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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
[§7]Which of these things could one permit to reach pious ears? Anyone who thinks the citadels which they destroyed worth remembering, and the utensils, furniture, cattle, and sheep that have been hidden in the ravines, relics of the barbarian brigandage; such a man amidst so great disasters can scarcely escape the charge of frivolity. And yet they loaded five thousand dromedaries with their booty, and retired with three times their number by the addition of captives, and their host was so much the greater.

Pentapolis is death, extinguished; its end is come, it has been assassinated, it has perished. It has perished entirely out of existence, both for us and for its emperor. For a place from which he will get no return will be no possession for an emperor, and who shall collect from the desert?

[1572] As for me, I have no longer a native place to desert.[1] That I am not at sea and seeking an island is, in my case, only from lack of a ship, for I distrust Egypt. Even there a dromedary can cross with an Ausurian hoplite [2] on its back. I shall make an island of my home, a poor instead of a rich man, an alien less honored than a citizen of Cythera, for after many inquiries I have now ascertained that Cythera is opposite Pentapolis, and perhaps the south winds will carry me thither. With their citizens I will live as a stranger, a wanderer, and if I attempt to say anything about my great ancestry, they will not give it credence there.

[§8] Alas for Cyrene, whose public tablets trace the succession from Heracles down even to me! for I should not be accounted a simpleton in my grief amongst men who know of the degradation of my noble ancestry. Alas for the Dorian tombs wherein I shall find no place! Unhappy Ptolemais, of which I was the last priest to be appointed! The horror of it is ever with me. I can speak no longer, tears overpower my voice...

I am full of the thought of what it will mean to abandon the sacred objects. The crew ought already to have put to sea, but when anyone called me to the ship I shall beg leave to delay a little longer. I shall go first to the shrine of God, I shall make the circuit of the altar. I shall drench the most precious pavement with my tears; I shall not retreat from the spot before I have said farewell to that portal and that throne. How many times shall I call upon God and turn to Him, how often shall I press my hands upon the railings!

But necessity is a mighty thing and all-powerful. I long to give to my eyes a sleep uninterrupted by the sound of the trumpet. How much longer shall I stand upon the ramparts, how much longer shall I guard the intervals between the turrets? I am weary of picketing the night patrols, guarding others and being guarded myself in turn, I who used to hold many a vigil, waiting for the omens from the stars, I am now worn out watching for the onsets of the enemy. We sleep for a span measured by the water clock, and the alarm bell often breaks in upon the portion allotted me for slumber. And if I close my eyes for a moment, oh, what somber dreams!

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Note 1:
Synesius' native town, Cyrene, had already been sacked. In 412, he was bishop in Ptolemais.

Note 2:
A common archaism in Synesius' time to describe heavy armed infantry.
Online 2006
Revision: 12 Nov. 2006
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