Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
(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
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
Several minor issues are discussed as well. Note the role of women in the first part.
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
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.
The text is
offered here in the
translation by A.
Letter 67: Paul of Erythrum and Other Matters
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
An important point: the towns were in a war zone.
A common expression.
Revision: 13 August 2007