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Synesius, Catastasis


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, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

The text presented here, the Catastasis, or Downfall of the Cyrenaica, is a long lament on the barbarian incursions that had destabilized the region since c.404 (the chronology is unclear). It is unclear for what purpose Synesius wrote this text, although the tone suggests that it was not meant to be published. Perhaps it is a letter with information that could be used in a speech at the imperial court. What is certain, however, is that the Catastasis was composed after a military intervention by Anysius and his unit of Unnigardae, who had offered the Cyrenaicans some respite in 411.

The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.
1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8 9-10
[1565] [§1] I for one do not know what I ought to say about the misfortunes that are happening before our very eyes, nor could words be commensurate with the events. Nay, even the power of weeping has failed some men, so terrified are they by the magnitude of the evils befalling them. But since God hath regard to those that lament, and since they who wield the scepter of the Romans ought, themselves also, to know this, do you write to whomsoever you may of those empowered to bring a statement before the council of the emperor.

Let someone announce to this body, in brief, that until the other day Pentapolis [i.e., Cyrenaica] was still a province valuable to an emperor. If it is outdistanced in power by other states, none the less it is more loyal than those greater in power. This is known to such as have entered into public life with a mind turned upon administration; [1568] and among these, as I hear and am persuaded, the great Anthemius [1] holds the first place. He has seen in how many moments of crisis we have given ready support to our emperor, and of these how many were moments of tyranny.

Until the other day the state of Pentapolis belonged to the Romans, who have now, to the nation's cost, passed her over in enumerating their provinces. Pentapolis has now quite clearly vanished; she has reached a state of extremity. Prolonging her agony to the seventh year,[2] as some animal tenacious of life, she was drawing in and gathering together what breath remained to her.

[§2] The propitious memory of Anysius has made her time of life a year younger; he it was who used the lances of all men and the ands of the Unnigardae at the critical moment. There came, in consequence, a certain postponement of disaster. For they [the barbarians] were not poured over the country in a compact mass. They changed their formation to that of marauding bands. They kept retreating and advancing. But after changing their minds when already three times drawn up for battle, the plains are captured by their horse, while our own troops are shut up within walled towns, scattered apart, some here, some there -the mistake this of Cerealis' time [3]- and are useless to each other because they are not concentrated.

The position of the enemy is therefore brilliant. They who last year were on the alert and always ready to retreat, are now besiegers, are now tearing down the walls of villages, are now investing cities with a large force at their disposal. What indeed has not turned out to their advantage! The Ausurians [4] have put on the breastplates of the Thracian cavalry, not of necessity, but to mock at the uniform. Besides these they employed the shields of the Marcomanni. The heavy-armed Roman force has degenerated into light infantry. They find their safety in the compassion of their enemies. I weep for these men, I do not reproach them with the calamity.

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Note 1:
Praetorian prefect of the east since 405.

Note 2:
The Catastasis was written immediately after 411, so the implied period is 406-412.

Note 3:
The military leader (dux) Cerealis appears to have been in charge of the region in c.405, when the Libyan war broke out.

Note 4:
The Ausurians were a tribe. The Thracians and Marcomanni were Roman military units.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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