The Variae

The Complete Translation

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M. Shane Bjornlie
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     530 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Variae are a collection of twelve books of letters and documents written by Flavius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485-585), a high-ranking statesman, working during the 6th- century Gothic War between the Ostrogoths ruling Italy and the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Collected at some point by Cassiodorus himself (scholars disagree on exactly when), most likely after the capture of Ravenna by the Byzantines, these letters are a window into the tensions, politics, and instability of an Italian Ostrogothic court preceding Ravenna’s surrender to Justinian’s army.  

This collection, translated by Shane Bjornlie, contains 468 documents, primarily letters, written over a period of thirty years during the rule of Theodoric I and his immediate successors. They detail the success of the Amal dynasty and its rule, and Cassiodorus’ own extensive skill, learning, and status. The first five books are composed of letters written on behalf of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric; books 6 and 7 contain various formulae pertaining to civic, legal, and political appointments; books 8 and 9 are a collection of letters written on behalf of King Athalric (Theodoric’s grandson); book 10 contains letters written for Queen Amalasuntha, King Theodahad, and King Witigis, and the final two books contain letters that Cassidorus wrote himself in his role as Praefectus Praetorio (10-11). The breadth of this correspondence includes key figures like the philosopher Boethius (1.10, 1.45, 2.40), the Frankish king Clovis (2.41, 3.4), the Byzantine emperor Justinian (10.1, 10.2, 10.8, 10.9, 10.15, 10.19, 10.25, 10.26, 10.32, 11.13) and his empress Theodora (10.10. 10.20, 10.21, 10.23, 10.24), and the occasional pope (9.15, 11.2). As such, the Variae is an indispensable text, offering key insights into the courtly, legal, cultural, economic, and religious life of the Ostrogothic Italian world at a time of significant transition. This edition is the first complete English translation of the Variae presented in a single volume.

Translation is a complicated and difficult art and the variety of correspondence included here combined with Cassiodorus’ own rather flowery Latin style make that even more the case with the Variae. Bjornlie writes in his introduction that “Cassiodorus’ style is both literary and bureaucratic” (20), two words sure to give any translator pause. Add to that the sheer breadth of Cassiodorus’ Latinity and learning, and the scope of Bjornlie’s undertaking becomes clear. Bjornlie states that he aims to “preserve Cassiodorus’ sometimes baroque syntactical structures” while at the same time rendering his text “word for word, as closely as possible, according to the meaning best suited to a given script of Latin” (21). In translating the entire corpus, rather than excerpting key letters, this work allows for the Variae to be read as their author intended: in order and as a single work (19). Bjornlie’s translation is deft and eminently readable, making this important work accessible to a new generation of scholars and lay readers alike.

Bjornlie maintains Cassiodorus’ own division of the collection into twelve books, to which he appends a brief introduction. He likewise offers a brief summary before each letter to further help contextualize the content. Bjornlie speculates that Cassiodorus collected and shaped the Variae specifically for the purpose of “rehabilitating the reputations of the Palatine elite who served the Amals” (13-14), making this work essentially historical revisioning through rhetorical refashioning. How successful Cassiodorus may have been can be seen in his later career as a Christian exegete (10).

While one may quibble with the translator’s choices at certain minor points, Bjornlie’s translation is fluid and excellent and his decision to leave certain Latin military and bureaucratic terms like imperator untranslated helps avoid ambiguity, adding to the integrity of the translated text. The only thing possibly lacking is further historical framing and more in-depth commentary. Notes indicating where the translator deviated from the original Latin and why would likewise have been welcome. Overall, however, this is a much-needed and masterfully crafted addition to the historical corpus, of interest to historians, Byzantinists, and scholars of the ancient world interested in the Ostrogothic Court, Justinian’s conquest of Ravenna, and the early Byzantine world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Galina Krasskova is a PhD student in Theology at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
August 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

M. Shane Bjornlie is Associate Professor of Roman and Late Antique History in the Department of History at Claremont McKenna College.