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21.08.22 Bjornlie, The Selected Letters of Cassiodorus

21.08.22 Bjornlie, The Selected Letters of Cassiodorus

Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus was one of the great letter-writers of the sixth century. Born c. 485, just before Odovacer moved into Northern Italy as its new ruler, Cassiodorus lived to more than 90 years of age, and spent the majority of his life in service to the long-lived Ostrogothic king Theoderic (d. 526) and his successors. Between 507 and 540, he held the offices of quaestor, consul, "master of offices" (magister officiorum) or chief of the civil service, and praetorian prefect. Throughout his long career, much of his political, diplomatic, legal, and financial business was conducted through letters, and his corpus of 468 letters spanning thirty-three years is the second largest from Roman Late Antiquity, surpassed only by the 854-plus letters in the Registrum of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604 CE). In this sixth-century sourcebook, historian of Late Antiquity Shane Bjornlie offers a selection of Cassiodorus' letters from the collection known as the Variae.

This volume complements recent scholarship on ancient Greek and Roman epistolography. In the past ten years in particular there has been a surge of interest in late antique and Byzantine letter collections, which has been gathering momentum in the past three decades. Cristiana Sogno, Bradley Storin, and Ed Watts gave a great service to scholarship on Latin and Greek letter collections of c. 300-600 CE with their volume Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide (Oakland, 2019), to which Bjornlie contributed the chapter on Cassiodorus. A synthesis of late antique Greek and Latin letter-writing has since appeared (Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, Greek and Roman Letters in Late Antiquity: The Christianisation of a Literary Form, Cambridge, 2020). The Brill Companion to Byzantine Epistolography edited by Alexander Riehle (Leiden, 2020) is a major contribution to studies of Greek letters and letter collections from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries.

The epistolary corpus of Cassiodorus has only recently begun to receive the attention it is due. An alternative selection of 110 letters was translated by S. J. B. Barnish in the series Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool, 1992). A full Italian translation with Latin text, apparatus criticus, and commentary has been edited in five volumes by Andrea Giardina et al., Cassiodoro Variae (Rome, 2015-2017). In 2019, Bjornlie published his translation of the complete Variae with the same publisher, University of California Press (The Variae: The Complete Translation, Oakland, 2019). That translation, reprinted in the selected letters here, closely mirrors Cassiodorus' style, which is "both literary and bureaucratic" (15). Theodor Mommsen's 1894 edition in Monumenta Germaniae Historica was the basis for the translation, although Bjornlie consulted the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina edition of 1973. In his efforts to capture the quirky, cultured but legalistic, epistolary style of Cassiodorus in readable English, the author succeeds admirably.

While Bjornlie's 2019 volume contained the whole corpus of the Variae arranged in twelve books, this one presents a carefully curated selection of letters designed to illustrate certain themes for students of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages (15). These themes cover a great range of interests: administration, military activity, economic management, religion, gender, culture, politics, and law among them. The rationale of Bjornlie's selection and thematic organisation was to provide "useful artifacts of comparison for understanding either the end of late antiquity or the beginning of the early Middle Ages" (15). In this aim, he has again been eminently successful.

The first section comprises a selection of diplomatic letters sent from the Ostrogothic court in the name of King Theoderic to the Byzantine court and the "barbarian" courts of the West, including the Vandals and the Merovingian Franks. Two letters from Theodoric appointing Cassiodorus' father, also called Cassiodorus, to the Roman senate, are a fascinating inclusion in section 2 on the senate and its appointments. Section 3 is a rather dry collection of administrative letters pertaining to court bureaucracy, but interesting from an institutional perspective. Tax and financial management are the subject of section 4. Letters on Ostrogothic administration in regions outside Italy are gathered in section 5. Scholars of military history will find a range of relevant material in section 6 on Goths and the military. Section 7 deals with urban life and section 8 with rural life. Section 9 features letters to popes, bishops, counts and the Jews of Genoa and Milan will appeal to students of religious history and episcopal networks. They are mercifully free of the doctrinal debates so frequently featured in the correspondence of bishops of Rome at this time, such as that of Pope Hormsidas. Section 10 gathers letters between family members and letters to women, a useful addition to the relative lack of contemporary scholarship on this subject, with recent articles by Julia Hillner and Pauline Allen being notable exceptions.

Section 11 deals with letters on law and criminal charges against individuals, while Section 12 on intellectual culture includes a lengthy address to Boethius, asking him to choose a suitable cithara player to accompany Theodoric's envoys to the court of Clovis. This letter (Variae 2.40) from c. 507 tells us much about Cassiodorus' attempts to ingratiate himself with his learned contemporary Boethius, author of the Consolatio philosophiae.

Section 13 on the natural world--with a wonderful description of Lake Como in Variae 11.14--offers some of the most interesting material and places Cassiodorus firmly in the classical tradition of letter-writing. This influence is also suggested by Cassiodorus' tendency to start and finish each book with book-end letters that reflect the prominence of the recipient, a practice discussed by Bjornlie in the introduction (10). This practice may reflect a conscious symmetry observed by Roy Gibson and Ruth Morello in book 6 of the letters of Pliny the Younger, which is framed by three pairs complementary letters at its beginning and end (Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger: An Introduction, Cambridge, 2012, 44). Other letters of Cassiodorus, such as Athalaric to Severus (8.33), extolling the virtues of healing springs, are plainly Christianised versions of ancient themes. Bjornlie suggests elsewhere that the division of the Variae into twelve books may reflect the structure of Cassiodorus' twelve-book Gothic history (The Variae, 10). The twelve-part structure, with books 1-5 containing letters written on behalf of Theoderic, books 6-7 containing form-letters, books 8-10 devoted to letters written on behalf of Athalaric and successive Gothic kings, and books 11-12 reserved for letters written by Cassiodorus while he was praetorian prefect, is discussed briefly in the Introduction (9-10).

The Nachleben of the Variae is not discussed in this volume but is given attention in Bjornlie's larger study, The Variae: The Complete Translation (17-19). The Variae seem to have fallen out of circulation after the end of the Gothic war in 554, when Justinian's Pragmatic Sanction officially ended Byzantine hostilities with the Goths and Cassiodorus retired to Vivarium in Calabria. The relatively low impact of the Variae in Cassiodorus' day may be connected with the author's association with Boethius, the senator who was imprisoned for conspiracy against Theoderic and executed in 524. The reason for its lack of popularity may lie in the fact that, when Cassiodorus became Master of Offices c. 523, he replaced Boethius. Even books 6 and 7 of the Variae, which contained formularies or form letters for appointments, where the author had simply to fill in the blanks for name and rank on each occasion, were not used by Latin epistolographers after Cassiodorus.

This volume is a most welcome addition to work on Ostrogothic Italy and Latin letter collections from the early Middle Ages and promises to bring a new generation of students to a deeper understanding of these texts, which are of critical importance to Western cultural and institutional history. Various aids to the reader accompany the translations. The "Chronology of Key Events" (17-20) will help the reader to put all the main events of Cassiodorus' career in their historical context. Three maps, an index of individuals, a list of indictional years relative to Cassiodorus' career in public office, the comprehensive glossary, and the select bibliography ensure that this will be an invaluable sourcebook for students and historians of the sixth century, and especially for those interested in epistolography and the denouement of the Later Roman empire in Italy.