Boethius, De Consolatione, book 1 poem 5: facing an unjust death penalty

By : Leo Tepper

In my post on Jordanes I mentioned Theodoric the Great (451-526), the Gothic emperor of the Italy. He was a successful ruler, praised for his cleverness and his support of  Roman culture, but there is one very black stain on his life: he was responsible for the death of the philosopher Boethius (480-524 or 525). Boethius was of high Roman descent with good connections with the Roman upper-class. He was a Platonist with a great knowledge of the logic of Aristotle. He wrote various treatises on logic and music and though a layman, he was also asked to write treatises on various aspects of the Christian faith, especially on such difficult topics as the Trinity, because of his deep knowledge of logic. He held a high position at the court of Theodoric, but in 523 he accused of having a treacherous correspondence with Justian 1, emperor of the Eastern Roman empire with whom  Theodoric had bad relations.  Boethius disputed the charge, but was not believed and was put into prison. It was under such circumstances that he wrote his De consolatione Philosophiae , The consolation of Philosophy. It would become one of the most wide read texts of the Middle Ages, being translated in various languages such as Old High German and Anglo-Saxon. The latter translation was made by Alfred the Great (849-899), king and scholar, in order to introduce his people into philosophy..
What is remarkable about this work is that – facing death – Boethius seeks consolation in philosophy, not in Christian faith. It is possible of course that philosophy is an allegory for Christianity and indeed since it was published, or rather copied, readers have sought all kind of allusions to Christianity.
There are, but living in a Christian culture and Christianity being explained within the concepts of Neo-Platonism , this is not surprising. Somehow I have the feeling that Boethius turned away from Christianity or maybe he was more platonic than Christian all his life and with his execution imminent, he sought consolation with his true love…
Boethius was executed and according to one version a rope was attached round his head and tightened till his eyes bulged out, but this seems to me more belonging to hagiography, than to historical truth, but you never know.
The De consolatione  Philosophiae consists of both prose and poetry, a form known as the mennipean satire. Don’t misunderstand here the word satire: it comes from Latin satura, dish with various ingredients offerd to the gods and hence a literary work with both prose and poetry. The modern word `satire’ comes from Greek Satyr,
In the beginning Boethius complains about his situation, but then a woman appears to him, at one moment a normal woman, but at the other of infinite height with her head reaching the stars. He recognizes her as Philosophia and she tells him that he has always been a faithful pupil and she will not let him down in these moments of distress and misery. Ah yes, but what does it help me that I am innocently imprisoned and waiting for my execution? And Boethius starts complaining about the injustice in the world. He addresses the maker of the universe accusing him of having made laws for everything, but not for human behavior:
O stelliferi conditor orbis,
qui perpetuo nixus solio
rapido caelum turbine uersas
legemque pati sidera cogis,              5
ut nunc pleno lucida cornu
totis fratris obuia flammis
condat stellas luna minores,
nunc obscuro pallida cornu
Phoebo propior lumina perdat                  10
et qui primae tempore noctis
agit algentes Hesperos ortus
solitas iterum mutet habenas
Phoebi pallens Lucifer ortu.
Tu frondifluae frigore brumae                   15
stringis lucem breviore mora,
tu cum fervida uenerit aestas
agiles nocti dividis horas.
Tua vis varium temperat annum,
ut quas Boreae spiritus aufert
revehat mites Zephyrus frondes,      20
quaeque Arcturus semina vidit
sirius altas urat segetes:
nihil antiqua lege solutum
linquit propriae stationis opus.
Omnia certo fine gubernans,            25
hominum solos respuis actus
merito rector cohibere modo.
Nam cur tantas lubrica uersat
Fortuna uices? Premit insontes
debita sceleri noxia poena,               30
at peruersi resident celso
mores solio sanctaque calcant
iniusta vice colla nocentes .
Latet obscuris condita virtus
clara tenebris iustusque tulit            35
crimen iniqui.
Nil periuria, nil nocet ipsis
fraus mendaci compta colore.
Sed cum libuit viribus uti,
quos innumeri metuunt populi                  40
summos gaudent subdere reges.
O iam miseras respice terras,
quisquis rerum foedera nectis!
Operis tanti pars non vilis
homines quatimur fortunae salo.     45
Rapidos, rector, comprime fluctus
et quo caelum regis immemsum
Firma stabiles foedere terras.
The poem is in anapestic dimeters, but let’s not worry about that.
stellifer, – feri: star-bearing, starry
conditor:  this word does not necessarily refer to the Christian god
orbisorbis: circle
nitor, nixus sum: here: to rest
solium: throne
turboturbinis: whirl
verso (1): keep turning
patior,  passus sum: undergo, endure
pleno lucida (luna r.8) cornu: the shining (moon) with full horn (i.e. with full crescent)
obvius: exposed
fratris: the Sun. In Latin the sun is masculine, whereas in Germanic languages it is feminine (German: die Sonne) and the moon is masculine (German: der Mond).  Latin sol, English sun, Greek helios, Sanskrit svar all go back to the same Indo-European root *séh2u-l with originally a root n in the oblique cases. This explains the variance between sol and sun. In Sanskrit l and r are interchangeable in some cases, so therefore svar. The complexity of this word indicates that it belongs to the earliest strata of Indo-European. The difference in grammatical gender between Germanic and the other languages is unexplained.
condo (3): to hide
nunc obscuro pallida cornu Phoebo propior lumina perdat  =  nunc(luna),  Phoebo propior, obscuro cornu pallida lumina perdat
Phoebus: the sun. Originally an epithet for Apollo, who was from the 4th century BC regarded as the sungod.
propior + dat.: closer to
obscuro cornu: with dark crescent
pallidus: bleak
perdo (3): to lose
et qui…Hesperos = et Hesperos, qui. Hesperos is Venus as Eveningstar and is a Greek nominative.
agit algentes ortus: brings cooling risings = who brings coldness, when she rises.
Solitas iterum mutet habenas: The idea is that Venus as Morningstar halts her car (mutet habenas: brings her reins to silence. The conjunctive is because it is still dependent on ut in line 5) when the sun arises. Solitas (usual) and iterum emphasizes that this is all in tune with the laws of the Conditor.
frondifluae frigore brumae: wintertime
frondifluus: leaf-falling
frigor, -oris: cold
bruma: the shortest day
stringo: draw tight, compress
breviore mora: into a very short interval  (mora: lapse of time, interval)
fervidus: glowing, burning
venerit: conjuntive of the perfect where classical Latin uses the conjunctive of the imperfect.
aestas, –atis: summer
agilis; quick, agile
visviris: power
varius: changing
tempero (1):  to regulate, arrange
ut quas Boreae spiritus aufert revehat mites Zephyrus frondes = ut frondes, quas Boreae spiritus aufert, mites Zephyrus revehat
BoreasBoreae: the northern wind
spiritus, -us: breath, air
aufero (3): to take away
reveho (3): bring back
mites, is: soft
Zephyrus: a gentle west wind, western breeze, zephyr
quaeque Arcturus semina vidit =  et semina, quae Arcturus vidit
Arcturus: The brightest star in Bootes,, whose rising and setting was supposed to portend tempestuous weather.
semen, seminis: seed
Sirius: the Dog star
uro (3): to burn
segessegitis (f): corn, crop
nihil antiqua lege solutum linquit propriae stationis opus. (asyndeton) = nihil antiqua lege solutum (est et) (re)linquit propriae stationis opus.
solutus + abl.: free from
linquit propriae stationis opus: and leaves the work of it proper position (i.e. the work it is ordered to do)
finis, -s (f): limit, boundary
solos… actussolos is predicate: the acts of mankind as the only.
respuo (3): to dislike
merito: justly
rector: predicate:  as ruler
cohibeo: to confine, contain
lubricus: slippery
vicis, -is: change, alternation
Premit insontes debita sceleri noxia poena =  noxia poena debita sceleri insontes premit
poena: punishment
insons, -ontis: innocent
debita sceleri: which ought to be given to a wicked deed (scelus,sceleris (n))
perversi with mores
celsus: high
calco (1): trample, tread on
vice: instead of
collum: the neck
nocens, -entis: wicked (noceo: to hurt)
Latet obscuris condita virtus clara tenebris = virtus clara (in) obscuris tenebris latet
lateo: to lie hidden
tenebrae. -arum: darkness, gloom
tulitfero ferre tuli latum: to bear, carry
iniquus: wicked, evil (person)
periurium: false oath
noceo + dat.: to hurt
frausfraudis (f): fraud
mendax, –acis: cheatful (with colore, adjectives with a consonant stem have the ablative  in i, though e is also possible.)
comptus: adorned
libetlibuit: it pleases
utor + abl.: to make use of
metuo (3): to fear
subdo (3): to subdue
respicio: to look down
quisquis, not qui: whoever that god might be.
rerum: genitivus obiectivus: for the world. Res has her the meaning `material world’, cf. De Rerum Naturae
foedusfoederis (n): treaty, but here more or less equivalent with lex.Also in line 48.
necto (3):  bind, fasten
Operis tanti pars non vilis is apposition to homines: we human beings, not the meanest part of such a creation, etc.
quatio: shake, break, crush
salum: open sea
comprimo (3): press together, restrain
fluctus, -us: wave, tide
quo: where, in what place
regis: verb!
firmo, to make firm, strengthen
stabiles: resultative adjective: in order that the world is stabile ..
In a school edition I have from the German catholic publishing house Aschendorff, the editor  wants to see in the last two lines a rephrasing of fiat voluntas tau, sicut in caelo et in terra from the Lord’s prayer, but I am not so sure…
In one of the next posts I will give Philosophia’s answer.

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