literary panegyric was, we can conclude, an established literary form that Cassiodorus practiced for his own advancement as well as for the pleasure of the royal recipients of that honor. In the court of heaven, politicians may be held responsible for the literal sense of every burst of hyperbole they utter, but the custom in this world is to be lenient in settling such accounts. No doubt it also pleased the Amal dynasty to be exalted by so traditionally Roman a form of rhetoric. The other two literary products of Cassiodorus' public career more explicitly ennobled the Goths in the light of Roman tradition. The Chronica, first of all, publicly celebrated the great honor shown to Theoderic and his Family by the emperor Justin in sharing his first consulship with the heir apparent to the Ostrogothic throne. Theoderic was in his sixties, without a son, when his daughter Amalasuintha married Eutharic in 515. Eutharic came from the royal dynasty of the Amals, descended through five generations from Hermanaric, the younger brother of Theoderic's ancestor Vultvulf (Get. 14.80). Shortly after the marriage, between 516 and 518, the son Athalaric was born, extending the Amal line into its seventeenth generation (according to the genealogy preserved by Cassiodorus). As events would have it, the fortunes of the dynasty were to be less happy than they seemed at this time, since Eutharic died before his father-in-law, and Athalaric only survived eight years of hs regency, while his mother in her turn only lasted a few months before being murdered for her kingdom by Theodahad.

None of this could be foreseen in 519, however, and there was great joy in the Gothic kingdom on the consulship of Eutharic and Justin. The ominous potential (for the Goths) of the reconciliation of eastern and western churches after the Acacian schism (which Justin put an end to upon acceding to the throne) had been overshadowed for the time being by the reestablishment and reaffirmation of concord between the Roman emperor and his loyal Gothic viceroy. Romania and Gothia had never seemed more happily united with such prospects of lasting harmony. In this joyful environment there appeared at least one of Cassiodorus' essays establishing the literary heritage of the union of Goths and Romans, namely the Chronica. Nothing could be more suitable for the consulship of the Gothic heir than to present him with a formal listing of all the consuls of the Roman res publica, going back to the first Brutus. In fact, the Chronica, like earlier such documents compiled under Christian influence, adopted the synchronism established by Eusebius and began by naming Ninus the Assyrian as the first holder of great temporal power in order to unite all world history in one sequence of rulers. Thus twenty-five generations of Assyrian kings from Ninus, covering 852 years, gave way to the Latin kings from Latinus and Aeneas, who in turn yielded to the Roman kings from Romulus to Tarquinius Superbus. Then the consular fasti as such began.[[3]]

Most of what is contained in the Chronica is of little direct interest to us. The consular fasti are preserved in other sources, and the occasional notes of important events are sparse and derivative through almost the entire work. Cassiodorus as chronicler is dependent on other sources, through various intermediaries: the influence of Jerome, Prosper of Aquitaine, Aufidius Bassus, Eutropius, the Livian epitomators, and others can be detected.[[4]]

As the listing of the consuls approached Cassiodorus' own age, however, the propagandistic purpose of the work became more clearly apparent.[[5]] For as the Goths enter the stage of Roman history, the facts about their presence became gradually distorted. The first clear trace is in the note on the murder of Decius, the third-century emperor who launched a great persecution of Christians and whose stock was correspondingly low under Christian kings. Cassiodorus was careful to claim explicit credit for the Goths (a claim repeated in the Getica) as Decius' slayers (cf. Get. 18). Again, Cassiodorus makes particular mention (in 263) of the Goths for having ravaged Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, and Asia, while allowing that other provinces were shaken by an irruption of barbarians; by contrast, under A.D. 271, where Jerome credits Claudius with a victory over the Goths, Cassiodorus only mentions barbari.[[6]] Under 287, the rise of Manichaeism is mentioned, but nowhere is there mention of the origins of Arianism or any of the vicissitudes of that sect (to which the Goths still adhered). Under 380, Prosper's chronicle had spoken of Ambrose, who wrote "pro catholica fide"; Cassiodorus changes the phrase to "de christiana fide." Two years later, Prosper reported that Athanaric, a Gothic king, was murdered at Constantinople, while Cassiodorus only admits that "Athanaric, king of the Goths, came to Constantinople and passed away there."

In 402, Stilicho fought the Goths at the battle of Pollentia; Prosper mentions only that the battle was fought with "slaughter on both sides," but Cassiodorus insists that "at Pollentia the Goths defeated Stilicho in battle and put him and the Roman army to flight." Finally, to the mention of the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, Cassiodorus adds a gratuitous phrase, that Alaric behaved clementer in victory. Throughout this recording of the earlier conflicts of Romans and Goths, Cassiodorus had a narrow row to hoe as an author attempting to celebrate the union of these two peoples. He took the Gothic side in these disputed cases in ways that would both flatter the Goths and establish a record of achievement (implying virtual parity with the Romans) to which Goths could point proudly; whether Romans were expected to be impressed by these past glories, as revised and enhanced by Cassiodorus' selective pen, is not certain. There is, to be sure, no clear evidence that Cassiodorus deliberately falsified his facts in the places where he diverged from the earlier Roman chroniclers. We know too little of the specifically Gothic sources that were available to him to know whether he might not have had better information in some places. Furthermore, in the cases where his changes were a matter of softening the terminology (barbari for Goths at an embarrassing moment, christiana for the sectarian catholica in another), he can be accused of little more than sensitivity to the feelings of his audience.

Similarly, constitutional questions surrounding Theoderic's position in Italy were doubtless involved in Cassiodorus' reluctance to make much of the achievements of the western emperors in the fifth century. Under 423, for example, he makes the remarkable claim that "Honorius died and Theodosius alone commanded the Roman empire for twenty-seven years." The gist of this assertion is that, although Cassiodorus later designates Valentinian III (who held the title of Augustus from 425 until 455) as "imp.," somehow the west became at this time a subordinate realm with an imperial primacy in the hands of the east. In this context, the perfectly accurate statement that Theodosius in 424 sent Valentinian and his mother "to take power over the western realm" still distinctly implies Theodosius' supremacy in the imperial college. The only other mention of Valentinian marks his return to Constantinople to marry Theodosius' daughter.

Cassiodorus takes advantage of the facts again when he reports for the year 451 that "the Romans under Aetius with Gothic auxiliaries fought [on the Catalaunian plains] against Attila, who retreated, overcome by Gothic might." That statement is literally true in every detail, but it distorts the truth on two points. First, it limits mention of the leadership of the western Romans to Aetius, thereby emphasizing the irrelevance of the western emperors at this time; it was into Aetius' shoes that Theoderic would eventually step. Furthermore, the Gothic auxiliaries who are credited with the decisive role were in fact Visigoths; no mention is made that the Ostrogoths, including Theoderic's father, were present on the same battlefield, fighting (albeit under some constraint) for Attila and the Huns.

Further imperial notices in the fifth century make light of the western emperors; for 461, Ricimer's role in creating a new emperor ("caused him to succeed to the kingdom," i.e., in regnum and not, to be noted, in imperium) is explicitly asserted. Henceforth for several years the deeds of Ricimer are recorded (for example, s.a. 464, 465) until Leo is credited with dispatching Anthemius from the east to accept the imperium in Italy. Ricimer's actions in destroying Anthemius and replacing him with Olybrius are condemned, but the patricius is still the center of attention (criticized implicitly for not showing the spirit of cooperation towards an eastern emperor upon which the Ostrogoths prided themselves). The end of the empire in the west is not emphasized, but it is clearly stated under 476 that Odovacer killed Orestes and Paulus and assumed the name of rex, "while using neither the purple nor other regalia."

After Odovacer's putsch there are only two short military notices interjected in the consular listing until the arrival of Theoderic in Italy in 489. From that point it is to be expected that the Ostrogoths will do no wrong in Cassiodorus' account. Specifically, rumors of treachery on Theoderic's part in the death of Odovacer are thrown right back at the presumed victim: "Theoderic entered Ravenna and killed Odovacer, who was plotting against him." After that the work celebrates the virtues of Theoderic, including his glorious visit to Rome in 500 (connected explicitly with his solicitous concern for rebuilding that city), his provision of new water supplies for Ravenna, and his seizure of lands in Gaul from the confusion caused by depredations of the Franks. For the year 514 there appears the note, quoted in the preceding chapter, in which Cassiodorus allows the implication to stand that it was through his own influence (and, for appointing him, that of Theoderic) that harmony was restored to the church in Italy.

The last entries in the Chronica focus logically on Eutharic, praising his marriage in 515, his acceptance of the consulship in 518, and finally his triumphant occupation of that office in 519. Mommsen's speculation about a Roman interest in the work is confirmed and illuminated by the contents of the last entry, which enumerates with what for this work is considerable detail the marvels seen at Rome during the ceremonies surrounding the consulship (still a Rome-centered honor itself) before ending with briefer mention of the joy felt when the royal party returned to Ravenna. Rome was still a magnet, a good place for triumph and pomp.

Finally, the formality of the roster of consuls is restored by a concluding note recapitulating the number of years in each of the periods of history; the work ends with a sentence that was clearly designed to make the addressee nod happily, impressed with himself and with the dignity of the glorious office he held: "And so the whole order of the ages down to your consulship is registered here in 5,721 years." If the Goths were upstarts on the stage of history, they had clearly arrived when they could see a noble Gothic name next to that of a Roman emperor at the end of a chronicle of over five thousand years of history. The purpose and the technique of Cassiodorus' chronicle are unmistakable. He can still be reproached here for tinkering with the truth, but he was at pains to observe at least the letter of the historical record as he had it; but this sort of chronicle is a species of panegyric itself, as the last entries make clear. If it is panegyric, its profound purpose of praising the Gothic heir is then seen to conceal other more private motives. Cassiodorus at this time was not holding any office at the Gothic court, nor was he helping out the quaestors with any of their work (and he might have done that had he been regularly resident in Ravenna at the time). Instead he produced a document in honor of the consulship that comes out of the most solid Roman traditions, and he concludes with a notice that may be the record of what the author himself witnessed at the consular games at Rome. If this is so, there is room to speculate that Cassiodorus was still in Rome following his consulship five years earlier, perhaps making or renewing his acquaintance with Dionysius Exiguus, who was still teaching there. We cannot tell whether we are meant to take seriously the words in the preface alleging that the Chronica was prepared at Eutharic's own request; and we can only speculate whether such an effort to call attention to oneself, taken in connection with the surviving fragment of panegyric on Eutharic's rise, was the spontaneous gift of a man whose political position was secure or the calculated device of someone who had remained outside the mainstream a little longer than he had planned and who would be grateful for renewed royal favor.

To this uncertainty one further note can be appended about our knowledge of the Chronica. At some time after the first publication of the work, the manuscript tradition that we have received the addition of a full set of Cassiodorus' formal titles, reading: "Cassiodori Senatoris, v.c. et inl., ex quaestore sacri palatii, ex cons. ord., ex mag. off., ppo atque patricii."[[7]] Our ignorance besets us again, penalizing us because we do not know at what date Cassiodorus became entitled to use the title patricius; thus we cannot tell whether the absence of a prefixed ex- for the designation for the prefecture might be an indicator that this recension of the work dates to that period (perhaps recirculated about the time Cassiodorus was compiling the collected set of Laudes and the Variae, for whatever propagandistic gain that might be had).

The most significant of Cassiodorus' extracurricular activities of a literary nature during his public life has been twisted by the whimsy of history into a complex enigma about which only the most tentative conclusions are really possible. Where originally there was a work in twelve books that was always referred to as the Gothic History, we know now only an acknowledged abridgment in sixty modest chapters, the De origine actibusque Getarum (or Getica) from the pen of one Jordanes. It is in itself a useful source for the history of the Gothic nation; indeed, largely due to the survival of the Getica we are better informed about the early history of the Goths than that of any of the other barbarian tribes. Nevertheless, our ignorance on points connected with the work is immense; of the author we know barely the name, but can only surmise where he wrote his works; nor do we know how much of what he wrote was his own, how much borrowed from Cassiodorus, or which of the explicit quotations from ancient sources were added by which of the authors. Thus is the scholar's craft of intelligent speculation set to its task very stringently.[[8]]

The first problem is to set the date of Cassiodorus' own full version of the work. The existence of the work is attested in the Ordo generis, in Athalaric's letter to the senate on Cassiodorus' appointment to the praetorian prefecture in 533, and in Cassiodorus' own preface at the beginning of the Variae;[[9]] it is not mentioned, it should be emphasized, in any of Cassiodorus' writings after his retirement to Squillace, where the absence of any mention of the works of his public life is most glaring in a catalogue at the beginning of the De orthographia. The most germane points of the evidence are that at the several dates involved in these quotations Theoderic is explicitly mentioned as having in some way been the proximate cause for the work's composition, that the work extended to twelve books, and that it chronicled seventeen generations of the Amal dynasty. The earliest date suggested for its completion has been 519, the latest 551; those authors who favor a later date usually assume that Cassiodorus wrote one version of the work to which Athalaric could refer in 533, then later added to it the events of the Gothic kingdom as they transpired, bringing it to a conclusion shortly before Jordanes got hold of it.[[10]]

There are hitherto unrecognized arguments that add up to a strong probability that Cassiodorus last laid a creative hand on the Gothic History in (or very shortly after) 519; the arguments that it must not have been finished until later are fallacious. The commonest counterattack to a 519 dating is the remark of Athalaric about the seventeen generations, since by any reckoning Theoderic would have been only the fifteenth, Amalasuintha the sixteenth, and Athalaric himself the seventeenth.[[11]] This objection disappears if we return to consider the events of the year 519, when Eutharic was celebrating his consulship. In that happy hour, Athalaric was an infant of one to three years of age, but he already afforded the Gothic kingdom promise of unbroken succession of the Amal dynasty through two generations at least; all seventeen generations of Cassiodorus' reckoning were already known, and the consciousness of the Goths was focused on the happy resolution of the succession question. (If Athalaric had lived as long as his grandfather and had ruled in peace, he would have lasted until 590.) Athalaric's birth, moreover, would have meant the assurance of the succession to a direct descendant of Theoderic, placating any discontent there could have been with the selection of Eutharic as Theoderic's immediate successor.

The Getica as it survives contains important confirmation for dating the original work to 519. For Eutharic's name appears frequently in its pages, especially in the listing in Chapter 14 of all the generations of the Amal dynasty, and elsewhere during the period before the death of Theoderic, notably in Chapter 48, where there is a sentence obviously integral to the structure of the chapter about Eutharic, his marriage to Amalasuintha, and the birth of their offspring. Then there is interpolated a sentence that cannot come from any earlier than 550, concerning the marriage of Mathesuentha and Germanus of that year. Then, to recover from that digression, Jordanes says, "But to take matters in order, let us return to the offspring of Vandalarius, a threefold flowering" (Get. 48.252). But after this emphasis on Eutharic in the earlier chapters, he disappears completely at just the point where he becomes Theoderic's heir.

What happened instead is that Jordanes concluded Chapter 58 with his account of Theoderic's military politics in Gaul, noting that "there was no race left in the western realms which Theoderic had not befriended or brought into subjection during his lifetime" (Get. 58.303). The next chapter then begins abruptly: "But when he grew old and felt death drawing near he called the Gothic nobles together and decreed that Athalaric... would be king" (Get. 59.304). Eutharic only appears in a relative clause attached to Athalaric's name, where it is stated baldly that "he had been orphaned of his father Eutharic" (ibid.). At this point the last few pages recount, in two chapters, the history of the Gothic nation from the death of Theoderic to the marriage of Mathesuentha and Germanus in 550. What seems likely, therefore, is that the original Gothic History had made a transition from Theoderic's role as peacekeeper to the enumeration of the virtues of Eutharic and the happy events of his appointment in the succession and his production of yet a seventeenth generation of Amals to hold the throne. The concluding pages of the work would then have been a celebration of both the marriage a few years before, the production of an heir, the election of Eutharic to the succession, and the consulship, a happy occasion on which to celebrate all this good news. When Jordanes got his hands on the Gothic History, however, he would see at once that the emphasis on Eutharic at the end was embarrassing in view of his premature death, and so he left off copying and excerpting the original work just at the point now represented by the end of Chapter 58 (while omitting to delete earlier references to Eutharic, perhaps out of inattention). Then he added his own concluding chapters, revising the order of history to make the work celebrate, not the reunion of Amals, but the union of Gothic Amals and Roman Anicii in the marriage of Mathesuentha and Germanus and the fortunate progeny, the young Germanus, born in the spring of 551. It is a quiet but telling argument for putting the date of the Gothic History back to 519 that the public occasions for both the original full version and Jordanes' abridgment were essentially the same, including the three elements of a marriage in the Gothic royal family of a female descendant of Theoderic, the birth of a male heir, and the role of the father in protecting the new line of succession.

Dating the Gothic History to 519 fits all the information offered by the three explicit mentions of it in Cassiodorus' works cited above. It raises further the question of Cassiodorus' relations with the Gothic court during the decade between his terms as quaestor and as magister officiorum. Finally, it completes the pattern of literary activity surrounding the decisions on the royal succession: the public oration (of which a fragment survives) on the marriage, the Chronica (the record of Roman antiquity that is made to culminate in the Gothic prince), and the Gothic History (Gothic antiquity made Roman). The Chronica and the Gothic History are then particularly placed in parallel, recounting the whole of the histories of the two peoples whose union is reflected in the rise of Eutharic to the Gothic succession and the Roman consulship.[[12]]

The circumstances of the production of the abridgment we possess are little better known than those of the original work. From the explicit evidence of the text, we know that it was written by someone named Jordanes, who wrote a similar little treatise on Roman history; that he addressed the work to a friend named Castalius (but that he copied the prefatory epistle almost verbatim from Rufinus' preface to his translation of Origen's commentary on Romans); that his purpose was to abridge "Senator's twelve volumes," but that he had only three days to reread (relegere) Cassiodorus' work, which he had obtained from Cassiodorus' steward ("dispensatoris eius beneficio");[[13]] that he made additions of his own; and that he tells us a little (the import of which is mysterious) about his own ancestry and background. Furthermore, the text as it stands reports events down to the spring of 551 and is expressly laudatory of the marriage of Germanus and Mathesuentha and the birth of their son, "in whom the gens Anicia joins with the Amal heritage to promise hope for each race, God willing" (Get. 60.315). On the basis of certain other documentation of extremely doubtful authority (chiefly the appearance of the name Jordanes in other connections at this time, though the name was not rare), there has been much speculation, and at times general agreement, that Jordanes was either a Goth or a bishop of Crotona on the Ionian Sea not far from Squillace.[[14]] These hypotheses can now be shown to be too grandiose for their evidence;[[15]] however, the contrary argument of Mommsen, that traces in the text indicate that it must have been compiled in or by a native of the province of Moesia, can also be disregarded.[[16]] What remains is a strong likelihood that Jordanes was living and writing in Constantinople at the time he was producing the Romana and the Getica (the latter was written as an interruption while he was working on the former) and that it was there, in about 551, that he knew Cassiodorus.[[17]] As for Jordanes' origins, the mysterious passage in the Getica indicates little more than that he may have been of barbarian family.[[18]] The question of the three-days' use of the whole text of the original work in twelve books has exercised the ingenuity of scholars, impressed with Jordanes' ability as a researcher in the days before photocopy; the likeliest solution is that he had read the work before, probably even taken notes, and that it was only when he came to publish his précis that he had recourse to the original to check and correct the accuracy of his work.

The most pressing strictly literary question about Jordanes' version of Cassiodorus' work is no more certainly answerable than any of these related questions. We have Jordanes' word that to the work of Cassiodorus he "added appropriate material from some Greek and Latin historians, adding a beginning and ending (and a number of things in the middle) of my own" (Get., praef. 3). There are in fact explicit quotations from other authors in the work, including one concerning the allegedly Gothic emperor Maximinus that comes from the Historia Augusta to Jordanes through the Roman History of Symmachus. [[19]] Scholars have tried to attribute sections of the work to each author, but such labor comes to dust very rapidly. Passages that refer explicitly to events after 519 may be tentatively ascribed to Jordanes, but apart from that we must content ourselves with bearing in mind that Jordanes must have made interpolations even if we cannot identify them. What we want most to do is to read the work as though it were the product of Cassiodorus himself; what we are in fact forced to do is to read it as Jordanes produced it.[[20]]

As the work stands, it draws (at least indirectly) upon a motley variety of sources.[[21]] Josephus, Tacitus, and Priscus have all been drawn upon to one extent or another. The most mysterious source, however, is a certain Ablabius, "descriptor Gothorum gentis egregius" and "historicus" (Get. 4.28, 14.82).[[22]] There is no other evidence for such a writer's existence, and scholars are right to be suspicious of his testimony.[[23]] It is particularly important to note that his name is quoted as an authority at the end of Chapter 4 and again in Chapter 14, when Jordanes picks up the narrative again after listing the genealogy of the Amal dynasty. Now Chapters five through thirteen, neatly bracketed by these two mentions of Ablabius, are precisely the most fabulous portion of the entire work, in which the history of the Goths becomes completely intertwined with that of two other races with which Cassiodorus apparently identified the Goths, namely the Getae and the Scythians. It is probably foolish to doubt the existence of Ablabius altogether, but mention of his name in these suspicious circumstances lends strong credibility to the hypothesis that whatever his book was like, it was the source for most of this confused and confusing legend. In assuming this we may in part be guilty of attempting to absolve Jordanes, and through him Cassiodorus, of the blame for this unscholarly passage; but be that as it may, Cassiodorus seems to have accepted this story lock, stock, and barrel, repeating it with an apparently straight face.[[24]]

After the appearance in the narrative of the Amals, the Getica takes on a great deal more authority. From the point of view of Jordanes' position in Constantinople, one of the most interesting features is that in Chapter 25 the conversion of the Goths to Arianism by missionaries sent out by the emperor Valens is rebuked (the word perfidia is used three times to describe Valens' part in the transaction); clearly the interests of the Gothic faction at the Byzantine court by 551 were such as required renunciation of Arianism (though one cannot conceive such a renunciation in a version of the same work published by Cassiodorus in 519) and the blaming of the Visigoths (who were still conveniently the enemy in far-off Spain) for that doctrinal aberration. It can also be noted that in Chapter 59 the truth is told about the murder of Amalasuintha by Theodahad; this story had been current in Constantinople since 534, and there was no point in covering up the indiscretion further. Instead it could be made to appear as a foul treachery against the Amals (even though Theodahad was an Amal himself).

It is necessary at the end of this survey of the Getica to make an attempt to evaluate what more we can learn of Cassiodorus' work from the contents of the abridgment. If our hypothesis for the date and occasion of the original work is correct, Cassiodorus' purpose was still as deceptively but honestly panegyrical as in the Chronica and the Laudes. Cassiodorus' own political involvement in the work would have ended with first publication in 519, however, and the more expressly political content of the Getica as it stands can be attributed to Jordanes; clearly the position of the Goths in 551 was serious, made more serious by the early death of Germanus just when his marriage with Mathesuentha had given some hope of a truly Romano-Gothic rule for reconquered Italy. By this time the Gothic royal party owing allegiance to the Amals had thrown in its lot with the Byzantine forces, even to the point of renouncing Arianism, against the claims of their actual successors as kings of the Gothic people in Italy, the relatively uncultured Witigis and his successors, Ildibad, Eraric, and Totila. Self-interest mixed with an attempt to win a peaceful settlement for the beleaguered Gothic people back in Italy in a desperate attempt to hold some place for specifically Gothic elements in the Mediterranean world. What Cassiodorus may have had to do with this movement at this time cannot be known; it is clear, however, that he cannot be held responsible for the contents of the Getica as such.[[25]]

One obvious Cassiodorian literary motif shines through the turgid prose of Jordanes, however, in the very last lines: "You who read this, rest assured that I have followed earlier authors as I chose a few flowers from a broad meadow of their writings, with which I might weave a chaplet [coronam] for the curious reader to the best of my abilities" (Get. 60.316). The metaphor of picking flowers from the meadows of other writers introduces one of the commonest Cassiodorian literary tropes.[[26]] In the preface to the Romana, finished shortly after the Getica, Jordanes uses a similar figure, but the same image also appears twice in the short preface to the Historia tripartita and, most importantly, in both passages in the Variae referring to the Gothic History.[[27]] The first, quoted above from the preface to the whole collection, had Cassiodorus' friends say that "duodecim libris Gothorum historiam defloratis prosperitatibus condidisti."[[28]] Then, in Athalaric's letter to the senate, after mention of the seventeen generations of the Amals, there is a passage that is almost a verbatim allusion to the words of Jordanes' conclusion: "You made Roman history of the Gothic origins, gathering in one chaplet [coronam] the flowers of the seed which had been scattered on fields of books" (Var. 9.25.5).[[29]] This allusion hints that Jordanes, no master of Latinity,[[30]] depended on Cassiodorus for the greatest part of his own work, both in content and literary form; his own contributions are probably minimal, and the number of learned quotations he interjected probably should not be exaggerated.

In Jordanes' Getica we see Cassiodorus the panegyrist through a dark glass, obscured to our view but not obliterated. The lasting value of his contributions to the ennobling of the Gothic race may be denigrated easily; he himself did not seem to count them among his works of lasting importance.[[31]] They should not, however, be judged by such absolute criteria; they were works of an ephemeral and public, if not political, nature, important for their immediate impact and the advancement of the interests of the Gothic kingdom and its subjects. However darkly or lightly we choose to paint our picture of that kingdom, it was by the standards of its age a sincere and partially successful effort to establish a just and peaceful society in Italy. Cassiodorus cannot be reproached a priori for having willingly involved himself in the politics (and even the propaganda) of that regime; if he is to be blamed, it is for his own particular actions during his public life, not for the decision to enter that life in the first place. For it is noteworthy that his unabashedly propagandistic work (excepting only the fragment of an oration on the marriage of Mathesuentha and Witigis) dates from the apparent halcyon days of the kingdom, before the suspicions of Theoderic's old age began to react upon the other elements of the mixture of forces in Italian politics of the time to precipitate a poisonous residue out of that delicate equilibrium. When Cassiodorus came to compile the Variae, he was at once less enthusiastic and more circumspect, as we shall see in the next chapter.

In the dark years at the end of Theoderic's reign, we cannot know with any certainty what forces motivated the king's actions. It is only speculation, but not implausible speculation, to suggest that Cassiodorus returned to office as magister officiorum on the strength of the favor he had won with his literary works.[[32]] If, however, the year 519 was the occasion of all the panegyrical works, this would imply the passage of four full years before Theoderic hastened to reward such loyalty. It is thus more likely that Cassiodorus acted in these matters of his own free will, whatever invitation he had received from the court (it is always good protocol on such occasions to intimate that one's writings were the king's own idea in the first place), with limited thought of personal gain. It would then appear that the years of obscurity at this point in Cassiodorus' career were more likely to have been filled with agreeable literary activity, probably at Rome, rather than with idle scheming at ways to return to the court at Ravenna. But the evidence is not conclusive.

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