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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.

In the long Letter 67, written in 411 almost immediately after Letter 66, Synesius reports several ecclesiastical matters to the patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus. Apparently, Synesius attended a meeting of bishops to discuss several problems; the two main issues can be summarized as follows:
  1. During a military crisis, two towns have elected a bishop of their own; when he died, the towns returned to the original bishopric, Erythrum; patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria urges the townspeople, through Synesius, to elect a new bishop, but Synesius discovers that the people simply do not want a bishop of their own and are happy with Paul of Erythrum;
  2. This Paul appears to have believed in some sort of Christian magic, as becomes clear in the second part of this letter; he had also transgressed some other rules when he built a church in an old fort.
Several minor issues are discussed as well. Note the role of women in the first part.

The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 67: Paul of Erythrum and Other Matters

To Theophilus

I desire, and a divine necessity urges me, to consider as law all that your sacred throne ordains. On this account, I have declined a sad duty, I have forced my body to action, while still under medical treatment, and have just journeyed through the suspected region as if it were unsuspected. I have traversed a country infested by the enemy, and have arrived at Palaebisca and Hydrax. (these are two villages of Pentapolis on the very frontier of arid Libya). Once there, I called together a meeting of the inhabitants; I gave them one letter, and I read to them from the other (one of them was addressed to them, the other, concerning them, addressed to me). I then delivered a speech suited to an election, hoping to induce them to propose the resolution concerning a bishop, or, if the case demanded it, to force them to such a decision; but I could not overcome this people's devotion to the most holy Paul. Believe me, my Father, it was no wish of mine to set out upon this quick and useless journey. I have only offended a people who held me in great honor.

Amongst the most prominent citizens some protested with exclamations of wrath, while others, mounting upon any available pedestal to better be heard, addressed themselves at length to the gathering. I at once accused these of bribery and conspiracy, and ordered the ushers to hustle and to expel them from the meeting. I restrained and pacified the turbulent excitement of the crowd. I went through every path of argument; I invoked the sanctity of the Primate's throne, seeking to convince them that slight or honor to you means slight or honor to God. After this their lips pronounced the name of your sacred person with respect. They knelt down, they called upon you with cries and with groans, even as though you had been present. The emotion of these men, even though it was greater than I expected, was slight, but the women, who are proverbially difficult to control, lifted their arms, they raised their infants towards Heaven, they closed their eyes that they might not see the bishop's seat bereft of its accustomed occupant.[i.e., Paul]

Indeed, in spite of our policy being the very opposite, they almost compelled us to the same state of feeling. I feared that I should not have the power to resist the contagion, for I felt my inner emotions mastering me; so I dissolved the meeting, and announced that it should assemble again on the fourth day, not, however, without first pronouncing vengeful execrations upon any who by their venal conduct and from motives of purely personal interest, by their complacent attitude or from any other private motive, should use language in opposition to the will of the Church.

The appointed day arrived, and the people were again there, hostile and contentious. They did not even wait for a discussion, but straightway all was in an uproar, a confused sound impossible to distinguish. At this moment he heralds of the church proclaimed silence. Their clamor then ended in a dirge, and there was a sullen sound of men groaning, of women wailing, and of children sobbing. One said he mourned a father, another a son, another a brother, each one according to his age divided the titles of relationship.

I was just about to speak, when a petition was passed up to me from the midst of the crowd. This someone begged me to read before the assembly. It was an adjuration to me not to attempt to restrain their violence any longer, but to postpone my decision until they were enabled to send to your most blessed presence a decree touching the matter, and an ambassador. They even begged me to send to you a written statement in their behalf, explaining all that I had learned here.

Now it was proclaimed in the Synod by the priests and publicly by the people, and the missive went through these very points in order, that these churches belonged to that of Erythrum, according to the Apostolic and patriarchal tradition, but split away under Orion of blessed memory, then in advanced old age and blamed for weakness of character.

This has always been a reproach in the eyes of those who consider that the priesthood should be a champion of men's affairs,[1] and versatile in its functions. So when he continued to live on, they could not bring themselves to wait for the death of the righteous man, but brought forward Siderius of blessed memory for election, for he seemed to them a man young and energetic. He had served under the emperor Valens, and had returned from his military career to take over the administration of a domain which he had claimed, a man able to injure his enemies and to be useful to his friends.[2] This was the moment when the influence of heresy was powerful; it had the masses of the people on it side; cleverness, wisdom's tool, found its opportunity. This man and this one alone was appointed Bishop of Palaebisca.

But the election was positively unlawful, as I have learned from the older man, inasmuch as he was not duly consecrated either in Alexandria or by three here, even though the power to ordain had been granted there. Philo of blessed memory, they say, took upon himself to announce the election of his fellow-priest entirely upon his own responsibility. This Philo of Cyrene was the elder, the uncle, and the namesake of the younger. In other respects he was such as Christ's teachings had made him, but the moment there was a question of authority on the one hand and obedience on the other, he was more audacious than law-abiding. (I ask forgiveness from the sacred soul of the old man for such a remark.) He arrived on the spot, and took the ordaining of the blessed Siderius into his own hands, and placed him upon the bishop's throne.

After all, one must relax the severe letter of the law in times when freedom of speech is impossible. Even the great Athanasius himself has been known to yield to the force of circumstances; and some little time after all this, when it was necessary to warm and kindle up the tiny spark of the orthodox faith that still remained in Ptolemais, and since Siderius seemed to him fit for so important a mission, he transferred him to this place, that he might govern the metropolitan Church. But old age brought back Siderius to the village churches. There he died, and had no successor in these towns anymore than he had had a predecessor. Palaebisca and Hydrax were put under the old arrangement and came back to their dependency upon Erythrum, and this, they say, was in accordance with the decision of your sacred person.

Now the citizens are very strong upon one point, to wit: that this consecration of yours should not be annulled. I asked them for the original document signed by you. They were not able to present it to me, but they produced as witnesses bishops from the council. These said that they proposed Paul to the people in obedience to a letter received from you. As it seemed well to all to make him bishop, they reported the decision, and others succeeded in placing him on the throne.

Now, if you will allow me to say so, most revered Father, that was really the moment to look into the matter, for it is more painful to take away a thing than not to grant it; but let that now prevail which seems best to your paternal authority. For if what then seemed right to you was so to them, and they allege this, the fact that it no longer seems so to you deprives it of any justice in the future. It is only in this way that your will becomes identical with justice in the eyes of the people; for obedience is life, and disobedience is death. Therefore they do not raise their hands against you; on the contrary, they supplicate you not to make them orphans while their Father yet lives, for so they declare in their speech.

I hardly know whether I should praise or congratulate the young man [i.e., Paul] on the goodwill all are showing him. For it is a triumph either of art and power, or of divine grace, so to win men and so to dominate the multitude that for them life is not worth living without him.

>> to part two >>

Note 1:
An important point: the towns were in a war zone.

Note 2:
A common expression.
Online 2007
Revision: 13 August 2007
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