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Synesius of Cyrene


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.

Homily 2 is essentially a set of two fragments that appear to be unrelated. The first fragment is a philosophical interpretation of Christmas (or Epiphany); the second seems to belong to a law suit between two neighboring cities (Ptolemais and Taucheira?) on the use of water. The fragments are offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Homily 2: Fragment A

It is a holy night that brings light to those that are accursed, a light greater than that wherewith any sun has illumined the day. Lo, it is not holy that even the fairest thing upon the earth should be compared to the Creator; but that light which illumines souls and lits up the perceptible sun is no piece of creation. It exists through the harmony of its present blessedness, that will bless us in the future.

If you persevere in this way of thinking you will maintain the soul in a more enviable state for the present, if not for your whole life. At this moment each one of you goes about the city as an announcing messenger. Now believe ye that the words of scripture refer to you, that being on earth ye have a citizenship in heaven.[1] Beware of missing your deserts, for hard to wash out is the stain that comes after cleansing.

Homily 2: Fragment B

The people of Leontopolis adopted a resolution whose mildness was out of keeping with their own nature. They let each other alone, and indicted their neighbors for illegal action. Until the other day brothers were invoking the arm of the law against brothers, sons against father, and father against the family.

Perhaps the thing now taken in hand is not really the act of men finally resorting to the ancestral course of mutual extermination; but while every private individual has his hand against his neighbor, the city is arrayed collectively against those who are unlucky enough to live near it. It would be unendurable to them if the pattern of their constitution were not publicly that of an informer, and if it did not slip into the position of a false accuser.

That we are in no way guilty, the very accusations furnish clear proofs, when we have the good fortune to get the ear of a judge. But we have learned only to till the soil, not to address law courts. Why then do these men think it fit to overstep the limits that have been assigned to them from time immemorial, and come against us, who are more aflame than they? Why do they always sell the surplus to us, who are more parched than they and wronged by our situation?

Since there has been no profit this year, they insist that our misfortunes should take its place. This is the object of the writs recently issued, and their decrees have no other aim than this. And they also make a second admission, which it is only just that we should state first of all, and we alone; for it explains their most unjust attempt. For having themselves long ago laid a foundation for their false accusations, to support their shameless claims to make use of the water that does not belong to them, they have not approached this most august court.

Note 1:
The quote is Philippians 3.20.
Online 2007
Revision: 21 June 2007
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