Boethius, De arithmetica and De institutione musicae


Published by Heinrich Petrus (Basel) in 1546



No matter what you call Boethius –the “last Roman” or the “first scholastic”, his influence on medieval scholars is almost impossible to overestimate. For them, his Latin writings were the entrance gate to the world of ideas of one Plato or one Aristotle. They didn’t know the works of these scholars in the original version but only from the translations, commentaries, and summaries Boethius had left them.


Boethius came from the old and influential Roman anicii family. His grandfather had been praetorian prefect, his father had been praetorian prefect and praefectus urbi of Rome. Boethius himself was to become magister officiorum, and thus head of the entire administration of the Roman Empire, under Theoderic the Great. But Boethius is hardly ever remembered as a politician. In a world in which education became increasingly obsolete because hardly anyone mastered the Greek language anymore, he decided to translate those works from the past that he deemed most important. He intended to establish an authoritative canon of education which a Roman official should master.


Boethius’ plans failed in view of the military developments in the Western Roman Empire. The general confusion of the Migration Period got in the way of those in power taking an interest in education. But his books survived, and were read and studied again by scholars in the Carolingian Empire at the latest. His works became the most important study books that monks relied on to study Latin and the knowledge of the ancient Greeks.


We are looking at two of these study books right here. They treat arithmetic and music, which makes them part of the so-called quadrivium, the four disciplines that made up the basics of medieval education. Boethius had also composed comprehensive works on the other two disciplines, geometry and astronomy. They have been lost.


But if we find the most important numerical proportions in which music can be expressed in the awe-inspiring cathedrals of the Middle Ages, it is thanks to Boethius. He is responsible for formulating a philosophy of numbers, which attributes every number and every ratio a quality and a characteristic of its own, much more than factual knowledge in his books.


Boethius was regarded as a saint in the Middle Ages. He lost that title in the 19th century when the Church was relegated to the political background in the Western world. His great fame faded. His works were denied any originality. But without Boethius antiquity would not have been kept alive for the Middle Ages and could not have been resurrected in the Renaissance.


Boethius’ works were indeed the crucial link that preserved the knowledge of the disappearing Roman Empire for its curious successors. Compared to that, all of his political endeavours seem time-dependent and irrelevant. 

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