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Synesius of Cyrene


Ptolemais: the palace of the governor. Photo Marco Prins.
Ptolemais: the palace of the
governor. Here, Andronicus
must have dwelt.
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. Letter 58, sent to the bishops of the Cyrenaica, deals with the excommunication of the military leader Andronicus, who had violated a church's asylum in 412 or 413. The letter is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 58: The excommunication of Andronicus

To the Bishops

Andronicus of Berenice let no man call a Christian - for he was born, nurtured, and grew up for the evil destiny of Pentapolis [i.e, Cyrenaica], having brought the rule of his country for his own - but accursed of God, let him with his whole household be turned out of every church.

The reason for this is, not that he has been the deadliest plague of Pentapolis, after an earthquake, an invasion of locusts, a pestilence, a conflagration of war; not that he methodically sought out the remaining victims of these disasters and introduced horrible kinds and fashions of punishment for the first time into the country (and would that I could say that he alone has made use of them). Not because of his instruments of torture to which I allude, that crush the fingers and feet, compress limbs, tweak the nose, and deform the ears and lips, of which things those who had forestalled the experience and the sight by perishing in the war, were adjudged happy by such as had by ill fate survived. The reason for this condemnation is that first among us, and alone of our number, he blasphemed Christ both in word and deed.

In deed, for that he nailed upon the door of the church edicts of his own, in the which he denied to those whom he had ill-used the right of sanctuary at the inviolate table, threatening the priests of God with such things as even Phalaris the Agrigentine, and Cephren the Egyptian, and Sennacherib the Babylonian would have feared to menace, and the last of these sent envoys to Jerusalem to insult Hezekiah and God Himself. And this the sun looked down upon and men read it aloud.[1]

No Tiberius Claudius was administering the State, by whom Pilate sent to govern the Jews, but the sacred race of Theodosius was holding the scepter of the Romans, from which Andronicus had filched the ruling power for himself, animated by the same spirit as Pilate. Those written words were a matter for laughter to the unbelieving passers by, just as that which was written upon the Cross of Christ was to the Jews. And yet the inscription on the Cross, although proceeding from an impious mind, was at all events serious in its wording, since by it Christ was proclaimed 'King'. In this case, however, the tongue was in accord with the mind.

But as to those things which followed after, they were even graver than those first placarded. For when he had found some pretext for proceeding against an enemy (there was indeed an enmity between them because the one was desirous of marriage which the other forbade), he sought to maltreat him with those unnatural tortures of his. May these never be handed down by the passage of time, but, as they begin with Andronicus, so may they disappear with him, and may these symbols of this man's rule survive to our posterity as a mere rumor.

Now when a man of good birth, not an unjust one, but a man who has been unfortunate only, was tortured by these means, and that too in the full midday sun, that he might die with executioners only for witnesses, and when Andronicus himself became aware that the Church was in sympathy with this man - only because, the moment I heard of the facts, I myself rushed out, as I was, that I might be on the spot and share in bearing the trouble - when he hears of this, he flies into a rage that a bishop has dared to pity a man hated by himself. Then he indulges in all sorts of violent behavior, the boldest of his servants, Thoas, encouraging him, the tool he employs for this public outrages and finally he lets out in madness that most godless voice of his, saying that he has placed his hopes in the Church in vain, and that no one shall be torn from the hands of Andronicus, not even should he be embracing the foot of Christ Himself.

We must be, both in mind and in body, pure before God. For these reasons the church of Ptolemais enjoins her sister churches everywhere in these terms:
Let the precincts of no house of God be open to Andronicus and his associates, or to Thoas and his associates. Let every holy sanctuary and enclosure be shut in their faces. There is no part in Paradise for the Devil; even if he has secretly crept in, he is cast out.

I exhort, therefore, every private individual and ruler not to be under the same roof with them, nor to be seated at the same time, particularly priests, for these shall neither speak to them while living, nor join in their funeral processions, when dead.

Furthermore, if any one shall flout the authority of this church on the ground that it represents a small town only, and shall receive those who have been excommunicated by it, for that he need not obey that which is without wealth, let such a one know that he is creating a schism in the Church which Christ wishes to be one. Such a man, whether he be deacon, presbyter, or bishop, shall share the fate of Andronicus at our hands, and neither shall we give him our right hand, no even eat at the same table with him, and far be it from us to hold communion in the holy mysteries with those desiring to take part with Andronicus and Thoas.

Note 1:
Phalaris was the proverbal evil tyrant of Acragas, who cruelly tortured his enemies. Cephren the Egyptian was a pharaoh who was believed to have employed the Hebrews when he was constructing his pyramid; the story is not in the Bible. Sennacherib, an Assyrian (not Babylonian) king besieged Jerusalem in 701 (2 Kings 19; Sennacherib prism).
Online 2006
Revision: 12 Nov. 2006
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