Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Boëthius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

Boëthius (Βοέτιος, Procop.), Anicus Manlius Severinus.[1] This honourable name, invested by the church for so many centuries with a halo of sanctity, can hardly be excluded from a Dictionary of Christian Biography, though some criticism in modern times has tended to distinguish the Roman senator, the author of the Consolatio Philosophiae, from the writer of certain theological treatises which bear his name, and upon the genuineness of which depends his claim to be enrolled among the martyrs of Christendom. These works, (i.) de Sancta Trinitate, (ii.) Utrum Pater et Filius Substantialiter Praedicentur, (iii.) de Duabus Naturalis et una Persona Christi, contra Eutychen et Nestorium, (iv.) Fidei Confessio seu brevis Institutio Religionis Christianae, based upon the Aristotelian Categories, and compiled in great measure from the writings of St. Augustine, being concerned entirely with abstract questions of dogma, offer but little to compare with the Consolatio, into which the mind and heart of its author were manifestly thrown; nevertheless Hand (Encyclopädie, v. Ersch. u. Gruber, in voce) has endeavoured to shew that they are alien in point of philosophy as well as in the method of thought and expression from the undoubted writings of Boëthius. For instance, although philosopher and theologian alike demonstrate the substantial as opposed to the accidental nature of God, Boëthius (ad Arist. Categ. c. 4) maintains Aristotle's distinction of substances, whereas the author of the first theological treatise insists upon the substantial indifference of the three persons in the Trinity. Again, while Boëthius translates the οὐσία of Aristotle by substantia, the author of the third treatise adopts the later rendering essentia, while he also follows ecclesiastical writers in his use of the words substantia (ὑπόστασις) and persona (πρόσωπον). The arguments of Hand have been controverted by Gustave Baur (de Boëth. Christianae Fidei Assertore, c. 1), but the theory of a second Boëthius, whom Hand supposes to have been confounded at an early date with the philosopher, so far from being refuted, has suggested the still more plausible conjecture of Obbarius (Proleg. ad Consol. Phil. p. xxxvii. Jenae, 1843) that another Severinus was the author of the works in question, and that to this person, and not to the author of the Consolatio, belong the honours of martyrdom in defence of the Catholic faith. In support of this conjecture there are the facts: (i.) That no author is known to mention the theological works of Boëthius before Alcuin (de Proc. Spir. Sancti, p. 752), who flourished nearly three centuries after his death. (ii.) That although the tradition was current in the Middle Ages, from Paulus Diaconus (8th cent.) downwards, that Boëthius laid down his life in his zeal for the Catholic faith against the Arian invaders of Italy, this is not his own account of his fall from court favour nor is it supported by any contemporary writer. (iii.) That in the epitaph of Gerbertus, bp. of Ravenna, afterwards pope Sylvester II., inscribed upon the monument raised in his honour by Otho III., A.D. 996, no mention is made of martyrdom or of canonization (Migne, Patr. vol., 139, p. 287). (iv.) That while the church of Rome knows nothing of St. Boëthius, the festival of St. Severinus has been held on Oct. 23 ever since the 8th cent., in the neighbourhood of Ticinum, where Boëthius is popularly believed to have been executed. The double clue runs throughout the history of Boëthius, as derived from various sources; the same twofold character, half secular, half ecclesiastical, pervades the whole; and hence the unusual number of so-called fables mingled with the best authenticated facts—e.g:

(1) The wife of Boëthius was unquestionably Rusticiana, the daughter of the senator Symmachus (Cons. Phil. ii. 3, 4; Procop. Goth. iii. 20), by whom he had two sons, Aurelius Anicius Symmachus and Anicius Manlius Severinus, who were consuls A.D. 522 (Cons. Phil. ii. 3, 4); but tradition makes him to have been also the husband of Elpis, a Sicilian lady and the authoress of two hymns in the Breviary [Elpis], and by her to have had two sons, Patricius and Hypatius, Greek consuls A.D. 500.

(2) According to his own statement, Boëthius was imprisoned (Cons. Phil. x. ii. metr. 24) at a distance of 500 miles from Rome (ib. i. 4); according to other accounts he was simply exiled, a confusion which no doubt arose from the epitaph of the said Elpis, in which she is said (Burm. Anth. Lat. tom. ii. epigr. 138) to have followed her husband into banishment.

(3) His fall and death is mixed up by Paulus Diaconus and other writers, who are followed among modern writers by Bähr (Rom. Lit. p. 162) and Heyne (Censar. Ingenii, etc., Boeth.), with the constrained embassy of pope John to Constantinople on behalf of the Arians of the East, which is said to have resulted in the suspicion of his treachery and finally in his death; whereas Boëthius was put to death, according to others (Anonym. Vales., etc.), before the embassy, or at least before the return of the pope, A.D. 525, and as he himself implies (Cons. Phil. i. 4), on suspicion of conspiracy, not against Arianism, but for the restoration of the liberty and power of the senate.

(4) Two distinct accounts exist of his execution, one stating that he was beheaded at Ticinum (Anast. Vit. Pontif. in Johanne I.; Aimoin, Hist. Franc. ii. 1), where he was imprisoned, according to popular tradition, in a tower still standing at Pavia in 1584 (Tiraboschi, iii. l. 1, c. 4); another relating (Anonym. Vales. p. 36, in Gronov. ed. Amm. Marcell.) that he was confined along with Albinus in the baptistery of a church, and soon afterwards executed "in agro Calventiano," first being tortured by a cord tightly twisted round his forehead, and then beaten to death with a club.

(5) He is claimed by the church as a saint and martyr under the name of Severinus, the friend of St. Benedict (Tritenhem, ap. Fabric. Bibl. Lat. iii. 15), and the worker of a miracle at his death (Martianus Rota, vid. Boëth. in usum Delphin.), but of all this his contemporaries knew nothing, and no hint of it appears until three centuries after his death, when he also becomes the author of four dogmatic treatises on the mysteries of the Trinity.

Whether or not this double tradition has grown out of the history of two distinct individuals, there can be little doubt that to obtain a true estimate of the character and writings of Boëthius, the author of the Consolatio must be distinguished from Severinus, saint and martyr, or whoever else was the writer of the above-mentioned theological works. It remains for us briefly to notice the most authentic facts of the philosopher's life, and to inquire how far his thoughts were coloured by the contemporaneous influence of Christianity, or exercised an influence in their turn upon the religious thought of the Middle Ages.

Boëthius was born between the years A.D. 470‒475, as is inferred from his contemporary Ennodius (Eucharisma de Vitâ suâ), who says that he himself was sixteen when Theodoric invaded Italy, A.D. 490. As a wealthy orphan (Cons. Phil. ii. 3) Boëthius inherited the patrimony and honours of the Anician family, was brought up under the care of the chief men at Rome (ib. ii. 3), and became versed in the erudition of his own country and likewise in that of Greece. In the words of his friend Cassiodorus, "The geometry of Euclid, the music of Pythagoras, the arithmetic of Nicomachus, the mechanics of Archimedes, the astronomy of Ptolemy, the theology of Plato, and the logic of Aristotle," were translated and illustrated for the benefit of the Romans by his indefatigable pen (Var. i. Ep. 45). Nor was he less distinguished for his virtue. His purse was ever open to the poor of Rome (Procop. Goth. I. i.). He exerted his authority and eloquence on behalf of the oppressed provincials (Cons. Phil. i. 4). Such conspicuous merit was at first appreciated by Theodoric. He received the title of patrician while still a youth (ib. i. 3), became consul A.D. 510, and princeps senatus (Procop. Goth. I. i.), was employed in the important station of master of the offices (Anonym. Vales. p. 26), in which post his scientific knowledge and mechanical skill were turned to ample account (Cassiod. Ep. i. 10, 45, ii. 40), and reached the summit of his fortune on the day when, supported by his two sons, who had just been inaugurated in the consulship, he pronounced a panegyric upon Theodoric and gratified the populace with a largess (Cons. Phil. ii. 3). But a reverse was at hand. The philosopher had exerted himself to rescue the state from the usurpation of ignorance; the senator had opposed his integrity to the tyranny and avarice of the barbarians who did not in general share the moderation of their leader. His expression, "palatini canes" (ib. i. 4), shews his uncompromising spirit against their iniquities; and it is not surprising that the courage and sympathy he shewed in pleading the cause of Albinus, a senator who was accused of "hoping the liberty of Rome" (ib.), joined to other similar conduct, and misrepresented by his foes, at length poisoned the mind of Theodoric, who seems to have appointed one Decoratus, a man of worthless character, to share and control the power of his favourite (ib. iii. 4). As to the existence of any widespread conspiracy to overthrow the Ostrogothic rule there is but very faint evidence, and against this must be set down his own indignant self-justification (ib. i. 4). A sentence of confiscation and death was passed upon him by the senate without a trial; he was imprisoned in the Milanese territory, and ultimately executed in one of the ways named above, probably about the 50th year of his age, A.D. 520‒524. His father-in-law, Symmachus, was involved in his ruin (Procop. Goth. I. i.), and his wife, Rusticiana, reduced to beggary (ib. iii. 20). The remorse of Theodoric, which came too late to save "the last of the Romans," is the natural and tragic finish to a story which has too many parallels in history.

It was during his imprisonment that Boëthius composed his Consolation of Philosophy, a work described by Gibbon as "a golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully." It is a dialogue in prose and verse (a species of composition suggested probably by the medleys of Petronius and Capella) between the author and his visitant, Philosophy, whom he represents as a woman of reverend mien and varying stature, upon the borders of whose vesture were woven the letters Π and Θ, symbolizing no doubt the Platonic division of philosophy into πρακτική and θεωρητική. Those who regard the "Consolation" as the work of a Christian have not unnaturally been perplexed by its total silence as to the distinctive faith of Christianity, and have been forced to suppose it incomplete (Bertius, Lips. 1753), or to interpret it allegorically (Gervais, vid. Schröckh, Hist. Eccles. xvi. 118). It breathes a spirit of resignation and hope, but so does the Phaedo. It is based upon a firm belief in Providence, but it is only in his poetic flights that the author's language seems to savour of a belief in a personal God (Cons. Phil. iii. metr. 9), his faith never elsewhere rising higher than Theism, and occasionally passing into Pantheism (ib. iii. 12, et pass.). He asserts the efficiency of prayer, but the injunction thereto is drawn from the Timaeus and not from the N.T. (ib. iii. 9), while the object of his aspirations is not the στέφανος ζώης or δικαιοσύνης of the Apostle, but the summum bonum of the Greek philosopher. He has been thought to betray an acquaintance with the Christian idea of heaven (ib. i. 5, iii. 12, iv. 1, v. 1), but his patria is the peace of the philosophic mind, not the πολίτευμα ἐν οὐρανῷ ὕπαρχον. In short, the whole work, with the exception of words and phrases which merely imply an acquaintance with Christian writers, might have been written, so far as theology is concerned, by Cicero himself. The works of Boëthius prove his intimate knowledge of Greek literature, and were for centuries the only vehicle by which Greek philosophy penetrated to the West; but his chief work is now of value only as serving, along with the poetry of Claudian and Ausonius, to mark the point of contact between the thought of heathendom and the faith of Christianity. That from the 6th to the 14th cent. its author was invested with a monopoly of philosophic greatness was natural in the utter decay of learning, but it was the excess of darkness which made his light of brightness sufficient to shine across the ages till it paled in the rising splendour of the revival of letters.

His works are: de Consolatione Philosophiae libri v.; in Porphyrii Isagogen a Victorino Translatam Dialogi ii.; in eandem a se ipso Latine Translatam libri v.; in Categorias Aristotelis libri ii.; in Ejusdem Librum περὶ ἑρμηνείας lib. i.; Editionis secundae libri vi.; Analyticorum Aristotelis Priorum et Posteriorum libri iv.; Topicorum Aristotelis libri viii.; in Aristotelis Topica libri viii. (not extant); Introductio in Syllogismos Categoricos; de Syllogismis Hypotheticis libri ii.; de Divisione; de Definitione; de Differentiis Topicis libri iv.; in Topica Ciceronis libri vi.; Elenchorum Sophisticorum libri ii.; de Arithmeticâ libri ii.; de Musicâ libri v.; de Geometriâ libri ii.; also two short treatises entitled respectively "de Rhetoricae Cognatione," and "Locorum Rhetoricorum Distinctio," discovered by cardinal Mai in a MS. of the 11th cent. Doubtful works: de Unitate et Uno; de Bono; de Hebdomadibus; all of which are dedicated to pope John.

The most complete ed, of his works is in Migne's Patr. Lat., which is a collation of the best edd. The best edd. of the Consolatio are those of Theod. Obbarius (Jenae, 1843) and R. Peiper (Leipz. 1871), the latter including the theological works and prolegomena. The most interesting trans. is that into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred the Great, edited by W. J. Sedgefield (Lond. 1899). See also G. Boissier, "Le Christianisme de Boëce" in Journal des savants (Paris, 1899).

The chief ancient authorities for the life of Boëthius are the epistles of his contemporaries Cassiodorus and Ennodius, and the History of Procopius. The best modern authorities are Hand, in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclop.; and for an opposite view of his religious faith, Gustave Baur, de Boëth. Christianae Fidei Assertore (Darmst. 1841); Heyne, Censura Boëth. de Cons. Phil. (Gotting. 1805), in Opusc. Academ. vi. 142 ; the "Prologomena de Boëthii vitâ et scriptis" to the ed. of the Cons. Phil. by Obbarius; A. Hildebrand, Boëthius und seine Stelling zum Christenthum (Regussburg, 1885); and H. F. Stewart, Boëthius, an Essay (Edin. 1891).


  1. The additional name of Torquatus does not occur before the 15th cent. Bertius is the only commentator who gives the praenomen Flavius.