Roman Officials in the Service of the Barbarians

The Barbarians who conquered Italy and the Western provinces of the Roman Empire, soon came to realize that it was to their benefit to use the efficient Roman administration that they had found in place. Although the mighty Roman Empire had fallen, many of its institutions carried on under the Barbarian rulers, and were to serve as the seeds for the later rebirth of civilization.


The government of Italy still carried on according to Roman precedent--Classification of the officials--The Consulship and the Senate--Cassiodorus, his character and his work--His history of the Goths--His letters and state papers.

I have said that one of the most important characteristics of Theodoric's government of Italy was that it was conducted in accordance with the traditions of the Empire and administered mainly by officials trained in the Imperial school. To a certain extent the same thing is true of all the Teutonic monarchies which arose in the fifth century on the ruins of the Empire. In dealing with the needs and settling the disputes of the large, highly-organised communities, into whose midst they had poured themselves, it was not possible, if it had been desirable, for the rulers to remain satisfied with the simple, sometimes barbarous, principles of law and administration which had sufficed for the rude farmer-folk who dwelt in isolated villages beyond the Rhine and the Danube. Nor was this necessity disliked by the rulers themselves. They soon perceived that the Roman law, with its tendency to derive all power from the Imperial head of the State, and the Roman official staff, an elaborate and well-organised hierarchy, every member of which received orders from one above him and transmitted orders to those below, were far more favourable to their own prerogative and gave them a far higher position over against their followers and comrades in war, than the institutions which had prevailed in the forests of Germany. Hence, as I have said, all the new barbarian royalties, even that of the Vandals in Africa (in some respects more anti-Roman than any other), preserved much of the laws and machinery of the Roman Empire; but Theodoric's Italian kingdom preserved the most of all. It might in fact almost be looked upon as a mere continuation of the old Imperial system, only with a strong, laborious, martial Goth at the head of affairs, able and willing to keep all the members of the official hierarchy sternly to their work, instead of the ruler whom the last three generations had been accustomed to behold, a man decked with the purple and diadem, but too weak, too indolent, too nervously afraid of irritating some powerful captain of foederati, or some wealthy Roman noble, to be able to do justice to all classes of his subjects.

The composition of the official hierarchy of the Empire is, from various sources,[82] almost as fully known to us as that of any state of modern Europe.

[Footnote 82: Chiefly the "Notitia Utriusque Imperii" (a sort of official Red-book of the time of Honorius,) but also the "Various Letters" of Cassiodorus, to be described below.]

Pre-eminent in dignity over all the rest rose the "Illustrious" Prætorian Prefect, the vicegerent of the sovereign, a man who held towards Emperor or King nearly the same position which a Grand Vizier holds towards a Turkish Sultan. Like his sovereign he wore a purple robe (which reached however only to his knees, not to his feet), and he drove through the streets in a lofty official chariot. It was for him to promulgate the Imperial laws, sometimes to put forth edicts of his own. He proclaimed what taxes were to be imposed each year, and their produce came into his "Prætorian chest". He suggested to his sovereign the names of the governors of the provinces, paid them their salaries, and exercised a general superintendence over them, having even power to depose them from their offices. And lastly, he was the highest Judge of Appeal in the land, even the Emperor himself having generally no power to reverse his sentences.

There was another "Illustrious" minister, who, during this century both in the Eastern and Western Empire, was always treading on the heels of the Prætorian Prefect, and trying to rob him of some portion of his power. This was the Master of the Offices the intermediary between the sovereign and the great mass of the civil servants, to whom the execution of his orders was entrusted. A swarm of Agentes in Rebus (King's messengers, bailiffs, sheriff's officers; we may call them by all these designations) roved through the provinces, carrying into effect the orders of the sovereign, always magnifying their "master's" dignity, (whence they derived their epithet of "Magistriani",) and seeking to depress the Prætorian Cohorts, who discharged somewhat similar duties under the Prætorian Prefect. The Master of the Offices, besides sharing the counsels of his sovereign in relation to foreign states, had also the arsenals under his charge, and there was transferred to him from his rival, the Prefect, the superintendence of the cursus publicus, the great postal service of the Empire.

Again, somewhat overlapping, as it seems to us, the functions of the Master of the Offices, came the "Illustrious" Quæstor, the head-rhetorician of the State, the official whose business it was to put the thoughts of the sovereign into fitting and eloquent words, either when he was replying to the ambassadors of foreign powers, or when he was issuing laws and proclamations to his own subjects. As his duties and qualifications were of a more personal kind than those of his two brother-ministers already described, he had not like them a large official staff waiting upon his orders.

There were two great financial ministers, the Count of Sacred Largesses ("sacred", of course, is equivalent to "Imperial"), and the Count of Private Domains, whose duties practically related in the former case to the personal, in the latter to the real, estate of the sovereign. Or perhaps, for it is difficult exactly to define the nature of their various duties, it would be better to think of the Count of Sacred Largesses as the Imperial Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Count of Private Domains as the Chief Commissioner of Woods and Forests.

The Superintendent of the Sacred Dormitory was the Grand Chamberlain of the Empire, and commanding, as he did, the army of pages, grooms of the bed-chamber, vestiaries, and life-guardsmen, who ministered to the myriad wants of an Arcadius or a Honorius, he was not the least important among the chief officers of the State.

These great civil ministers, eight in number under the Western Emperors (for there were three Prætorian Prefects, one for the Gauls, one for Italy, and one for the City of Rome), formed, with the military officers of highest rank (generally five in number), the innermost circle of "Illustres", who may be likened to the Cabinet of the Emperor. At this time the Cabinet of Illustres may have been smaller by one or two members, on account of the separation of the Gaulish provinces from Rome, but we are not able to speak positively on this point.

Nearly every one of these great ministers of state had under him a large, ambitious, and often highly-paid staff of subordinates, who were called his Officium. The civil service was at least as regular and highly specialised a profession under the Emperors and under Theodoric as it is in any modern State. It is possible that we should have to go to the Celestial Empire of China to find its fitting representative. A large number of singularii, rationalii, clavicularii, and the like (whom we should call policemen, subordinate clerks, and gaolers) formed the "Unlettered Staff" (Militia Illiterata), who stood on the lowest stage of the bureaucratic pyramid. Above these was the lettered staff, beginning with the humble chancellor (Cancellarius), who sat by the cancelli (latticework), at the bottom of the Court (to prevent importunate suitors from venturing too far), and rising to the dignified Princeps or Cornicularius, who was looked upon as equal in rank to a Count, and who expected to make an income of not less than £600 a year, equivalent to two or three times that amount in our day.

All this great hierarchy of officials wielded powers derived, mediately or immediately, from the Emperor (or in the Ostrogothic monarchy from the King), and great as was their brilliancy in the eyes of the dazzled multitudes who crouched before them, it was all reflected from him, who was the central sun of their universe. But there were still two institutions which were in theory independent of Emperor or King, which were yet held venerable by men, and which had come down from the days of the great world-conquering republic, or the yet earlier days of Romulus and Numa. These two institutions were the Consulship and the Senate.

The Consuls, as was said in an earlier chapter, still appeared to preside over the Roman Republic, as they had in truth presided, wielding between them the full power of a king, when Brutus and Collatinus, a thousand years before Theodoric's commencement of the siege of Ravenna, took their seat upon the curule chairs, and donned the trabea of the Consul. Still, though utterly shorn of its power, the glamour of the venerable office remained. The Emperor himself seemed to add to his dignity when he allowed himself to be nominated as Consul, and in nothing was the cupidity of the tyrant Emperors and the moderation of the patriot Emperors better displayed than in the number of Consulships which they claimed or forbore from claiming. Ever since the virtual division of the Empire into an Eastern and Western portion, it had been usual, though not absolutely obligatory, for one Consul to be chosen out of each half of the Orbis Romanus, and in reading the contemporary chronicles we can almost invariably tell to which portion the author belongs by observing to which Consul's name he gives the priority. As has been already stated, after the resumption of friendly relations between Ravenna and Constantinople, Theodoric, while naming the Western Consul, sent a courteous notification of the fact to the Emperor, by whom his nomination seems to have been always accepted without question. The great Ostrogoth, having once worn the Consular robes and distributed largess to "the Roman People" in the streets of Constantinople, does not seem to have cared a second time to assume that ancient dignity, but in the year 519, towards the end of his reign, he named his son-in-law, Eutharic, Consul, and the splendour of Eutharic's year of office was enhanced by the fact that he had the then reigning Emperor, Justin, for his colleague. As for the Senate, it too was still in appearance what it had ever been,--the highest Council in the State, the assembly of kings which overawed the ambassador of Pyrrhus, the main-spring, or, if not the main-spring, at any rate the balance-wheel, of the administrative machine. This it was in theory, for there had never been any formal abolition of its existence or abrogation of its powers. In practice it was just what the sovereign, whether called Emperor or King, allowed it to be. A self-willed and arbitrary monarch, like Caligula or Domitian, would reduce its functions to a nullity. A wise and moderate Emperor, like Trajan or Marcus Aurelius, would consult it on all important state-affairs, and, while reserving to himself both the power of initiation and that of final control, would make of it a real Council of State, a valuable member of the governing body of the Empire. The latter seems to have been the policy of Theodoric. Probably the very fact of his holding a somewhat doubtful position towards the Emperor at Constantinople made him more willing to accept all the moral support that could be given him by the body which was in a certain sense older and more august than any Emperor, the venerable Senate of Rome. At any rate, the letters in which he announces to the Senate the various acts, especially the nomination of the great officials of his kingdom, in which he desires their concurrence, are couched in such extremely courteous terms, that sometimes civility almost borders on servility. Notwithstanding this, however, it is quite plain that it was always thoroughly understood who was master in Italy, and that any attempt on the part of the Senate to wrest any portion of real power from Theodoric would have been instantly and summarily suppressed.

I have said that it was only by the aid of officials, trained in the service of the Empire that Theodoric, or indeed any of the new barbarian sovereigns, could hope to keep the machine of civil government in working order. We have, fortunately, a little information as to some of these officials, and an elaborate self-drawn picture of one of them.

Liberius had been a faithful servant of Odovacar; and had to the last remained by the sinking vessel of his fortunes. This fidelity did not injure him in the estimation of the conqueror. When all was over, he came, with no eagerness, and with unconcealed sorrow for the death of his former master, to offer his services to Theodoric, who gladly accepted them, and gave him at once the pre-eminent dignity of Prætorian Prefect. His wise and economical management of the finances filled the royal exchequer without increasing the burdens of the tax-payer, and it is probable that the early return of prosperity to Italy, which was described in the last chapter, was, in great measure, due to the just and statesmanlike administration of Liberius. In the delicate business of allotting to the Gothic warriors the third part of the soil of Italy, which seems to have been their recognised dividend on Theodoric's Italian speculation, he so acquitted himself as to win the approbation of all. It is difficult for us to understand how such a change of ownership can have brought with it anything but heart-burning and resentment. But (1) there are not wanting indications that, owing to evil influences both economic and political, there was actually a large quantity of good land lying unoccupied in Italy in the fifth century; and (2) there had already been one expropriation of the same kind for the benefit of the soldiers of Odovacar. In so far as this allotment of Thirds[83] merely followed the lines of that earlier redistribution, but little of a grievance was caused to the Italian owner. An Ostrogoth, the follower of Theodoric, stepped into the position of a slain Scyrian or Turcilingian, the follower of Odovacar, and the Italian owner suffered no further detriment. Still there must have been some loss to the provincials and some cases of hardship which would be long and bitterly remembered, before every family which crossed the Alps in the Gothic waggons was safely settled in its Italian home. It is therefore not without some qualification that we can accept the statement of the official panegyrist[84] of the Gothic regime, who declares that in this business of the allotment of the Thirds "Liberius joined both the hearts and the properties of the two nations, Gothic and Roman. For whereas neighbourhood often proves a cause of enmity, with these men communion of farms proved a cause of concord.[85] Thus the division of the soil promoted the concord of the owners; friendship grew out of the loss of the provincials, and the land gained a defender, whose possession of part guaranteed the quiet enjoyment of the remainder". It is possible that there was some foundation of truth for the last statement. After the fearful convulsions through which the whole Western Empire had passed, and with the strange paralysis of the power of self-defence which had overtaken the once brave and hardy population of Italy, it is possible that the presence, near to each considerable Italian landowner, of a Goth whose duty to his king obliged him to defend the land from foreign invasion, and to suppress with a strong hand all robbery and brigandage, may have been felt in some cases as a compensation even for whatever share of the soil of Italy was transferred to Goth from Roman by the Chief Commissioner, Liberius.

[Footnote 83: Deputatio Tertiarum.]

[Footnote 84: Cassiodorus, Var., ii., 16.]

[Footnote 85: Nam cum se homines soleant de vicinitate collidere, istis prædiorum communio causam noscitur præstitisse concordiæ. Sic enim contigit ut utraque natio, dum commumater vivit ad unum velle convenerit.]

Two eminent Romans, whom in the early years of his reign Theodoric placed in high offices of state, were the two successive ambassadors to Constantinople, Faustus and Festus. Both seem to have held the high dignity of Prætorian Prefect. We do not, however, hear much as to the career of Festus, and what we hear of Faustus is not altogether to his credit. He had been for several years practically the Prime Minister of Theodoric, when in an evil hour for his reputation he coveted the estate of a certain Castorius, whose land adjoined his own. Deprived of his patrimony, Castorius appealed, not in vain, to the justice of Theodoric, whose ears were not closed, as an Emperor's would probably have been, to the cry of a private citizen against a powerful official. "We are determined", says Theodoric, in his reply to the petition of Castorius, "to assist the humble and to repress the violence of the proud. If the petition of Castorius prove to be well-founded, let the spoiler restore to Castorius his property and hand over besides another estate of equal value. If the Magnificent Faustus have employed any subordinate in this act of injustice, bring him to us bound with chains that he may pay for the outrage in person, if he cannot do so in purse. If on any future occasion that now known craftsman of evil (Faustus) shall attempt to injure the aforesaid Castorius, let him be at once fined fifty pounds of gold (£2,000). Greatest of all punishments will be the necessity of beholding the untroubled estate of the man whom he sought to ruin. Behold herein a deed which may well chasten and subdue the hearts of all our great dignitaries when they see that not even a Prætorian Prefect is permitted to trample on the lowly, and that when we put forth our arm to help, such an one's power of injuring the wretched fails him. From this may all men learn how great is our love of justice, since we are willing to diminish even the power of our judges, that we may increase the contentment of our own conscience". This edict was followed by a letter to the Illustrious Faustus himself, in which that grasping governor was reminded that human nature frequently requires a change, and permission was graciously given him to withdraw for four months into the country. At the end of that time he was without fail to return to the capital, since no Roman Senator ought to be happy if permanently settled anywhere but at Rome. It is tolerably plain that the four months' villeggiatura was really a sentence of temporary banishment, and we may probably conclude that the Magnificent Faustus never afterwards held any high position under Theodoric.

The letters announcing the King's judgment in this matter, like all the other extant state-papers of Theodoric, were written by a man who was probably by the fall of Faustus raised a step in the official hierarchy, and who was certainly for the last twenty years of the reign of Theodoric one of the most conspicuous of his Roman officials. This was Cassiodorus, or, to give him his full name, Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a man, whose life and character require to be described in some detail.

Cassiodorus was sprung from a noble Roman family, which had already given three of its members in lineal succession (all bearing the name Cassiodorus) to the service of the State. His great-grandfather, of "Illustrious" rank, defended Sicily and Calabria from the incursions of the Vandals. His grandsire, a Tribune in the army, was sent by the Emperor Valentinian III. on an important embassy to Attila. His father filled first one and then the other of the two highest financial offices in the State under Odovacar. On the overthrow of that chieftain, he, like Liberius, transferred his services to Theodoric, who employed him as governor first of Sicily, then of Calabria, and finally, about the year 500, conferred upon him the highest dignity of all, that of Prætorian Prefect. The ancestral possessions of the Cassiodori were situated m that southernmost province, sometimes likened to the toe of Italy, which was then called Bruttii, and is now called Calabria. It was a land rich in cattle, renowned for its cheese and for its aromatic, white Palmatian wine; and veins of gold were said to be in its mountains. Here, in the old Greek city of Scyllacium (Sguillace), "a city perched upon a high hill overlooking the sea, sunny yet fanned by cool Mediterranean breezes, and looking peacefully on the cornfields, the vineyards, and the olive-groves around her",[86] Cassiodorus was born, about the year 480. He was therefore probably some twelve or thirteen years of age when the long strife between Odovacar and Theodoric was ended by the murder scene in the palace at Ravenna.

[Footnote 86: The description is taken from Cassiodorus, Var., xii., 15.]

Like all the young Roman nobles who aspired to the honours and emoluments of public life, Cassiodorus studied philosophy and rhetoric, and, according to the standard of the age, a degraded standard, he acquired great proficiency in both lines of study. When his father was made Prætorian Prefect (about the year 500), the young rhetorician received an appointment as Consiliarius, or Assessor in the Prefect's court, at a salary which probably did not exceed forty or fifty pounds. While he was holding this position, it fell to his lot to pronounce a laudatory oration on Theodoric (perhaps on the occasion of one of his visits to Rome), and the eloquence of the young Consiliarius so delighted the King, that he was at once made an "Illustrious" Quæstor, thus receiving what we should call cabinet-rank while he was still considerably under thirty years of age. The Quæstor, as has been said, was the Public Orator of the State. It devolved upon him to reply to the formal harangues in which the ambassadors of foreign nations greeted his master, to answer the petitions of his subjects, and to see that the edicts of the sovereign were expressed in proper terms. The post exactly fitted the intellectual tendencies of Cassiodorus, who was never so happy as when he was wrapping up some commonplace thought in a garment of sonorous but turgid rhetoric; and the simple honesty of his moral nature, simple in its very vanity and honest in its childlike egotism, coupled as it was with real love for his country and loyal zeal for her welfare, endeared him in his turn to Theodoric, with whom he had many "gloriosa colloquia" (as he calls them), conversations in which the young, learned, and eloquent Roman poured forth for his master the stored up wine of generations of philosophers and poets, while the kingly barbarian doubtless unfolded some of the propositions of that more difficult science, the knowledge of men, which he had acquired by long and arduous years of study in the council-chamber, on the mountain-march, and on the battle-field.

We can go at once to the fountain-head for information as to the character of Cassiodorus. When he was promoted, soon after the death of Theodoric, to the rank of Prætorian Prefect, it became his duty, as Quæstor to the young King Athalaric (Theodoric's successor), to inform himself by an official letter of the honour conferred upon him. In writing this letter, he does not deviate from the usual custom of describing the virtues and accomplishments which justify the new minister's promotion. Why indeed should he keep silence on such an occasion? No one could know the good qualities of Cassiodorus so well or so intimately as Cassiodorus himself, and accordingly the Quæstor sets forth, with all the rhetoric of which he had such an endless supply, the virtues and the accomplishments which his observant eye has discovered in himself, the new Prætorian Prefect. Such a course would certainly not be often pursued by a modern statesman, but there is a pleasing ingenuousness about it which to some minds will be more attractive than our present methods, the "inspired" article in a hired newspaper, or the feigned reluctance to receive a testimonial which, till the receiver suggested it, no one had dreamed of offering.

This then is how Cassiodorus, in 533, describes his past career[87]: "You came (his young sovereign, Athalaric, is supposed to be addressing him) in very early years to the dignity of Quæstor; and mv grandfather's (Theodoric's) wonderful insight into character was never more abundantly proved than in your case, for he found you to be endued with rare conscientiousness, and already ripe in your knowledge of the laws. You were in truth the chief glory of your times, and you won his favour by arts which none could blame, for his mind, by nature anxious in all things, was able to lay aside its cares while you supported the weight of the royal counsels with the strength of your eloquence. In you he had a charming secretary, a rigidly upright judge, a minister to whom avarice was unknown. You never fixed a scandalous tariff for the sale of his benefits; you chose to take your reward in public esteem, not in riches. Therefore it was that this most righteous ruler chose you to be honoured by his glorious friendship, because he saw you to be free from all taint of corrupt vices. How often did he fix your place among his white-haired counsellors; inasmuch as they, by the experience of years, had not come up to the point from which you had started! He found that he could safely praise your excellent disposition, open-handed in bestowing benefits, tightly closed against the vices of avarice".

[Footnote 87: Variæ, ix., 24.]

"Thus you passed on to the dignity of Master of the Offices,[88] which you obtained, not by a pecuniary payment, but as a testimony to your character. In that office you were ever ready to help the Quæstors, for when pure eloquence was needed men always resorted to you; and, in fact, when you were at hand and ready to help, there was no accurate division of labour among the various offices of the State.[89] No one could find an occasion to murmur aught against you, although you bore all the unpopularity which accompanies the favour of a prince".

[Footnote 88: The date of Cassiodorus' first promotion to this dignity is uncertain, but it was probably about 518.]

[Footnote 89: Non enim proprios fines sub te ulla dignitas custodivit. (Of course there is a certain anachronism in representing a statesman of the sixth century as using the phrase "division of labour".)]

Your detractors were conquered by the integrity of your life; your adversaries, bowing to public opinion, were obliged to praise even while they hated you.

"To the lord of the land you showed yourself a friendly judge and an intimate minister. When public affairs no longer claimed him, he would ask you to tell him the stories in which wise men of old have clothed their maxims, that by his own deeds he might equal the ancient heroes. The courses of the stars, the ebb and flow of the sea, the marvels of springing fountains,--nto all these subjects would that most acute questioner inquire, so that by his diligent investigations into the nature of things, he seemed to be a philosopher in the purple".

This sketch of the character of the minister throws light incidentally on that of the monarch who employed him. Of course, as a general rule, history cannot allow the personages with whom she deals to write their own testimonials, but in this case there is reason to think that the self-portraiture of Cassiodorus is accurate in its main outlines, though our modern taste would have suggested the employment of somewhat less florid colouring.

One literary service which Cassiodorus rendered to the Ostrogothic monarchy is thus described by himself, still speaking in his young king's name and addressing the Roman Senate.[90]

[Footnote 90: Variæ ix., 25.]

"He was not satisfied with extolling surviving Kings, from whom their panegyrist might hope for a reward. He extended his labours to our remote ancestry, learning from books that which the hoary memories of our old men scarcely retained. He drew forth from their hiding-place the Kings of the Goths, hidden by long forgetfulness. He restored the Amals in all the lustre of their lineage, evidently proving that we have Kings for our ancestors up to the seventeenth generation. He made the origin of the Goths part of Roman history, collecting into one wreath the flowers which had previously been scattered over the wide plains of literature. Consider, therefore, what love he showed to you (the Senate) in uttering our praises, while teaching that the nation of your sovereign has been from ancient time a marvellous people: so that you who from the days of your ancestors have been truly deemed noble are also now ruled over by the long-descended progeny of Kings".

These sentences relate to the "Gothic History" of Cassiodorus, which once existed in twelve books, but is now unfortunately lost. A hasty abridgment of it, made by an ignorant monk named Jordanes, is all that now remains. Even this, with its many faults, is a most precious monument of the early history of the Teutonic invaders of the Empire, and it is from its pages that much of the information contained in the previous chapters is drawn. The object of the original statesman-author in composing his "Gothic History" is plainly stated in the above sentences. He wishes to heal the wound given to Roman pride by the fact of the supremacy in Italy of a Gothic lord; and in order to effect this object he strings together all that he can collect of the Sagas of the Gothic people, showing the great deeds of the Amal progenitors of Theodoric, whose lineage he traces back into distant centuries. "It is true" he seems to say to the Senators of Rome, "that you, who once ruled the world, are now ruled by an alien; but at least that alien is no new-comer into greatness. He and his progenitors have been crowned Kings for centuries. His people, who are quartered among you and claim one-third of the soil of Italy, are an old, historic people. Their ancestors fought under the walls of Troy; they defeated Cyrus, King of Persia; they warred not ingloriously with Perdiccas of Macedonia".

These classical elements of the Gothic history of Cassiodorus (which rest chiefly on a misunderstanding of the vague and unscientific term "Scythians") are valueless for the purposes of history; but the old Gothic Sagas, of which he has evidently also preserved some fragments, are both interesting and valuable. When a nation has played so important a part on the theatre of the world as that assigned to the Goths, even their legendary stories of the past are precious. Whether these early Amal Kings fought and ruled and migrated as the Sagas represent them to have done, or not, in any case the belief that these were their achievements was a part of the intellectual heritage of the Gothic peoples. The songs to whose lullaby the cradle of a great nation is rocked are a precious possession to the historian.

The other most important work of Cassiodorus is the collection of letters called the Variæ, in twelve books. This collection contains all the chief state-papers composed by him during the period (somewhat more than thirty years) which was covered by his official life. Five books are devoted to the letters written at the dictation of Theodoric; two to the Formulæ or model-letters addressed to the various dignitaries of the State on their accession to office; three to the letters written in the name of Theodoric's immediate successors (his grandson, daughter, and nephew); and two to those written by Cassiodorus himself in his own name when he had attained the crowning dignity of Prætorian Prefect.

I have already made some extracts from this collection of "Various Epistles" and the reader, from the specimens thus submitted to him, will have formed some conception of the character of the author's style. That style is diffuse and turgid, marked in an eminent degree with the prevailing faults of the sixth century, an age of literary decay, when the language of Cicero and Virgil was falling into its dotage. There is much ill-timed display of irrelevant learning, and a grievous absence of simplicity and directness, in the "Various Epistles". It must be regarded as a misfortune for Theodoric that his maxims of statesmanship, which were assuredly full of manly sense and vigour, should have reached us only in such a shape, diluted with the platitudes and false rhetoric of a scholar of the decadence. Still, even through all these disguises, it is easy to discern the genuine patriotism both of the great King and of his minister, their earnest desire that right, not might, should determine every case that came before them, their true insight into the vices and the virtues of each of the two different nations which now shared Italy between them, their persevering endeavour to keep civilitas intact, their determination to oppose alike the turbulence of the Goth and the chicane of the scheming Roman.

As specimens of the rhetoric of Cassiodorus when he is trying his highest flights, the reader may care to peruse the two following letters. The first[91] was written to Faustus the Prætorian Prefect, to complain of his delay in forwarding some cargoes of corn from Calabria to Rome:

[Footnote 91: Var., i., 35.]

"What are you waiting for?" says Cassiodorus, writing in his master's name. "Why are your ships not spreading their sails to the breeze? When the South-wind is blowing and your oarsmen are urging on your vessels, has the sucking-fish (Echeneis) fastened its bite upon them through the liquid waves? Or have the shell-fishes of the Indian Sea with similar power stayed your keels with their lips: those creatures whose quiet touch is said to hold back, more than the tumultuous elements can possibly urge forward? The idle bark stands still, though winged with swelling sails, and has no way on her though the breeze is propitious; she is fixed without anchors; she is moored without cables, and these tiny animals pull back, more than all such favouring powers can propel. Therefore when the subject wave would hasten the vessel's course, it appears that it stands fixed on the surface of the sea: and in marvellous style the floating ship is retained immovable, while the wave is hurried along by countless currents.

"But let us describe the nature of another kind of fish. Perhaps the crews of the aforesaid ships have been benumbed into idleness by the touch of a torpedo, by which the right hand of him who attacks it is so deadened--even through the spear by which it is itself wounded--that while still part of a living body it hangs down benumbed without sense or motion. I think some such misfortunes must have happened to men who are unable to move themselves.

"But no. The sucking-fish of these men is their hindering corruption. The shell-fishes that bite them are their avaricious hearts. The torpedo that benumbs them is lying guile. With perverted ingenuity they manufacture delays, that they may seem to have met with a run of ill-luck.

"Let your Greatness, whom it especially behoves to take thought for such matters, cause that this be put right by speediest rebuke: lest the famine, which will otherwise ensue, be deemed to be the child of negligence rather than of the barrenness of the land".

The occasion of the second letter (Var., x., 30.) was as follows. Some brazen images of elephants which adorned the Sacred Street of Rome were falling into ruin, Cassiodorus, writing in the name of one of Theodoric's successors, to the Prefect of the City, orders that their gaping limbs should be strengthened by hooks, and their pendulous bellies should be supported by masonry. He then proceeds to give to the admiring Prefect some wonderful information as to the natural history of the elephant. He regrets that the metal effigies should be so soon destroyed, when the animal which they represent is accustomed to live more than a thousand years.

"The living elephant" he says, "when it is once prostrate on the ground, cannot rise unaided, because it has no joints in its feet. Hence when they are helping men to fell timber, you see numbers of them lying on the earth till men come and help them to rise. Thus this creature, so formidable by its size, is really more helpless than the tiny ant. The elephant, wiser than all other creatures, renders religious adoration to the Ruler of all: also to good princes, but if a tyrant approach, it will not pay him the homage which is due only to the virtuous. It uses its proboscis, that nose-like hand which Nature has given it in compensation for its very short neck, for the benefit of its master, accepting the presents which will be profitable to him. It always walks cautiously, remembering that fatal fall into the hunter's pit which was the beginning of its captivity. When requested to do so, it exhales its breath, which is said to be a remedy for the headache.

"When it comes to water, it sucks up a vast quantity in its trunk, and then at the word of command squirts it forth like a shower. If any one have treated its demands with contempt, it pours forth such a stream of dirty water over him that one would think that a river had entered his house. For this beast has a wonderfully long memory, both of injury and of kindness. Its eyes are small but move solemnly, so that there is a sort of royal majesty in its appearance: and it despises scurrile jests, while it always looks with pleasure on that which is honourable".

It must be admitted that if the official communications of modern statesmen thus anxiously combined amusement with instruction, the dull routine of "I have the honour to inform" and "I beg to remain your obedient humble servant", would acquire a charm of which it is now destitute.

I have translated two letters which show the ludicrous side of the literary character of Cassiodorus. In justice to this honest, if somewhat pedantic, servant of Theodoric, I will close this sketch of his character with a state-paper of a better type, and one which incidentally throws some light on the social condition of Italy under the Goths.

"Theodoric to the Illustrious Neudes. (Var., v., 29.)

"We were moved to sympathy by the long petition of Ocer but yet more by beholding the old hero, bereft of the blessing of sight, inasmuch as the calamities which we witness make more impression upon us than those of which we only hear. He, poor man, living on in perpetual darkness, had to borrow the sight of another to hasten to our presence in order that he might feel the sweetness of our clemency, though he could not gaze upon our countenance.

"He complains that Gudila and Oppas (probably two Gothic nobles or a Gothic chief and his wife) have reduced him to a state of slavery, a condition unknown to him or his fathers, since he once served in our army as a free man. We marvel that such a man should be dragged into bondage who (on account of his infirmity) ought to have been liberated by a lawful owner. It is a new kind of ostentation to claim the services of such an one, the sight of whom shocks you, and to call that man a slave, to whom you ought rather to minister with divine compassion.

"He adds also that all claims of this nature have been already judged invalid after careful examination by Count Pythias, a man celebrated for the correctness of his judgments. But now overwhelmed by the weight of his calamity, he cannot assert his freedom by his own right hand, which in the strong man is the most effectual advocate of his claims. We, however, whose peculiar property it is to administer justice indifferently, whether between men of equal or unequal condition, do by this present mandate decree, that if, in the judgment of the aforesaid Pythias, Ocer have proved himself free-born, you shall at once remove those who are harassing him with their claims, nor shall they dare any longer to mock at the calamities of others: these people who once convicted ought to have been covered with shame for their wicked designs".

Navigate Within This Book:

This book about Theodoric the Goth is part of the digital collection of books about the Roman Empire at See All Texts on This Site | Privacy Policy | Site News

Life in the Roman Empire

History of the Roman Empire

More to Choose

Sister Sites