Synesius, Letter 004

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 text offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald, Synesius' Letter 4, is one of the most famous documents from Antiquity. It tells the story of Synesius' return to Cyrene from Alexandria, perhaps in December 396. During his trip, the author suffered shipwreck, but his letter contains much more information about daily life, including the way sailors and passengers dealt with each other, a young man's fascination for everything female, a Jew's respect for the Law of Moses, and much more.

The addressee was Synesius' brother Eupoptius, who lived in Ptolemais. About a quarter of the entire correspondence was directed to him: letters 51 (394), 55, 56, 54, 136, 135, 110 (all 396), this long letter about a shipwreck in 397, 120, 104, 113 (401), 3, 35, 39, 32, 52, 65, 92, 106, 114, 109, 36 (all in 402), 127, 50, 18 (404), 125, 132 (405), 108, 107, 122, 95 (407), 53, 82, 84, 85, 86, 105 (409), 8, 87, 89 (411).

Ancient text

Letter 4: Shipwreck

[1] To his Brother

Although we started from Bendideum [near Alexandria] at early dawn, we had scarcely passed Pharius Myrmex by noonday, for our ship went aground two or three times in the bed of the harbor. This mishap at the very outset seemed a bad omen, and it might have been wiser to desert a vessel which had been unlucky from the very start. But we were ashamed to lay ourselves open to an imputation of cowardice from you, and accordingly

It was no longer granted us to tremble or to withdraw.note

[2] So now, if misfortune awaits us, we shall perish through your fault. After all, was it so dreadful that you should be laughing and we out of danger? But of Epimetheus they aver that

His prudence was at fault, his repentance never,

and that is precisely our own case, for we might easily have saved ourselves in the first instance; whereas now we are lamenting in concert on desert shores, gazing out towards Alexandria to our heart’s content, and towards our motherland Cyrene; one of these places we willfully deserted, while the other we are unable to reach - all the time having seen and suffered such things as we never thought to happen even in our dreams.

[3] Hear my story then, that you may have no further leisure for your mocking wit, and I will tell you first of all how our crew was made up. Our skipper was fain of death owing to his bankrupt condition; then besides him we had twelve sailors, thirteen in all! More than half of them, including the skipper, were Jews - a graceless race and fully convinced of the piety of sending to Hades as many Greeks as possible. The remainder were a collection of peasants who even as late as last year had never gripped an oar.

[4] But the one batch and the other were alike in this, that every man of them had some personal defect. Accordingly, so long as we were in safety they passed their time in jesting one with another, accosting their comrades not by their real names, but by distinguishing marks of their misfortunes, as to call out the "Lame", the "Ruptured", the "Lefthanded", the "Goggle-eyed". Each one had his distinguishing mark, and to us this sort of thing was no small source of amusement. The moment we were in danger, however, it was no laughing matter, but rather did we bewail these very defects.

[5] We had embarked to the number of more than fifty, about a third of us being women, most of them young and comely. Do not, however, be quick to envy us, for a screen separated us from them and a stout one at that, the suspended fragment of a recently torn sail, to virtuous men the very wall of Semiramis.note Nay, Priapus himself might well have been temperate had he taken passage with Amarantus, for there was never a moment when this fellow allowed us to be free from fear of he uttermost danger.

[6] As soon as he had doubled the temple of Poseidon, near you, he made straight for Taphosiris,note with all sails spread, to all seeming bent upon confronting Scylla, over whom we were all wont to shudder in our boyhood when doing our school exercises. This maneuver we detected only just as the vessel was nearing the reefs, and we all raised so mighty a cry that perforce he gave up his attempt to battle with the rocks. All at once he veered about as though some new idea had possessed him, and turned his vessel's head to the open, struggling as best he might against a contrary sea.

[7] Presently, a fresh south wind springs up and carries us along, and soon we are out of sight of land and have come into the track of the double-sailed cargo vessels, whose business does not lie with our Libya; they are sailing quite another course. Again we make common cause of complaint, and our grievance now is that we have been forced away far from the shore. Then does this Titan of ours, Amarantus, fulminate, standing up on the stern and hurling awful imprecations upon us. "We shall obviously never be able to fly," he said, "How can I help people like you who distrust both the land and the sea?"

[8] "Nay," I said, "Not so, worthy Amarantus, in case anyone uses them rightly. For our own part we had no yearning for Taphosiris, for we wanted only to live. Moreover," I continued, "What do we want of the open sea? Let us rather make for the Pentapolis, hugging the shore; for then,  if indeed we have to face one of those uncertainties which, as you admit, are unfortunately only too frequent on the deep, we shall at least be able to take refuge in some neighboring harbor."

[9] I did not succeed in persuading him with my talk, for to all of it the outcast only turned a deaf ear; and what is more, a gale commenced to blow from the north, and the violent wind soon raised seas mountains high. This gust falling suddenly on us, drove our sail back, and made it concave in place of its convex form, and the ship was all but capsized by the stern. With great difficulty, however, we headed her in.

[10] Then Amarantus thunders out, "See what it is to be master of the art of navigation. I had long foreseen this storm, and that is why I sought the open. I can tack in now, since our sea room allows us to add to the length of our tack. But such a course as the one I have taken would not have been possible had we hugged the shore, for in that case the ship would have dashed on the coast."

[11] Well, we were perforce satisfied with his explanation so long as daylight lasted and dangers were not imminent, but these failed not to return with the approach of night, for as the hours passed, the seas increased continually in volume. Now it so happened that this was the day on which the Jews make what they term the "Preparation", and they reckon the night, together with the day following this, as a time during which it is not lawful to work with one's hands. They keep this day holy and apart from the others, and they pass it in rest from labor of all kinds.

[12] Our skipper accordingly let go the rudder from his hands the moment he guessed that the sun's rays had left the earth, and throwing himself prostrate,

Allowed to trample upon him what sailor so desired.note

[13] We who at first could not understand why he was thus lying down, imagined that despair was the cause of it all. We rushed to his assistance and implored him not to give up the last hope yet. Indeed the hugest waves were actually menacing the vessel, and the very deep was at war with itself. Now it frequently happens that when the wind has suddenly relaxed its violence, the billows already set in motion do not immediately subside; they are still under the influence of the wind's force, to which they yield an with which they battle at the same time, and the oncoming waves fight against those subsiding.

[14] I have every need of my store of flaming language, so that in recounting such immense dangers I may not fall into the trivial. To people who are at sea in such a crisis, life may be said to hang by a thread only, for if our skipper proved at such a moment to be an orthodox observer of the Mosaic law, what was life worth in the future? Indeed we soon understood why he had abandoned the helm, for when we begged him to do his best to save the ship, he stolidly continued reading his roll. Despairing of persuasion, we finally attempted force, and one staunch soldier - for many Arabs of the cavalry were of our company - one staunch soldier, I say, drew his sword and threatened to behead the fellow on the spot if he did not resume control of the vessel. But the Maccabaeannote in very deed was determined to persist in his observances.

[15] However, in the middle of the night he voluntarily returned to the helm. "For now," he said, "We are clearly in danger of death, and the law commands." On this the tumult sprang up afresh, groaning of men and shrieking of women. All called upon the gods, and cried aloud; all called to mind those they loved. Amarantus alone was in good spirits, for he thought to himself that now at last he would foil his creditors. For myself, amidst those horrors, I swear to you by the god sacred to philosophy, that the only thing that troubled me was a passage from Homer.

[16] I feared that were my body once swallowed up in the waves, the soul itself also might eternally perish, for somewhere in his epic he writes:

Ajax perished, once he had drunk of the briny wave,note

bearing witness to the fact that death at sea is the most grievous way of perishing, for in no other case does the poet speak of annihilation, but of everyone who dies the phrase is "he went to Hades".

[17] Thus in the two books of the Nekyiai,note the lesser Ajax is not brought into the narrative, for this very reason, that his soul is not in Hades; and again, Achilles, the most high-spirited and the most daring of all, shrinks from death by drowning and refers to it as a pitiable ending.note

[18] As I was musing in this fashion, I noticed that all soldiers on board were standing with drawn swords. On inquiring the reason for this, I learned from them that they regarded it as more honorable to belch out their souls to the winds while still on the deck, than to gape them out to the waves. These men are by nature true descendants of Homer, I thought, and I entirely approved their view of the matter.

[19] Then someone loudly proclaimed that everyone possessing gold should suspend it about the neck, and those who possessed it did so, as well as those who had anything of the value of gold. The women themselves put on their jewelry, and distributed cords to those who needed them: such is the time-honored custom. Now this is the reason for it. It is a matter of necessity that the corpse from a shipwreck should carry with it a fee for burial, inasmuch as whosoever comes across the dead body and profits by it, will fear the laws of Adrasteia,note and will scarcely grudge sprinkling a little sand on the one who has given him so much more in value.

[20] So then they occupied themselves, but I sat solemnly apart, my thoughts fixed on the heavy sum of money which my host had deposited with me. I was lamenting, not so much my approaching death, - the god of hospitality be my witness! - as the sum of money which would be lost to this Thracian before whom, even when dying, I should feel shame. I came to the point of regarding it as a luxury to die in the fullest sense of the word, above all to perish in such a way as to escape all consciousness hereafter.

[21] Now what made death gape at our feet was the fact that the ship was running with all sails spread, and that there was no means of taking them in, for as often as we attempted this we were thwarted by the ropes, which stuck in the pulleys; and again we had a secret fear lest in the night time, even if we lived out the sea, we should approach land in this sorry plight.

[22] But day broke before all this had time to occur, and never, I know, did we behold the sun with greater joy. The wind grew more moderate as the temperature became milder, and thus, as the moisture evaporated, we were able to work the rigging and handle the sails. We were unable, it is true, to replace our sail by a new one, for this was already in the hands of the pawnbroker, but we took it in like the swelling folds of a garment, and lo, in four hours' time we who had imagined ourselves already in the jaws of death, were disembarking in a remote desert place, possessing neither town nor farm near it, only an expanse of open country of one hundred and thirty stadia.note

[23] Our ship was riding in the open sea, for the spot was not a harbor, and it was riding on a single anchor. The second anchor had been sold. And a third Amarantus did not possess. When now we touched the dearly beloved land, we embraced the earth as a real living mother. We sent up hymns of gratitude to Providence, as is our custom, and to all this we added a mention of the present good fortune by which we had been saved contrary to all expectation.

[24] Thus we waited two days until the sea should have abated its fury. When, however, we were unable to discover any way out by land, for we could find no one in the country, we decided to try our fortune again at sea. We straightway started at dawn with a wind which blew from the stern all that day and the following one, but towards the end of this second day the wind left us and we were in despair. However, only too soon should we be longing for a calm.

[25] It was the thirteenth day of the waning moon, and a great danger was now impending, I mean the conjunction of certain constellations and those well known chance events which no one, they say, ever confronted at sea with impunity. So at the very moment when we should have stayed in harbor, we so far forgot ourselves as to run out again to sea. The storm opened with north winds and with heavy rain during the moonless night, presently the winds raged without measure, and the sea became deeply churned up.

[26] As to ourselves, exactly what you might expect at such a crisis took place. I will not dilate a second on the identical sufferings, I will only say that the very magnitude of the storm was helpful. First the sailyard began to crack, and we thought of tightening up the vessel; then it broke in the middle and very nearly killed us all. It seems that this very accident, failing to destroy us, was the means of our salvation. We should never have been able to resist the force of the wind, for again the sail was intractable and defied all our efforts to take it in. Contrary to all prevision we had shaken off the rapacious violence of our enforced run, and we carried along during a day and a night, and at the second crowing of the cock, before we knew it, behold we were on a sharp reef which ran out from the land like a short peninsula.

[27] Then a shout went up, for someone passed the word that we should had gone aground on the shore itself. There was much shouting and very little agreement. The sailors were terrified, whereas we through inexperience clapped our hands and embraced each other. We could not sufficiently express our great joy. And yet this was accounted the most formidable of the dangers that had beset us.

[28] Now when day appeared, a man in rustic garb signaled and pointed out which were the places of danger, and those that we might approach in safety. Finally, he came out to us in a boat with two oars, and this he made fast to our vessel. Then he took over the helm, and our Syriannote gladly relinquished to him the conduct of the ship. So after proceeding not more than fifty stadia, he brought her to anchor in a delightful little harbor, which I believe is called Azariumnote and there disembarked us on the beach. We acclaimed him as our savior and good angel.

[29] A little while later, he brought in another ship, and then again another, and before evening had fallen, we were in all five vessels saved by this godsent old man, the very reverse of Naupliusnote in his actions, for the latter received the shipwrecked in a vastly different manner. On the following day, other ships arrived, some of which had put out from Alexandria the day before we set sail. So now we are quite a great fleet in a small harbor.

[30] Now provisions began to run short. So little accustomed were we to such accidents and so little had we anticipated a voyage of such length, that we had not brought sufficient stock and, what is more, we had not husbanded what we had on board. The old man had a remedy for this also. He did not give us anything himself, and he certainly did not look like one who had possessions. But he pointed out rocks to us where, he said, breakfast and supper were hidden away for those willing to work for it daily. Forthwith we set ourselves to fishing, and we have lived on the produce of our sport now seven days. The more stalwart of our party hunted out eels and lobsters of great size, and the children made a great game of catching gudgeons and shrimps. As to the Roman monk and myself, we fortified ourselves with limpets, a concave shell which attaches itself very firmly on the rocks.

[31] In the first stages of this life or ours we fared ill enough. Everyone kept avariciously whatever he could get hold of, and no one gave a present to his neighbor, but now we have abundance, and this is how it all happened. The Libyan women would have offered even bird's milk to the women of our party. They bestowed upon them all the products of earth and air alike; to wit, cheeses, flour, barley cakes, lamb, poultry, and eggs; one of them even made a present of a bustard, a bird of very delicious flavor. A yokel would call it at first sight a peacock.

[32] They bring these presents to the ship, and our women accept them and share them with those who wish it. At present they who go fishing have become generous - a man, a child comes to me one after another, and makes me a present, now a fish caught on the line, invariably some dainty that the rocks produce. To please you I take nothing from the women, that there may be no truce between them and me, and that I may be in no difficulty about denial, when I have to abjure all connection with them.

[33] And yet what was to hinder me from rejoicing in necessities? So much comes in from all sides. The kindness of the inhabitants of the country towards their women guests you probably attribute to their virtue alone. Such is not the case; and it is worth while to explain all this to you, particularly as I have so much leisure. The wrath of Aphrodite, it would seem, lies heavy on the land; the women are as unlucky as the Lemnians;note their breasts are overfull and they have disproportionately large chests, so that the infants obtain nourishment held not by the mother's arm, but by her shoulder, the nipple being turned upwards.

[34] One might of course maintain that Ammon and the country of Ammon is as good a nurse of children as of sheep, and that nature has there endowed cattle and humanity alike with fuller and more abundant fountains of milk, and so to that end are ampler breasts and reservoirs needed. Now, when these women hear from men who have had commerce with others beyond the frontier, that all women are not like this, they are incredulous. So when they fall in with a foreign woman, they make up to her in every way until they have gained their object, which is to examine her bosom, and then the woman who has examined the stranger tells another, and they call one another like the Cicones,note they flock together to the spectacle and bring presents to them.

[35] We happened to have with us a young female slave who came from Pontus. Art and nature had combined to make her more highly chiseled than an ant. All the stir was about this one, and she made much gain from the women, and for the last three days the richest in the neighborhood have been sending for her, and have passed her from one to the other. She was so little embarrassed that she readily exhibited herself in undress.

[36] So much for my story. The divinity has shaped it for you in mingling the comic with the tragic element. I have done likewise in the account I have given to you. I know this letter is too long, but as when with you face to face, so in writing to you I am insatiable, and as it is by no means certain that I shall be able to talk with you again, I take all possible pleasure in writing to you now. Moreover, by fitting this letter into my diary, about which I take great pains, I shall have the reminiscences of many days.

[37] Farewell; give my kindest messages to your son Dioscuros and to his mother and grandmother, both of whom I love and look upon as though they were my own sisters. Salute for me the most holy and revered philosopher,note and give my homage also to the company of the blessed who delight in her oracular utterance. Above all to the holy Theotecnus, and my friend Athanasius. As to our most sympathetic Gaius, I well know that you, like myself, regard him as a member of our family.

[38] Do not forget to remember me to them, as also to Theodosius, who is not merely a grammarian of the first order, but one who, if he really be a diviner, has certainly succeeded in deceiving us. (He surely must have foreseen the incidents of this voyage, for he finally gave up his desire to come with me.) However, this is a matter that does not signify. I love and embrace him.

[39] As for you, may you never trust yourself to the sea, or at least, if you really must do, let it not be at the end of a month.