Cassiodorus, Variae. Translated Texts for Historians, 12. Edited and Translated by S.J.B. Barnish. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1992. Pp. liv + 204. $16.95. ISBN 0-85323-4 36-1.
Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.
If Cassiodorus had been a contemporary of Tacitus, the Variae would be required reading in every classical department in the world. The letters (hundreds of them) collected there show the government of Italy under the Ostrogoths (in the period roughly 507-538 A.D.) in a polished rhetorical light, but capture withal a vivid and varied picture of contemporary life. The Latin is stately and stiff, but surprisingly picturesque at times. Though welcome (to us) details were often relegated to attached and now lost breves, we still know more about the workings of Theoderic's government than we do of that of Tiberius.
The serious reader has to date had to make do with either Mommsen's edition in MGH, whose notes and indices are a treasure trove of historical and linguistic detail, or with the older abridged English translation of Thomas Hodgkin. Both tools are over a century old, and while Mommsen's references to primary texts often allow the reader to pursue detail independently, Hodgkin's more magisterial tone of note produces the appearance of adequate learning when in fact he has been far outstripped.
S.J.B. Barnish's new TTH volume is again unfortunately abridged (presumably to make a suitably modest-sized volume), but it is a serious and original work of scholarship in its own right. The fifty-page introduction does not merely repeat conventional wisdom, but asks some genuinely fresh questions and offers useful answers. For example, for all the abundant letter-collections that survive from antiquity and late antiquity, we know very little about the mechanics of epistolary communication. What did a real letter from the king look like? Purple parchment, gold ink, and elaborate seals? How was it transmitted and received? Do we imagine public readings? Public postings? Or private displays to one's dignified friends at an intimate soiree? Barnish xxx-xxxii is the best exposition of our knowledge and ignorance I know.
The annotation of the letters shows a similar independence of an inquiring mind. The range of subjects is demanding, from a papal election marked by what we would think, and even Italians might now begin to think, of as bribery (Var. 9.15), to the tranquil brutality of rustic life in Cassiodorus' own home province (Var. 8.33). The translation is never less than serviceable and often quite fresh, and I have not detected careless or inaccuracy.
It used to be hard to teach the tract of history between the Antonines and Charlemagne to undergraduates, for want of serviceable translations. The Liverpool TTH series (now distributed in the USA by the University of Pennsylvania Press) has changed that swiftly and wonderfully. This volume and the Heather/Matthews volume The Goths in the Fourth Century (BMCR 4.2.12) are the best of what is a very good lot, and a quickly expanding list. Both ancient and medieval historians should sample them and think how best to enhance the traditional survey courses with them.