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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. The text of Letter 3, written in about 402, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Synesius is indignant about a girls' bad manners, and points out that she will marry a man with a very, very bad ancestry: a descendant of a woman who -about eight centuries ago- worked as a hetaere.

Letter 3: Very bad taste

To his Brother

Aeschines had already been interred three days when his niece came to visit his tomb for the first time. Custom, you know, does not permit girls to attend funerals once they are engaged to be married. However, even then she was dressed in purple, with a transparent veil over her hair, and she had decked herself with gold and precious stones that she might not be a sign of evil omen to her betrothed. Seated upon a chair with double cushions and silver feet, so they say, she railed against the untimeliness of this misfortune, on the ground that Aeschines should have died either before her wedding or after it, and she was angry with us because we were in grief. Scarcely waiting for the seventh day, on which we had met for the funeral banquet, she mounted her mule car, in company with that talkative old nurse of hers, and, when the forum was thronged, set out on her stately course for Taucheira with all her adornments. Next week she is preparing to display herself crowned with fillets, and with a towering head-dress like Cybele.

We are in no way wronged by this except in the fact, patent to the whole world, that we have relations with very bad taste. The one who has been wronged is Harmonius, the father of her janitor,[1] as Sappho might say, a man who although wise and moderate in all respects in his own life, vied with Cecrops himself on the ground of noble birth.

The granddaughter of this man, himself greater than Cecrops, her uncle and janitor Herodes has now given away to the Sosiae and Tibii.[2] Perchance they are right who extol the future bridegroom to us because of his mother, pointing to his descent from the famous Lais.[3] Now Lais was an Hyccarian slave brought from Sicily, according to one historian; whence this mother of fair offspring, who bore the famous man. She of old lived an irregular life with a shipmaster for her owner - afterwards with an orator, who also owned her, and after these in the third instance with a fellow-slave, at first secretly in the town, then conspicuously, and was a mistress of her art. When by reason of oncoming wrinkles she gave up the practice of her art, she trained in her calling the young persons whom she palmed off on strangers. Her son, the orator, asserts that he is dispensed by the law from the duty of supporting a mother who is beyond the pale. Out upon such a law! The mother has been clearly revealed to those thus born: it is only the other parent that is doubtful. All the care that is due to both parents from those born in wedlock should be bestowed by the fatherless on the mother alone.

[1]
Apparently, the girls' guardian is meant; her father must be dead.

[2]
The Sosii were a family with a great line of ancestors. Cecrops was the founder of Athens, "born from the earth".

[3]
Lais was a hetaere, born in 422 in Hyccara on Sicily. In 415, during the Athenian expedition ot Sicily, her town was looted and she was sold as a slave in Corinth. Among her lovers were the philosophers Aristippus and Diogenes of Sinope.
Online 2007
Revision: 15 June 2007
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