How is it that we can go to a bookstore today and find great works of antiquity such as the writings of Julius Caesar, Aristotle, Tacitus, Tertullian, Augustine, and Ambrose? How is it that today we have at least 5,800 copies of the Greek New Testament, and some 18,000 Non-Greek manuscripts (Latin, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, etc.)? Although many unknown people had their hand in hand copying ancient writings, you can thank primarily one man who stood on the edge of a receding world and the beginning of a new world: Cassiodorus.
Cassiodorus was a Roman and a Christian, who along with his fellow Christian Roman, Boethius, kept learning alive as the old western Roman Empire collapsed the late fifth century. Now, when the city of Rome was conquered by the Goths in 476 AD, people did not wake up the next day and say, “Well there goes Rome…that was the end of the ancient world, now we are in the beginning of the Medieval World. This is the Dark Ages and it’s really going to stink for all of us the next thousand years until the Renaissance shows up.” As far as people knew, something had changed, but they still considered themselves Romans, and many of the old Roman institutions continued for the next 100 years or so. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485-c.585 AD) was born into this world of great political and social upheaval. He along with his pal Boethius served the same Ostrogothic king, Theodoric.
The Goths were not Romans, and he and other Romans probably did not like the idea of working with them. He and others also realized that institutions of learning and preserving the good heritage of the ancient world were breaking down. So, we can thank him for doing a few things. First, he founded a monastery on his estate. He called this home/monastery “Vivarium” (which means in English “place of life”). What a wonderful name for a home! There Christians could come and live communally. Those who stayed and considered themselves to be monks would not only pray, sing, and worship and work on their inner spiritual life, but Cassiodorus told them that there they would preserve the learning of the ancient world for future generations. He had a desire that learning the great works of the past should not fade away. So the monks began the task of copying the Bible and ancient Christian literature (the writings of the early church theologians, lectionaries, prayer books, etc.). Cassiodorus also saw that the pagan Greeks and Romans had histories, plays, poetry, discourses on science, medicine, and philosophy that also should be preserved. Although Aristotle, Herodotus, Euclid, and Julius Caesar were pagans, the image of God in man was not obliterated and these men had something useful to say. So, Cassiodorus had his people copy and preserve these great works of civilization.
This is not to say that no one was copying manuscripts before. Some were, and thank God we have many of those manuscripts. But it was done more or less in a happenstance way. Through Cassiodorus the idea was promoted that monks in monasteries should have the task of preserving literature and learning. Before Cassiodorus the goal of monks was simply to develop their “inner life.” His idea spread to monasteries all over Europe, and so today we have so many great books of the ancient world largely due to the idea of this one man.
Instead of moping and complaining, Cassiodorus got to work. He organized people into being peacefully productive. He converted his home into a place of learning for future generations. How can you be the Cassiodorus of today?