Synesius, Letter 132

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 addressee of the letter that is offered here, was Synesius' brother Euoptius, 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), the long letter 4 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).

The text of Letter 132, in which Synesius reproaches his brother's behavior in the struggle against barbarian raiders (Cf. Letter 125), can be dated to 405, and is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Ancient text

Letter 132: War

[1] To his Brother

We may allow that there are worse things than woman shrieking, beating their breasts, or tearing their hair when they see the enemy or when his coming is announced to them. For all that, Plato regards it as scandalous that they should not be willing to stand up like hens against the bravest in the defense of their offspring, and that they should give to the race of man the reputation of being the most cowardly of all animals.

[2] However this may be, that you should commit the same fault as these women, that you should be terrified out of your wits in the night, that you should get out of bed, and go about shouting that the barbarian is already at the gate of the fortress; I ask, is this to be endured any longer? And yet someone has told me some such story about you. It would seem like a transformation to be at one moment my brother, and at another a coward.

[3] For my part, at the moment of dawn I am off on horseback, I am scouting as far out as possible, searching busily wit eyes and ears for any signs of these cattle-lifters, for I cannot give the name of enemy to looters and foot-pads. I wish I could find stronger phrases still with which to characterize them.

[4] They never hold their ground against determined adversaries, and they only¬†attack the timid, whom they slaughter like victims for sacrifice, and then strip them. At night, with an escort of ¬†young men, I patrol the hill and I give the women an opportunity of sleeping without fear, for they know that there are those who are watching over them.

[5] Moreover I have with me some of the corps of the Balagritae. Before Cerialis had taken over the command of the province, these men were mounted bowmen; but when he entered upon his functions, their horses were sold and they became only archers, but even as infantry they are useful to me. We need archery in defense of our wells and of the river, as water is entirely lacking in the interior of our lines.