The Ostrogoth, the Pope and the Scholar

It’s only a small exaggeration to say that most of what we know about the Ostrogothic kingdom, we owe in one way or another to the indefatigable royal servant, bureaucrat and statesman Cassiodorus. Pride of place is taken by Cassiodorus’s remarkable letter collection, the Variae – letters mostly written on behalf of Ostrogothic kings. Cassiodorus’s Latin isn’t easy, so most students (and not just them) approach the Variae in translation.

Unfortunately, published English translations are either partial (Barnish) or ‘condensed’ (Hodgkin), and the same’s true of translations into other modern languages. Useful though of course they are, in some ways partial translations are worse than none – they discourage anyone from undertaking a full version, and they condemn whatever they miss out to relative obscurity (just think of the damage done by the admittedly handy selective translation of Alcuin’s letters by Allott).

For that reason, here’s a draft translation of one of the Variae letters that hasn’t (I think) been fully translated into English before, but that’s very relevant to what I’m currently working on. It’s from King Athalaric to ‘the Roman clergy’, and its main point is that in future, anyone making an accusation against a (Roman) cleric has to go to the Pope first.  What it certainly isn’t is a blanket grant of clerical immunity, because Athalaric confirms that the plaintiff can subsequently turn to “secular courts” if he feels the Pope wrongly decided against him. So, no “privilege of clergy” here – though Athalaric does declare that if the plaintiff is proven wrong again in the secular court, he will face a double punishment.

I couldn’t help but notice that Hodgkin’s ‘condensed’ translation omits the bit about criminal accusations against a priest. That makes it easier for him state that Athalaric’s/Cassiodorus’s letter “relates to civil, not criminal procedure”, something that I think isn’t at all clear from the text. Hodgkin also argued that such an appeal from the pope’s decision could be carried out only with “immense difficulty” – a statement that again I’m not sure is warranted. Hodgkin (d. 1913) was a prodigiously talented and industrious historian, but he was also a writer of his time, and I suspect this may be another case of 19th-century assumptions about “clerical privilege” spilling over into scholarship – something I’ll be talking about again at the upcoming IMC in Leeds.


Draft Translation: Letter of King Athalaric to the Roman Clergy, c.527 (Variae, VIII 24)

As much we have received more than other mortals, so we owe more to the Divinity: for what can he who has received rulership repay to God that is comparable? But although for such a gift nothing can be suitably repaid, at least thanks are returned when He is honoured in His servants.

And so: in a tearful request, you complained that that this was instituted by long custom: that if anyone believes that a servant of the holy Roman Church should be accused of anything (aliqua actione pulsandum), then he should go to the bishop of that city to declare his business, lest your cleric, profaned by external  lawsuits, should spend his time in secular (saecularibus) matters. And you added that your deacon had been compelled by such bitterness of action, to the insult of religion, in that a saius [an Ostrogothic official] had dared to hand him over to his own custody. And you asserted that a priest of the Roman church had been accused of crime (criminaliter impetitum) for trivial matters [sentence omitted by Hodgkin].

We declare that this greatly displeased us, on account of the instilled reverence we owe to our Maker: that those who previously had deserved to serve the sacred mysteries should now be exposed to courts, and irreverently subjected to nefarious injuries. But this deception of others, which is to be punished, brings us the outcome of the greatest praise, the opportunity of providing assistance, which commends us to divine aid.

And so, considering both the honour of the apostolic see and listening to the wish of the supplicants, we define in the moderated order of this decree that, if anyone believes that someone pertaining to the Roman clergy should be accused in no matter what likely matter, then let him first go to be heard at the judgement of the holy pope, so that he [the pope] shall either decide between the two after the fashion of his sanctity, or delegate the matter to be settled by the zeal of equity. And if perhaps – it is awful to believe it – the worthy desire of the plaintiff shall have been evaded, then let him hasten to swear at the secular courts (saecularia fora), when he can prove that his petitions have been ignored by the already mentioned holy See.

If such a wicked litigator should exist, condemned by everyone’s judgement for sacrilege [?], who scorns to show reverence to such a see, and believes that something can be obtained by our decrees, then let be struck with a penalty of 10 pounds of gold before the outcome of any assembly, which shall be taken at once by the officers of the Sacred Largess and given to the poor through the hands of the above mentioned bishop, so that losing the business he was seeking, he might also be punished by a loss. For it is appropriate for him to be struck by a double penalty, who has dared go against both divine reverence and  our orders.

But you, whom our judgments venerate: live by church decrees. For it is a great wickedness for those to commit crime who ought not to have a secular way of life. For your profession is heavenly life. So do not descend to the errors of mortals and mean promises. Let earthly men be compelled by human law, while you obey holy traditions.

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