1902 Encyclopedia > Anicius Manlius Severinus Boetius

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boetius
(commonly called: Boethius; Boetius)
Christian philosopher
(early 6th century AD)




ANICIUS MANLIUS SEVERINUS BOETIUS, is described by Gibbon "as the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman." The events of his life are involved in uncertainty. Tho 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 the name of Boetius. One editor of his De Consolations, Bsrtius, thinks that he bore the praenomen of Flavius, but there is no authority for this supposition. His father bore the name of Flavius, and it is probable that the Flavius Boetius who was praetorian prefect, and who was put to death in 455 A.D., by order of Valentinian III., was the grandfather of the subject of our notice ; but these circum-stances form no good reason for supposing that he also had the prsenomen 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 generally written Boethius, from the idea that it is connected with the Greek Bo-q9o<;; but here, again, the best manuscripts agree in reading Boetius, and the latest editors have adopted this form.

The date of his birth is unknown; but it is conjectured on good grounds that he was born at Rome somewhere about the year 475 AD. He was, therefore, too young to see the last of the Roman emperors (476), and his boyhood was spent in Rome while Odoacer, king of the Heruli, was monarch of that city. 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 a long time in Athens pursuing his studies there; but later biographers have seen that there is no foundation for this opinion. His father, Flavius Manlius Boetius was consul in the year 487. It is probable that he 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). He soon became well known for his energy and ability, and his high rank gave him access to the noblest families. He married Rusticiana, the daughter of the senator Symmachus. By her he had two sons, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boetius and Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus. When Theodoric, the king of the Ostrogoths, displaced Odoacer no change of fortune for the worse seems to have befallen Boetius. On the contrary he became a favourite with that monarch, and was one of his intimate friends. Boetius attained to the consul-ship 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 by a crowd of senators amidst 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, and placed between his two sons he distributed largesses among the people in the circus. 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. "How often," he says, " have I opposed the attacks of Conigastus on the property of the weak ? how often have I kept Trigguilla, the chamberlain of the palace, from perpetrating acts of injustice 1 how often have I protected, by influence exercised at my own peril, the miserable whom the licensed avarice of the barbarians always harassed with endless insults?" And then he mentions several particular cases. A famine had begun to rage. The prefect of the praetorium was deter-mined 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. He also rescued Paulinus, a man of consular rank, from the jaws of those whom he calls palatince canes (dogs of the palace), and who, he says, had almost devoured his riches. And he gives as a third and crowning instance in 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 ac-cused of treason towards the end of the reign of Theo-doric. Three accusers appeared against him. The first, Basilius, had been expelled from the monarch's service, and in consequence of debt he had become an informer and now appeared against Boetius. The other two were Opilio and Gaudentius, on whom sentence of banishment had been pronounced on account of innumerable frauds. They first took refuge in a church, but when this fact became known, a decree was issued that if they did not leave Ravenna before a prescribed day, they were to be driven out with a brand upon their forehead. On the very last day allowed them they gave information against Boetius, and their information was received. The accusation which these villains brought against him was 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 know-ledge 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. Notwithstand-ing 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 Consolations Philosophic. His goods were confiscated, and after an imprisonment of considerable dura-tion he was put to death in 525. Procopius relates that Theodoric soon repented of his cruel deed, and that his death, which took place soon after, was hastened by re-morse 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 in circulation which were ascribed to him, and there was one especially on the Trinity which they 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 canonized as Saint Severinus. The brick tower in Pavia in which he was confined was a hallowed building. And 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 St Augustine within a splendid marble tomb, for which Gerbert, who afterwards became Pope under the name of Silvester II., wrote an inscription.

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, unauthenticated by authority, 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, the chancellor of Theodoric and the intimate acquaintance of the philosopher, employs language equally strong. And Ennodius, the bishop of Pavia, knows no bounds for his admiration. " You surpass," he says to Boetius, "the eloquence of the ancients in imitating it." The king Theodoric had a profound idea of his great 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. It was Boetius also whom Theodoric consulted when Clovis, king of the Franks, wished a musician who could sing to the accompaniment of the lyre, and Boetius was charged with the duty of selecting him.

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 the Stagirite. He did not succeed in all that he designed; but he did a great part of his work. " Through your translations," says Cassiodorus to him, "the music of Pythagoras and the astronomy of Ptolemseus are read by the Italians; the arithmetic of Nicomachus and the geometry of Euclid are heard by the Westerns; the theology of Plato and the logic of Aristotle dispute in the language of Quirinus; the mechanical Archimedes also you have restored in a Latin dress to the Sicilians; and whatever discipline or arts fertile Greece has produced through the efforts of individual men, Rome has received in her own language through your single instru-mentality." Boetius translated into Latin Aristotle's Ana-lytica Priora et Posteriora, the Tópica, and Elenchi Sophistin; and he wrote commentaries on Aristotle's Categories, on his book irepi ipfx.ijvela<¡, 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.)

But Boetius did not confine himself to Aristotle. He wrote a commentary on the Tópica of Cicero; and" ho was also the author of independent works on logic:— Introductio ad Categóricos Syllogismos, in one book j De Syllogismo Categórico, in two books:; De Syllogismia Ilypotheticis, in two books; De Divisione, in one book ; De Deflnitione, in one book; De Differentiis Topicis, in four books.

We have also seen from the statement of Cassiodorus that he furnished manuals for the quadrivium of the schools of the Middle Ages (the " quattuor matheseot diseiplinOy" as Boetius calls them) on arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. The statement of Cassiodorus that he trans-lated 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 formula? 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 prin-ciples 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 remained a text-book of music in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge till within comparatively recent times. 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. The latest editor, Godofredus Friedlein, thinks that there are only two manuscripts which can at all lay claim to con-tain the work of Boetius. He has published the Ars Geometries, in two books, as given in these manuscripts; but critics are generally inclined to doubt the genuineness even of these.

By far the most important and most famous of the works of Boetius is his book De Consolatione Philosophies. Gib-bon justly describes it as " a golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tuily, but which claims incom-parable merit from the barbarism of the times and the situation of the author." It was a favourite book of the Middle Ages, and deserves to be a favourite still The high reputation it had in mediaeval 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.

This famous work consists of five books. Its form is peculiar, and is an imitation of a similar work by Marcianus Capella, De Nuptiit Philologies et Mercwrii It is alternately in prose and verse. The verse shows great facility of metrical composition, but a con-siderable 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 turned his hair grey, and had brought him to a premature old age. As he is thus lamenting, a woman appears to nim of dignified mien, whom for a time he cannot distinguish in con-sequence of his tears, but at last he recognizes her as his guardian, Philosophy. She, resolving to apply the remedy for his grief, puts some questions to 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 roceeds to discuss with him the kind of blessings that fortune can estow, 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 punitihed and vice rewarded! Philo-sophy proceeds to show that this takes place only In appearance; that vice is never unpunished nor virtue unrewarded. From this Philo-sophy 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 foreknow-ledge, and, by an exposition of the nature of God, attempts to show that these doctrines are not subversive of each other ; and the con-clusion 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 Gonsolatio affords conclusive proof that the author was not a practical believer in Christianity. The book contains several expressions, such as daemones, angelica virtu*, 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, and could not help being influenced to some extent by their language. The writer nowhere finds con-solation 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. This is the conjecture to which the latest editor of his Christian treatises has had recourse. 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 Films et Spiritus Sanctus de divinitate substantialiter prsedicentur." The treatise is shorter than the former, occupying only two or three pages, and the conclusion of the argument is the same. The third treatise bears the title, Quomodo substantias in eo quod sint bonce sint cum non tint 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 impres-sion 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 far 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 Boethus, a bishop of Africa, as J ourdain 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.

The best editions of the entire works of Boetius are the Basel edition of 1570, and Migne's in his Patrologice Cursus Completus, Series Latina, vols, lxiii., lxiv. There are many editions of the De Consolatione. The most recent are—(1.) In Valpy's Delphin Classics, Nos. 54 and 55. This contains the lives of Boetius by Bertius and by Bota, and a list of the various editions of Boetius. It has also numerous notes. (2.) An edition by Theodoras Obbarius, Jenae, 1843. This 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. (3.) An edition hy Rudolfus Peiper, Lipsise, 1871. This edition has the fullest collation of manu- scripts, though a considerable number of manuscripts still remain to be collated. In addition to an account of the MSS. used, it gives the Book of Lupus " De Metris Boetii," the "Vita Boetii" con- tained in some MSS., " Elogia Boetii," and a short list of the com- mentators, translators, and imitators of the Consolation. It con- tains also an account of the metres used by Boetius in the Con- solatio, 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. In 1867 appeared a very satisfactory edition of Boetius's works, De Imititutione Arithmetica Libri Duo, De Institutione Musica Libri Qumque, Accedit Geometria quae fertur Boetii: e libris manu scriptis edidit Godofredus Friedlein, Lipsiae. (J. D.)




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