Imprisonment and Death of Boethius Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The imprisonment and death of the philosopher Boethius resulted in the composition of one of the Western world’s most influential books, The Consolation of Philosophy.

Summary of Event

The philosopher, theologian, poet, and statesman Boethius was unjustly accused of treason by Theodoric the Great Theodoric the Great , king of the Ostrogoths and governor of Italy, imprisoned at Pavia, tortured, and executed in the year 524. While imprisoned, he composed what many consider to be the single most influential book for the medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Western world: De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy Consolation of Philosophy, The (Boethius) , late ninth century). [kw]Imprisonment and Death of Boethius (524) [kw]Boethius, Imprisonment and Death of (524) Boethius Italy;524: Imprisonment and Death of Boethius[0080] Cultural and intellectual history;524: Imprisonment and Death of Boethius[0080] Government and politics;524: Imprisonment and Death of Boethius[0080] Boethius Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus Theodoric the Great

Boethius, or Boece (center), with Lady Philosophy in Jean de Meung’s fifteenth century translation of The Consolation of Philosophy.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Boethius belonged to an ancient, noble Roman family. He was a Roman senator, Roman consul in 510, and magister officiorum (“master of the palace”) in 522. He had a very successful career as a statesman under Theodoric and was actually a friend of Theodoric, but the king accused him of treason, banished him from Rome, and had him imprisoned, tortured, and executed at Pavia. Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths Ostrogoths (the East Goths), had migrated with his whole tribe from the eastern end of the Roman Empire to Italy. Migrations;Ostrogoths to Italy In addition to being king of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric became, as a result of conquest, governor of Italy with the approbation of the Roman emperor in Constantinople.

The situation was partly a result of the fall of Rome, the change from ancient classical Rome with its emperors and senators to early medieval Rome with its barbarian overlords. Boethius was part of the old order, and Theodoric was a leader of the new order. The situation would be complicated enough if it were political alone; however, there was the further complication of religion. Boethius is believed to have been a Catholic Christian, and Theodoric was an Arian Christian. This meant that Boethius’s Christian faith was orthodox according to the Roman episcopal teaching about Christ as true God and true man, whereas Theodoric’s Christian faith was considered heretical, holding that Christ was neither truly God nor truly man but a being having a human body with divine essence.

The accusation of treason against Boethius occurred in 523 and took the form of four separate charges. As laid forth by Richard Green in an introduction to his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy, these were, by Boethius’s own account: (1) that he wished to safeguard the Senate; (2) that he obstructed the use of (perjured) testimony against the Senate; (3) that he wished to preserve Rome’s freedom; and (4) that he had committed sacrilege by contacting evil spirits. These charges were both politically and religiously motivated. The Senate, with a long and august tradition during the Roman Republic and Empire, probably chaffed under the new Gothic governor, Theodoric, even though he was technically under the jurisdiction of Emperor Justin I in the East. Also, Theodoric’s Arianism made him a heretic to his Roman Catholic subjects. It seems likely that Theodoric might see Boethius’s loyalties to the Senate and to Roman Catholicism as dangerous or at least disloyal.

Nevertheless, there seems to be universal agreement that Boethius was not guilty of the offenses of which he was accused. This innocence makes his torture, which was most unusual for a Roman senator, even more heinous. Reportedly, a strap was tied around his eyes and temples and then tightened to inflict great pain. The mode of execution itself is also clearly out of keeping with the dignity of a Roman senator; he was clubbed to death. Boethius’s adoptive father and father-in-law, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus Symmachus, Quintus Aurelius Memmius , also a Roman senator and consul, was executed under similar vague charges of treason with Boethius or within the following year.

Before the imprisonment, Boethius was not only a trusted and influential statesman but also a prominent philosopher and theologian. He learned Greek early in his training and had set a goal for himself to translate into Latin and to comment on all the works of both Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy;Italy Italy;philosophy His further goal was to reconcile the two philosophies based on his understanding of their essential agreement with one another. Because of his political duties and particularly because of his untimely death, he did not get very far with his major project of reconciling Plato and Aristotle. He did make some important beginnings particularly with the writings of Aristotle Aristotle , including the Organon (335-323 b.c.e.; English translation, 1812). In addition, he composed original books on logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy as well as several Christian theological books. Although much of his work is unfinished, he left a legacy both of syntheses of ancient writings and of his own original writings. Much of what he accomplished and published became standard and basic textbook material for medieval, Renaissance, and early modern schools and universities. This alone would have made him memorable and worthy of admiration and study.

The Wheel of Fortune was a common allegory for the inconstancy of life; Lady Philosophy instructs Boethius that those who tie their happiness to Fortune are doomed to disappointment. From Jean de Meung’s fifteenth century French translation of The Consolation of Philosophy.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

What he composed while imprisoned, however, is his true legacy. Under the shadow of torture and anticipated execution, he composed The Consolation of Philosophy. This work is in five books, each consisting of alternating sections of prose and poetry. The prose sections are presented as a dialogue between the persona of Boethius and the allegorical Lady Philosophy. Philosophy instructs Boethius, through a series Platonic or Socratic exchanges, leading him to understand the true nature of happiness—that it is not the result of material wealth and other worldly goods but rather the equivalent of truth, love, and indeed God. Lady Fortune also plays a role in this allegorical instruction. Lady Philosophy teaches not only about Fortune’s deceptive role in human happiness but also reveals to Boethius the nature of evil, providence, free will, the supreme good, and the simplicity and perfection of divine knowledge. The Platonic and neo-Platonic character of the work is seamlessly integrated with its Christian values, and it is perhaps for this reason—as well as its treatment of the age-old problem of evil and its attacks on the undeserving (here Boethius and Job have much in common)—that the influence of The Consolation of Philosophy would endure into the Renaissance and still is read outside as well as inside the classroom.


The lessons of The Consolation of Philosophy are closely linked to the core of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern thinking: Succeeding generations found Boethius’s philosophical and poetical approach to theological questions not only intriguing but also convincing and truly consoling, and the book quickly became favorite reading for thousands of people. Early translators of the book into English included King Alfred the Great, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth I. In the realm of literary style, Boethius’s use of allegorical figures would be echoed in Alain of Lille’s Dreamer and Lady Nature, in the figure Reason in Le Roman de la rose (c. 1230; The Romance of the Rose, 1914-1924), in Dante’s Philosophy in Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1887), in Chaucer’s vision poems, in William Langland’s The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362, c. 1377, and c. 1393), and more subtly in later works of literature and drama. Like the biblical Job, Boethius learns, and demonstrates, how little humans really understand about themselves and about God. Boethius’s imprisonment, torture, and execution produced a major work of literature that informs not only philosophy and religion but the forms through which they have been expressed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Astell, Ann W. Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. An exploration of Boethius’s role in the history of the genres of allegory and epic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Margaret, ed. Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981. A collection of fourteen major scholarly essays to celebrate the fifteen hundredth anniversary of Boethius’s birth: 480-1980.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoenen, Maarten J. F. M., and Lodi Nauta, eds. Boethius in the Middle Ages: Latin and Vernacular Traditions of the “Consolatio philosophiae.” New York: Brill, 1997. Translations and analysis of The Consolation of Philosophy. Bibliography and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marenbon, John. Boethius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A biography of Boethius in the Great Medieval Thinkers series. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Jamie S. Christians and Tyrants: The Prison Testimonies of Boethius, Thomas More, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: P. Lang, 1995. An analysis and comparison of three Christians who were imprisoned.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Varvis, Stephen. The “Consolation” of Boethius: An Analytical Inquiry into His Intellectual Processes and Goals. San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1991. A standard historical and philosophical account of Boethius’s importance.

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