Synesius, Eulogy of Baldness (13)

Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

The Eulogy of Baldness shows Synesius' lighter side: he defends his baldness against the speech In Praise of Hair by the sophist-philosopher Dio Chrysostom ("tongue of gold").

The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

Ancient text

Bald skulls are stronger

[1] [1189] Now they can test this argument who stand on the spot where the forces of Cambyses and those of Psammetichus met in deadly conflict in the attack on Egypt from Arabia. For these two armies then making trial of one another, and each thinking that the present moment was the decisive one of all, were at length with difficulty separated. A great slaughter took place, and the disaster was too severe to admit of the removal of their dead, and so the survivors did nothing else for those who had perished but to separate them from the enemy corpses, mingled together, just as each one had happened to fall in the line of battle.

[2] So now there are two heaps of bones, the one of the Egyptians, the other of the Medes.note Herodotus (for it seems that this excellent man approached the skulls) is indeed surprised at the thinness and weakness of the latter, for he says that you might pierce them by throwing a pebble against them, and at the thickness and solidity of the former, for┬áthese met his assault as hard and rigid objects, and even a whole sling stone would not be sufficient to break them, nay, he would need a club for the purpose. And the cause, they say, to which we invoked this experiment as a witness, was the bonnet of the one race, and of the other constant exposure to the sun.note

[3] And even if it is difficult to decide upon a voyage beyond the frontier passing through so many races of men, and granted that it is an unholy thing to smash the skull of corpse with a stone, and admitting that you do not trust Herodotus, nevertheless, I and many other people in the town, have Scythian servants who let their hair hang loose in the Scythian fashion. Now, if anyone should strike one of these men with his fist, he would kill him.

[4] But there is a man at the theater who furnishes a frequent and diverting spectacle to the public, and whom you may see at the holy period of each month if you seize the opportunity. [1192] This is one of the artificially, not one of the naturally bald, for he goes to his barber many times a day, and appears before the public for the very purpose of showing the strength of his head, to which no fearful thing is fearful, for he exposes it to seething pitch, and butts with it against a trained ram, one that tosses his head famously even when far away, and the Megarian vases collapse broken on his noble cranium. This is cut and cut to pieces, and not one of these exhibitions fails to make the beholders shiver, when they see how leaps are taken on it with more precision than on an Attic slipper.

[5] When I beheld this man, I congratulated myself on my good fortune, for I too could do all these things, but he certainly exceeds my daring, and moreover in the poverty ┬áthat has brought him to this point of audacity. At all events I need not make the trial, and may I never have to!

[6] But there is another boon than this, a right great one, and which falls short of none of those enumerated. For if it is our lot to attain what Pindar prayed for,note and we are able to live on our own means, we shall take a good seat in the theater and become hearers and spectators of what is being exhibited there and if supplies be needed for the city, and if the people ask for largesses, we shall employ our property lavishly. But should the demon be adverse, and should our daily bread be lacking -and may such a fate never befall one of the divine race- at all events the last of evils, hunger, is far from us, since we can all be wonder-workers; we can improvise and present on the stage, at the cost of a few blushes, an art well worth seeing.