Tag Archives: theoderic the great

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: Fifth-century Politics in the Eastern Empire

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Theodosius II, in the Louvre (my photo)

Although I took not one but two posts to cover fifth-century Western Roman politics, I’m only going to give one on the East. Why? Because the West is more my thing, frankly.

In the East, from the death of Theodosius I in 395 to the accession of Anastasius I in 491, the Emperors are Arcadius (395-408), Theodosius II (408-450), Marcian (450-457), Leo I (457-74), Zeno (474-491). Arcadius and Theodosius II are both child emperors, thus under the sway of powers at court. In the West, this served the patricii well, resulting in Ricimer who was a kingmaker.

In 395, Alaric (whom we met in the West, where he would go later) threatened Constantinople. In 396, he and his army ravaged Greece. In 408, they entered Italy (and we all know how that went).

Alaric was not the only ascendant Goth at the time, though; in 395, the Goth Gainas, magister militum, made his way back to Constantinople with the Eastern army. Rufinus, who had been attempting to control Arcadius, was assassinated by Gainas. Another Goth, a federated general named Tribigild rebelled in 399 in Phrygia, Asia Minor. When Gainas was sent against him, they seem to have come to some sort of pact and combined forces to march on Constantinople. On the way, it seems that Tribigild was killed.

Gainas withdrew from Constantinople into the countryside of Thrace. In relatiation for Gainas and Tribigild’s activity, there was a massacre of Constantinople’s Goths. He was defeated in battle by another Goth, Fravitta, then killed by the Huns around the time of the new year of 401.

In the midst of this, Eutropius, the eunuch who had risen to the top of the heap after the assassination of Rufinus, was executed, after he sent Gainas out against Tribigild.

In Theodosius II’s reign, the Theodosian Code was compiled, being issued in the year 438. In 440, hostilities between Rome and the Sassanian Persians flared again when Yazdgard II attacked the easatern provinces. Around the same time, Attila the Hun appeared, winning victories in the Balkans and being so dangerous in 447 that he had to be paid off in gold. He would enter the Western Empire in 450.

454 saw the defeat of another Hun army at the River Nedao.

Although the family of Ardabur-Aspar did their best by being kingmakers of Marcian and Leo I (having come to the ascendancy after Ardabur’s illustrious career and the assassination of the eunuch Chrysaphius in 447), Leo I had Aspar and his sons assassinated, securing somewhat more stability. In 475, though, Basiliscus usurped Zeno’s throne. Zeno went into exile, only to return in 476. Basiliscus went into exile where he died.

In 484 Illus rebelled; Illus was a general who had originally supported Basiliscus against Zeno before changing sides to support the re-instatement of Zeno as emperor. He rebelled in an attempt to replace Zeno with Leontius. An army led by Theoderic the Amal and a certain John was sent against him in 485. The rebel forces were defeated by the empire near Hoth Seleucia; they retreated to Papurius where they successful held out for three years. In 488, the fortress was betrayed by Lando Calrissian treachery, and Illus and Leontius were killed.

The next year, 489, the Emperor Zeno sent Theoderic into Italy to deal with those who had assassinated the ‘Emperor’ Julius Nepos — as we already saw. To get into the long reign of Anastasius from 491 to 518 is beyond my mental capacity right now (kind of tired), so I’ll lump it in with the sixth century.

And so our tour of Late Antiquity has so far helped us discover:

This tour will move us into the world of the sixth century next!

Discover Fifth-century Politics II: The West from 423 to 500ish

Today’s post will include THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

Fall_of_roman_empire_(1964)Picking up the narrative where we left it last time, at the death of Honorius. 423 was somewhat disastrous, with a usurper named John taking the throne, only to be deposed by an eastern army sent by Theodosius II to elevate Valentinian III, nephew of Honorius and son of Constantius III, to the purple. Valentinian was another boy emperor, and the leading figure at the start of his reign was his mother, Galla Placidia. Later, power would be negotiated by generals, as it had been under Honorius’ reign. What the empire needed to recover and survive was strong leadership, and western child emperors failed to provide this. (Gross generalisation — hopefully the rest of these posts make that clear!)

Spain, for example, was never really reintegrated into the Roman Empire. The final barbarian group sent in to clear out Rome’s enemies was the group called the Visigoths. They established themselves in Spain and southern Gaul and eventually became one of the successor states when there was no empire anymore in the late 400s. In 468, one Spanish bishop named Hydatius had this to say in his Chronicle:

having been undeservedly elected to the office of bishop and not unknowing of all the calamites of this wretched age, I have subjoined <an account of> the frontiers of the narrowly-confined Roman Empire that are doomed to perish, and, what is more lamentable, <an account of events> within Gallaecia at the edge of the entire world: the state of ecclesiastical succession perverted by indiscriminate appointments, the demise of honourable freedom, and the downfall of virtually all religion based on divine instruction, all as a result of the domination of heretics confounded with the disruption of hostile <barbarian> tribes. Such then are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors <to include an account of> the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them. (Intro. 6, ll. 50-57, trans. Burgess, p. 75)

In ch. 38: The barbarians who had entered Spain pillaged it with a vicious slaughter.

Meanwhile, in the 420s, having been driven out of Spain by clever military action, the Vandals under King Gaiseric moved on to North Africa, which they took piece by piece, despite negotiating treaties with Roman generals along the way. By 439, they had taken Carthage, and all of North Africa was a Vandal kingdom to last until Justinian’s invasion 100 years later. They were in a strong enough position not only to engage in piratical activity in Spain, but also to take Sardinia, and, in 455, to follow the Gothic lead in sacking Rome, which they pillaged mercilessly and took off Valentinian III’s widow and daughter in the booty. Hence vandalism.

Gaul, modern France, was also disappearing—southern Gaul was under effective control of the Visigoths, despite any formal arrangements as yet. Burgundians had been settled on the Rhine with Worms as their capital. Northern Gaul, such as Brittany, had basically risen up in insurrection against the faraway and powerless empire and was being ruled by its own aristocracy. Elsewhere in northern Gaul, the Franks had moved in—mind you, they claimed to be ruling with Roman titles, something most barbarians did. Roman power was failing all over the West, but everyone kept claiming to have power sent from on high. And the generals were too busy fighting each other to keep any invaders out with armies that were too small, despite their enormous paper strength.

Up to 455, the General Aetius was the leading power behind the throne. A Roman, he had spent time as a hostage among both Vandals and Huns, and used his contacts amongst these groups to the Empire’s advantage by allying them to Rome. However, his actions were as short-sighted as everyone else’s; if Aetius wasn’t busy fighting off Huns, Goths, or Vandals, he was engaged in civil war against other generals.

Leo and Attila by Raphael

Leo and Attila by Raphael

In 450, Attila invaded the Western Empire after a long career in the East where he had wrought devastation and extracted money. In 451, Aetius defeated Attila in what has been called one of the most significant battles in ancient history, in Gaul at the Catalaunian Plains. However, since Aetius spent as much time fighting civil wars as Huns, Rome was never able to exploit any measure of stability he may have gained for the empire in 451. Attila and his Huns proceeded to pillage northern Italy taking notably Milan and Aquileia, ppl moved to Venice (legend), until an envoy including Pope Leo the Great convinced them to turn back in 452, an event immortalised by Raphael and commemorated on Pope Leo’s tomb:

IMG_2367It is likely that Attila and his army needed to regroup and were weakened by sickness. Attila died shortly thereafter in 453, and the Huns were no longer a great power. However, in 455, Valentinian III became afraid that Aetius would make a bid for power, so assassinated him with his own hand. Soon, Aetius’ men assassinated Valentinian.

The short-lived emperors come next. The next emperor was Petronius Maximus, from one of the leading aristocratic families of Rome. He lasted two and a half months before being killed in the Vandal sack. Then a Gallo-Roman aristocrat, Avitus, was emperor. His policies were a bit more wide-reaching, trying to reincorporate the Gallic aristocracy into the political life of Italy and making good terms with the Visigothic King Theoderic, but his actions only served to infuriate the short-sighted Italian aristocrats, so our next barbarian generalissimo, Ricimer, went to battle against him and deposed him.

Ricimer set up Majorian in 457, a potentially helpful emperor who tried to dislodge the Vandals from Africa. Eventually, Majorian tired of Ricimer’s control. So, in 461, Ricimer raised Severus to the purple. Emperor Leo I in the East refused to recognise Severus. Severus died in 465, possibly poisoned by Ricimer. Ricimer ruled without an emperor for 18 months before Leo appointed Anthemius in 467. Anthemius may have stood a chance had he been emperor decades earlier. However, things had been spiralling downward for too long; although he headed a combined East-West force against the Vandals in Africa, when he made an ill-advised five-day truce with the Vandals, they built a fireship and subsequently destroyed the large East-West coalition fleet. Anthemius’ ultimate failure was secured. Three more nonentities followed Anthemius, the last Romulus Augustulus. The final generalissimo was Odoacer who decided that he had no need of a puppet emperor and deposed Romulus, who went to live in a monastery. The insignia were sent East, and Odoacer was formally ruling Italy under the Eastern Roman Emperor’s authority.

Now, there was still, however, a western emperor kicking around in Dalmatia, one Julius Nepos, still officially recognised by his Eastern colleague. In 480, he was murdered, possibly due to Odoacer’s connivance.

Eight years later, in 488, Theoderic ‘the Great’ was commissioned by the Eastern Emperor Zeno to do battle with Odoacer and take Odoacer’s place as patrician and ruler of Italy. Theoderic had been making a small amount of trouble in the East until then, but also making himself useful. Zeno thus made him useful and got him out of his direct territory. Theoderic defeated Odoacer after a three-year struggle. He was master of Italy.

It has recently been argued that at this period and up to the accession of Justin I in 519, Theoderic viewed himself as a new Western Roman Emperor. He certainly acted like it, visible in the Anonymus Valesianus. But most of his story in Italy belongs to the sixth century, not the fifth.

In southern Gaul and Spain, the Visigoths were busy forging a kingdom in these decades. In northern Gaul, the Franks were consolidating their power. They would eventually rule all of Gaul in the 500s; as a kingdom, the Franks are first united under Clovis in 511. Various things are shadowily transpiring in Britain — we get nary a glimpse, but amidst the swirl of later legends and teleological readings of archaeology, we can see that Germanic persons are slowly gaining a foothold in the 400s, and that perhaps this century, perhaps the next, battles between them and the Romano-British leaders would lead to Arthurian tales.

Breathlessly, then, the West reaches 500.


Much in these two posts comes from Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West: 376-568. See also his Worlds of Arthur (my review here). The rest comes from my mind or notes from a lecture I delivered, and I cannot at present recall all of my sources!