Warfare and Military Affairs in the Letters of Cassiodorus

CassiodorusFlavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, born c. 490, d. c. 585, was by turns statesman and monk, leaving behind a substantial and varied body of literary work. Cassiodorus or, more properly, Senator, born on the paternal estate at Scyllaceum (Squillace) in 490 or somewhat earlier, made his first appearance as councillor to the prætorian prefect about 501. He moved up to the position of chief councilor to Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths. Among his writings are his letters, which were gathered into twelve books, the “Variæ”, at the close of 537. This voluminous correspondence does not contain as much historical information as one would expect, dates, figures, names of men and places being frequently omitted as opposed to elegance of style. Several of these letters involve military matters, usually dealing with preparing defences and keeping armies from pillaging their own people. Many of these letters were written by Cassiodorus on behalf of King Theordoric. The items produced below are only portions of the full letters. For the full texts of these letters, in Latin, please visit this website.

Book I, Letter 17: King Theodoric to all the Gothic and Roman inhabitants of Dertona (Tortona)

We have decided that the camp near you shall at once be fortified. It is expedient to execute works of this kind in peace rather than in war. The true meaning of expeditio shows that the leader of a military expedition should have an unencumbered mind. Do you therefore second our efforts by building private houses, in which you will be sheltered, while the enemy (whenever he comes) will be in the worst possible quarters, and exposed to all the severity of weather.

Book I, Letter 28: King Theodoric to all the Goths and Romans

Most unworthy of Royal attention is the rebuilding of ancient cities , an adornment in time of peace, a precaution for time of war. Therefore, if anyone have in his fields stones suitable for building walls, let him cheerfully and promptly produce them. Even though he should be paid at a low rate, he will have his reward as a member of the community, which will benefit thereby.

Book I, Letter 40: King Theodoric to Assuin (or Assuis), Vir Illustris and Comes

War needs rehearsal and preparation. Therefore let your Illustrious Sublimity provide the inhabitants of Salona with arms, and let practice themselves in the use of them; for the surest safeguard of the Republic is an armed defender. The necessity of drill and practice is shown by the early combats of bullocks, the play-hunting of puppies, the necessity of first kindling a fire with very little sticks, and so forth.

Book II, Letter 5: King Theodoric to Faustus, Praepositus

We are always generous, and sometimes out of clemency we bestow our gifts on persons who have no claim upon us. How much more fitting is it then that the servants of the State should receive our gifts promptly! Wherefore, pray let your Magnificence see to it that the sixty soldiers who are keeping guard in the fastnesses of Aosta receive their annonae without delay. Think what a life of hardship the soldier leads in those frontier forts for the general peace, thus, as at the gate of the Province, must be ever on the alert who seeks to keep out the Barbarians. For fear alone checks these men, who honour will not keep back.

Book III, Letter 38: King Theodoric to Wandil (probably a Gothic officer)

Our Piety wishes that there should be order and good government everywhere in our dominions, but especially in Gaul, that our new subjects there may form a good opinion of the ruler under whom they have come. Therefore by this authority we charge you to see that no violence happen in Avignon where you reside. Let our army live civiliter with the Romans, and let the latter feel that our troops are come for their defence, not their annoyance.

Book III, Letter 48: King Theodoric to all the Goths and Romans living near the Fort of Verruca

It is the duty and the glory of a ruler to provide with wise forethough for the safety of his subjects. We have therefore ordered the Sajo Leodifirid that under his superintendence you should build yourselves houses in the fort Verruca which from its position receives its most suitable name [in this case, Verruca probably means a steep cliff].

For it is the midst of the plains a hill of stone roundly arising, which with its tall sides, being bare of woods, is all one great mountain fortress. Its lower parts are slenderer than its summit, and like some softest fungus the top broadens out, while it is thin at bottom. It is a mound not made by soldiers, a stronghold made safe by Nature, where the besieger can try no coup-de-main and the besieged need feel no panic. Past this fort swirls the Adige, that prince of rivers, with the pleasant gurgle of his clear waters, affording a defence and an adornment in one. It is a fort almost unequalled in the whole world, a key that unlocks a kingdom, and all the more important because it bars the invasion of wild and savage nations. This admirable defence what inhabitants would not wish to share, since even foreigners delight to visit it and though by God’s blessing we trust that the Province [of Raetia] is in our times secure, yet it is the part of prudence to guard against evils, though we may think they will not arise.

Examples of gulls, who fly inland when they foresee a storm; of dolphins, which seek the shallower waters; of the edible sea-urchin, ‘that honey of flesh, that dainty of the deep’, who anchors himself to a little pebble to prevent being dashed about by the waves; of birds, who change their dwellings when winter draws nigh; of beasts, who adapt their lair to the time of the year. And shall man alone be improvident? Shall he not imitate that higher Providence by which the world is governened?

Book V, Letter 11: King Theodoric to the Gepidae, on their march to Gaul

We desire that our soldiers should always be well paid, and that they should never become the terror of the country which they are ordered to defend. Do you therefore, Sajo Veranus, cause the Gepid troops whom we have ordered to come to the defence of Gaul, to march in all peace and quietness through Venetia and Liguria.

You Gepidae shall receive three solidi per week; and we trust that thus supplied you will everywhere buy your provisions, and not take them by force.

We generally give the soldiers their pay in kind, but in this case, for obvious reasons, we think better to pay them in money, and let them buy for themselves.

If their wagons are becoming shaky with the long journey, or their beasts of burden weary, let them exchange for sound wagons and fresh beasts with the inhabitants of the country, but on such terms that the latter shall not regret the transaction.

Book V, Letter 13: King Theodoric to Eutropius and Acretius

We rely upon you to collect the proscribed rations and deliver them to the soldiers. It is most important that they should be regularly supplied, and that there should be no excuse for pillage, so hard to check once an army has begun to practise it.

Book V, Letter 16: King Theodoric to Abundantius, Praetorian Praefect

By Divine inspiration we have determined to raise a navy which may both ensure the arrival of the cargoes of public corn and may, if need be, combat the ships of an enemy. For, that Italy, a country abounding in timber, should not have a navy of her own has often stricken us with regret.

Let your Greatness therefore give directions for the construction of 1,000 dromones. Wherever cypresses and pines are found near to the seashore, let them be bought at a suitable price.

Then as to the levy of sailors: any fitting man, if a slave, must be hired of his master, or bought at a reasonable price. If free, he is to receive 5 solidi as donative, and will have his rations during the term of service.

Even those who were slaves are to be treated in the same way, since it is a kind of freedom to serve the Ruler of the State; and are to receive, according to their condition, two or three solidi of bounty money.

Fishermen, however, are not to enlisted in this force, since we lose with regret one whose vocation it is to provide us with luxuries; and moveover one kind of training is required for him who has to face the stormy wind, and another for who need only fish close to shore.

Book X, Letter 18: King Theodahad to the Senate of the City of Rome

Anxious that what we are devising for your safety should not be misinterpreted by bitter suspicion, we do you to wit that the army which is marching to Rome is intended for your defence, in order that they who covet your possessions may by Divine help be resisted by the arms of the Goths. If the shepherd is bound to watch over his flock, the father of the family to see that no crafty deceiver enter therein, with what anxious care ought not we to defend the City of Rome, which by universal consent is unequalled in the world. So precious a possession must not be staked upon any throw. But that the defence of the City may be in no wise burdensome to you, we have ordered that the soldiers shall pay at the ordinary market rate for the provisions which they require; and we have desired Vacco, the steward of our house, to superintend these purchases. He is a man of valour and integrity, whose character will secure him the obedience of the troops, and enable him to prevent any excesses.

As for the soldiers, we have told them to take up their quarters in fitting places, that without there may be armed defences, within for you, tranquil order.

God forbid that in our days that the City should seem to be protected by walls, the very name of which has been of old a terror to the nations. We hope for this from the aid of Heaven, that she who has always been free may never be stained by the insult of any blockade.

These texts are from: The Letters of Cassiodorus, being a a condensed translation of the Variae Epistolae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, by Thomas Hodgkin (London, 1886).

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