Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus

The Roman statesman and author Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (ca. 480-ca. 575) exerted great influence on the preservation of works of classical literature in Christian monasteries from the 6th century through the Middle Ages. He is also an important source of information on the period of Ostrogothic rule in Italy.

Cassiodorus was born on his family's estate at Scyllacium in southeastern Italy. He received the education in philosophy and rhetoric appropriate to the son of a noble family, and by 511 he held the office of quaestor (royal secretary) at the court of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great in Ravenna. In 523 he was elevated to the post of master of the offices, which made him in effect the head of the civil service. From 533 to 537 he held the powerful position of praetorian perfect.

Cassiodorus documented his career as public servant in his Variae (Miscellaneous Letters), which contained correspondence and official documents written by himself in the names of the Ostrogothic rulers under whom he served. Upon the successful invasion of Italy by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, Cassiodorus realized that he must abandon his long-cherished goal of an Italy in which Romans would live in peace and trust under Gothic rulers, and he retired from public life about 540. Thereafter he devoted himself largely to religious and literary matters.

In the early 550s Cassiodorus founded a monastery at his ancestral home and named it Vivarium after some fishponds which he had constructed nearby. His purpose was to educate his monks in both sacred and classical pagan learning and to transmit this learning to posterity. Cassiodorus and his monks copied biblical and classical manuscripts, edited and assembled a text of the complete Latin Bible, wrote commentaries and marginal annotations for particular books of the Bible, and made Latin versions of works of Greek church authors.

Cassiodorus's most important single work is the Institutiones. This encyclopedic collection of sacred and profane learning is divided into two parts. The first is concerned with the interpretation of the Bible and with the lives and works of eminent Church Fathers; the second is a manual for the study of the seven traditional liberal arts.

Cassiodorus died about 575, when he was approximately 95. His practice of preserving and copying manuscripts was followed by a great number of medieval monasteries, and his Institutiones was for many medieval readers one of the few means of access to the classic liberal arts.

Further Reading on Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus

Leslie Webber Jones, An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings (1946), is a translation, with notes, of the Institutiones and includes a lengthy biographical introduction and a bibliography. See also Arnaldo Momigliano, "Cassiodorus and Italian Culture of His Time," in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 41 (1955).

Additional Biography Sources

O'Donnell, James Joseph, Cassiodorus, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.