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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 61, which accompanied the gift of a rug, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The earthquake that shook Constantinople on the last day of Synesius' stay, can be dated to 400.

Letter 61: An Egyptian Rug

To Pylaemenes

I had a large Egyptian rug, not such as one could put below a bedspread, but one which might be used by itself as a bedspread. Asterius, the shorthand writer, saw it, and asked me for it, at the time when I was obliged to sleep in front of the Record Office. I promised to leave it to him as a present when I should go away, but naturally I could not gratify him in such a manner, exposed as I was to the Thracian snow. Now I am sending it off to him, for I did not leave it behind at the time.

Would you be so kind as to give it to him for me, with an apology to the truth which you yourself shall witness, if you remember the circumstances which I left the town. God shook the earth repeatedly during the day, and most men were on their faces in prayer: for the ground was shaking. As I thought at the time that the open sea would be safer than the land, I rushed straight to the harbor without speaking to anyone except Photius of blessed memory, but I was content simply to shout to him from afar, and to make signs with my hand that I was going away. He who departed without saying good-bye to Aurelian, his dear friend and a consul, has certainly excused himself for having behaved in the same way to Asterius, an attendant.

That is how it all happened, and though since my departure this vessel has been sent on her third voyage to Thracian parts, yet it is the first time that she is being sent by me. So I am now paying my debt through you on the first possible occasion. Be so kind as to find out this man for me.

I first tell you his name and occupation, but you must have some further indications, as perchance there may be some one else with the same name and calling. All points are seldom found in one person, nor would a man be at once a Syrian by race, dark in color, aquiline in features, and medium in height. He dwells near the royal palace, not that palace which belongs to the state, but the one behind it which formerly belonged to Albabius, and which now belongs to Placidia, the sister of our Emperors. If Asterius has changed his dwelling-place, for that is possible, you have only to seek Marcus. He is a well-known person, one of the Prefect's cohort. He was at that time at the very head of the company of shorthand writers of which Asterius was a member, and through his good offices you could find out this company. Asterius was not the last, but amongst the first few, the third or the fourth; possibly now he is the first.

You will give him this thick rug, and say to him what we have said to you concerning the delay. And you may also, if you wish, read the letter itself to him, for military duties do not leave us time to write to him too; but nothing, I suppose, prevents us from being just. May weapons of war never have such power as that!
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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