Blessed Severinus Boethius is sometimes called the Last of the Romans.
Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born around the early 480’s to a Roman family of senatorial rank. The Gothic siege of Rome was 70 years in the past, and the barbarian Odovacar had unseated the Roman emperor in 476. In 493, Theodoric became the Ostrogothic king, and, in time, he was accepted by the Romans as the emperor of the West, while Anastasius was recognized by many as only the emperor of the East. The Greek East and Latin West had separated. Theoderic valued Roman law and culture, even if all real power was now held by the Gothic military. He wanted his Goths to keep their separate Arian faith and cultural identity, their own churches in Rome and Ravenna, while he left the Roman Christians undisturbed in their own faith and culture. Roman Catholics governed the western empire, Arian Goths controlled the western army, and the Gothic military leader held the post with the greatest power.
Boethius’s father held high positions in government, once prefect of Rome and then praetorian prefect. He died while Boethius was a child, and Boethius was then brought up by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, an even more powerful Roman consul whose family was strongly Christian. Boethius admired Symmachus and later married Symmachus’s daughter Rusticiana. Their two sons were named Symmachus and Boethius.
Symmachus moved within a Christian social circle deeply interested in Neoplatonist philosophy. Boethius studied Aristotle and the Neoplatonist writings of Porphyry and Proclus. As a young man, he wrote about arithmetic and music. Perhaps in an effort to gain the Goths’ alliance and to bring peace, he designed a sundial and a waterclock (probably assisted with other people’s technical skills), and he recommended a harpist for the Frankish king Clovis.
He formed a friendship with a man named John, who was then the Deacon of Rome. John became Boethius’s spiritual father. In the ongoing eastern debates about the divine and human nature of Christ, Boethius and John took the side of Chalcedon against Nestorius as tensions rose between the eastern and western church. A schism between the eastern and western church ran from 484 to 519, when restored church unity prompted greater interest in secular communication between Constantinople and Rome.
In 522, the Roman emperor appointed Boethius’s sons as consuls. In September, 522, Boethius was given the post of Master of the Offices, in effect the position of head of the western empire’s intelligence services. However, Boethius did not hold the position without making enemies among men he considered corrupt.
On August 6, 523, the pope died and was replaced by Pope John I, who may have been the same person as the Deacon John who had been Boethius’s spiritual father. Perhaps Boethius’s recommendation to Theodoric had assisted the selection of John I, who belonged to the pro-Byzantine group within the Roman clergy.
Around 523, a Roman private secretary named Cyprian discovered correspondence between a senator named Albinus with people associated with the eastern emperor Justin in a way that implied a Catholic conspiracy with the Catholic East against the Gothic Arian emperor Theodoric. Albinus denied the accusation, but Theodoric believed it, and Albinus was convicted without a trial.
Boethius came to Albinus’s defense, but Cyprian extended his accusation, contending that Boethius had known about Albinus’s correspondence and had covered it up. Boethius was also accused of himself writing letters expressing hope for Roman liberty from Gothic domination. Moreover, his studies of nature and pagan philosophy led to charges of sorcery in addition to the charges of treason. While there is nothing to substantiate the charges of magic, Boethius had studied astronomy, and had written about its immutable order – a subject related to astrology in the thinking of Proclus, which could have supported the accusations.
Like Albinus, Boethius was arrested. Imprisoned in Ticinum (Pavia), south of Milan, Boethius was tried in absencia by a court sitting in Rome, and was sentenced to death. While in prison, he was subjected to physical tortures, and yet wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. Perhaps partly in reaction to Boethius’ arrest, the eastern empire began to force Arians to convert to Catholic, seizing Arian churches and turning them to orthodox use. By early 525, that news would have reached Theodoric. Some time around the year 524, Boethius was beheaded in Pavia.
About 50 years after his death, East and West were in fact reunited, restoring the west to Christian control, with the Goths becoming assimilated into western Catholic culture. Boethius, through his death, is thought to have had an impact on the future course of events in both East and West, helping to hold the Church in the unity that remained until the middle of the eleventh century (although not without conflict).
During the Middle Ages, Boethius' work was greatly respected. In the ninth century, his death was seen as a martyr’s death for Catholic piety. His body was entombed in the same church where St. Augustine's body was transferred in the early 8th century, the Church of St. Peter in Caelo Aureo in Pavia. Boethius' philosophical writings greatly influenced the study of music and mathematics in the ninth and tenth centuries, including influence on the work of Gerbert of Aurillac in the tenth century, and later studies of Aristotle in medieval scholasticism. More information about his importance to that era is included in a post on Europe from 741 to 1003 here.
Additional information and a list of writings attributed to Boethius can be found on the Patron Saints Index here.
The primary bibliiographical sources used in this post were P.G. Walsh's Introduction to The Consolation of Philosophy (1999) and Henry Chadwick's book Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (Clarendon 1990).