Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a member of one of the most influential Roman families of the 5th c. AD. He was presumably born between 475 and 477 AD; after losing his father in his youth, he was adopted by Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, who contributed to his cultural education and advanced his political career (Marenbon 2003).
We have no precise information about the studies that he undertook: we do know, however, that he was influenced by Symmachus’ interests in Neoplatonism (Chadwick 1981) and by the thinking of Ammonius (Courcelle 1935). Boethius’ broad education secured his success in politics: he became consul in 510 AD and was nominated magister officiorum in 522 AD. Although Theodoric had shown his esteem and admiration for Boethius’ education and learning up to this point (Cassiodorus, Variae 1.45), the emperor accused him of sacrilegium in 523 AD. The exact circumstances of his fall into disgrace are unclear. The senator Albinus was accused of treason for allegedly having contact with certain people close to the emperor Justin; despite proclaiming his innocence, he was condemned by Theodoric without due process. It seems that when Boethius stepped in to defend the senator, he was himself accused of destroying evidence on Albinus’ orders; he was then arrested, brought to Pavia, and condemned to death, dying between 524 and 526 AD (Marenbon 2003).
The chronology of Boethius’ writings has been much discussed, but their dating is in many cases uncertain (De Rijk 1964). The De institutione arithmetica and the De institutione musica, both written about 504 AD, are the oldest of his works that are known to us; both aim at disseminating the arts of the quadrivium. The first treatise, dedicated to Symmachus, is based on the writings of Nicomachus of Jerash; in it, Boethius advocates the view that mathematics can help people understand the truth by distancing them from sensory impressions. The second treatise, inspired by Ptolemy’s Harmonic Elements, presents music as the concrete product of mathematical relationships. Boethius also wrote a treatise on Euclidean geometry (Cassiodorus, Inst. 152.10) and an essay on astronomy that are no longer extant (Orbetello 1974).
He then focused on philosophy and developed a desire to translate and comment on all the works of Plato and Aristotle in order to make them more accessible to Latin speakers and to demonstrate that harmony existed between the two philosophers (Peri herm. 2.78.16-80). This was a project of massive scope, and Boethius consequently never finished it: he did, however, complete translations and commentaries on Porphyry’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s Categories and De interpretatione; translations of Aristotle’s Analytics, Topics, and Sophistic Refutations; and a commentary on Cicero’s Topics; in addition to composing five original essays on logic (De divisione, De topicis differentiis, De syllogismo categorico, Introductio ad syllogismos categoricos, and De hypotheticis syllogismis). These philosophical writings were incredibly influential: until the end of the 12th c., they constituted the chief source for the study of logic in the Latin West (Thomsen 2008).
Boethius was also an active participant in the theological debates of his day; these were mostly undertaken in the East and were concerned with the delicate problem of the relationship with the Arians. He wrote various theological opusculi in which he applied philosophical principles to Christianity: the oldest is the Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, one of the most original Latin contributions to the definition of the two natures of Christ. Around 520 AD, Boethius composed the De Trinitate, which explained how the Trinity was, in fact, a single God; later treatises analyzed the three divine persons in relation to their substance and the symbol of the Christian faith. Boethius’ religious opusculi had such a profound influence on the development of theology in the Middle Ages that they became the object of a study and commentary by Thomas Aquinas (Perutelli 2010).
Despite the immense importance of his philosophical and theological writings, Boethius’ most famous work is undoubtedly his last: the Consolatio philosophiae, a prosimetrical work in five books that was written during Boethius’ time in prison, presents itself as a protreptic discourse in the form of a “revelation” of personified Philosophy and treats a remarkably wide range of themes and arguments. Undertaking a marvelous synthesis of Neoplatonism and Christianity, Boethius addresses diverse issues like the problem of evil, the persecution of the just, free will, and the intervention of God in creation. [M. Ferroni; tr. C. L. Caterine].