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Synesius of Cyrene


A relief of a freighter from the Macellum at Lepcis Magna. Photo Marco Prins.
A freighter of the type descibed by Synesius (Lepcis Magna, Macellum
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 offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald, Letter 4, is one of the most famous documents from Antiquity. It tells the story of Synesius' return to Cyrene from Alexandria, perhaps in December 396. During his trip, Synesius suffered shipwreck, but his letter contains much more information about daily life, including the way sailors and passengers dealt with each other, a young man's fascination for everything female, a Jew's respect for the Law of Moses, and much more.

Letter 4: Shipwreck

To his Brother

Although we started from Bendideum [near Alexandria] at early dawn, we had scarcely passed Pharius Myrmex by noonday, for our ship went aground two or three times in the bed of the harbor. This mishap at the very outset seemed a bad omen, and it might have been wiser to desert a vessel which had been unlucky from the very start. But we were ashamed to lay ourselves open to an imputation of cowardice from you, and accordingly

It was no longer granted us to tremble or to withdraw.
[Homer, Iliad, 7.217]

So now, if misfortune awaits us, we shall perish through your fault. After all, was it so dreadful that you should be laughing and we out of danger? But of Epimetheus they aver that

His prudence was at fault, his repentance never,

and that is precisely our own case, for we might easily have saved ourselves in the first instance; whereas now we are lamenting in concert on desert shores, gazing out towards Alexandria to our heart’s content, and towards our motherland Cyrene; one of these places we willfully deserted, while the other we are unable to reach - all the time having seen and suffered such things as we never thought to happen even in our dreams.

Hear my story then, that you may have no further leisure for your mocking wit, and I will tell you first of all how our crew was made up. Our skipper was fain of death owing to his bankrupt condition; then besides him we had twelve sailors, thirteen in all! More than half of them, including the skipper, were Jews - a graceless race and fully convinced of the piety of sending to Hades as many Greeks as possible. The remainder were a collection of peasants who even as late as last year had never gripped an oar.

But the one batch and the other were alike in this, that every man of them had some personal defect. Accordingly, so long as we were in safety they passed their time in jesting one with another, accosting their comrades not by their real names, but by distinguishing marks of their misfortunes, as to call out the 'Lame', the 'Ruptured, the 'Lefthanded', the 'Goggle-eyed'. Each one had his distinguishing mark, and to us this sort of thing was no small source of amusement. The moment we were in danger, however, it was no laughing matter, but rather did we bewail these very defects.

We had embarked to the number of more than fifty, about a third of us being women, most of them young and comely. Do not, however, be quick to envy us, for a screen separated us from them and a stout one at that, the suspended fragment of a recently torn sail, to virtuous men the very wall of Semiramis.[1] Nay, Priapus himself might well have been temperate had he taken passage with Amarantus, for there was never a moment when this fellow allowed us to be free from fear of he uttermost danger.

As soon as he had doubled the temple of Poseidon, near you, he made straight for Taphosiris,[2] with all sails spread, to all seeming bent upon confronting Scylla, over whom we were all wont to shudder in our boyhood when doing our school exercises. This maneuver we detected only just as the vessel was nearing the reefs, and we all raised so mighty a cry that perforce he gave up his attempt to battle with the rocks. All at once he veered about as though some new idea had possessed him, and turned his vessel's head to the open, struggling as best he might against a contrary sea.

Presently, a fresh south wind springs up and carries us along, and soon we are out of sight of land and have come into the track of the double-sailed cargo vessels, whose business does not lie with our Libya; they are sailing quite another course. Again we make common cause of complaint, and our grievance now is that we have been forced away far from the shore. Then does this Titan of ours, Amarantus, fulminate, standing up on the stern and hurling awful imprecations upon us. 'We shall obviously never be able to fly,' he said, 'How can I help people like you who distrust both the land and the sea?'

'Nay,' I said, 'Not so, worthy Amarantus, in case anyone uses them rightly. For our own part we had no yearning for Taphosiris, for we wanted only to live. Moreover,' I continued, 'What do we want of the open sea? Let us rather make for the Pentapolis, hugging the shore; for then,  if indeed we have to face one of those uncertainties which, as you admit, are unfortunately only too frequent on the deep, we shall at least be able to take refuge in some neighboring harbor.'

I did not succeed in persuading him with my talk, for to all of it the outcast only turned a deaf ear; and what is more, a gale commenced to blow from the north, and the violent wind soon raised seas mountains high. This gust falling suddenly on us, drove our sail back, and made it concave in place of its convex form, and the ship was all but capsized by the stern. With great difficulty, however, we headed her in.

Then Amarantus thunders out, 'See what it is to be master of the art of navigation. I had long foreseen this storm, and that is why I sought the open. I can tack in now, since our sea room allows us to add to the length of our tack. But such a course as the one I have taken would not have been possible had we hugged the shore, for in that case the ship would have dashed on the coast.'

Well, we were perforce satisfied with his explanation so long as daylight lasted and dangers were not imminent, but these failed not to return with the approach of night, for as the hours passed, the seas increased continually in volume. Now it so happened that this was the day on which the Jews make what they term the 'Preparation', and they reckon the night, together with the day following this, as a time during which it is not lawful to work with one's hands. They keep this day holy and apart from the others, and they pass it in rest from labor of all kinds. Our skipper accordingly let go the rudder from his hands the moment he guessed that the sun's rays had left the earth, and throwing himself prostrate,

Allowed to trample upon him what sailor so desired.
[Sophocles, Ajax, 1146]

We who at first could not understand why he was thus lying down, imagined that despair was the cause of it all. We rushed to his assistance and implored him not to give up the last hope yet. Indeed the hugest waves were actually menacing the vessel, and the very deep was at war with itself. Now it frequently happens that when the wind has suddenly relaxed its violence, the billows already set in motion do not immediately subside; they are still under the influence of the wind's force, to which they yield an with which they battle at the same time, and the oncoming waves fight against those subsiding.

I have every need of my store of flaming language, so that in recounting such immense dangers I may not fall into the trivial. To people who are at sea in such a crisis, life may be said to hang by a thread only, for if our skipper proved at such a moment to be an orthodox observer of the Mosaic law, what was life worth in the future? Indeed we soon understood why he had abandoned the helm, for when we begged him to do his best to save the ship, he stolidly continued reading his roll. Despairing of persuasion, we finally attempted force, and one staunch soldier - for many Arabs of the cavalry were of our company - one staunch soldier, I say, drew his sword and threatened to behead the fellow on the spot if he did not resume control of the vessel. But the Maccabaean [3] in very deed was determined to persist in his observances.

However, in the middle of the night he voluntarily returned to the helm. 'For now,' he said, 'We are clearly in danger of death, and the law commands.' On this the tumult sprang up afresh, groaning of men and shrieking of women. All called upon the gods, and cried aloud; all called to mind those they loved. Amarantus alone was in good spirits, for he thought to himself that now at last he would foil his creditors. For myself, amidst those horrors, I swear to you by the god sacred to philosophy, that the only thing that troubled me was a passage from Homer. I feared that were my body once swallowed up in the waves, the soul itself also might eternally perish, for somewhere in his epic he writes:

Ajax perished, once he had drunk of the briny wave,
[Homer, Odyssey, 4.511]

bearing witness to the fact that death at sea is the most grievous way of perishing, for in no other case does the poet speak of annihilation, but of everyone who dies the phrase is 'he went to Hades'. Thus in the two books of the Nekyiai,[4] the lesser Ajax is not brought into the narrative, for this very reason, that his soul is not in Hades; and again, Achilles, the most high-spirited and the most daring of all, shrinks from death by drowning and refers to it as a pitiable ending.[Homer, Iliad, 21.281]

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[1]
According to Greek legend, Semiramis had been queen of Babylonia. The walls of Babylon were reckoned among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

[2]
Litt. the 'tomb of Osiris', a sanctuary near Alexandria.

[3]
Another word to say Jew.

[4]
The Nekyiai are those living in the Underworld: Homer, Odyssey, 11 (Odysseus' descent) and 24 (the arrival of his enemies).
Online 2007
Revision: 25 July 2007
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