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Synesius, A Eulogy of Baldness 3


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
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, about the christianization of the Roman world, and the military crisis at the beginning of the fifth century.

The Eulogy of Baldness shows a lighter side of Synesius, who had a reputation as a sophist. In this text, he defends his baldness against the speech In Praise of Hair by the sophist-philosopher Dio Chrysostom.
The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

[1169] [Dio's In Praise of Hair; 1] "After rising in the morning and praying to the gods, as is my custom, I attended to my hair; I happened to be in poor health at the time, and it had been too long uncared for. The most of it had become knotted and entangled, as that which hangs about a sheep's legs, but much coarser than this, for it is tangled with fine hairs. The hair was accordingly uncouth and heavy to behold. And it was difficult to unravel; the most of it was torn out and subjected to a strain.

Thus the idea came to me of praising those who make a cult of their hair, who love beauty, and give their hair great importance, and who not merely give it serious attention but even keep a sort of reed in the hair itself, [1172] with which they comb it when they are at leisure. And this is the most difficult thing; they guard against touching the earth with it when sleeping on the ground, for they have to place a small piece of wood under the head that it may be separated from the earth as much as possible; and they think much more of keeping their hair clean than of sleeping agreeably, for it would seem to make them fine looking and awe-inspiring, whereas sleep, however sweet, only makes them sluggish and careless.

The Lacedaemonians, too, seem to me to be not neglectful of such a fact, as they came forward before the great and terrible battle at the time when they alone of all Greeks were to engage the king.[2] At that moment numbering only three hundred, they sat them down and dressed their hair.

Again, Homer seems to me to consider such a thing worthy of the greatest care. It is not often that he praises handsome men for their eyes, nor does he think to make beauty evident most of all therein. He makes no encomium on the eyes of any of the heroes, except Agamemnon, and that only in praising the rest of his body besides;[3] and he not merely describes the Greeks as men of quick-glancing eyes, though no less to Agamemnon does he apply the epithet common to Greeks, but he praises them all for their hair; in the first place Achilles

and she [Athena] seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair.[4]

Then Menelaus he calls blond because of his hair,[5] and he mentions Hector's hair in these words:

and round about his dark hair was dragged in the dust.[6]

So when Euphorbus, the fairest of the Trojans, had died, he deplored nothing else but this, saying

His hair like to the Graces was dyed with blood
and his tresses adorned with gold and silver.[7]

And of Odysseus, whenever he wishes to show how beautiful he had become at the hand of Athena, he says

his hair turned black.[8]

And again about the same hero:

                                                        down from his head
she sent curling hair to grow like the flower of the hyacinth.[9]

Now adornment of hair seems to become men more than women according to Homer, for when he discourses of the beauty of women, he does not so often seem to have recalled to mind their hair. He praises those amongst the deities who are female, in other ways, he makes Aphrodite "golden", Hera "ox-eyed" and Thetis "silver-footed"; but in the case of Zeus he praises his hair most of all:

The ambrosial locks of the king floated waving from his head.[10]

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Note 1:
One gets the impression that Synesius does not quote the full text of Dio's speech. For example, Dio missed a chance by not digressing upon the expression euplokamos, "with beautiful braids", when he describes Homer's praise of female beauty. The text appears to be too short and it has been argued that what we have is the product of careless copiist. However, the Byzantine scholar Photius, who was interested in Dio's oeuvre, does not know a speech In Praise of Hair, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Synesius polemizes against a speech he has first invented. Alternatively, 

Note 2:
A reference to the battle of Thermopylae in 480, in which the Spartan king Leonidas and three hundred elite warriors fought themselves to death against the army of the Achaemenid king Xerxes. According to Herodotus (Histories, 7.208), the Spartans combed their hair before they engaged. Unlike Synesius' Dio states, they were not alone: they were supported by Phocians and Thebans.

Note 3:
Homer, Iliad, 2.478-479.

Note 4:
Homer, Iliad, 1.197.

Note 5:
A.o. Homer, Iliad, 3.284.

Note 6:
Homer, Iliad, 22.401-402.

Note 7:
Homer, Iliad, 17.51-52.

Note 8:
A reading of Homer, Odyssey, 16.176 that is not in the surviving manuscripts.

Note 9:
Homer, Odyssey, 6.230-231.

Note 10:
Homer, Iliad, 1.529.
Online 2006
Revision: 25 Nov. 2006
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