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Prehistory to 999 A.D.
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lavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485 – c. 585 A.D., or c. 490 - c. 583 A.D., per the Catholic Encyclopedia), commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman monk, statesman, and writer. He served as magister officiorum in the administration of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, and praetorian prefect to several of his successors, but retired to one of his own monastic foundations to devote the rest of his life to prayer and the dissemination of learning. Senator was part of his surname, not his rank. Writings relating to Istria.

Although of Syrian ancestry, his family had been for at least three generations one of the most important in Bruttium (southern Italy). His great-grandfather successfully defended Bruttium during the Vandal invasion of 455; his grandfather was singally favoured by Valentinian III and Actius, but chose to retire early from his honourable career; while his father went through all the degrees of the magistracy, at length being made prætorian prefect and a patrician of Theodoric.

Cassiodorus, or more properly, Senator, was born on the paternal estate at Scyllacæum (Squillace), near Catanzaro in southern Italy. In 501 while still very young, he began his career as councillor to his father, the governor of Sicily, and made a name for himself as being learned in the law. He was appointed as quæstor sacri palatii c. 507-511. The rule prohibiting a magistrate of that time to govern his own province was waived by Theodoric in favour of Cassiodorus's father and again a second time when Cassiodorus himself was made corrector, i.e. governor, of Lucania and Bruttium.

Cassiodorus was made a consul in 514, then magister officiorum under Theoderic until his death in 526. Under the regency for Theoderic's young successor, Athalaric, the son of Amalaswintha, Cassiodorus kept copious records and letterbooks concerning public affairs. At the Gothic court his literary skill, which seems so mannered and rhetorical to modern readers, was so esteemed that when in Ravenna he was often entrusted with drafting significant public documents. His culminating appointment was as prætorian prefect for Italy, effectively the prime ministership of the Ostrogothic civil government and a high honor to finish any career. Cassiodorus also collaborated with Pope Agapetus I in establishing a library of Greek and Latin texts, which were intended to support a Christian school in Rome.

But Gothic power was passing through a serious crisis. In 534, Athalaric was slain by Theodahadus, who had been made king by Amalaswintha. In 536, Theodahadus himself fell a victim to Witiges, who, in turn, was taken prisoner in 540 by Belisarius, the Byzantine general. Around 537-38, Cassiodorus decided to retire, left Italy for Constantinople where he remained for almost two decades, concentrating on religious questions. He notably met Junillus, the quæstor of Justinian. His Constantinopolitan journey contributed to the improvement of his religious knowledge.

Several years previously Benedict of Nursia had founded among the ruins of a temple of Apollo at Monte Cassino, a monastery which was to serve as a model for all the West. It was undoubtedly in imitation of Benedict's institution that Cassiodorus erected the monastery of Vivarium on his family estate on the shores of the Ionian Sea. He spent his remaining days here, still writing at the age of 93 when he was said to have died, having spent his career trying to bridge the sixth century cultural divides: between East and West, Greek culture and Latin, Roman and Goth, and between a Christian people and their Arian ruler.

Vivarium from the Bamberg manuscript of the Institutiones Patr. 61

Cassiodorus' Vivarium "monastery school" was composed of two main buildings; a coenobitic monastery and a retreat, on the site of the modern Santa Maria de Vetere near Squillace, for those who desired a more solitary life. The twin structure of Vivarium was to permit coenobitic monks and hermits to coexist. The Vivarium appears not to have been governed by a strict monastic rule, such as that of the Benedictine Order.

Rather Cassiodorus' Institutiones was written to guide the monks' studies. To this end, the Institutiones focuses largely on texts assumed to have been available in Vivarium's library. The Institutiones seem to have been composed over a lengthy period of time, from the 530s into the 550s, with redactions up to the time of Cassiodorus’ death. Cassiodorus composed the Institutiones as a guide for introductory learning of both “divine” and “secular” writings, in place of his formerly planned Christian school in Rome:

“I was moved by divine love to devise for you, with God’s help, these introductory books to take the place of a teacher. Through them I believe that both the textual sequence of Holy Scripture and also a compact account of secular letters may, with God’s grace, be revealed.”

 He speaks fondly in his Institutiones of Dionysius Exiguus, the calculator of the Anno Domini era.

The first section of the Institutiones deals with Christian texts, and was intended to be used in combination with the Expositio Psalmorum. The order of subjects in the second book of the Institutiones reflected what would become the Trivium and Quadrivium of medieval liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic; arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. While he encouraged study of secular subjects, Cassiodorus clearly considered them useful primarily as aids to the study of divinity, much in the same manner as St. Augustine. Cassiodorus’ Institutiones thus attempted to provide what Cassiodorus saw as a well-rounded education necessary for a learned Christian, all in uno corpore, as Cassiodorus himself put it. In the end the library at Vivarium was dispersed and lost, though it was still active ca. 630, when the monks brought the relics of Saint Agathius from Constantinople, to whom they dedicated a spring-fed fountain shrine that still exists. Despite the demise of the Vivarium, Cassiodorus’ work in compiling classical sources and presenting a sort of bibliography of resources would prove extremely influential in Late Antique Western Europe.

The writings of Cassiodorus may be classified according to the two great divisions of his life, namely, his public career and time of religious retirement. While in office he devoted himself to work relating to politics and public affairs. There still remain fragments of two of his panegyrics, which, conformably to an already ancient tradition among Roman office-holders, he dedicated to the Gothic kings and queens. One was addressed to Eutharic, Theodoric's son-in-law (518 or 519); the other was delivered at Ravenna on the occasion of the marriage of Witiges and Matheswintha (536). A great wealth of instances drawn from Roman history and illustrations from mythology serve the purpose of placing in relief the story of high heroic deeds set forth amid a clatter of empty phrases. In 519 Cassiodorus published a chronicle dedicated to Eutharic, the consul of the year. It is in substance a list of consuls, preceded by a table of the kings of Assyria, Latium, and Rome, and accompanied by a few notes. Cassiodorus uses successively an abridgment of Livy, the histories of Aufidius Bassus, St. Jerome, and Prosper, and the "Chronicle of Ravenna". The historical comments appended to the names of the consuls are taken at random from these sources without either skill or accuracy. From the year 496 Cassiodorus wrote from his own experiences and with a pronounced partiality for the Goths. He betrays the same inclination in his "History of the Goths", published between 526 and 533 and of which we have only the abridgment edited byJornandes in 551. Finally, as the bequest of his official career, we have his letters gathered into twelve books, the "Variæ", at the close of 537. This voluminous correspondence does not contain as muchhistorical information as one would expect, dates, figures, names of men and places being frequently omitted as opposed to elegance of style. On the other hand, useless and pompous digressions, commonplaces of ethics or history , form the basis of these compositions. "The reader", says Mommsen, "often hesitates as to the meaning of what is said and is ever vainly seeking a reason for its being said." Cassiodorus carefully avoids all concrete details of the troubloustime in which he lived, all that might in any way offend either Goths, Romans, or Byzantines. He is even lavish in his praise of those princes who were killing one another: Amalaswintha, Theodahadus, and Witiges. Books VI and VII of the "Variæ" are a collection of formulæ, the first of a kind quite common in the Middle Ages. These letters were designed for use on any occasion where a magistrate was created, needing only the insertion of new names. The letters in the other books are scarcely more interesting. However, such was the taste of the time, and the correspondence of Symmachus is almost equally insipid.

Cassiodorus devoted much of his life to supporting education within the Christian community at large. When his proposed theological university in Rome was denied, he was forced to re-examine his entire approach to how material was learned and interpreted. His Variae show that, like Augustine of Hippo, Cassiodorus viewed reading as a transformative act for the reader. It is with this in mind that he designed and mandated the course of studies at the Vivarium, which demanded an intense regimen of reading and meditation. By assigning a specific order of texts to be read, Cassiodorus hoped to create the discipline necessary within the reader to become a successful monk. The first work in this succession of texts would be the Psalms, which the untrained reader would need to begin with because of its appeal to emotion and temporal goods.By examining the rate at which copies of his Psalmic commentaries were issued, it is fair to assess that as the first work in his series, Cassiodorus’s educational agenda had been implemented to some degree of success.

Beyond demanding the pursuit of discipline among his students, Cassiodorus encouraged the study of the liberal arts. He believed these arts were part of the content of the Bible, and some mastery of them—especially grammar and rhetoric—necessary for a complete understanding of itThese arts were divided into trivium (which included rhetoric, idioms, vocabulary and etymology) and quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

Cassiodorus is rivalled only by Boethius in his drive to preserve and explore classical literature during the 6th Century AD. He found the writings of the Greeks and Romans valuable for their expression of higher truths where other arts failed. Though he saw these texts as vastly inferior to the perfect word of Scripture, the truths presented in them played to Cassiodorus’s educational principles. Thus he is unafraid to cite Cicero alongside sacred text, and acknowledge the classical ideal of good lying within the practice of rhetoric.

His love for classical thought also influenced his administration of Vivarium. Cassiodorus connected deeply with Christian neoplatonism, which saw beauty as concomitant with the Good. This inspired him to adjust his educational program to support the aesthetic enhancement of manuscripts within the monastery, something which had been practiced before, but not in the universality that he suggests.

Classical learning would by no means replace the role of scripture within the monastery; it was intended to augment the education already under way. It is also worth noting that all Greek and Roman works were heavily screened to ensure only proper exposure to text, fitting with the rest of the structured learning.

Cassiodorus’s legacy is quietly profound. Before the founding of Vivarium, the copying of manuscripts had been a task reserved for either inexperienced or physically infirm devotees, and was performed at the whim of literate monks. Through the influence of Cassiodorus, the monastic system adopted a more vigorous, widespread, and regular approach to reproducing documents within the monastery.This approach to the development of the monastic lifestyle was perpetuated especially through German religious institutions.

This change in daily life also became associated with a higher purpose; the process was not merely associated with disciplinary habit, but also with the preservation of history. During Cassiodorus’s lifetime, theological study was on the decline and classical writings were disappearing. Even as the victorious Ostrogoth armies remained in the countryside, they continued to pillage and destroy religious relics in Italy.Cassiodorus's programme helped ensure that both classical and sacred literature were preserved through the Middle Ages.

Despite his contributions to monastic order, literature, and education, Cassiodorus’ labours were not well acknowledged. After his death he is only partially recognised by historians of the age, including Bede, as an obscure supporter of the Church. Elaboration upon this is typically fraught with errors. In their description of Cassiodorus medieval scholars have been documented to change his name, profession, place of residence, and even his religion. Some chapters from his works have been copied into other texts, suggesting that he may have been read, but not generally known.

The works not assigned as a part of Cassiodorus’s educational program must be examined critically. Because he had been working under the newly dominant power of the Ostrogoths, the writer demonstrably alters the narrative of history for the sake of protecting himself. The same could easily be said about his ideas, which were presented as non-threatening in their approach to peaceful meditation and its institutional isolationism.


  • Laudes (very fragmentary published panegyrics on public occasions)
  • Chronica, (ending at 519) uniting all world history in one sequence of rulers, a union of Goth and Roman antecedents, flattering Goth sensibilities as the sequence neared the date of composition
  • Gothic History (526-533), survives only in Jordanes' abridgment, which must be considered a separate work
  • Variae epistolae (537), Theoderic's state papers. Editio princeps by M. Accurius (1533). English translations by Thomas Hodgkin The Letters of Cassiodorus (1886); S.J.B. Barnish Cassiodorus: Variae (Liverpool: University Press, 1992) ISBN 0-85323-436-1. Excerpts concerning Istria.
  • Expositio psalmorum (Exposition of the Psalms)
  • De anima ("On the Soul") (540)
  • Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum (543-555)
  • De Artibus ac Disciplinis Liberalium Litterarum ("On the Liberal Arts")
  • Codex Grandior (a version of the Bible)

External links:

  • (James J. O'Donnell's Cassiodorus webpage: an assessment of Cassiodorus' cultural predicament)
  • (Works by Cassiodorus) at Project Gutenberg)
  • (Opera omnia vol. 1, Joannes Garetius, ed., Rouen, 1679. (Google Books)
  • (Opera omnia vol. 2, Joannes Garetius, ed., Rouen, 1679. (Google Books)
  • (History of the Christian Church/A.D. 590-1073 by Philip Schaff at
  • (History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 4 by Gibbon at
  • (Cassiodorus at Catholic Encyclopedia)
  • (Site of the Vivarium of Cassiodorus - An account of survey and recognition at the proposed archaeological site of Vivarium, Coscia di Staletti', Catanzaro, Calabria)
  • (Societas internationalis pro Vivario for the study of Cassiodorus and his times)
  • (The fountain of Cassiodorus, a spring situated at the Coscia di Staletti on the grounds of the monastery of Cassiodorus, with a grotto, formerly a site of pagan worship and eventually christianized by the addition of two large crosses)
  • (Vivarium in Context. Book description and reviews of the essays by Sam J. Barnish and Lellia Cracco Ruggini)

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Created: Tuesday, October 20, 2015; Updated Wednesday, February 24, 2016
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