Tag Archives: sixth-century history

Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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Discover Late Antiquity: Sixth-century politics 1 – Justinian

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

The fifth century was the century when the Roman West unravelled. By century’s end, the barbarian kingdoms were there. As a result, the politics of the sixth century is much more varied and takes a number of routes; the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals — these kingdoms are all part of the story at the outset, joined by Lombards along the way. We also have various rumblings from Scotti and Picti throughout the century, and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours come into full view by century’s end.

There’s a lot of politics in this century, for many the last of Antiquity, and in many ways the first of the Middle Ages.

Plus, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire is still around.

Let’s begin there.

Very quickly, what you most need to know is that the Emperor Anastasius, who supported the Mono/Miaphysite cause in religion, died in 518. His successor was Justin I, who had a very able and energetic nephew, Justinian. In 527 Justinian acceded to the throne when Justin died and ruled until 565.

That’s a very long time.

Like all emperors, he had to maintain domestic issues, and was involved in one of the biggest riots of ancient history, the Nika Riot of 532 that destroyed a lot of the city of Constantinople and left thousands of civilians slaughtered by Justinian’s troops. But he held onto power and continued to levy taxes and do the whole ‘Roman Emperor’ thing.

However, the most significant political act of Justinian was invading the post-Roman West. His general Belisarius invaded North Africa in 533; it had been conquered by the Vandals about a century before. Belisarius made short work of the Vandal Kingdom, and conquest came in 534. The Vandals had maintained many Roman traditions and levels of adminstration, and sixth-century North Africa produced its own poets. North Africa had been crucial to the western Roman economy, and its recovery had been the goal of the military policy of many emperors in the central decades of the 400s.

Now Justinian had it.

North Africa wasn’t enough, however. He decided Italy was a good thing to have, too. From 535 to 554, Justinian’s forces tried to reconquer the peninsula from the Goths. The city of Rome changed hands three times. Arguably, however, Italy was still being ruled by the successors of Theoderic on behalf of the Roman Emperor, so seeking to replace and supplant them was not actually ‘constitutionally’ valid. Thus argued the Goths, anyway.

These decades of campaign are what broke Italy (see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages). The economy and culture of Italy had maintained themselves in strong, unbroken continuity since 476, with the Goths respecting the Roman laws and traditions as they found them.

Italy was, in the end (554), integrated into the East Roman polity with more direct rule (and taxation!) governed from Constantinople. A governor was established at Ravenna. Cultural ties between the eastern and western Mediterranean renewed to some degree; this included the visual arts as well as theological controversy.

Assuming that Justinian was too preoccupied with western business, in 540 Khusru I went on the offensive, breaking the ‘Eternal Peace’. For the next twenty years, the Romans and Persians were once more at war in the usual manner of neither ultimately gaining much from the other for long.

Politics, of course, is not merely wars. Justinian was also involved in the realm of law — hence the Institutes, Digest, and Code(x) that bear his name (mostly the work of able lawyers, such as Tribonian). Thus was the world of the sixth-century Roman Empire regulated and regularised, and the deposit of Roman Law handed down to us.

And, also of great importance for the future, Justinian got himself directly involved in ecclesiastical affairs, turning away from the policy of Anastasius and supporting the Council of Chalcedon. It is of note that Chalcedon was universallly popular in the West, and that a Chalcedonian set out to reconquer the West. Justinian’s ecclesiastical policy was a bit mixed, and seems to have alienated the extremes of both pro- and anti-Chalcedonian Christians. But it is not insignificant that he himself drafted some of the legislation without first gaining approval of episcopal councils.

So. Justinian. A big deal in politics. But what about all those barbarians I mentioned at the beginning? Tune in next time find out!