The Execution of Boethius
Jack Percival, Dickson College, 2008

Boethius was a prominent member of the Western Roman Empire during the early 6th century, and was executed in c. 525 by Theodoric the Great, who was then the King of Italy. Boethius’ execution was most probably not the product of one single event, but instead a long string of events that lead up to a single outcome. Boethius himself gives reason for his execution, although the truth behind it has been debated, due to there being no other detailed account of the events found in writing, and that he would have most likely shown some bias when speaking of his accusers. If his account from The Consolation of Philosophy (c.524) is used, a relatively clear view of why he was actually executed can be gathered. He states in The Consolation (c.524), that it was a small number of Ostrogoths who were responsible for his prosecution, and that Theodoric was responsible for condemning him to death. It is extraordinary that Theodoric, who had previously been so close to Boethius, would execute his head of state so readily. The reasons for Theodoric’s change of heart and Boethius’ death are hidden within the lives of these two men.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boetius, known in English as Boethius, is best known today as a philosopher, and the author of the long published De Consolatione Philosophiae (c.524) The Consolation of Philosophy (Watts 1969). In addition to philosophy, Boethius studied mathematics, music, logic, geometry, astronomy, and poetry, and was also at the head of the civil service of his day (Watts, 1969). Boethius regarded his job as a statesman as his duty towards Rome. This was because he believed, like Plato hundreds of years before him, that philosophers should rule the state (Boethius, c. AD 524). Subsequently, Boethius had a desire to do what was good for Rome, instead of a will to succeed for power.

It is through The Consolation Of Philosophy that Boethius’ actions can be seen to lead to his execution, and it shows that it was partly his acts of selflessness that did so. Boethius says in The Consolation, that he was “…accused of having prevented an informer from delivering certain papers with which he intended to show the senate guilty of treason.” (Boethius in Watts, 1969, p43). The informer Boethius tried to prevent from delivering the evidence would have most likely been sent by Theodoric, who is believed to have wanted the senate destroyed at this time. Despite what Boethius says about his innocence, he admits that he was guilty to these accusations, although it was his sense of duty towards Rome that drove him. The papers that the informer carried could have destroyed the senate.

Partly because of this, Boethius came under the suspicions of King Theodoric, who had previously favoured Boethius above many other Roman statesmen. Theodoric, at this time, was in a very vulnerable position concerning his rule over Italy and what was left of the declining Western Empire. Theodoric was born the son of the Ostrogothic king, Theodemir, and had grown up in the palace at Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire (Watts, 1969). This was in accordance with a peace treaty between the Ostrogothic people, and the Eastern Roman Emperor. Because of this treaty, Theodoric had a very close relationship with the emperor Zeno, and would later be encouraged by Zeno to invade Italy, and become King of the Western Roman Empire. It was this close relationship between Theodoric and Zeno, that allowed Theodoric to stay king of Italy when Zeno died and Anastasius became emperor of the East, even though he was an invading barbarian (Hodgkin, 2006). Theodoric also evaded prosecution of his religion by the Eastern Empire, because Anastasius was undergoing his own religious troubles, which led to him becoming out of favour with the Eastern Patriarch, and a great number of the population (Hodgkin, 2006).

It came as no surprise that when Anastasius died, and the next Emperor of the East Justin I, was chosen, Theodoric and his Arian beliefs came into trial (Hodgkin, 2006). A relatively peaceful relationship between Theodoric and the East was coming to an end with attempts at prosecution, and even the peace between the people of Rome, the Italians and the Ostrogoths, was being disturbed by the difference in their beliefs. Thomas Hodgkin describes the views of the people, and the way in which they lived at this time quite clearly:

Through the years of religious schism this conflict of duties had slumbered, but now, with the enthusiastic reconciliation between the see of Rome [The Pope] and the throne of Constantinople [Emperor Justin], it awoke; and in that age when, as has been already said, religion was nationality, an orthodox Eastern emperor seemed a much more fitting object of homage than an Arian Italian king.” (Hodgkin, 2006, No page number)

The religious schism he talks of is the way in which the East and West were split due to Anastasius and Zeno’s Orthodox religious views in opposition to Theodoric's Arianism.. His views were unpopular with the Catholic population of the Western Empire, and, as mentioned before, became even more unpopular with the people of the East. As the church of the West strengthened its relationship with the East, the Italian population of the West began to see their king as a heretic, and so Theodoric’s own people did not see him in the same light anymore. Because of these incidents, Theodoric became suspicious, which was an aspect unfamiliar to his character and had eventually begun to suspect the senate of conspiring with the East (Hodgkin, 2006). This is why Theodoric was in such a delicate position, and the reason for his suspicions against Boethius.

After the events that led to Boethius being under the watchful eye of Theodoric, three men, Basilius, Opilio and Guadentius, came forward with evidence against Boethius (Boethius c. AD 524 in Watts 1969). According to Boethius, these men were said to have committed countless frauds, and were subsequently banished from the city. Although the accuracy of the account cannot be verified, the men were then confronted by an outside source, and were told to produce evidence that would condemn Boethius, and in return would not be banished from the city (Boethius c. AD 524 IN watts 1969). The person that confronted these men is not known, as Boethius does not know or does not mention his name. Boethius does say, however, that through his own actions in protecting the state, he would have made many enemies. So it can be guessed that it was either someone within the senate that was seeking more power, or someone who Boethius had previously prevented from committing an unjust or immoral crime to the state. The men produced forged letters that Boethius states were “…cited as evidence that I [Boethius] had hoped for the freedom of Rome…” (Boethius c.524 in Watts, 1969, p43). The nature of these letters are not known, but can be assumed to be addressed to Boethius from the Eastern Emperer Justin, and are shown by this quote to be about a rebellion or conspiracy against Theodoric. Theodoric would have, from hearing of this new evidence against Boethius, realised that his suspicions were true, and hastily condemned Boethius, and imprisoned him in Pavia, where he awaited his execution.

It is believed by some, that Boethius’ account of the events in The Consolation of Philosophy cannot be relied on for actual events and information. This is mainly due to possible bias and that the account cannot be completely verified by another source. Its accuracy, however, is hard to debate, due to it being written by Boethius himself just before his execution, and being a contemporary source. By using Boethius’ own description of events, a relatively clear understanding of why he was actually condemned can be achieved, and by looking deeper into the life of Theodoric and the happenings of the time, it can be seen why he chose to execute his head of state. Boethius’ sense of duty towards his role in the state; combined with Theodoric’s paranoia, and his suspicions against his statesmen due to the change in the increasingly dominant Christian ethos, and his consequent threat to his leadership and rule of Italy, resulted ultimately in Boethius’ execution.

Jack Percival, Dickson College 2008


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