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White Elephant Gifts:
Classicism in Ostrogothic Policy and in Variae 10.30

Through a close reading of Cassiodorus’s Variae 10.30, this paper sets the ideology and cultural program of Ostrogothic Italy against a social background that encouraged resistance to both of these on the part of “Romans.” Variae 10.30, ostensibly a request to repair a group of elephant statues in Rome, is for the most part a digression on the natural history of the elephant. Analysis of the sources of Cassiodorus’s lore suggests that this discussion presents a parable for Ostrogothic rule in Italy, according to which the Goths provide protection for a traditional Roman way of life in which non-Gothic Italians will continue to engage. The ideological character of this parable, in which “Goth” and “Roman” alike are suppositious categories, is clear. But the Italian elites of Cassiodorus’s time were no longer interested in acting like “Romans,” and so the ideology expressed in Variae 10.30 met with resistance—resistance of which the letter itself is evidence. This resistance helps explain the “defection” of many Roman elites from Gothic overlordship upon the Byzantine invasion of Italy in 535.

By the early sixth century, there were no more emperors in Italy; the Ostrogoths framed themselves as a kingdom, nominally subservient to Byzantine interests but independent in fact, and on an equal footing with their equally “post-Roman” neighbors to the North and South. Thus was completed Italy’s transformation from axis of empire to “normal” state, a transformation that was, despite the ambitions of imperial dreamers from Justinian to Cola di Rienzo, not going to be reversed until the modern era. Ever since Gibbon, historians have seen the diverse body of texts contained in Cassiodorus’s Variae as key to understanding this transformation. More recently, these letters have come to be regarded, not just as rich mines of historical data, but as cultural monuments in their own right. In what follows, I combine these approaches by showing how the “cultured” character of Cassiodorus’s rhetoric could, in one particular instance, fully embody the cultural policy of his Ostrogothic masters. Through a close reading of Variae 10.30 and an analysis of some of the zoological lore it contains, I will illustrate how this cultural policy could also function as an instrument of governance; and I will try to explain some of the reasons behind its ultimate failure on both these levels. Theoderic and [End Page 195] his successors, as I will argue, wanted to govern Italy by forcing its elite to act in a “Roman” way—as consuls, euergetes, and scholars. A key part of Amal cultural policy was, therefore, to give (certain) Romans back their “Romanness.” As it turned out, this was a gift that Rome’s wealthiest and most influential citizens did not want.1

I shall attempt to prove these claims by discussing a set of bronze elephants that were apparently still standing in the Via Sacra at the late date of 534 ce. These statues, which probably dated from the Flavian period, were vivid reminders of a Western Roman Empire that had—in the eyes of some Eastern observers—now ceased to be. The elephants themselves, after years of neglect, were also tottering. A letter regarding the repair of these statues was therefore bound to touch on a number of sensitive cultural and political points. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cassiodorus took advantage of the occasion to craft an epistle that both summarized and justified the cultural program of the Ostrogothic kings.2

Elephants in the Text: Interpreting Variae 10.30

The historical background of Cassiodorus’s service to the Ostrogoths is too well-known to need summarizing here. One thing that does bear mentioning, since some scholars have seen it as the key to interpreting Variae 10.30, is that it was written under Theodahad (reigned 534–536), the last Gothic king who could claim any familial connection to the revered Theoderic. Theodahad’s reign was short and beset by troubles, not least of which was the landing of a Byzantine army in Sicily. Var. 10.30 is the last of Cassiodorus’s epistles on [End Page 196] behalf of Gothic kings that can be dated with any probability to before this invasion began.3

That explains, I think, why it appears among the letters in the Variae, an epistolary collection assembled by Cassiodorus in the very late 530s or early 540s ce when his career at the Ostrogothic court—and indeed the court itself—had been put to an end by the Byzantine invasion. Most contemporary observers put the blame for this on Theodahad: by murdering his queen, Amalasuintha, he had given Justinian a casus belli while at the same time alienating many Goths whose primary loyalty was to the Amal dynasty. Accordingly, a historiographical tradition soon took shape that explained the timing of Byzantine intervention in Italy by making Theodahad out to be a tyrannical usurper whose heavy-handed incompetence was pushing Italy toward civil war. Variae 10.30 seems to fit snugly within this tradition: the tottering elephants of which it speaks are a perfect figure, in hindsight, for a Gothic kingdom that was itself “trembling on the brink of ruin,” a kingdom whose collapse seemed inevitable unless it was propped up by an outside hand. To the extent that, as some have suggested, the Variae as a collection looks toward an “Eastern audience,” this may have been the allegory it transmitted.4

But every letter in Cassiodorus’s Variae compels us to look for a “double reading.” I emphasize this against a recent trend in scholarship that focuses on the organization, selection, and “revision” of the Variae to the extent of excluding historiographic considerations altogether. In a 2009 article and again in a recent monograph, Bjornlie has even gone so far as to suggest that [End Page 197] Variae 10.30 (alongside a number of other letters that feature natural–historical digressions) is a post-facto fabrication. This argument hinges on two points: first, the absence of such digressions in chancery letters outside the Variae, and second, Bjornlie’s claim that some such letters can best be read as bald satires on the king for whom they claim to have been written. While it is true that these letters are without parallel among other products of the Roman chancery that have come down to us, it is also true that the kind of material in which such parallels might be found simply has not survived; and, for reasons that should be clear by the end of this article, I think a “satirical” reading of Var. 10.30—attractive as it might otherwise seem—fails to account for some of the letter’s most important natural–historical claims. These claims, as I shall show, make better sense in a context when the collapse of Ostrogothic rule in Italy did not yet seem inevitable. It is this “contemporary” interpretation with which I will primarily engage in what follows.5

Cassiodorus gets the occasion for the letter out of the way in a couple of sentences. Some bronze elephants on the Via Sacra are showing their age, and Honorius, the Praefectus Urbis, must take measures to see that they do not collapse. This project, as Fauvinet-Ranson has observed, is entirely in line with the program of restoration and rebuilding begun by Theoderic and continued by his successors, whom we see, both in the Variae and in other sources, undertaking repairs of aging Roman infrastructure.6 In 10.30, as in some other letters, the measures that Cassiodorus recommends have the air of a stopgap. For reasons that go unstated, but which may be inferred—lack of material? lack of expertise?—he suggests, not that the statues be fixed, but that they be propped up: “Let your providence see to it that [the elephants] attain their proper lifespan by supporting their limbs with iron hooks: and firm up their collapsing bellies with a wall, lest that amazing bulk collapse in hideous ruin.”7 [End Page 198]

So much for the practical purport of a missive that nevertheless goes on for several dozen more lines. What follows is one of those digressions that have led some modern readers to characterize Cassiodorus’ style as baroque, pretentious, meandering—a digression that seems to pertain only minimally to the matter at hand, and to show its author making a display of a fund of knowledge that his addressee might or might not be expected to share. This is to interpret digression as part of what Veyne calls an apparat, the overwhelming but mostly meaningless superfluity of symbols deployed by those who rule—which is certainly one dimension of Cassiodorus’s rhetorical practice.8

In the present case, however, I think that such an interpretation is insufficient. We do better to read the digression as a fable, couched in the language of natural history but bearing a political meaning that is not too thickly veiled.

Elephants Ancient and Modern: Cassiodorus’s Sources and Antecedents

As with most digressions in the Variae, this one will start to make more sense when we have taken the time to examine its source material. Cassiodorus draws on a heterogeneous body of texts, as we shall see, but not (or not only) to show off his erudition; he borrows selectively in order to depict an elephant that turns out, in a parabolic way, to resemble the Senate and people of Rome.

Cassiodorus spends most of the letter explaining where “domesticated” elephants come from:

A fall is bad even for living elephants, who, when they lean their huge limbs against a tree that has been weakened by men’s craft, cannot rise by their own efforts from a prone position once they have fallen, because their legs have no joints, but remain, like columns, ever straight and rigid.9

Then, when they have helped their victims up, the hunters reap a rich harvest of gratitude. Elephants “know how to remember benefits; they accept as their master”10 whoever has helped them up. Once put back on their feet, they serve these masters with eagerness—provided that these masters do not turn out to be tyrants.11

Though the story retailed here is an ancient one, dating back possibly to Ctesias, I think it beyond question that Cassiodorus’s primary point of [End Page 199] reference for this narrative is Ambrose’s Hexameron, or exegesis of the six days of creation. Here are the relevant lines:

And so they do not bend their knees, because it is needful for them to have stiff legs, by which, as by columns, such a great pile of parts can be held up … leaning against a tree, they either scratch their sides or relax themselves in sleep; these trees not infrequently bend or break, from the weight of such large bodies. But he [the elephant] … collapses and cannot right itself or get back up … there are some [humans] who set these as traps for them, in search of ivory, by cutting a little the side that [elephants] use least, so that it cannot bear the weight of the elephant’s parts when it leans there, and procures for the elephant a hard fall.12

If the broader parallels between these two narratives are obvious, the closest point of contact is in the architectural metaphor—columnae—that Cassiodorus seems to have lifted from Ambrose. This borrowing would have gained special piquancy from the extensive parallels that Ambrose draws between elephants and monumental buildings: both seem impossibly large to us, and both of them, when they have fallen down, have a hard time getting back up.13

It is an apt comparison, of course, when the elephants under discussion are themselves architectural, and we might locate here the reason for Cassiodorus’s heavy dependence on the Ambrosian text—except that Ambrose himself, thus far at least, is cribbing from the Hexaemeron of Basil of Caesarea, a text to which Cassiodorus may also have had access. The detail that verifies his dependence on Ambrose, as opposed to Basil, is that both Cassiodorus and Ambrose talk about kneeless elephants in the context of a hunting narrative, while Basil does not.14

This points us toward what may turn out to be the only original turn in Cassiodorus’s digression. Ambrose’s hunters are after ivory, and so they kill all the elephants that they have brought down; Cassiodorus’s hunters are after the elephants themselves, whom they help back to their feet. Unlike its sources, then, this letter shows humans and elephants engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship which the elephant’s lack of knees has made possible. Although Variae 10.30 contains a good deal of material from other texts, chiefly Pliny and Solinus, Cassiodorus has constructed it [End Page 200] around a narrative frame from Ambrose seemingly in order to invent this key detail.15

Previous readings of the letter, including most recently Bjornlie’s, have generally ignored or downplayed such narrative elements in favor of an exclusive emphasis on static description. But Cassiodorus, as we have seen, was not merely parroting natural–historical commonplaces here: on a narrative level, he was elaborating on them and transforming them. It would only be fair to give this aspect of the story pride of place in Cassiodorus’s fabular logic. I thus read the “moral” of the digression like this: The city of Rome and its people, when we found them, had been brought low by a previous wave of invaders. We set them upright again, returning them to their former dignity. So we expect a return of gratitude, service and obedience.

On this reading, Cassiodorus’s elephants would be playing a role in keeping with their symbolic function at an earlier moment in Roman history. The statuary elephants whose repair Cassiodorus was recommending will themselves serve to illustrate this point. If scholars have identified them correctly, the elephants of the Via Sacra belong to a statuary group erected by the emperor Domitian in the late first century ce. They would have stood near, or more likely on top of, the Porta Triumphalis, through which a triumphing emperor would have entered Rome, and, in their original configuration, they would probably have drawn chariots. This reconstruction is confirmed by a coin from the reign of Domitian that depicts the Porta capped by elephants (Fig. 1), discussed at length by La Rocca.16

The same iconography reappears on later imperial consecratio coins (Fig. 2), memorializing the death of an emperor in a way that refers back to an earlier kind of public performance that may have provided another model for Domitian’s statuary group. Among the honors that Claudius decreed for the divinized Livia, says Suetonius, was the privilege of having her imago carried around the circus in a chariot pulled by an elephant; in this, Suetonius adds, he was following a precedent set at the divination of Augustus. This iconography had a long afterlife: its last trace in the art-historical record is an intriguing funeral diptych that dates from the period of Ostrogothic rule (Fig. 3) and gives us reason to think that Cassiodorus would have understood the [End Page 201] significance of elephants for elite and imperial Roman self-representation. We would be careless to read his call for the restoration of Domitian’s statues in Var. 10.30 without keeping these associations in mind.17

Figure 1. Sestertius of Domitian, 95–96 , showing the Porta Triumphalis with elephant-and-chariot sculptural complex (Photo: Christopher Gardner. Yale University Art Gallery, inv. no. 2009.110.183. © 2016 Yale University Art Gallery).
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Figure 1.

Sestertius of Domitian, 95–96 ce, showing the Porta Triumphalis with elephant-and-chariot sculptural complex (Photo: Christopher Gardner. Yale University Art Gallery, inv. no. 2009.110.183. © 2016 Yale University Art Gallery).

[End Page 202]

Figure 2. Sestertius of Marcus Aurelius, 169 , showing an elephant-drawn chariot (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 61.1069. © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
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Figure 2.

Sestertius of Marcus Aurelius, 169 ce, showing an elephant-drawn chariot (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, inv. no. 61.1069. © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Roman poets of an earlier era had made these associations explicit in a way that might have informed Cassiodorus, and that can certainly help us get a clearer notion about what it might mean to restore Rome’s ruined pachyderms to their erstwhile imperial glory. Elephants, says Juvenal, are: [End Page 203]

Figure 3. Ivory Diptych, Sixth Century , showing an elephant-drawn chariot. (Photo: British Museum, London, inv. no. 1857,1013.1. © 2016 The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved).
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Figure 3.

Ivory Diptych, Sixth Century ce, showing an elephant-drawn chariot. (Photo: British Museum, London, inv. no. 1857,1013.1. © 2016 The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved).

[End Page 204]

A drafthorse of Caesar, not likely to serveA private master, since their ancestors used to obeyTyrian Hannibal, and our generals, and king Pyrrhus,And carry cohorts on their backs.18

Proud animals, then, who will obey only the master of the world. As this passage suggests, ownership of elephants, their presentation in the arena, and their use in ceremonial processions were all imperial privileges.19

But this raises further questions. How was imperial control over elephants “read” in the formative years of the empire? And how does this reading inform Cassiodorus’s own description of elephants in Var. 10.30?

Pliny’s description of Pompey’s use of elephants suggests that the elephant-drawn chariot was, at that early date, seen as imitating a pictorial convention that represented Alexander the Great as Bacchus returning from India in a chariot drawn by some of the animals native to the exotic East. But we can see that meaning being overwritten, in the early years of the Empire, by stronger associations with Africa, from which Hannibal had famously drawn his army of elephants and from which, too, the elephants used in spectacles at Rome were chiefly drawn.20 The elephant soon becomes a submissive endorser of Roman rule. An iconographic type that sometimes appears on imperial coinage makes the association explicit: here, we see an embodied Africa bowing down to its Roman rulers, while wearing an elephant headdress (Fig. 4).

The same themes were also liable to discursive elaboration. Consider this poem from Martial’s Liber de spectaculis:

That the reverent and suppliant elephant worships you, Caesar,who was just now such a terror to the bull—He does this uncommanded, and, believe you me, untaughthe too perceives this god of ours.21

Here, as in the passage from Juvenal, the elephant has become a kind of “substitute” subject. So a social practice—the recruitment of elephants for fighting in the arena—changed the meaning of this consummately symbolic animal. It came to stand for Rome’s domination over a formerly Carthaginian Africa [End Page 205] and, metonymically, for the Empire’s control over a world of foreign lands and peoples.22

Figure 4. Aureus of Hadrian, 134–138 , showing a personification of Africa with elephant headdress (Photo: British Museum, London, inv. no. R.12142. © 2016 The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.).
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Figure 4.

Aureus of Hadrian, 134–138 ce, showing a personification of Africa with elephant headdress (Photo: British Museum, London, inv. no. R.12142. © 2016 The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.).

What could stand metonymically for dominated peoples overseas might also, in the hands of a careful rhetorician, stand for a conquered Rome. If this is so, and if, as I have argued, the whole elephant digression is to be taken as a parable for Ostrogothic sovereignty in Italy, then the space that Cassiodorus spends on [End Page 206] praise of the elephant’s character will not have been wasted. Here, when he discusses the elephant’s justice, gravity, and sense of honor, he is grafting on material quite alien to the Christian tradition of natural history that provides the digression’s narrative structure. This information comes out of Pliny, possibly through Solinus’s Polyhistor but more likely from the Naturalis Historia itself. Compare, for instance, Cassiodorus’s non dubitat … adorare quem cunctorum intellegit esse rectorem with Pliny’s quod ad docilitatem attinet, regem adorant, a phrase omitted from Solinus’s account of the elephant, which otherwise follows Pliny’s.23 Solinus had good cause to drop this sentence: his elephants are kneeless, while Pliny’s adorant is immediately followed by the phrase genuas submittunt.24

Cassiodorus’s reason for mining this heterogeneous source is to flatter a subject population that finds itself reduced, over the course of the fable, to a position of animality. Pliny placed the elephant first in his zoology, as representing a kind of copula between the human and the bestial kingdoms: maximum est elephans proximumque humanis sensibus.25 Ambrose, on the other hand, emphasizes the difference between man and animal in a way characteristic of late antique Christian zoologies: his elephants are especially trainable, not because of any virtues of their own, but because God has providentially adapted them to mankind’s use.26

No surprise, then, that Cassiodorus borrows material from the much more pro-elephant Plinian tradition. If the Romans are to be sunk in the ranks of conquered peoples, at least they will have pride of place there. The good will with which the elephant serves is a measure of its natural sense of justice; so Rome, in doing the will of its Gothic rulers, will show that it shares this virtue. But Cassiodorus’s parable also contains an implicit contract. Elephants, far from serving a tyrant master, will unleash upon him “such a flood” of urine that “a river seems to flow from their bowels.”27 This, too, says Cassiodorus, is part of the elephant’s justice. The model covenant proposed here is thus one that leaves both ruler and ruled alike under certain obligations.28 [End Page 207]

Elephants as Ideology

The arrangements propounded in veiled terms by Cassiodorus are not mere rhetoric. From the outset, as Sirago and others have emphasized, the Ostro-gothic kings ruled or pretended to rule Italy in a way that emphasized continuity with the Roman past, and they were largely content to let the domestic machinery of politics operate in a way not too different from the one it had followed under the last “legitimate” Western emperors. Consuls continued to be appointed; quaestors, praetors, and prefects continued to occupy, and exercise the powers of, these now “traditional” Roman offices. A letter written under Theodahad gives a pithy statement of this policy, which inflects Cassiodorus’s rhetoric throughout the Variae. Theodahad has commanded his Goths to take up positions around Rome “so that outside there may be armed defense, but a tranquil city within.”29

The Gothic occupiers are thus to take care of Italy’s security concerns, including what we might call “foreign policy”; Rome’s old ruling classes, on the other hand, accepting this curtailment of their powers, are to manage the interior of the country for everyone’s benefit. This, in essence, is what Amory has called “civilitas ideology,” a way of thinking and governing that did as [End Page 208] much to turn the Goths and Romans into distinct “peoples” as it did to make these artificially isolated populations function as a single state. The Ostrogoths, after all, also came from within the bounds of the Roman Empire; as for “ethnic” divisions, people of Germanic origin had been living and acting as Roman citizens for centuries. In practice, the distinction between them was porous, and amounted to the distinction of roles that civilitas ideology proposed. Discursively, the difference between Goth and Roman could be sustained only by reference to a tradition of Greco–Roman ethnography that was at least as old and out-of-date as the iconography of Cassiodorus’s elephant statues.30

Historians used to read this evidence as implying what Kennell has called, with high irony, Theoderic’s “touching devotion to the imperial idea.”31 In a post-colonial age, however, scholars are less willing to accept that Theoderic maintained the infrastructure of Roman government out of a pious respect for its antiquity or from a naïve desire to integrate himself into a tradition that was almost certain to reject him anyway. More plausibly, I think, the “hands-off” approach of Ostrogothic rule in Italy can be seen as an experiment in post-Roman governance: let senators and aristocrats maintain the structures of local government, while the Goths enjoy the perquisites of power. In exchange, the Goths would protect their Roman subjects from the depredations of other “barbarian” kings, who, it was contended, would have much less respect for the senators’ traditional role.32

As we saw, this approach was an ideological rather than merely a practical solution to the problem of governing a “conquered” Italy. Within this [End Page 209] framework, as Amory points out, the identities of individuals could prove fluid. But not all individuals. One important audience for civilitas propaganda, and an audience whose options within this system were limited—was the old elite of Rome itself, who stood to occupy the Roman imperial offices that Theoderic had preserved. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that an ideology may not also constitute an ideal. The prologue of the Edictum Theodorici, for instance, shows a clear concern with maintaining and adapting the structures of Roman law for application at all levels of society. Whether this was, in practice, a realizable goal is impossible for us to say; but those contemporaries who wrote on behalf of and about the Ostrogothic government often spoke as though it were.33

For such a “bipartite” kingdom, Cassiodorus’s contract theory of sovereignty provides a natural model. And there is something appealing—for us, at least—about a government of conquest that strove nonetheless to respect the “cultures” of all its subjects; so Theoderic has been praised by moderns from Gibbon onward for his policy of religious tolerance, which extended not only to Catholics, whose protection could be justified by political expediency, and to his own chosen sect of Arianism, but also to the Jews, whose subaltern status within the Roman empire had left them subject to abuse from orthodox and heterodox emperors alike.34 [End Page 210]

On the other hand, when we compare it to its European neighbors, the Ostrogothic experiment in Italy looks like something of a failure. It crumbled under Byzantine attack in the 530s—an outcome that could be blamed largely on the shifting allegiances of those Roman aristocrats whose support the Goths’ conciliatory policy might have been expected to attract. The Gothic elites and their military followers, blindly fulfilling their end of the deal, fought on for another twenty years, but, with their capacity to gather food and taxes severely curtailed, they were wiped out by the Byzantines after a drawn-out campaign. What were the cultural conditions that lay behind this “strange defeat?”35

Elephants as Social Program

Let us look again at Cassiodorus’s letter, this time considering it from a different standpoint. Every letter—but especially a letter like this one, written occasionally and for political reasons—has to construct some form of relation between sender and receiver. What is the enunciatory position in which Cassiodorus installs himself, and what role does he imagine for Honorius, his addressee?36

Their relations are obviously structured by hierarchies of power in a way that permits Cassiodorus to issue peremptory commands (reddi faciat) to his inferior. But such simple commands, as we have already had occasion to observe, make up a very small part of the letter. Cassiodorus also feels entitled to a long, and parabolic, digression on the natural history of elephants, which he introduces with a connective (nam) that puts it in the place of an explanation or a justification for the imperatives that precede it.37

Here, as so often in his digressions, Cassiodorus is setting himself up as instructing his addressee in a particularly Roman kind of “natural science.” This tendency of his has often been chalked up to a desire for some “pleasant variation,” or else explained as compensation for a family tree that was, by comparison with those of some of his correspondents, rather stunted. Superior to such ad hoc accounts would be one that made the educative function of Cassiodorus’s “pretentious” digressions part of a cultural program elaborated by Cassiodorus at the insistence of his Gothic masters. The aim of this program [End Page 211] would be to “give back” to the citizens of Rome an intellectual heritage that consisted, not only in knowledge that mastered nature, but also in a sense of historical tradition and even in the restored elegance of the city’s urban fabric. In pursuit of such goals, the author’s ostentatious cultivation might even be said to legitimate those voices of command with which the letter begins.38

The letter that we have been reading participates in this program both by its purport—that these ancient elephant statues ought to be repaired—and by its digressive content, which constitutes an education in the “natural” habits of living elephants. So it imposes on its recipient in at least two ways. Cassiodorus seems to be trying to produce in his audience just that respect for Roman tradition that Theoderic’s program of kingship has been credited with trying to preserve.

Concretely, what Cassiodorus is asking for here is a return to the civic euergetism of an earlier age. There are dozens of letters in the Variae that do this; all of them highlight a clash between Gothic civilitas ideology and contemporary realities. The tradition of elite investment in civic architecture that Cassiodorus seems to invoke is one that, as Ward-Perkins has shown, had died out at least two centuries before. The Theoderican building program thus appears as a kind of revivalism—a revivalism that had to be imposed, top-down.39

Only once in the Variae do we see an aristocrat undertaking a building project on his own initiative. The context is revealing. At the end of book four, Cassiodorus addresses the wealthy senator Symmachus:

Since you show such zeal for private buildings that you are seen to have built walls on your own property, it is fitting that you, that great institutor and outstanding decorator of structures, be counted as one of the miracles of Rome, which you adorned with your houses, since both these things stem from prudence—namely, to plan rightly and to decorate existing buildings well.40

It is evident that the restorative work for which Symmachus wins praise here was conducted on Symmachus’s own house, outside the city (suburbanus). “Now,” Cassiodorus goes on to say, “it’s time that the city of Rome also knew your generosity—why do you not fix up this giant theater that is on the verge of falling down?”41 [End Page 212]

If Rome’s erstwhile euergetai needed to be reminded of their duties toward the urban fabric of Rome, we can infer that the bulk of their attention was, in this period, directed elsewhere. Not only toward their own exurban residences, which in the wake of a century of invasions could well seem to need walling up: churches and shrines were attractive objects for the expenditure of the pious rich, who now preferred the laying up of a treasure in heaven to purchasing the gratitude of their fellow citizens. Brown has recently given a careful account of these new attitudes, which were the product of secular transformations but also of a prolonged propaganda campaign on the part of the Church. Emerging first in Africa and then spreading to other “provincial” areas of the Roman West, they came late to Rome itself, but they did eventually arrive there. Given this state of affairs, any program of architectural restoration that hoped to draw on classical models of civic euergetism was going to have to be forced on a largely uninterested elite.42

Ostrogothic Classicism: A White Elephant?

There is an apt idiom for a gift like this: “white elephant,” once a catch-all phrase for the kind of expensive, troublesome, and undesired gifts that end up returned, re-sold, or re-gifted almost as soon as they are received. These gifts impose an obligation upon, without at all benefitting, their recipient. Intentionally or not, they subvert the whole logic of giving; the gratitude they command soon curdles into resentment.

In at least one obvious sense, the Ostrogoths’ programmatic attempt to “give the Romans back” their Romanness is a white elephant gift. The classical heritage of the city was no longer particularly wanted by all the aristocrats who were meant to rebuild it, and the cost of this rebuilding was beyond what they were able, or willing, to pay. We should hardly expect unanimity here: as Arnold has recently argued, there were certainly some elites who embraced the Ostrogothic rhetoric of a Roman restoration, as indeed most ordinary citizens may also have done. But the Romans who applauded this piece of political theater were not, generally speaking, the ones who had to act in it.43

There were many aspects of their traditional civic role that had involved considerable expense on the part of Rome’s ruling classes and that, after a [End Page 213] fifth-century hiatus, were reimposed under Ostrogothic rule. Eueregetistic responsibilities, as we have seen, were one such practice. Other civic practices, including annonarial distributions, were kept up under the Amals even though the population of Rome, and of Italy’s other major cities, had shrunk dramatically in the previous hundred years. Spectacular games and festivals, against which the clergy had been fulminating for a long time, were renewed under the Ostrogoths at a level of splendor that, as Barnish has argued, came close to bankrupting some aristocratic families. All these symbols of Romanness were ones that, given a choice, many members of the senatorial classes would probably have been happy to let pass away.44

So, in the bipartite state envisioned by the Ostrogoths, only one side played its role willingly. The other part found itself reading a script that had been written by strangers. The whole, then, was an illusory unity, an “ideal” state of which Cassiodorus himself was the best (and perhaps the only) representative. Those gestures of tolerance for which Theoderic has been so roundly praised since the enlightenment were in fact part of a policy that imposed “native” cultural practices on a population whose traditions it was supposed to respect. No surprise, then, that a large part of this “protected population”—perhaps with an eye to the success that its aristocratic congeners, less straitjacketed by a false classicism, had enjoyed in Francia to the North—threw its lot in with the invaders from Byzantium.45

The folly of such cultural gifts from above may be apparent to us today, with the experience of European colonialism behind us. But their policy may have seemed to the Ostrogoths like a not implausible experiment, especially with the dubious—but in the Roman West, still well-respected—precedent of Julian’s “pagan restoration” to look back upon—and, more distantly, the precedent of Rome’s own early policy toward the Greek East. In any case, a gulf of time and culture separated sixth-century Italy from the cultural practices of the High Empire towards which Cassiodorus’s letters gesture. In the second century ce, when a trip to the emperor’s well-stocked arena would have been sufficient to confirm that elephants can kneel as well as any other [End Page 214] animal, the kneeless elephants of Var. 10.30 would have been laughable, not only to an educated, but to any Roman.46

In the logic of giving, a prestation that seems too extravagant, too gaudy and costly ever to repay, will be abandoned, hidden away, palmed off—rejected, that is, by indirect means. This holds true as much, I think, for cultural “white elephants” as for real ones. The cultural policy of Theoderic and his successors, then, can be seen as completing a stage in the transformation of Rome’s social and physical landscape from a “classical” to a “medieval” form. By proffering their antique splendor en bloc to the citizens of Rome, the Ostrogoths gave them an opportunity to abandon that heritage in favor of some kind of modernity. What those of the Romans who embraced the Byzantine alternative imagined they had opted for was probably quite different than what they got: another half-century of war and, at the end of that, a desolate, crumbling city.47

The derelict elephants of Variae 10.30 are, then, both a conscious “embodiment” of Amal cultural policy and a symptom of its failings. Using a “classical” discourse of natural history whose most important narrative components turn out to be of much more recent vintage, Cassiodorus tries to impose the repair of a very old statuary group that figuratively represents a now-vanished Roman imperial power. Ideologically, the letter’s narrative seems to suggest a continuity and even a restoration of that power under Ostrogothic stewardship. As part of a social program, though, the letter—and many others like it in Cassiodorus’s collection—represents this restoration as being imposed on a Roman populace that may no longer have wanted what their rulers were offering. In a changed world, the trappings of a once-authoritative Romanness could begin to look like burdens.

Martin Devecka
Martin Devecka


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1. For Gibbon’s use of Cassiodorus, see Gibbon 1994, 531–54. Modern narrative histories of Theoderic’s reign have tended to rely heavily if not primarily on Cassiodorus for information about the internal politics of Ostrogothic Italy, since other available sources, like the Anonymus Vale-sianus and Procopius’s account in BG 5.1–12, are cursory and vitiated by obvious biases: e.g. O’Donnell 2008, 1–176 and Sarris 2011, 83–119. Ward-Perkins 2006 depends less heavily on Cassiodorus and, not coincidentally, downplays the importance of Ostrogothic attempts at maintaining continuity with Roman governmental practices. For the modern trend toward treating the Variae as a cultural monument in their own right, see fundamentally O’Donnell 1979, as well as Macpherson 1989 and Bjornlie 2009 and 2013.

2. This strange letter has received more than its share of scholarly attention lately. See most recently Bjornlie 2013, 314–18, recapitulating the conclusions of an earlier (2009) article that places the letter in the context of Cassiodorus’s personal apologetics after the end of the Gothic regime in Italy; see also La Rocca 2010. Bjornlie’s essay is relatively attentive to the place of Var. 10.30 in the discourse of natural history, but is less convincing on the letter’s role in the architectural program of the Variae. La Rocca’s reading is attentive on both these points, but interprets the letter as narrowly reflective of a contemporary political situation, a traditional approach to the Variae that looks dubious in light of Bjornlie’s observations about the post-facto character of much of the collection. In my own contribution, I set these aspects of the letter side by side and, accordingly, come to some very different conclusions.

3. The epistle that follows it, 10.31, appears under the name of Witigis: the gap between the letters is therefore historically suggestive. Like most writers and assemblers of ancient epistolary collections, Cassiodorus follows a “topical” order in arranging his collection, and so some letters that may fall in between 10.30 and 10.31 appear in book twelve, where he gathers documents written in his capacity as praetorian prefect; within books, however, Cassiodorus tends to follow, and exploit for historiographical purposes, the order of chronology. On these points, see Gibson 2012.

4. It is not certain, but at least possible, that Jordanes follows Cassiodorus’s own interpretation in the Getica: “But [Theodahad] was unmindful of their kinship and, after a little time, had her taken from the palace at Ravenna to an island of the Bolsinian lake where he kept her in exile. After spending a very few days there in sorrow, she was strangled in the bath by his hirelings. When Justinian, the Emperor of the East, heard this, he was aroused as if he had suffered personal injury in the death of his wards” (305–7, Mierow trans. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted). Proc. BG 5.2.9–10 follows a similar interpretive line. On the role played by propaganda about Amalasuintha’s murder in justifying Justinian’s invasion, see O’Donnell 2008, 253–57. For Procopius’s representation of Theodahad as tyrannical and incompetent, see BG 5.3–10, esp. 5.7.11. Barnish 1990, 17–20, has reconstructed a somewhat less hostile portrait of this much-maligned king. Since the traces of such an alternative historiography can, in fact, still be recovered (even in the Byzantine tradition: Proc. Anecd. 16.5), it bears considering whether Cassiodorus was actually as hostile toward this much-maligned monarch in the Variae as later writers would be. However, Cassiodoran hostility has generally been assumed in previous treatments of this letter: cf. La Rocca 2010, 7; Bjornlie 2013, 311–14.

5. On the double perspective implied in Cassiodorus’s recension of his official correspondence, see O’Donnell 1979, 75–85, and compare Viscido 1987, 51–53. For a careful exploration of the rhetorical exigencies under which Cassiodorus assembled the collection, see Bjornlie 2009, 145–50. Bjornlie’s arguments regarding the wholesale “revision” of the text, however, are difficult to support. Although we can point to cases where epithets and titulature have been employed in ways that would have been anachronistic at the time of an individual letter’s composition, there is little positive evidence for large-scale rewriting. Here, and more recently in his 2013 monograph, Bjornlie advances an interpretation of the Variae in which they serve as a kind of apologetic portfolio designed to win their author a place in the Byzantine government of Italy after Gothic defeat. Whether or not we accept these conclusions, we should not let them blind us to “contemporary” readings of the Variae that offer a better account of the collection’s content and may be considered, at the very least, as belonging to the epistolary fiction that the preface of the collection urges us to accept; cf. La Rocca 2010, 6.

7. Cass. Var. 10.30.1.

9. Var. 10.30.2

10. Var. 10.30.3

11. On the elephant’s characteristic gratitude and discernment, see Cass. Var. 10.30.3, 5–6, 8.

12. Hex. 6.5.31–32.

13. On Cassiodorus’s use of Ambrose, chiefly for zoological material, see O’Donnell 1979, 89. For the architectural analogy, see Ambr. Hex. 6.5.33: “to find fault with these facts is like finding fault with the heights of buildings, which often threaten to fall headlong and are with great difficulty restored.” On the idea of kneeless elephants, already absurd to Aristotle, see Scullard 1974, 39–40.

14. The parallel passage in Basil’s Hexameron is at 9.5: “Its feet, without joints, like united columns, support the weight of its body.”

15. Ambr. Hex. 6.5.32: “Hunters in search of ivory prepare the following scheme to trap these animals. …” Compare this hunting strategy with those discussed in Scullard 1974, 126–30.

16. On prototypes for and identifications of the elephants in Var. 10.30, see Fauvinet-Ranson 2006, 186–87; for further discussion of Domitian’s coin, see La Rocca 2010, 11–13 and Coarelli 1988, 374–83.

17. On elephant chariots and apotheosis, see Suet. Claud. 11. For the late dating of the “Symmachus Diptych,” a new but convincing thesis that should change our outlook on Var. 10.30, see Killerich 2012. For another (late and unreliable) statue on this model, see SHA Max. 26.5: “we decree statues with elephants for Balbus and Gordian.” Intriguingly, a medallion (British Museum, catalogue number R.5048) survives from the reign of Gordian that depicts an elephant in the Coliseum. For another source of this iconography, see the story of Pompey’s yoked elephants, told by Pliny at HN 8.2.2, with Scullard 1974, 193–94. Bjornlie 2009, 165, is surely correct to see these statues as lacking utilitas, but he is wrong in seeing this as the central element in Cassiodorus’s representation of the Ostrogothic building program, which was equally if not more invested in restoring decus to the city of Rome: Fauvinet-Ranson 2002, 231–40; 2006, 197–210. In fact, the letters in the Variae far more often discuss “prestige projects” than they talk about constructions for public utility, although these last are much better represented in the epigraphic record: Johnson 1988, 75–80. Moreover, there is nothing “un-Theodorican” about repairing statues, cf. Cass. Var. 2.35 and 36.

18. Juv. 12.106–9.

19. On the evidence for imperial elephant privileges, see Scullard 1974, 198–200, as well as Courtney 1980, ad loc. On this and other “symbolic” functions of the elephant, see Keller 1909, 379–82, and Beard 2007, 99.

20. On the “Bacchic” elephant and its metonymic connection with India, see Keller 1909, 380. On Alexander’s use of elephant iconography, see Scullard 1974, 74–76.

21. Spect. 17

22. Cassiodorus was alert to the connection between exotic animals and power, as the entry in his Chronicon for the consular games given by Eutharic in 519 suggests. There he mentions that Eutharic put many animals on display that had not been seen in Rome for a long time animals which, he adds, Africa sub devotione missit. Cassiodorus’s description conveniently elides Africa’s Vandal rulers, who were hardly devoti of Rome and in fact would grow actively hostile toward the end of Theoderic’s reign.

23. Cass. Var. 10.30.3; Plin. HN 8.1.3.

24. For Solinus’s general account of elephants, which mimics Pliny’s in detail, see Solin. 25.17–15. For his passing allusion to kneeless elephants, see Solinus on the elk, Solin. 20.7. For Gilhus’s general conclusions on this point, see Gilhus 2006, 262–65.

25. HN 8.1.1.

26. See esp. Amb. Hex. 6.1 with Gilhus 2006, 264.

27. Cass. Var. 10.30.5–6: Motu corporis ab diversis postulat quod magistro porrigat et nutritoris compendia sua putat alimenta. quod si aliquis praebere contempserit postulata, vesicae collectaculo patefacto tantam dicitur alluvionem egerere, ut in eius penatibus quidam fluvius videatur intrare, contemptum vindicans de fetore. Nam et laesus servat offensam et longo post tempore reddere dicitur, a quo iniuriatus esse sentitur.

28. Thus Plin. HN 8.1.1: maximum est elephans proximumque humanis sensibus, quippe intellectus illis sermonis patrii et imperiorum obedientia, officiorum quae didicere memoria, amoris et gloriae voluptas, immo vero, quae etiam in homine rara, probitas, prudentia, aequitas. But Goguey 2003, 47, rightly notes that Pliny orders the animals in the zoological books of his Natural History according to size, from largest to smallest. Compare Cassiodorus’s remarks on the elephant’s mental faculties at Var. 10.30.3. Bjornlie claims that Cassiodorus’s discourse contains “only the barest traces” of Pliny’s fulsome praise of the elephant: Bjornlie 2009, 164. This is simply untrue; Cassiodorus borrows several of Pliny’s terse sentences with little alteration. Far from obscuring the elephant’s Plinian virtues, Cassiodorus draws attention to them: good memory, gratitude, and a sense of justice are the characteristics that explain the elephant’s behavior throughout the letter.

29. Cass. Var. 10.18.2: foris sit armata defensio, intus vobis tranquilla civilitas. Compare, famously, Var. 12.5.4: ament quieta, quos nullus ad incerta praecipitat. dum belligerat Gothorum exercitus, sit in pace Romanus. felicium votum est quod iubetur, ne rustici, agreste hominum genus, dum laborandi taedia fugiunt, illicitis ausibus efferentur et contra vos incipiant erigi, quos vix poteratis in pace moderari. See also Var. 9.14.8. The double character of Theoderic’s state is exposed from another point of view by the “first author” of the Anonymus Valesianus in his eulogy of the deceased king: Cuius temporibus felicitas est secuta Italiam per annos triginta, ita ut etiam pax pergentibus esset. … Sic gubernavit duas gentes in uno, Romanorum et Gothorum, dum ipse quidem Arrianae sectae esset, tamen nihil contra religionem catholicam temptans; exhibens ludos circensium et amphitheatrum, ut etiam a Romanis Traianus vel Valentinianus, quorum tempora sectatus est, appellaretur, et a Gothis secundum edictum suum, quo ius constituit, rex fortissimus in omnibus iudicaretur” (Anon. Val. 33). And see Ennodius’s Panegyricus for an eager embrace of this “compact” by at least one Italo–Roman. Arnold 2013, 181–183 gives a good summary of contemporary Italian opinion on the subject. Sirago 1983, 180–81, frames the point well with regard to Cassiodorus’s rhetoric in the Variae; cf. Ward-Perkins 2006, 66–70 for a similar account. On the ideology of Roman/Gothic relations set forth by Theoderic and his successors, see Amory 1997, 43–47. As Ando 2008, 47, observes, the framework parallels earlier programs for coopting barbarians into Roman military service in a way that may well have made it seem classicizing and innocuous to contemporary audiences.

30. On civilitas ideology, see Amory 1997, 43–55. On the artificial construction of “Gothic” ethnicity out of much older ethnographic material, see Kulikowski 2007, 12–40 and further Goffart 2009, 40–55.

31. Kennell 1994, 174. The interpretive mindset against which Kennell is reacting has survived even in some contemporary scholarship. Ward-Perkins 2006, 80, for example, suggests that the apparatus of Roman culture served partly to satisfy the “vanity” of Ostrogothic kings.

32. Lafferty 2011, 337–64 has raised questions about how deeply the “preserved” structures of Roman rule penetrated into local life under the Ostrogoths. Lafferty is right to point out that staffing and standardization of judicial offices in the provinces of Italy must have remained at a fairly low level during the years of Ostrogothic rule, as evidenced by, e.g., the legal narrative presented at Proc. BG 5.3: Tuscans who want to complain about the encroachments of a local magnate have to take their case all the way to Rome, where Amalasuintha decides the matter personally. In recent decades, closer study of the legal and administrative systems of Italy’s northern neighbors has somewhat softened the distinction between a “Roman” Ostrogothic kingdom and its notionally barbarian rivals. Roman experts were involved in drawing up the law codes of the Visigoths and the Burgundians. Roman elites were everywhere employed to administer the post-Roman states of Europe; accordingly, even where the old titles had fallen out of use, the texture of governance might still look highly traditional. It still bears asserting, though, that the Ostrogoths of Italy took these “classicizing” tendencies much further than other contemporary Germanic ruling groups. For this account, see Sirago 1983, 183–84 and, more generally, Charles-Edwards 2001, 260–87.

33. Giardina 2006, 70, in his treatment of Cassiodorus as politician, summarizes the state of government in Ostrogothic Italy like this: “Senza attuare nessuna riforma appariscente e senza privare formalmente nessun ministro romano delle sue antiche prerogative, Teodorico raggiunse in questo modo il suo scopo, conciliando il respetto della dignità dei ministri romani con le nuove esigenze di governo.” (Giardina 2006, 70.) The old offices retained their “dignity” while losing political relevance at more than a local level. On saiones and comitiaci, see Giardina 2006, 63–70. On the restoration of “Roman liberty,” an Ostrogothic slogan that achieved some slight traction outside the letters of Cassiodorus, see Moorhead 1987, 161–65. For a fair presentation of the evidence against preservation of Roman administrative hierarchies under the Amals, see T. Brown 1984, 110–15. Ward-Perkins 2006, 74–78 suggests, astutely, that Gothic “Romanizing” propaganda was also directed against other post-Roman states in Europe, by comparison to whom the Ostrogoths could claim a “higher degree of civilization. On this point he is in agreement with Amory 1997, 79–81, who further points to the prologue of the Edictum as propagandizing for this ideology both at home and abroad. On the Edictum as “byproduct” of Rome’s classical heritage, see Lafferty 2011: Lafferty argues convincingly that the Edictum Theodorici has inherited much more than a mere linguistic veneer from a Roman legal tradition whose principles and practices have proved adaptable to the new political and social exigencies of the sixth century ce.

34. Thus Gibbon 1994, 528: “A difference of religion is always pernicious and often fatal to the harmony of prince and people; the Gothic conqueror had been educated in the profession of Arianism, and Italy was devoutly attached to the Nicene faith. But the persuasion of Theodoric was not infected by zeal, and he piously adhered to the heresy of his fathers, without condescending to balance the subtle arguments of theological metaphysics. Satisfied with the private toleration of his Arian sectaries, he justly conceived himself to be the guardian of the public worship, and his external reverence for a superstition that he despised may have nourished in his mind the salutary indifference of a statesman or a philosopher.” O’Donnell 2008, 127–35, adopts a similarly panegyric tone. For Theoderic’s generally positive attitude toward the Jews, see Edictum Theodorici 143 and Cass. Var. 4.33, 4.43; but compare, e.g., Nov. Theod. 3, which expresses a legal position toward the repair of synagogues that comes close enough to Theoderic’s own to suggest some legal continuity.

35. For this account, see Heather 2007 and Sirago 1983, 198.

37. Cass. Var. 10.30.1; see n. 7 above. The jussive is characteristic of commands issued in the Variae and should be seen as belonging to the sphere of legal language. Compare e.g. Edictum Theodrici 4.

38. On Cassiodorus’s digressive style, see O’Donnell 1979, 87–91; Zumbo 1993, 191–93.

39. On the history of euergetism in Late Imperial Italy, see Ward-Perkins 1984, 13–23; cf. P. Brown 2012, 62–75.

40. Var. 4.51.1.

41. Cass. Var. 4.51.1–3; cf. Fauvinet-Ranson 2006, 133–41. Bjornlie 2013, 170 has argued that this letter, too, should be seen as a post facto fabrication, but the evidence offered proves, at most, that this is an instance of “selective inclusion.”

42. P. Brown 2012, 88–90, 500–502. See Johnson 1988, 78–80 and Kennell 1994, 164–65 on Theoderic’s episcopal foundations, all in Ravenna and meant for Arian congregations. Perhaps as a cost-saving compromise measure, Theoderic legitimated and encouraged the use of spolia in new building projects (e.g. Cass. Var. 2.7.1), sometimes ordering that these be brought to his capital at Ravenna (e.g. Cass. Var. 3.9.3), which received more direct royal attention. For his Ravennate building program, see Kennell 1994, 166–70 and Fauvinet-Ranson 2006, 14–16.

44. P. Brown 2012, 392–400. On the expense of games, see Barnish 1988, 150–55.

45. On this point see Collins 2001; Barnish 1988, 150–53; and more recently P. Brown 2012, 392–405. Under Witigis and Totila, the Goths may well have given up on Italian elites and attempted to recruit to their cause the various underclasses that those elites had long repressed, Sarris 2011, 118. Against this claim, see Moorhead 2000, 382–86. While I remain agnostic on the question of whether Totila’s recruitment and liberation of slaves was a propaganda tactic or the result of desperation, it seems at least clear that the social constituencies of the Ostrogoths in Italy did evolve as the war dragged on. Regarding the rhetorical wrangling between Goths and Byzantines over which was “more Roman,” see Moorhead 1987, 163–65. The Byzantine perspective seems to have been shared by most Roman aristocrats; see Moorhead 1987, 156–167, and cf. Sarris 2011, 112–16.

46. For Ostrogothic Italy as a colonial state, see Ward-Perkins 2006, 66.

47. Moorhead 2000, 186; on the near-catastrophic deterioration of Rome’s built infrastructure during the Gotho–Byzantine Wars, see Lanciani 1889, 79–87.