Biography of Ancius Boethius

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, philosopher, translator, martyr and saint of the Catholic Church, was born into the patrician Anicii gens (an Ancient Roman extended family or clan) in the waning years of the Roman empire. He was orphaned at age seven, and, as was common in those days, adopted into the house of another aristocratic family. Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus raised and educated Boethius well (and later Boethius married Symmachus's daughter, Rusticiana), and recognized his literary and philosophical talents while Boethius was still a boy. It was not common in those days for educated Romans to have knowledge of Greek (as it was in earlier centuries), but Boethius became fluent and was an avid reader of Greek philosophy, especially Plato and the NeoPlatonists.

Boethius was a polymath, and in addition to translations of Greek philosophy he wrote philosophy himself and contributed to the mathematical and musical knowledge of his time. It was one of Boethius's ambitions to translate and comment on all the known works of Plato and Aristotle, and provide a synthesis of the two greatest Greek philosophers. This was never achieved, for he was executed by the emperor Theodoric before he could complete his work. Nevertheless, the translations he did complete became the standard texts of Greek philosophy for Europe, and were the only access to these classical writers that people the Middle Ages had.

The Anicii had been among the first of the patrician gens to convert to Christianity in the fourth century A.D., and since that time they had risen in power and wealth. Boethius's family, a consular one, also included two emperors and one pope. Boethius's father had been consul, one of the two highest Roman public offices, under the barbarian king Odoacer.

Boethius came to the notice of Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king who defeated Odoacer and became Emperor while Boethius was still a young man. He became an official under this emperor with increasingly greater responsibilities, until he was made a consul without the usual co-consul, effectively making him the highest non-royal official in the Empire. During this time, however, the consulate was mostly a figurehead, but Boethius continued to rise in influence. He was made magister officiorum, the head of the entire civil service bureaucracy and the chief of the palace officials. In 522 he received an honor which he regarded as his greatest happiness. His two sons were made consuls together. The honor was accorded to Boethius rather than based on the merits of the two young men; it was a mark of favor from Theodoric and the Emperor of the Eastern Empire in Constantinople.

Boethius, while magister officiorum was required to work long hours and often leave Rome, which took him away from his library and his true calling, his pursuit of philosophy. His aim was to give his fellow countrymen, in their own language, access to the great thoughts of Greek philosophy, not only through translation but through commentary. Boethius translated Porphyry and Aristotle, and probably wrote commentaries on each of the books he translated (some are lost,) in addition to a commentary on Cicero's Topics. He also wrote five of his own books on logic, and four (possibly five, for the authenticity of one is in doubt) tractates on orthodox theology.

Boethius was, by his own and other accounts, an upright and incorruptible public official. These traits alone during the late Roman Empire would have made him many enemies, and Theodoric's favor of him would have incited more. The way Boethius's tells it, his own actions and letters were misinterpreted maliciously in order to make him look like a traitor to Theodoric, specifically regarding the sovereignty and protection of the Roman Senate (an institution that by this time was nearly moribund). Theodoric had succumbed to the jealousies and paranoia that were common in emperors of this time, and had no trouble believing that his trusted official was guilty of capital crimes. The truth of the case, and Boethius's guilt or innocence, will never be known. Boethius was imprisoned, and while awaiting his certain death by execution he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. In either 524 or 525 he was executed in the Italian city of Pavia. He is buried in the same Pavian church (San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro) as another saint of the Catholic Church, Saint Augustine.

Study Guides on Works by Ancius Boethius