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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
[§9] And to what sort of visions do our cares by day hurry us! Cessation from troubles is the beginning of troubles. We are in flight, we are taken prisoners, [1573] we are wounded, we are bound in chains, we are sold into slavery. How often have I arisen in joy that I had escaped a master! How often have I arisen gasping for breath and dripping with sweat, abandoning in the same moment sleep and the race I was running with all my might, in flight from an enemy hoplite![1] For us alone are the word of Hesiod vain, to wit that

Hope remains within the jar.[2]

We are all without courage and bereft of hope. The 'unlivable' live of the proverb, my men, is no other than the one which we are leading. What is the delay? What are we coming to?

[§10] Pentapolis has incurred the hatred of God. We are surrendered to chastisement. There was the locust than which no evil is more complete, there was the conflagration which consumed the crops of three states even before the enemy came. What is the limit to our evils? If the islands afford a respite from these, I shall sail as soon as the sea abandons its evil passions.[3]

But I fear that disaster may overtake me first. For the day appointed for the attack is near at hand, with which 'tis said the imperial courier, forerunner of the enemy force, menaced the city. That moment most of all will warn the priests that they must speedily rally to the precincts of God's temple, if the danger reaches the very walls of the city. I shall remain in my place at the church. I shall place before me the vessels of holy water. I shall cling fast to the sacred pillars which hold up the inviolate communion table from the ground. There will I sit while I live, and lie when I am dead.

I am a minister of God, and perchance I must complete my service by offering up my life. God will not in any case overlook the altar, bloodless, though stained by the blood of a priest,

Supreme be thou in words, aye, and in deeds,
O Thalelaeus, whom all learning well befits.[4]


Note 1:
A common archaism in Synesius' time to describe heavy armed infantry.

Note 2:
Hesiod, Works and Days, 95.

Note 3:
If this refers to the beginning of the sailing season, the Catastasis describes an attack in the late winter of 411/412.

Note 4:
Unknown quote.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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