Consolation of Philosophy: Biography

The Roman philosopher known as Boethius, was born in Rome around 480 CE when Italy was ruled by Germanic invaders. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius came from an old and important Christian patrician family that numbered emperors, consuls, and a pope in its lineage. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, became a Roman consul under the barbarian king, Odoacer in 487. When the young Boethius became an orphan in about 488, he became a ward of the famous Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, a learned and religious Roman Catholic and head of the Roman Senate, who gave Boethius his love of learning. Boethius was a child prodigy, and it is speculated he may have studied in Athens or Alexandria, the great seats of Greek learning. He was a master of all the liberal arts, including literature, philosophy, music, rhetoric, logic, and astronomy. He was known for his eloquence and perfect knowledge of Greek, a rare accomplishment. He set himself the task of translating the works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin, wanting to show that the two philosophers ultimately agreed in thought. Though he never finished this task, his output was prolific and responsible for the survival of the Greco-Roman tradition of learning in the medieval period that followed.


Boethius married the daughter of Symmachus, Rusticiana. He became known to King Theodoric, the Ostrogoth who defeated the previous king, Odoacer in 493 and ruled Italy from Ravenna. On the basis of his service to Theodoric, Boethius was made a consul at the age of thirty, in 510. He was later made magister officiorum, head of the king’s whole civil service, a heavy responsibility. His greatest happiness he later said was in 522 when his two sons, Symmachus and Boethius, became consuls together on the same day. 


It is thought that Boethius’s religious position got him into political trouble. Boethius was a loyal Roman Catholic, but Theodoric was a believer in Arianism, the heresy that Christ was not a divine being equal to God. In 523, Theodoric ordered Boethius to be arrested for treason and thrown into prison. He was suspected of conspiring with the Byzantine Emperor, Justin I, head of the Catholic Church in Constantinople, against Theodoric, an untrue charge Boethius thought due to the slander of rivals. Boethius was stripped of his titles and wealth and imprisoned at Pavia where he was executed the following year, still a young man in his early forties, a great loss to learning, for he never finished his proposed task of translating Greek philosophical texts. He wrote his own great work, De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) in his last year in prison. It became, next to the Bible, the most popular work in the Middle Ages. His remains were buried in the church of San Pietro in Pavia. He was called the last of the Romans and the first of the medieval scholastic philosophers.