Boethius: the Key to Greek Philosophy

The front cover of the 1546 Basel edition, produced in Heinrich Petri’s printing shop.

Anitii Manlii Severini Boethi … opera, quae extant, omnia

Printed 1546 by Heinrich Petri in Basel


If you consider yourself a scholar (and what intellectual doesn’t?), there’s one writer that should under no circumstances be missing from your library: Boethius. At least, that’s what Heinrich Petri, who printed and published our 1546 edition of Boethius’ works, wrote in reference to ‘luminaries’ (summi viri). Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, which was the ancient writer’s full name, was actually respected and venerated to the highest degree. And that has remained the case from his lifetime to this day. But who was this man with the long name? Let’s travel back 1,500 years to a musty prison cell in Pavia…

Boethius was charged with high treason, but prison time probably wasn’t all that terrible for him. We’re more inclined to imagine that he wrote his work, the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’, quite comfortably, under house arrest rather than behind bars, as is suggested by this illustration in a 1385 edition of the ‘Consolatio’.

Scholar, Courtier, Victim of the Justice System

Boethius was desperate. Just a few days ago, he had been one of the most powerful men in the Western Roman Empire, and now he suddenly found himself in prison (or rather, under house arrest) awaiting a sentence that could cost him his life. This former magister officiorum, that is, the head of all court offices at the imperial palace, had become embroiled in the political power struggle. King Theodoric suddenly believed him to be guilty of high treason and implied to the judges that he wanted them to deliver a death sentence.

Boethius had achieved everything he could have dreamed of. He was born, most likely in the 480s, into a noble family, studied, married in the highest social circles, built a political career – and then, right at the end, he plunged to rock bottom.

In around 523, as he awaited his sentence, he had a vision: philosophy itself, personified, came to Boethius to console him. This striking scene is what moved him to write his most famous work, the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ (Consolatio philosophiae). Do people have free will or is everything predetermined by God? And could a good and merciful God even allow something like this to happen, such a miscarriage of justice against as exemplary a magistrate as Boethius? Boethius asks a wide range of timeless questions, presenting his readers with polished, neatly formulated arguments for each of them.

Alongside the Bible and Virgil, this work remained one of the most frequently read books well into modern times; Queen Elizabeth I personally translated the ‘Consolatio’ into English in 1593. Of course, our 1546 edition of all of his works also includes this text, although one of the editors wasn’t so sure about attributing it to Boethius, thinking it strange that the Christian philosopher didn’t seek consolation from his saviour. Modern philologists have managed to refute these doubts, but that’s a complicated story…

By the time Boethius was sentenced to death (probably between 524 and 526), he had completed his ‘Consolation of Philosophy’, but not the mission that he had actually considered to be his life’s work: presenting the Greek philosophers, in the form of translations and commentaries, for his contemporaries – and for posterity.

A Translator and Teacher of Greek Philosophy

The printer’s mark of Heinrich Petri in our edition. The publisher was inspired by the word of God, but he also had two excellent scholars assisting him.

If we look at the table of contents in our 1546 edition, we can see the wide range of Boethius’s work and accomplishments. He not only wrote about Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, but also the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry. For his commentary of the latter, Boethius initially used an old Latin translation for reference, but then he decided to translate the work again himself and use his own translation as the basis for a second commentary.

Boethius also wrote philosophical textbooks, but he mostly wrote handbooks for students who needed to get to grips with the quadrivium before they began their philosophy studies. The quadrivium consisted of the following subjects: arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Only students that demonstrated a good understanding of this ‘basic study’ were admitted to the ‘main study’ of philosophy. These writings did not survive to Heinrich Petri’s day in their entirety, but the questions of textual criticism that surrounded them prompted two 16th-century scholars to get involved in the Basel print.

The Complete Edition of Boethius’s Works: For Those Who Will Accept Nothing Less

Heinrich Glarean (1488–1563) in a pen drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger.

One of the printer’s marks used by Swiss printer Heinrich Petri depicts a rock (probably a reference to his surname, which means ‘rock’ in Greek), being struck by the hammer of God, with flames erupting from it. Though his printer’s mark may allude to divine inspiration, Petri knew that this alone wouldn’t cut it. Right from the beginning, his edition of Boethius’s work was intended as a luxury edition, and Petri was very proud to be able to dedicate it to Anton Fugger. This was possible because the publisher had brought in two prominent experts assist him in his project.

One of them was philosopher and physician Julius Martianus Rota, who had also proved himself to be an excellent translator. In this edition, Rota was primarily responsible for the writings about dialectic and rhetoric. Another of his contributions was a biography of Boethius, which practically became a best seller: it was reprinted many times as a stand-alone work, and as late as end of the 18th century!

Working alongside Rota was polymath Heinrich Glarean. As a musician and poet, teacher and mathematician, the humanist was the ideal partner for this ambitious project. It was Glarean that wrote the preface, addressed to Anton Fugger, in which he also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of ‘Consolatio’.

Both scholars embellished the ancient text with images and diagrams, which helped the reader to follow the complex trains of thought. It is probably thanks to these two experts that Heinrich Petri could, with great pride, state on the front cover that his edition not only contained specific changes from earlier editions, but also long passages offering new and improved readings of the original text.

Lorenzo Valla (1405/7–1457) was one of the best philologists of his time, who proved that the so-called Donation of Constantine was forged. He believed that Boethius was the ‘last scholar’.

The ‘Last Scholar’

The preface is very informative. Since the first printed editions and the first complete edition were published in the 15th century, Boethius’s writings had been reprinted abundantly – and had become the subject of many lively debates and discussions. Philologist Lorenzo Valla even said that Boethius had lost his sense for his native language of Latin due to his preoccupation with Greek. In the preface, Glarean mentions Valla’s criticism, but points out that Valla himself had openly dubbed Boethius ‘the last scholar’ (eruditorum ultimum). After all Boethius’s writings fitted very nicely into the Renaissance: The great philologists of the 15th and 16th centuries were as well able to finally reintroduce the western world to Greek texts in the original language. So, further Latin translations might seem redundant at the first glance: but the humanists and Boethius were kindred spirits, in awe of the great Greek thinkers and determined to share those ideas with their contemporaries.


Unfortunately, our edition is not available online. You can access at least part of the original edition of Boethius’s works via Wikisource.

Read this article about Plutarch’s ‘Parallel Lives’ to find out more about how Greek philology rose to popularity and why people, in the 15th century and beyond, loved to read ancient texts in the original Greek.

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