Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.43

M. Shane Bjornlie, 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; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xiii, 370.  ISBN 9781107028401.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (


The Variae are a well-known collection of 468 legal and administrative briefs (including an often overlooked treatise on the soul: De anima) written and assembled by Cassiodorus (c. 490-c. 585). He was an important member of the palatine court in Ravenna during the rule of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic and his short-lived successors in the decade before Emperor Justinian’s war of reconquest (535-554) violently realigned the political axis of northern Italy toward the imperial capital of Constantinople. At first glance, the Variae appear to be the fossilized remains of Ostrogothic administration in action. They provide a detailed and persuasive impression of the exercise of diplomacy, the maintenance of public works, the deployment of royal officials and other rich details about the business of government in the court of Theoderic and his heirs. Most scholars who have spent time with the Variae have come to realize, however, that there is more to this assemblage of documents than first meets the eye. For example, James O’Donnell’s study of Cassiodorus (University of California Press, 1979) alerted readers to the fact that the Variae attempt to “put the very best possible face on the Ostrogothic kingdom” (p. 30). In short, this collection is more than a collection; it is a literary construct assembled for a particular purpose.

In the book under review, M. Shane Bjornlie explores this idea with a depth of analysis unparalleled in previous studies of Cassiodorus. He interprets the Variae as a full-fledged apology, the object of which was “the political rehabilitation of the Italian elite who had served as the palatine bureaucracy of the Amals” (p. 5). Cassiodorus’ work presents the reader with a highly stylized portrait of former court elites, including the author himself, at a time when they were losing their grip on their social and political positions in Italy. Moreover, in his most original contribution, Bjornlie argues that the Variae cannot be understood apart from the themes of political discourse then current in Constantinople, where oblique criticisms of Justinian’s autocratic style of rule filled the air. By treating the Variae as a sophisticated literary enterprise written to salvage the tenuous worth of northern Italian palatines during the regime change heralded by the Gothic Wars of Justinian, Bjornlie provides us with new insights both into the rhetorical purpose of this well-known text and into the polemical context that informed its content.

After an introductory chapter that discusses the date and historical circumstances under which Cassiodorus wrote the Variae, the book unfolds as a diptych, with two parts comprising five chapters each. The first part – “Cassiodorus and the Circumstances of Political Survival” – argues that the Variae cannot be understood apart from the “the contemporary currents of political thought to which Cassiodorus was exposed” (p. 37), the most prominent of which originated at the imperial capital of Constantinople. During the Gothic Wars, the innovations of Justinian’s policies had inspired a public discourse of carefully crafted complaint, oblique criticism and shrill apology, all of which had an influence on the tone and themes of the Variae.

Chapter 2 surveys the structures of political power in early sixth-century Constantinople and the intellectual culture of the bureaucracy, which “was weighted toward the cultivation of traditional, secular paideia” (p. 53). Inflected by Neoplatonism, this culture allowed bureaucrats to define themselves as morally suitable representatives of the imperium while also “anchor[ing] the practical virtues associated with public service in a more comprehensive system for elaborating moral good” (p. 55). Insulated by the stability of their own intellectual and institutional traditions, civil servants developed an ideology which focused their loyalties on the concept of the state rather than on the person of the ruling emperor.

Chapter 3 shows how the autocratic policies of Emperor Justinian threatened the long-standing culture of this bureaucracy, in numerous ways. First, the emperor advanced men with little or no educational background to important positions in the government; second, he passed legislation purging the administration of individuals who had “Hellenic” leanings; and third, he made the correct interpretation of the law the concern of the imperial court rather than the bureaucracy. While these efforts to consolidate the authority of the emperor may have met with some resistance – Bjornlie implicates “leading figures within the bureaucratic corps” (p. 75) in the Nika Revolt of 532, but the evidence is tenuous – the “systematic reduction of bureaucratic independence” (p. 77) by Justinian was plain for all to see.

Chapter 4 catalogues the voices of political criticism and apology expressed in the wake of the emperor’s radical reforms to the structure and purpose of the bureaucracy. Beginning with the Nova Historia of Zosimus, whose work predates the time of Justinian but anticipates themes that would surface during his rule, Bjornlie marshals a staggering number of texts in Greek, Latin and even Syriac representing a wide spectrum of views on the responsibilities of the emperor. Some, like the Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis Libri Duo by the court propagandist Junillus Africanus, articulated a defense of Justinian’s notion of theocracy, while others, like John Lydus’ De magistratibus, provided indirect criticism of the emperor’s failure to rule according to traditional expectations. According to Bjornlie, it was this “dynamic political discourse” that inspired and informed Cassiodorus.

Chapter 5 treats the composition of the Variae in the context of contemporary hostility toward the Amals and those who served them by the Anicii, an ancient senatorial family with strong connections to the eastern imperial court. The fragile relationship between the Anicii and Theoderic was shattered by the murder of two prominent members of the family, Boethius and his father-in-law Symmachus, in 524 and 525. Cassiodorus thus had to negotiate the rehabilitation of the reputations of the palatine elite of Ravenna in the shadow of Boethius’ indictment of the Amal government in his De consolatione, which circulated posthumously among exiled Italian elites in Constantinople.

Chapter 6 carries this theme further with an analysis of the ways in which Cassiodorus used letters addressed to Boethius and other Roman senators in the Variae both to deflect criticism of the Amal government and to distance himself from personal blame for the deaths of Boethius and Symmachus. In short, “[i]t was Cassiodorus’ intention that the Variae transpose the image of a philosophically alert bureaucratic elite over that of the benighted palatine elite of the De consolatione” (p. 183). Unlike the previous chapters in this section, which illuminate the political and discursive background of the composition of the Variae, this chapter seems out of place because it launches into a detailed analysis of the text without a full consideration of its unusual genre and dominant themes (the subjects of Part Two of the book).

The second part of Bjornlie’s book – “Reading the Variae as Political Apologetic” – undertakes a detailed literary analysis of the contents of the Variae themselves. He argues that Cassiodorus employed this unusual compilation of official correspondence to offer a subtle critique of Justinian’s character of rule while shoring up support for the intellectual and moral standing of the western palatine elite among the constituency with whom they had the most in common: the eastern bureaucracy whose time-honored traditions were threatened by the innovations to governance introduced by the emperor.

Chapter 7 details the literary aspects of the Variae and how it differed from other late ancient letter collections, both in terms of the authorial prefaces that directed the reader’s reception of its contents and in terms of the digressive material on history, natural lore and geography that appear throughout the Variae.

The next three chapters of the book explore separate but related themes employed by Cassiodorus to achieve the same purpose: the rehabilitation of the state service of the palatine elite in Italy at the expense of the emperor in Constantinople. Bjornlie does this by contrasting the traditionalist character of an Amal government obedient to antiquitas and the reckless innovations introduced by Justinian, with special attention to the public building programs of these regimes (Chapter 8). He then shows how Cassiodorus contested the rationales for the legal innovations introduced in Justinian’s Novellae by arguing that nature itself had a universal constancy and by pairing this notion with the antiquity of legal custom employed by the Amals to unmask how the emperor had tampered with received tradition (Chapter 9). In short, according to Cassiodorus, “[w]here the eastern emperor dictated matters concerning nature and law, the Amals and the palatine elite of Italy received law from learned ancient custom that was itself informed by nature and the harmonious system that orchestrated nature” (p. 283). And lastly, he discusses the purpose of the treatise De anima, which Cassiodorus appended to the collection “as a means of ensuring that his audience would read the Variae with an eye toward moral interpretation” (p. 293), that is, with a sensitivity to the spiritual understanding of good governance expressed in Neoplatonic thought (Chapter 10).

The final chapter – “The Variae as Apologetic Narrative” – treats the letters in the collection written under the name of Cassiodorus himself when he was praetorian prefect. These letters articulate his belief that political service drew its value and authority from a moral and ethical tradition quite separate from the character of individual rulers, be they Amals or emperors. A laconic conclusion braids these various strands together, while restating Bjornlie’s principle contribution: “[t]hat Cassiodorus fashioned in the Variae an image of palatine governance that was attuned to Constantinopolitan debates about legitimacy and tradition in order to make the governmental elite of Ravenna appear suitable for return to office after the conclusion of the Gothic War” (pp. 331-332).

Bjornlie’s book compels us to read Cassiodorus’ Variae with a new sensitivity to the broader currents of political polemic that shaped and informed its veiled contentions. Like Matthew Dal Santo’s Debating the Saints’ Cults in the Age of Gregory the Great (Oxford University Press, 2012), Bjornlie reminds us that the world of sixth-century Italy was still very much a Mediterranean world, the ligatures of which stretched from Rome and Ravenna to distant Constantinople and beyond. Historians of late antiquity will find much of value in this ambitious reevaluation of such a well-known source. It is not a book for the faint-hearted, however. While not overly long, the text is dense with information and the language is often precious. Bjornlie favors complex sentences, frequent digressions and uncommon words. But these matters of style do not detract in the least from the insights that reward the reader. Upon finishing the book, my thoughts lingered on the failure of the Variae. Did Cassiodorus embark upon his later monastic career because his carefully crafted attempt to rehabilitate his political reputation was unsuccessful? To what degree did his smothered hopes shape the new life that he fashioned for himself at Vivarium? And was there any relationship between the Variae and De anima and his later Expositio psalmorum, which shares the same twelve-book structure (a topic raised on p. 205 but not fully explored)?

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