whose full name was ANICIUS MANLIUS SEVERINUS BOETHIUS (to which a few MSS. of his works add the name of Torquatus,
and commentators prefix by conjecture the praenomen Flavius
from his father's consulship in A. D. 487), a Roman statesman and author, and remarkable as standing at the close of the classical and the commencement of scholastic philosophy.
He was born between A. D. 470 and 475 (as is inferred from Consol. Phil.
1.1). The Anician family had for the two preceding centuries been the most illustrious in Rome (see Gibbon, 100.31), and several of its members have been reckoned amongst the direct ancestors of Boethius.
But the only conjecture worth notice is that which makes his grandfather to have been the Flavius Boethius murdered by Valentinian III. A. D. 455. His father was probably the consul of A. D. 487, and died in the childhood of his son, who was then brought up by some of the chief men at Rome, amongst whom were probably Festus and Symmachus. (Consol. Phil.
He was famous for his general learning (Ennodius, Ep.
8.1) and his laborious translations of Greek philosophy (Cassiodor. Ep.
1.45) as well as for his extensive charities to the poor at Rome, both natives and strangers. (Procop. Goth.
In his domestic life, he was singularly happy, as the husband of Rusticiana, daughter of Symmachus (Consol. Phil.
2.3, 4; Procop. Goth.
3.20), and the father of two sons, Aurelius Anicius Symmachus, and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, who were consuls, A. D. 522. (Consol. Phil.
He naturally rose into public notice, became patrician before the usual age (Consol. Phil.
2.3), consul in A. D. 510, as appears from the diptychon of his consulship still preserved in Brescia (See Fabric. Bibl. Lat.
3.15), and princeps senatus. (Procop. Goth.
He also attracted the attention of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, was appointed (Anonym. Vales. p. 36) magister officiorum in his court, and was applied to by him for a mathematical regulation of the coinage to prevent forgery (Cassiod. Ep.
1.10), for a sun-dial and waterclock for Gundebald, king of the Burgundians (ib.
1.45), and for the recommendation of a good musician to Clovis, king of the Franks. (Ib.
2.40.) And he reached the height of his prosperity when, on the inauguration of his two sons in the consulate, A. D. 522, after pronouncing a panegyric on Theodoric, he distributed a largess to the Roman populace in the games of the circus. (Consol. Phil.
This happiness was suddenly overcast.
He had resolved, on his entrance into public life, to carry out the saying of Plato, "that the world would only be happy when kings became philosophers, or philosophers became kings."
He protected and relieved the provincials from the public and private rapine to which they were exposed, defended the Campanians against the praefect of the praetorium, saved Paulinus from "the dogs of the palace," and restrained the oppressions of the barbarian officers, Triguilla and Conigastus. (Consol. Phil.
This unflinching integrity naturally provoked enmity in the court of Theodoric; and the boldness with which he pleaded the cause of Albinus, when accused of treason by the informer Cyprianus, seems to have been the plea on which Gaudentius, Opilio, and Basilius charged him and Symmachus with the intention of delivering Rome from the barbarian yoke,--to which was added the charge of sacrilege or magic.
A sentence of confiscation and death was passed against him unheard (Consol. Phil.
1.4), and he was imprisoned at Ticinum in the baptistry of the church, which was to be seen at Pavia till 1584 (Tiraboschi, vol. iii. lib. 1. c.4), during which time he wrote his book De Consolatione Philosophiae
He was executed at Calvenzano (in agro Calventiano) (Anonym. Vales. p. 36), or according to the general belief, at Ticinum, by beheading (Anast. Vit. Pontif. in Joanne I.;
Aimoin. Hist. Franc.
2.1), or (according to Anonym. Vales. p. 36) by the torture of a cord drawn round his head till the eyes were forced from their sockets, and then by beating with clubs till he expired. Symmachus was also beheaded, and Rusticiana reduced to poverty, till Amalasontha, widow of Theodoric and regent during her son's minority, replaced his statues and restored to her his confiscated property. (Procop. Goth.
10; Jornand. Reb. Get.
89.) Rusticiana was, however, on the sack of Rome, in A. D. 541, chiefly by her liberality to the besieged, again reduced to beggary, and was only saved by the kindness of Totila from the fury which this liberality, as well as her destruction of Theodoric's statues in revenge for her husband and father, had excited in the Gothic army. (Procop. Goth.
3.20.) In A. D. 722, a tomb was erected to Boethius's memory by Luitprand, king of the Lombards, in the church of S. Pietro Cielo d'Oro, and in A. D. 990, a more magnificent one by Otho III., with an epitaph by pope Sylvester II. (Tiraboschi, vol. iii. lib. 1. c.4.)
Other Stories of Boethius' Life
With the facts stated above have been mixed up various stories, more or less disputed, which seem to have grown with the growth of his posthumous reputation.
1. Stay at Athens and attendance on the lecture of Proclus
The story of his eighteen years' stay at Athens, and attendance on the lectures of Proclus, rests only on the authority of the spurious treatise De Disciplina Scholarium
, proved by Thonmasius to have been written by Thomas Brabantinus, or Cantipratinus.
The sentence of Cassiodorus (i 45) inaccurately quoted by Gibbon (" Atheniensium scholas [not Athenas] longer posits [not posits] introisti") as a proof of his visit to Athens, is really a statement of the reverse, being a rhetorical assertion of the fact, that though living at Rome, he was well acquainted with the philosophy of Greece. Compare the similar expressions in the same letter: "Plato ... Aristoteles ... Quirinali voce disceptant.
2. Three Consulships
The three consulships sometimes ascribed to him are made up from that of his father in 487, and that of his sons in 522.
3. Previously husband of Elpis
Besides his wife, Rusticiana, later and especially Sicilian writers have supposed, that he was previously the husband of a Sicilian lady, Elpis, authoress of two hymns used in the Breviary (" Decora lux," and " Beate Pastor," or according to others, " Aurea luce," and "Felix per omnes"), and by her to have had two sons, Patricius and Hypatius, Greek consuls in A. D. 500.
But this has no ground in history: the expression " socerorum," in Consol. Phil.
2.3, refers not to two fathers-in-law, but to the parents of Rusticiana; and the epitaph of Elpis, which is the only authentic record of her life, contradicts the story altogether, by implying that she followed her husband (who is not named) into exile, which would of course leave no time for his second marriage and children. (See Tiraboschi, vol. iii. lib. 1. c.4.)
4. Death and the Embassy of Pope John I. to Constantinople
Paulus Diaconus (book vii.), Anastasius (Vit. Pontif. in Joanne
I.), and later writers, have connected his death with the embassy of pope John I. to Constantinople for the protection of the Catholics, in which he is alleged to have been implicated.
But this story, not being alluded to in the earlier accounts, appears to have arisen, like the last-mentioned one, from the desire to connect his name more distinctly with Christianity, which leads to the last and most signal variation in his history.
5. Considered a Catholic Saint and Martyr
He was long considered as a Catholic saint and martyr, and in later times stories were current of his having been a friend of St. Benedict, and having supped at Monte Cassino (Trithemius, apud Fabric. Bibl. Lat.
3.15), and again of miracles at his death, as carrying his head in his hand (Life of him by Martianus, apud Baron. Annual.
A. D. 526, No. 17, 18), which last indeed probably arose from the fact of this being the symbolical representation of martyrdom by decapitation; as the particular day of his death (Oct. 23) was probably fixed by its being the day of two other saints of the same name of Severinus.
Whatever may be thought of these details, the question of his Christianity itself is beset with difficulties in whichever way it may be determined. On the one hand, if the works on dogmatical theology ascribed to him be really his, the question is settled in the affirmative.
But, in that case, the total omission of all mention of Christianity in the "Consolatio Philosophiae," in passages and under circumstances where its mention seemed to be imperatively demanded, becomes so great a perplexity that various expedients have been adopted to solve it. Bertius conjectured, that there was to have been a sixth book, which was interrupted by his death. Glareanus, though partly on other grounds, with the independent judgment for which he is commended by Niebuhr, rejected the work itself as spurious. Finally, Professor Hand, in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclophädie,
has with much ingenuity maintained the opposite hypothesis, viz. that Boethius was not a Christian at all, and that the theological works ascribed to him were written by another Boethius, who was afterwards confounded with him; and hence the origin or confirmation of the mistake.
In favour of this theory may be mentioned, over and above the general argument arising from the Consolatio Phlosophiae,
The number of persons of the name of Boethius in or about that time. See Fabric. Bibl. Lat.
The tendency of that age to confound persons of inferior note with their more famous namesakes, as well as to publish anonymous works under celebrated names; as, for example, the ascription to St. Athanasius of the hymn Quicunque vult
, or to St. Dionysius the Areopagite, of the works which go under his name. (3.)
The evidently fabulous character of all the events
in his life alleged to prove his Christianity. (4.)
The tendency which appears increasingly onwards through the middle ages to Christianize eminent heathens; as, for example, the embodiment of such traditions with regard to Trajan, Virgil, and Statius, in the Divina Comedia of Dante. Still sufficient difficulties remain to prevent an implicit acquiescence in this hypothesis. Though no author quotes the theological works of Boethius before Hincmar (A. D. 850), yet there is no trace of any doubt as to their genuineness; and also, though the general tone of the Consolatio is heathen, a few phrases seem to savour of a belief in Christianity, e. g. angelica virtute
for "heaven" (5.1, 4.1), veri praevia luminis
After all, however the critical question be settled, the character of Boethius is not much affected by it. For as it must be determined almost entirely from the " Consolatio," in which he speaks with his whole heart, and not from the abstract statements of doctrine in the theological treatises, which, even if genuine, are chiefly compiled with hardly an expression of personal feeling, from the works of St. Augustin, on the one hand the general silence on the subject of Christianity in such a book at such a period of his life, proves that, if he was a Christian, its doctrines could hardly have been a part of his living belief; on the other hand, the incidental phrases above quoted, the strong religious theism
which pervades the whole work, the real belief which it indicates in prayer and Providence, and the unusually high tone of his public life, prove that, if a heathen, his general character must have been deeply tinged by the contemporaneous influence of Christianity.
He would thus seem to have been one of a probably large class of men, such as will always be found in epochs between the fall of one system of belief and the rise of another, and who by hovering on the confines of each can hardly be assigned exclusively to either,--one who, like Epictetus and the Antonines, and, nearer his own time, the poet Claudian and the historian Zosimus, was by his deep attachment to the institutions and literature of Greece and Rome led to look for practical support to a heathen or half-heathen philosophy; whilst like them, but in a greater degree, his religious and moral views received an elevation from their contact with the now established faith of Christianity.
The middle position which he thus occupied by his personal character and belief, he also occupies in the general history and literature of the world. Being the last Roman of any note who understood the language and studied the literature of Greece, and living on the boundary of the ancient and modern world, he is one of the most important links between them.
As it had been the great object of his public life to protect the declining fortunes of Rome against the oppression of the barbarian invaders, so it was the great object of his literary life to keep alive the expiring light of Greek literature amidst the growing ignorance of the age.
The complete ruin of the ancient world, which followed almost immediately on his death, imparted to this object an importance and to himself a celebrity far beyond what he could ever have anticipated.
In the total ignorance of Greek writers which prevailed from the 6th to the 14th century, he was looked upon as the head and type of all philosophers, as Augustin was of all theology and Virgil of all literature, and hence the tendency throughout the middle ages to invest him with a distinctly Christian and almost miraculous character. In Dante,e.g.
he is thus described (Parad.
Per veder ogni ben dentro vi gode
L' anima santa, che '1 mondo fallace
Fa manifesto a chi di lei ben ode ;
Lo corpo, ond 'ella fu cacciata, giace
Giuso in Cieldauro, ed essa da martiro
E da esiglio venne a questa pace.
Importance of the Consolatio
After the introduction of the works of Aristotle into Europe in the 13th century, Boethius's fame gradually died away, and he affords a remarkable instance of an author, who having served a great purpose for nearly 1000 years, now that that purpose has been accomplished, will sink into obscurity as general as was once his celebrity.
The first author who quotes his works is Hincmar (1.211, 460, 474, 521), A. D. 850, and in the subsequent literature of the middle ages the Consolatio gave birth to imitations, translations, and commentaries, innumerable. (Warton's Eng. Poet.
2.342, 343.) Of four classics in the Paris library in A. D. 1300 this was one. (Ib. i. p. cxii.) Of translations the most famous were one into Greek, of the poetical portions of the work, by Maximus Planudes (first published by Weber, Darmstadt, 1833), into Hebrew by Ben Banschet (Wolf. Bibl. Heb.
1.229, 1092, 243, 354, 369; Fabric. Bibl. Lat.
3.15), into old High German at the beginning of the 11th century, by St. Gallen; into French by J. Meun, in 1300, at the order of Philip the Fair; but above all, that into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred the Great, which is doubly interesting, (1.) as one of the earliest specimens of Anglo-Saxon literature; (2.) as the chief literary relic of Alfred himself, whose own mind appears not only in the freedom of the translation, but also in large original insertions relative to the kingly office, or to Christian history, which last fact strikingly illustrates the total absence of any such in Boethius's own work. (Of this the best edition is by J. S. Cardale, with notes and translation, 1828.)
Of imitations may be mentioned:
1. Chaucer's Testament of Love. (Warton's Eng. Poet.
2. Consolatio Monachorum,
by Echard, 1130.
3. Consolatio Theologiae,
4. The King's Complaint
, by James I.
5. An Imitation, by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in the 15th century.
Boethius's own works are as follow:--
Of its moral and religious character no more need be said.
In a literary point of view, it is a dialogue between himself and Philosophy, much in the style of the Pastor of Hermas,--a work which it resembles in the liveliness of personification, though inferior to it in variety and superior in diction.
The alternation of prose and verse is thought to have been suggested by the nearly contemporary work of Marcianus Capella on the nuptials of Mercury and Philology.
The verses are almost entirely borrowed from Seneca.
The first collected edition of his works was published at Venet., fol., 1491 (or 1492)
; the best and most complete at Basel, 1570, fol.
The chief ancient authorities for his life are the Epistles of Ennodius and Cassiodorus, and the History of Procopius.
The chief modern authorities are Fabric. Bibl. Lat.
3.15; Tiraboschi, vol. iii. lib. 1. cap. 4; Hand, in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopädie ;
Barberini, Crit. storica Exposizion della Vita di Sev. Boezio,
Pavia, 1783; Heyne, Censura ingenii, &c. Boethii,