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21.01.03 Bjornlie, Cassiodorus, The Variae

The Medieval Review

21.01.03 Bjornlie, Cassiodorus, The Variae

Over the last decade Shane Bjornlie has contributed significant scholarship on the study of Ostrogothic Italy and its relationship with Byzantium. The result of his doctoral thesis was published as Politics and Tradition between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae (Cambridge University Press, 2013). A few years later followed A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy (Brill, 2016), which Bjornlie co-edited together with Jonathan J. Arnold and Kristina Sessa. Both works are useful and have increased the level of interest in the sixth century, especially in North America.

In this new book, Bjornlie offers the first complete translation in English of Cassiodorus'sVariae. This collection of 468 documents represents the largest and most impressive window into the sixth century West, and it makes Ostrogothic Italy the best known of the post-Roman kingdoms. Unlike most of the surviving letter collections, the Variae are not private correspondence, but documents generated by the palace bureaucracy. Cassiodorus penned them as Quaestor of the Palace (507-511), Master of the Offices (523-528), and Praetorian Prefect (533-537/8). At a later date he collected and partially revised the documents. The collection is a treasure for many fields of study, including prosopography, Roman and Gothic culture, administration, religion, diplomacy, literature, public and private law, economy, antiquities, archeology, gender, landscape and environment, and food history.

The translation of the whole body of the Variae is a Herculean task, and not only because of the size of the collection, but also because of the complexity and difficulty of the Cassiodoran Latin. This is why such a project was never pursued before, even by the most illustrious Latinists and scholars of Late Antiquity. The famous book by Thomas Hodgkin, The Letters of Cassiodorus: Being a Condensed Translation of the Variae Epistolae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (London, H. Frowde, 1886), which is still widely referenced by scholars, offers mostly paraphrases of the letters, although they are generally good ones with useful footnotes that still make this work a powerful instrument. About a century later, Samuel Barnish published an excellent translation of more than one hundred letters, in Cassiodorus: Variae. Translated with notes and introduction by S.J.B. Barnish (Liverpool University Press, 1992). For many years, a rumor circulated that Barnish was about to publish the entire collection; unfortunately, this work never appeared. Since 2014, a translation in Italian with a detailed commentary has appeared in five volumes, edited by A. Giardina, G.A. Cecconi and I. Tantillo. [1] The French scholar Valérie Fauvinet-Ranson is presently preparing a new edition of the text with translation and notes for the "Collection Budé" (Les Belles Lettres).

Bjornlie's twenty-page introduction to Cassiodorus and the Variae is satisfactory on the whole. For a question of space and audience, Bjornlie keeps the discussion at a fairly general level. I certainly appreciate the reasons for this, however one statement strikes me as inaccurate: "The Constitutio Pragmatica, with which Justinian planned the postwar settlement in 554, maintains an ominous silence concerning the administration of Ravenna, while stipulating the privileges of the senatorial elite [...], the church, and the great landowners. The period from 540 to 554, therefore, was one in which the future of the former administrative elite of Italy was undetermined." (10) I do not understand this observation, as Ravenna was under Justinian's administration since 540. The Constitutio Pragmatica was meant to reorganize Italy after the defeat of the Goths. It is obvious that the law focused on rebuilding the territories devastated during the war and only recently retaken from the Goths, especially the city of Rome. This was not the case for Ravenna, the Byzantine capital, which at that time had been administrated by Justinian's Prefects for fourteen years.

The letters are accompanied by short introductions which clarify the topic of each document and these will be very useful to students and those without expertise in the area.

As someone who has worked for many years with these materials, I would like to emphasize that it is not an easy task to translate so many documents, the contents of which pertain to many fields of study. The Latin is difficult, and occasionally even strange. Therefore, I do not feel to blame Bjornlie for inaccuracies and misinterpretations (a few examples are listed below). I do believe that if Bjornlie had carefully considered the interpretations provided by the many scholars of the field over the last two hundred years, he would have turned his impressive work into a much more reliable instrument that scholars could comfortably use. Bjornlie could have easily achieved this result, as four of the five volumes of the Variae edited by Giardina et al. were available to him. This enormous work of translation and commentary was achieved over a fifteen-year period by twenty-five scholars who specialized in the several fields that Cassiodorus approaches, and other specialists were also consulted during this process. It is stunning that Bjornlie devotes exactly one sentence to this instrument: "Here, however, the translation of the text into Italian, and the decision to provide both the full Latin and a commentary for individual letters (expanding the work to five volumes) naturally limits the ease with which Anglophone scholarship may consult the Variae in academic libraries outside of Italy." (20) No historical and philological commentary can exist without the original text. Medievalists would have little to work with if they dismissed all sources that are cumbersome to access. Even if this work is more available in European libraries, it also exists as an electronic version. The volumes are admittedly expensive. Nevertheless, scholars of the field who dedicate their entire research to the Variae cannot ignore this opus. Similarly, I find it unusual that Bjornlie’s choice of Mommsen’s edition over Fridh’s edition (CCSL 96, 1973) is based on the fact that the first is "generally more available in academic libraries." (22)

The final bibliography includes only eighteen titles on the Variae (four of them by the author himself), ten on Cassiodorus, thirteen on Ostrogothic Italy; very little in Italian and French, and barely two titles in German. The bibliography in English is also sparse and not representative of the studies on Cassiodorus and of sixth-century Italy, both inside and outside of North America. Missing is the reference to Mommsen's edition, which Bjornlie uses for the translation (occasional reminders to this work are for example at p. 18-19, 21), and to Hodgkin's book (partially referenced at p. 19); only Barnish's translation is fully cited (501). To select a representative bibliography Bjornlie did not need to navigate the ocean of secondary literature, but simply to consult the Giardina et al. edition, which includes an overlong but solid bibliography.

Especially in difficult times like these, the disregard of works in the other languages of the field does not do any good to students. It keeps an inexperienced audience unaware of the complexity of the field; it encourages the minimizing and dismissing of what is produced outside of the Anglophone world; it does not meet the criteria for an international scholarly audience, including this journal, The Medieval Review, which welcomes reviews in French, English, Italian, Spanish, and German. Scholars from all over the world make enormous efforts to write and to communicate in English as a common language for conferences and companions. It is unfortunate when these efforts do not yield scholarly exchange.

I do not minimize the work of translation and I will not discuss here the interpretations of specific terms and technicalities. Bjornlie states: "The course followed in the present translation renders Cassiodorus's text word for word, as closely as possible, according to the meaning best suited to a given script of Latin." (21) This does not seem to be always the case. I include here a short selection of what I believe are excessive freedoms of the translations and some misinterpretations of Cassiodorus--I add the Latin text here, so that readers can judge for themselves.

Bjornlie (p. 268): "You are found seated next to him at public games, so that the urban mass whom your diligence feeds may know that you are honored as a tribute to itself."

Cassiod., Var. 6.18.2: Tu illi in spectaculis coniunctissimus inveniris, ut plebs, quam industria tua satiat, in suam reverentiam te honoratum esse cognoscat.

Bjornlie (p. 268): "However, lest anyone should suppose you to rule over abject men, the laws over bakers, which were most widely used across diverse regions of the world, are also subject to you, lest what supplies Roman abundance with praiseworthy servitudeshould be cheapened by causing scarcity."

Cassiod., Var. 6.18.4: Ne quis autem putet abiectis te hominibus imperare, dignitati quoque tuae pistorum iura famulata sunt, quae per diversas mundi partes possessione latissima tendebantur, ne inopia faciente vilesceret, quod Romanae copiae laudabili famulatione serviret.

Bjornlie (p. 316): "If an heir foreign to imperium had adopted you, perhaps you might hesitate, lest, by discovering that the successor had no love for what the former ruler had esteemed, since by some unknown means, when the successor strove to be praised more fully, he was diminished by the reputation of his predecessor. But now, when we believe that we act accordingly if we comply with the venerable judgments of my grandfather, the person alone has been exchanged, not kindness toward you." [This translation is grammatically unsound.]

Cassiod., Var. 8.3.1: Si vos externus heres imperii suscepisset, dubitare forsitan poteratis, ne, quos prior dilexerat, invidendo subsequens non amaret, quia nescio quo pacto, cum successor amplius laudari nititur, praecedentis fama lentatur. Nunc vero persona tantum, non est autem vobis gratia commutata, quando recte nobiscum agi credimus, si veneranda iudicia avi subsequamur.

Bjornlie (pp. 325-326): "And so what had been desired on account of close relationsshould also be accomplished eagerly. […] You will remember that I always honored the assembly of the Senate, but now especially, when I am seen to enter your company."

Cassiod., Var. 8.11.1-2: Atque ideo alacriter excipiendum est, quod necessarie fuisset optandum. […] Retinetis me senatus semper fovisse coetum, sed nunc maxime, cum vestrum videor intrare collegium.

Bjornlie (p. 394): "Let what the public is known to wish for be received thankfully: now the wishes of all are revealed without trepidation, so that the whole state acknowledges my elevation, while it may have been dangerous to prefer it."

Cassiod., Var. 10.4.1: Suscipiatur gratissime quod generalitatem constat optasse: reserentur nunc sine metu vota cunctorum: ut unde periculum pertuli, inde me universitas cognoscat ornari.

Bjornlie (p. 477): "For they know not how to be fond of gain, nor would they torment themselves with the[aliqua?] fervor of commercial enterprise; they live modestly in wealth and lavishly in good character."

Cassiod., Var. 12.11.2: Nesciunt enim esse lucripetes nec aliqua se negotiationis calliditate discruciant: vivunt fortuna mediocrium et conscientia divitum.

Bjornlie (p. 498): "To these events may be added the raid of the Alamanni, routed some time ago, which was proven to be overwhelmed in its very initial attempt, so that it simultaneously combined arrival and departure, as though purged by the salutary operation of a scalpel, to the extent that both the wicked disregard of those transgressing law was punished and the plundering of subjects did not spread unchecked."

Cassiod., Var. 12.28.4: His additur Alamannorum nuper fugata subreptio, quae in primis conatibus suis sic probatur oppressa, ut simul adventum suum iunxisset et exitum quasi salutaris ferri execatione purgata, quatenus et male praesumentium vindicaretur excessus et subiectorum non omnino grassaretur interitus.

Before using this translation for specific research, in my opinion, scholars should consult the original text.

Both the introduction and the meager notes are not exempt from inaccuracies, for example:

p. 22: Theoderic becomes king in 473 (actually this happened in 474).

p. 313, n. 1: Theoderic was hostage until approximatively 472; this seems unlikely, since he won a battle against the Sarmatians and Babai and took the city of Singidunum in ca. 471 (Jord., Get. 282): PLRE 2, p. 1078 is contradictory on this point.

p. 457 n. 56: to identify the ruler as Witiges does not make much sense if Bjornlie dates this document to 535-536--for Theodahad was killed toward the end of 536, and until late December Witiges was far from northern Italy.

Finally, a short glossary providing the technical definitions of the most important juridical and administrative terms should have been included.

To conclude, in translating the Variae Bjornlie has undertaken a colossal and meritorious task and this product will be of use to Anglophone readers. But his translations should be used with caution, and the work does not provide the apparatus or notes that are necessary to navigate these difficult texts.



1. Andrea Giardina, Giovanni Alberto Cecconi, Ignazio Tantillo, eds., with the collaboration of Fabrizio Oppedisano, Cassiodoro, Varie, in six volumes (Rome: L'Erma, 2014-). Bjornlie misquotes this work at p. 502 by dating the five volumes to the years 2014-2017, when in reality the last one is appearing this year.​