1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Boetius, Anicius Manlius Severinus
BOETIUS (or Boethius), ANICIUS MANLIUS SEVERINUS (c. A.D. 480-524), Roman philosopher and statesman, described by Gibbon as “the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman.” The historians of the day give us but imperfect records or make unsatisfactory allusions. Later chroniclers indulged in the fictitious and the marvellous, and it is almost exclusively from his own books that trustworthy information can be obtained. There is considerable diversity among authorities as to his name. One editor of his De Consolatione, Bertius, thinks that he bore the praenomen of Flavius, but there is no authority for this supposition. His father was Flavius Manlius Boetius, and it is probable that the Flavius Boetius, the praetorian prefect who was put to death in A.D. 455 by order of Valentinian III., was his grandfather, but these facts do not prove that he also had the praenomen of Flavius. Many of the earlier editions inserted the name of Torquatus, but it is not found in any of the best manuscripts. The last name is commonly written Boethius, from the idea that it is connected with the Greek βοηθος; but the best manuscripts agree in reading Boetius.
His boyhood was spent in Rome during the reign of Odoacer. We know nothing of his early years. A passage in a treatise falsely ascribed to him (De Disciplina Scholarium) and a misinterpretation of a passage in Cassiodorus led early scholars to suppose that he spent some eighteen years in Athens pursuing his studies, but there is no foundation for this opinion. His father, consul in 487, seems to have died soon after; for Boetius states that, when he was bereaved of his parent, men of the highest rank took him under their charge (De Con. lib. ii. c. 3), especially the senator Q. Aur. Memmius Symmachus, whose daughter Rusticiana he married. By her he had two sons, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boetius and Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus. He became a favourite with Theodoric, the Ostrogoth, who ruled in Rome from 500, and was one of his intimate friends. Boetius was consul in 510, and his sons, while still young, held the same honour together (522). Boetius regarded it as the height of his good fortune when he witnessed his two sons, consuls at the same time, convoyed from their home to the senate-house amid the enthusiasm of the masses. On that day, he tells us, while his sons occupied the curule chairs in the senate-house, he himself had the honour of pronouncing a panegyric on the monarch. But his good fortune did not last, and he attributes the calamities that came upon him to the ill-will which his bold maintenance of justice had caused, and to his opposition to every oppressive measure. Of this he mentions particular cases. A famine had begun to rage. The prefect of the praetorium was determined to satisfy the soldiers, regardless altogether of the feelings of the provincials. He accordingly issued an edict for a coemptio, that is, an order compelling the provincials to sell their corn to the government, whether they would or not. This edict would have utterly ruined Campania. Boetius interfered. The case was brought before the king, and Boetius succeeded in averting the coemptio from the Campanians. And he gives as a crowning instance that he exposed himself to the hatred of the informer Cyprianus by preventing the punishment of Albinus, a man of consular rank. He mentions in another place that when at Verona the king was anxious to transfer the accusation of treason brought against Albinus to the whole senate, he defended the senate at great risk. In consequence of the ill-will that Boetius had thus roused, he was accused of treason towards the end of the reign of Theodoric. The charges were that he had conspired against the king, that he was anxious to maintain the integrity of the senate, and to restore Rome to liberty, and that for this purpose he had written to the emperor Justin. Justin had, no doubt, special reasons for wishing to see an end to the reign of Theodoric. Justin was orthodox, Theodoric was an Arian. The orthodox subjects of Theodoric were suspicious of their ruler; and many would gladly have joined in a plot to displace him. The knowledge of this fact may have rendered Theodoric suspicious. But Boetius denied the accusation in unequivocal terms. He did indeed wish the integrity of the senate. He would fain have desired liberty, but all hope of it was gone. The letters addressed by him to Justin were forgeries, and he had not been guilty of any conspiracy. Notwithstanding his innocence he was condemned and sent to Ticinum (Pavia) where he was thrown into prison. It was during his confinement in this prison that he wrote his famous work De Consolatione Philosophiae. His goods were confiscated, and after an imprisonment of considerable duration he was put to death in 524. Procopius relates that Theodoric soon repented of his cruel deed, and that his death, which took place soon after, was hastened by remorse for the crime he had committed against his great counsellor.
Two or three centuries after the death of Boetius writers began to view his death as a martyrdom. Several Christian books were ascribed to him, and there was one especially on the Trinity (see below) which was regarded as proof that he had taken an active part against the heresy of Theodoric. It was therefore for his orthodoxy that Boetius was put to death. And these writers delight to paint with minuteness the horrible tortures to which he was exposed and the marvellous actions which the saint performed at his death. He was locally regarded as a saint, but he was not canonized. The brick tower in Pavia in which he was confined was, and still is, an object of reverence to the country people. Finally, in the year 996, Otho III. ordered the bones of Boetius to be taken out of the place in which they had lain hid, and to be placed in the church of S. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro within a splendid tomb, for which Gerbert, afterwards Pope Silvester II., wrote an inscription. Thence they were subsequently removed to a tomb beneath the high altar of the cathedral. It should be mentioned also that some have given him a decidedly Christian wife, of the name of Elpis, who wrote hymns, two of which are still extant (Daniel, Thes. Hymn. i. p. 156). This is a pure supposition inconsistent with chronology, and based only on a misinterpretation of a passage in the De Consolatione.
The contemporaries of Boetius regarded him as a man of profound learning. Priscian the grammarian speaks of him as having attained the summit of honesty and of all sciences. Cassiodorus, magister officiorum under Theodoric and the intimate acquaintance of the philosopher, employs language equally strong, and Ennodius, the bishop of Pavia, knows no bounds for his admiration. Theodoric had a profound respect for his scientific abilities. He employed him in setting right the coinage. When he visited Rome with Gunibald, king of the Burgundians, he took him to Boetius, who showed them, amongst other mechanical contrivances, a sun-dial and a water-clock. The foreign monarch was astonished, and, at the request of Theodoric, Boetius had to prepare others of a similar nature, which were sent as presents to Gunibald.
The fame of Boetius increased after his death, and his influence during the middle ages was exceedingly powerful. His circumstances peculiarly favoured this influence. He appeared at a time when contempt for intellectual pursuits had begun to pervade society. In his early years he was seized with a passionate enthusiasm for Greek literature, and this continued through life. Even amidst the cares of the consulship he found time for commenting on the Categories of Aristotle. The idea laid hold of him of reviving the spirit of his countrymen by imbuing them with the thoughts of the great Greek writers. He formed the resolution to translate all the works of Aristotle and all the dialogues of Plato, and to reconcile the philosophy of Plato with that of Aristotle. He did not succeed in all that he designed; but he did a great part of his work. He translated into Latin Aristotle’s Analytica Priora et Posteriora, the Topica, and Elenchi Sophistici; and he wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories, on his book περὶ ἑρμηνείας, also a commentary on the Isagoge of Porphyrius. These works formed to a large extent the source from which the middle ages derived their knowledge of Aristotle. (See Stahr, Aristoteles bei den Römern, pp. 196–234.) Boetius wrote also a commentary on the Topica of Cicero; and he was also the author of independent works on logic:—Introductio ad Categoricos Syllogismos, in one book; De Syllogismis Categoricis, in two books; De Syllogismis Hypotheticis, in two books; De Divisione, in one book; De Definitione, in one book; De Differentiis Topicis, in four books.
We see from a statement of Cassiodorus that he furnished manuals for the quadrivium of the schools of the middle ages (the “quattuor matheseos disciplinae,” as Boetius calls them) on arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. The statement of Cassiodorus that he translated Nicomachus is rhetorical. Boetius himself tells us in his preface addressed to his father-in-law Symmachus that he had taken liberties with the text of Nicomachus, that he had abridged the work when necessary, and that he had introduced formulae and diagrams of his own where he thought them useful for bringing out the meaning. His work on music also is not a translation from Pythagoras, who left no writing behind him. But Boetius belonged to the school of musical writers who based their science on the method of Pythagoras. They thought that it was not sufficient to trust to the ear alone, to determine the principles of music, as did practical musicians like Aristoxenus, but that along with the ear, physical experiments should be employed. The work of Boetius is in five books and is a very complete exposition of the subject. It long remained a text-book of music in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It is still very valuable as a help in ascertaining the principles of ancient music, and gives us the opinions of some of the best ancient writers on the art. The manuscripts of the geometry of Boetius differ widely from each other. One editor, Godofredus Friedlein, thinks that there are only two manuscripts which can at all lay claim to contain the work of Boetius. He published the Ars Geometriae, in two books, as given in these manuscripts; but critics are generally inclined to doubt the genuineness even of these. Professor Rand, Georgius Ernst and A.P. McKinlay regard the Ars as certainly inauthentic, while they accept the Interpretatio Euclidis (see works quoted in bibliography).
By far the most important and most famous of the works of Boetius is his book De Consolatione Philosophiae. Gibbon justly describes it as “a golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully, but which claims incomparable merit from the barbarism of the times and the situation of the author.” The high reputation it had in medieval times is attested by the numerous translations, commentaries and imitations of it which then appeared. Among others Asser, the instructor of Alfred the Great, and Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln, commented on it. Alfred translated it into Anglo-Saxon. Versions of it appeared in German, French, Italian, Spanish and Greek before the end of the 15th century. Chaucer translated it into English prose before the year 1382; and this translation was published by Caxton at Westminster, 1480. Lydgate followed in the wake of Chaucer. It is said that, after the invention of printing, amongst others Queen Elizabeth translated it, and that the work was well known to Shakespeare. It was the basis of the earliest specimen of Provençal literature.
This famous work consists of five books. Its form is peculiar, and is an imitation of a similar work by Marcianus Capella, De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. It is alternately in prose and verse. The verse shows great facility of metrical composition, but a considerable portion of it is transferred from the tragedies of Seneca. The first book opens with a few verses, in which Boetius describes how his sorrows had brought him to a premature old age. As he is thus lamenting, a woman appears to him of dignified mien, whom he recognizes as his guardian, Philosophy. She, resolving to apply the remedy for his grief, questions him for that purpose. She finds that he believes that God rules the world, but does not know what he himself is; and this absence of self-knowledge is the cause of his weakness. In the second book Philosophy presents to Boetius Fortune, who is made to state to him the blessings he has enjoyed, and after that proceeds to discuss with him the kind of blessings that fortune can bestow, which are shown to be unsatisfactory and uncertain. In the third book Philosophy promises to lead him to true happiness, which is to be found in God alone, for since God is the highest good, and the highest good is true happiness, God is true happiness. Nor can real evil exist, for since God is all-powerful, and since he does not wish evil, evil must be non-existent. In the fourth book Boetius raises the question, Why, if the governor of the universe is good, do evils exist, and why is virtue often punished and vice rewarded? Philosophy proceeds to show that in fact vice is never unpunished nor virtue unrewarded. From this Philosophy passes into a discussion in regard to the nature of providence and fate, and shows that every fortune is good. The fifth and last book takes up the question of man’s free will and God’s foreknowledge, and, by an exposition of the nature of God, attempts to show that these doctrines are not subversive of each other; and the conclusion is drawn that God remains a foreknowing spectator of all events, and the ever-present eternity of his vision agrees with the future quality of our actions, dispensing rewards to the good and punishments to the wicked.
Several theological works have been ascribed to Boetius, as has been already mentioned. The Consolatio affords conclusive proof that the author was not a practical believer in Christianity. The book contains expressions such as daemones, angelica virtus, and purgatoria dementia, which have been thought to be derived from the Christian faith; but they are used in a heathen sense, and are explained sufficiently by the circumstance that Boetius was on intimate terms with Christians. The writer nowhere finds consolation in any Christian belief, and Christ is never named in the work. It is not impossible, however, that Boetius may have been brought up a Christian, and that in his early years he may have written some Christian books. Peiper thinks that the first three treatises are the productions of the early years of Boetius. The first, De Sancta Trinitate, is addressed to Symmachus (Domino Patri Symmacho), and the result of the short discussion, which is of an abstract nature, and deals partly with the ten categories, is that unity is predicated absolutely, or, in regard to the substance of the Deity, trinity is predicated relatively. The second treatise is addressed to John the deacon (“Ad Joannem Diaconum”), and its subject is “Utrum Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus de divinitate substantialiter praedicentur.” This treatise is shorter than the first, occupying only two or three pages, and the conclusion of the argument is the same. The third treatise bears the title, Quomodo substantiae in eo quod sint bonae sint cum non sint substantialia bona. It contains nothing distinctly Christian, and it contains nothing of great value; therefore its authorship is a matter of little consequence. Peiper thinks that, as the best MSS. uniformly assign these treatises to Boetius, they are to be regarded as his; that it is probable that Symmachus and John (who afterwards became Pope) were the men of highest distinction who took charge of him when he lost his father; and that these treatises are the first-fruits of his studies, which he dedicates to his guardians and benefactors. He thinks that the variations in the inscriptions of the fifth treatise which is not found in the best manuscript, are so great that the name of Boetius could not have originally been in the title. The fourth book is also not found in the best manuscript, and two manuscripts have no inscription. He infers, from these facts, that there is no sure evidence for the authorship of the fourth and fifth treatises. The fifth treatise is Contra Eutychen et Nestorium. Both Eutyches and Nestorius are spoken of as living. A council is mentioned, in which a letter was read, expounding the opinion of the Eutychians for the first time. The novelty of the opinion is also alluded to. All these circumstances point to the council of Chalcedon (451). The treatise was therefore written before the birth of Boetius, if it be not a forgery; but there is no reason to suppose that the treatise was not a genuine production of the time to which it professes to belong. The fourth treatise, De Fide Catholica, does not contain any distinct chronological data; but the tone and opinions of the treatise produce the impression that it probably belonged to the same period as the treatise against Eutyches and Nestorius. Several inscriptions ascribe both these treatises to Boetius. It will be seen from this statement that Peiper bases his conclusions on grounds far too narrow; and on the whole it is perhaps more probable that Boetius wrote none of the four Christian treatises, particularly as they are not ascribed to him by any of his contemporaries. Three of them express in the strongest language the orthodox faith of the church in opposition to the Arian heresy, and these three put in unmistakable language the procession of the Holy Spirit from both Father and Son. The fourth argues for the orthodox belief of the two natures and one person of Christ. When the desire arose that it should be believed that Boetius perished from his opposition to the heresy of Theodoric, it was natural to ascribe to him works which were in harmony with this supposed fact. The works may really have been written by one Boetius, a bishop of Africa, as Jourdain supposes, or by some Saint Severinus, as Nitzsch conjectures, and the similarity of name may have aided the transference of them to the heathen or neutral Boetius.
Important and, if genuine, decisive evidence upon this point is afforded by a passage in the Anecdoton Holderi, a fragment contained in a 10th-century MS. (ed. H. Usener, Leipzig, 1877). The fragment gives an extract from a previously unknown letter of Cassiodorus, the important words being “Scripsit (i.e. Boetius) librum de sancta trinitate, et capita quaedam dogmatica, et librum contra Nestorium.” Nitzsch, however, held that this was a copyist’s gloss, harmonizing with the received Boetius legend, which had been transferred to the text, and did not consider that it outweighed the opposing internal evidence from De Cons. Phil.
Editions.—The first collected edition of the works of Boetius was published at Venice in 1492 (Basel, 1570); the last in J. P. Migne’s Patrologia, lxiii., lxiv. (Paris, 1847). Of the numerous editions of the De Consolatione the best are those of Theodorus Obbarius (Jena, 1843) and R. Peiper (Leipzig, 1871). The first contains prolegomena on the life and writings of Boetius, on his religion and philosophy, and on the manuscripts and editions, a critical apparatus, and notes. The text of the second was based on the fullest collation of MSS. up to that time, though a considerable number of MSS. still remained to be collated. In addition to an account of the MSS. used, it gives the Book of Lupus, “De Metris Boetii,” the “Vita Boetii” contained in some MSS., “Elogia Boetii,” and a short list of the commentators, translators and imitators of the Consolatio. It contains also an account of the metres used by Boetius in the Consolatio, and a list of the passages which he has borrowed from the tragedies of Seneca. The work also includes the five treatises, four of them Christian, of which mention has been made above. King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon version of the De Consolatione, with literal English translation, notes and glossary, was published by S. Fox (1835) and again by W.J. Sedgefield (1900); that of G. Colville (Colvile, Coldewel, 1556) was republished by E. B. Bax (1897); translation (mixed prose and verse) by H.R. James (1897). Queen Elizabeth’s “Englishings” was reprinted in 1899; on the style, see A. Engelbrecht in Sitzungsber. der Wiener Akad. der Wissenschaften (1902), pp. 15-36. The De Institutione Arithmetica, De Institutione Musica, and the doubtful Geometria (for which see G. Ernst, De Geometricis illis quae sub Boethii nomine nobis tradita sunt quaestiones, 1903; A.P. McKinlay in Harvard Classical Studies, 1907; M. Cantor, Geschichte der Mathematik, i., Leipzig, 1894; G. Friedlein, Gerbert, die Geometrie des Boethius, und die indischen Ziffern, Erlangen, 1861, are edited by G. Friedlein (Leipzig, 1867); German translation of the De Musica, with explanatory notes, by O. Paul (Leipzig, 1872), and on the sources W. Miekley, De Boethii libri de musica primi fontibus (Jena, 1899). Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione (περι ἑρμηνείας), ed. C. Meiser (Leipzig, 1877), and on Porphyry’s Isagoge, ed. S. Brandt (Vienna, 1906).Authorities.—On Boetius generally, see J. G. Sutterer, Der letzte Romer (Eichstadt, 1852); H. Usener, Anecdoton Holderi (Leipzig, 1877); H. F. Stewart, Boethius: an Essay (Edinburgh, 1891); T. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, iii. bk. iv. ch. xii. (1896); A. Ebert, Allgemeine Geschichte der Litt. des Mittelalters, i. (1889); Teuffel-Schwabe, Hist. of Roman Literature (Eng. trans., 1900), §478: on the date and order of his works, S. Brandt in Philologus, lxii. pp. 141-154, 234-279, and A. P. McKinlay, as above, with refs.: on his “Songs,” H. Hüttinger, Studia in Boetii carmina collata (Regensburg, 1900): on his style, G. Bednarz, De universo orationis colore Boethii (Breslau, 1883): on his theological attitude and works, F. A. B. Nitzsch, Das System des Boethius und die ihm zugeschriebenen theologischen Schriften (Berlin, 1860), and art. in Herzog-Hauck’s Realencyklopädie (1897); C. Jourdain, De l’Origine des traditions sur le christianisme de Boèce (1861); Gaston Boissier, “Le Christianisme de Boèce,” in Journal des Savants (1889), pp. 449-462; A. Hildebrand, Boethius und seine Stellung zum Christentume (Regensburg, 1885); G. Schepps, “Zu Pseudo-Boethius de fide catholica,” in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie, xxxviii. (1895).