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Boethius the Hellenist

James Shiel describes how, as one of those writers who forged a link between classical antiquity and medieval Christendom, Boethius was executed in 524 at the command of the barbarian king he served.

Clio’s message, dictated in the present century to Arnold Toynbee, is that, although civilizations die, there may be an organic passing of life from one to another. Graeco-Roman civilization was the parent of our own; and, if we ask where the transmission of life occurred, memory calls up a few individual names—men whose work had the stuff of life, while that of all their fellows lapsed into oblivion. The tangible links between antiquity and medieval Christendom were forged by a few writers like Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Boethius, Cassiodorus.

Of these, all Christians, yet all products of the ancient Empire, Boethius retains most evidently the spirit of the pagan world, so much so that scholars have at times doubted if he was really a Christian. From his work we may see what an individual did when confronted with the knowledge that classical civilization was collapsing. What was his reaction, what was his hope for the society of mankind?

He was born about the-year 480. His family, the Anicii, was one of those which, after inheriting centuries of pagan aristocratic tradition, had now become Christian. Bereaved of his father at an early age, he was adopted into the home of the illustrious Symmachus, under whose care he grew up to be a bilingual orator and an adept in the learning of the time. He was later to marry Symmachus’s daughter, Rusticiana.

At twenty, he was the Roman chosen for his eloquence to deliver the panegyric of welcome when King Theodoric visited Rome. His learning was honoured with royal requests: he had to choose a skilled harpist to grace the court of Clovis, King of the Franks; and Theodoric asked him to construct a sundial as a present for the King of Burgundy. Political rank came as a matter of course. In 510, he was appointed consul without colleague.

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