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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
[§3]What could the Unnigardae have done against a force so vastly superior, and at moments when a small detachment of them encounters its serried masses? They are preserved on the one hand by the grace of God, by their strength and by their training; on the other hand by generalship; for what great harm could they have inflicted on an enemy, if dispatched against them by unwilling leaders? As often as, like young hounds, they got out of hand, these leaders would take them by the throat, and call them in, even before they had sated themselves with their charge and their wild-beast slaughter. And moreover, the Unnigardae were in need of a rear-guard and of an army drawn up in order of battle.

We had need, I think, of a phalanx,[1] as an efficient sword, the more vigorous part to thrust out with and the stouter to give the second blow. In this way the stroke becomes more disruptive. In any case, the number of these troops is a small one wherewith to finish the war, a war which could not be fought to finish in such a country as ours.

But unless someone can transport Unnigardae into the enemy's country, we shall need a force of four hundred to protect us against them. Nay, already had we need of such a force and commander before we were so completely routed and before the resources of the enemy had increased to such an extent.

[§4]For this final struggle even women joined in the campaign. I have seen, yes I have often seen, a woman carrying a sword and suckling infants at the same time. Who does not desire the war that is free from danger? I am full of shame at my fears for myself, for the times and for the Empire.

O for the spirit of the Romans of old! [1569] Winners of all their battles everywhere, they who united the continents by their victories, are now in danger of losing through a wretched nomadic tribe the Libyan cities, as well as the Greek, and Egyptian Alexandria also! The former loss is greater from the point of view of wealth, the latter is not less so from that of renown, if anyone knows the meaning of shame and sets any store on decency.

Alas for the audacity with which they have taken the land as if in a dragnet! No mountain is impassable for them nor is any fort secure. They have traversed and explored every country, and they have reduced young and old to slavery. I have long been listening to Greek historians:

The enemy left the women and children behind as a token of the devastation they had wreaked in the war.

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Note 1:
A common archaism in Synesius' time to describe heavy armed infantry.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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