14.09.37, Bjornlie, Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople

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John Moorhead

The Medieval Review 14.09.37

Bjornlie, M. Shane. Politics and Tradition Between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae, 527–554. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 370. ISBN: 9781107028401 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
John Moorhead
University of Queensland

This is an original, learned and thought provoking study. Historians have generally taken the Variae of Cassiodorus at face value as constituting a record of correspondence he wrote in Ravenna in the names of a series of Ostrogothic sovereigns and, to a lesser extent in his own name when acting on their behalf, and so treated them as a relatively unproblematic source for the history of Italy during the early sixth century. Bjornlie, by contrast, sees the letters as having been revised by their author in Constantinople during the first half of the 540s, with a particular purpose. After the invading Byzantine forces had captured Ravenna, he wished to return to the civil service in which he had enjoyed a highly successful career, and so reworked these letters to show his suitability for office. The intended readership of the work was the scholarly bureaucrats of the royal city, traditionalist intellectuals who were finding it difficult to keep their balance in the face of the innovatory policies of Justinian. Such people made much of antiquitas and natura, and Cassiodorus reworked the Variae to show that their concerns were ones his previous employers and he himself shared. Hence, rather than the publication of the work being a sign of defiant loyalty to the Ostrogothic regime on its last legs, as it has generally been taken to be, it was really a lengthy job application.

Bjornlie offers a radical reappraisal of an important work, which deserves to be taken seriously. He has subjected a difficult text to close readings that have allowed him to see things in the Variae that no-one else has. He is particularly successful in entering into the concerns of intellectual bureaucrats. Scholars have given little thought to the situation of the senior office holders such as Cassiodorus who were displaced when the army of Justinian occupied Ravenna, but the difficulty we have in detecting continuities between the officials who served the Goths and those who subsequently worked for the Byzantines suggests that the former found the going hard. Sections of the book that discuss the thought world of those who served the regime of Justinian are very illuminating. A range of developments early in his reign, such as the confiscation of the properties of the Academy at Athens, a purge of non-Christian civil servants from the civil service in Constantinople, the treatment of various people in the aftermath of the Nika revolt, the rise of such people as John the Cappadocian, and the lugubrious comments of the subaltern John the Lydian, together with an intriguing suggestion that Justinian's legal reforms made the state less dependent on the civil service, are taken to have had a negative impact on the educated elite. But the discussions of such matters can largely be detached from that of the work of Cassiodorus, concerning which Bjornlie's analysis prompts a number of questions. Would Cassiodorus not have been more likely to have prepared the Variae in Ravenna, when he had access to the state archives, rather than carrying a set of his correspondence to Constantinople to work on there? Would the bureaucrats in the royal city whose good opinion Cassiodorus is represented as having sought have been in a position to bestow preferment upon him, particularly if they were opponents of the regime? The suggestion that Cassiodorus may have been taken to Constantinople in 540 as part of the captured Ostrogothic court rather than finding his way there independently, as many Italian aristocrats who were not implicated in the Ostrogothic regime are known to have done, is not compelling, for Procopius describes those Belisarius took to the royal city as the notables of the Goths and barbarians, categories within which it would be difficult to place Cassiodorus. Bjornlie correctly emphasizes the praise of the past to be found throughout the Variae, but surely this is most easily understood as a device deployed by the rulers of a post-Roman state designed to suggest that their coming had involved no dislocation but rather continuity. I suspect that the second letter in the collection, that addressed to Theon concerning the preparation of the purple dye used in the making of robes worn by the sovereign, was not so much an attempt to present the rule of the Amals in Italy a consequence of natura rerum, a concept that was a subject of discussion in the East at the time, as an expression of the aspirations of Theoderic. And some words tucked away towards the end of the letter, non antiqua custodiens, sed iugiter novella transmittens, are a reminder that the rhetoric fashioned by Cassiodorus in the Variae did not merely look backwards.

The nature of the case developed in this book means that it is not susceptible of proof, for there is no way of telling whether the text of the Variae that has come down to us is that of a revised, second edition. But there are occasions when Bjornlie offers arguments, some of them ingenious and subtle, for interpreting in the light of rhetorical strategies passages that seem to me to make perfect sense when taken at face value. For example, it is true that Procopius devotes more space to the siege of Rome by Goths than to other sieges described in his Wars. It may be that this reflects the ideological significance of that siege and a consequent literary embellishment; on the other hand, it may simply be a function of the length of the siege and the presence of the historian within the besieged city. Some of his judgments are unexpected, such as the reconquests of Carthage and Rome being seen as having perhaps being undertaken to neutralize opposition to Justinian's theological agenda (such opposition would become far more powerful later) and in part an attempt to counter political discontent in Constantinople. The occasional discovery of Manichaeans within Rome may indeed have provided an outlet for social and political tension, although I am not sure that a correlation between the dates at which they are said to have been discovered and periods of tension is established, and while it is true that the sect may have become a generic epithet for heterodoxy I am not certain that the evidence presented is enough to see a connection between a charge of Manichaeism and adherence to Neoplatonist teachings. The communications contained in the Variae and the Edict of Theodric are indeed different from those found in the papyri of Ravenna edited by Tjäder, but the documents were issued for very different purposes, so dissimilarities need not answer to differences in ideology. Cassiodorus' negative portrayal of king Theodahad is surely borne out by Procopius, so there is no need to see it has having been slanted to a particular end. A report in a chronicle that Theoderic had observed that a poor Roman imitated a Goth, whereas a well-to-so Goth imitated a Roman, need not have been an attempt to demonstrate how the king confused the natural social order; it makes perfect sense as a neat expression of the way things were. The Variae suggest an understanding of the fall of Boethius different to that which the latter expressed in the Consolation of Philosophy, but it need not have been the case that their version was intended to supersede the account Boethius provided of it, even assuming that Cassiodorus had access to it.

But let me conclude on a positive note. No reader of this book will finish it without profiting from its interpretations of particular passages, and more generally its directing attention towards the intellectual world of scholar bureaucrats and their relations with those they served. Moreover, there remains a tendency to see Italy in this period as forming part of a "West" rather than having participated in the immense degree of unity that remained around the Mediterranean, and the idea of placing of Cassiodorus against his counterparts in Constantinople is very well founded. He remains a significant figure, who wrote books on a broader range of topics that any other author in late antiquity. One day a major study will pull all this material together, and it will certainly draw with gratitude on the work of Bjornlie.

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John Moorhead

University of Queensland