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, Synesius reports several ecclesiastical matters to the patriarch of Alexandria,
Theophilus. An introduction can be found here. The translation was made by A.
Letter 67: Paul of Erythrum and Other Matters
[Back to part one]
Your kind nature will therefore give the kindlier decision in their
case. I must go back to town, there to await your orders to act. But
you shall not be in ignorance of my arrangements during the four days
that I passed in this place, and what solution each difficulty found.
Do not be surprised if I happen to speak well and ill of the same man,
for these comments do not all apply to the same actions, and it is acts
that are praised or blamed. It were well that discord should never
arise between those who are brothers in Christ, but if this does occur,
it is well that it should promptly disappear. Moved by all these
considerations, as well as in obedience to the instructions you sent, I
have undertaken to arbitrate, and I have been listening to a dispute of
somewhat the following nature:
In the village of Hydrax there is a spot, itself the loftiest part of
the village, which formerly was a highly fortified citadel, but God
having visited the spot with an earthquake, it has become an abandoned
heap of ruins. Up to this day, they have been making other uses of some
few of its parts, but these present times of war make it extremely
valuable to those who possess it, because it could be fortified anew
and return to its old use.
Now between our brothers, the most pious bishops Paul [of Erythrum] and Dioscurus [of Darnis],
as formerly between others, it was a matter of contention. The Darnite
has accused the Erythrite of employing fraudulent means of his own to
get possession of that which did not belong to him. He had, forsooth,
consecrated to God the property of another, under the pretext of piety.
He then defended his villainy with the strong hand; he was the first
man to occupy it! The reverend Paul endeavored to advance some
counter-arguments, how that he had annexed the fort beforehand, and it
had been used as a church long before the reverend Dioscurus had been
appointed owner of the site.
But if anyone were to handle the inquiry firmly, the truth would soon
be evident, for this whole allegation seems stale. The fact that a
crowd of men have once prayed there by necessity, driven in by a
hostile attack of the enemy, does not consecrate a spot, for at that
rate all the mountains and all the valleys would be churches, and no
fortress would escape being a place of public worship, for in all such
places, when the enemy are out for plunder, prayers and celebrations of
the Holy Mysteries take place. How many houses in the godless
days of the Arians have received prayers and sacred ceremonies! These
houses are none the less private property. For that, too, was a case of
flight, and they, too, were enemies.
Next I inquired into the date of the consecration, and if it had taken
place by the gift or agreement of the proprietors. The opposite
appeared clearly to be the case. One of the bishops asked for the fort.
The other, who was in possession at the time, refused it. Finally one
went out with the keys in his pocket, then the other burst in, and
bringing with him a table, therewith consecrated a small room, on a
broad hill. But nowhere is there access to this small room, except by
crossing the whole plateau.
Clearly it had been calculated that by this maneuver the hill could be
definitely acquired. For my own part, this whole performance seemed to
me unworthy, more than unworthy, and I was very angry at this flagrant
violation of all sacred laws and civil forms of justice alike. All
things become confounded, if on the one hand a new form of confiscation
is invented, and if on the other by the holiest things the most
abominable should be judged – prayer, the table of the Holy
Communion, and the Mystic Veil becoming instruments of a violent
attack. No doubt it was on these points that judgment had already been
given in the city, for as a matter of fact at Ptolemais a meeting
of almost all the bishops of the province
had then assembled to consider a question of public interest. As they
listened they felt hatred of the proceeding, but they hesitated before
an act of eviction.
I wish to separate superstition from piety, for it is an evil which has
taken on the mask of virtue, an evil which philosophy has discovered to
be the third degree of godlessness. In my eyes there is nothing sacred
or holy except which has come into being in justice and holiness. Nor
did it occur to me to shudder at the alleged consecration. For it is
not the doctrine of Christians that the Divine presence follows of
necessity these mystical matters and sounds, as though these were
certain physical attractions. An earthly spirit might be so moved,
indeed, but rather is the Divine present with unperturbed dispositions,
and those that are proper to God. How could the Holy Ghost descend into
a heart where anger, unreasoning passion, and a contentious spirit are
the ruling forces? Nay, if such passions as these enter, even if it has
formerly dwelt therein, it takes its departure. I was just about to
declare the transference, but he was then proved to have promised this
earlier himself, and had clenched his promise with an oath.
Accordingly, taking this up with satisfaction, I was already for
withdrawing from pronouncing sentence, but declaring the man himself
his own judge, and compelling him to keep his oath, but he tried to
retract and delayed. As I happened to be on the spot because of the
ecclesiastical inspection, I felt called upon to cast an eye on the
site, and to consider anew the subject under discussion; and again
there was present a gathering of bishops from the neighborhood
collected for one reason or another. In the presence of all these, and
in my own, the boundary stones were shown marking out clearly the
territory of Darnis; and the testimony of the old men, and the
admissions of those who had up to the moment taken the contrary side,
made it evident that the most pious Dioscurus was the owner of the site.
On the insistence of Dioscurus' brother, necessity arose that I read
publicly the abusive paper that the blessed Paul had written in the
shape of a letter addressed to your holiness, an obscene and unpleasant
satire directed against his brother, of which the burden of shame fell
upon him who had spoken evil, not on him of whom evil had been spoken.
But to feel shame is only the second of the virtues. Sinlessness is of
the Divine destiny and nature entirely, but one might ascribe to
modesty the blush for what has been ill done. By admitting these
principles in the present case, the reverend Paul gave evidence of a
change of opinion more convincing than any rhetoric, for his confession
of error, and the bitter grief manifested as for evils he had
voluntarily done, made us all favorably disposed towards him.
This was not surprising in our case, but it was remarkable that the
reverend bishop Dioscurus yielded to his adversary of his own free
will, when he saw that he who had been until now so contentious had
come to a more humble frame of mind. Although victorious by the votes
of the judges, he was himself conquered by his own sentiment, and it
became in the power of the reverend Paul to keep or give up the hill,
as he should desire. The splendid Dioscurus was the first to suggest to
him various concessions, to not one of which would Paul have listened
for a moment before his repentance. Dioscurus suggested him to give up
the hill alone, or to give up the whole property in exchange, and many
other plans besides he devised, lavishing upon him ways in which a man
might anticipate another's pleasure.
But the other hesitated, he wished for one thing only, namely –
to have the property by purchase on the same conditions as those by
which his colleague Dioscurus had become the proprietor. Paul therefore
became the proprietor of the vineyards and the olive groves in addition
to the hill. Dioscurus, in place of his possessions, has the possession
of magnanimity, a greater one in return for a less, and the honor of
remaining within the gospel laws, which have declared the spirit of
love to be the most important of its behests. This one thing only was
worth commemorating, to wit, the agreement and harmony between the two
brothers, passing over the fact that one who is a bishop had been
convicted of stumbling, for it is best to allow acts that ought never
to have been committed to pass into oblivion.
But that Dioscurus should not be unlucky in everything, I have granted
his request that I should go through the whole matter very carefully,
so that your holiness should be ignorant of nothing. He considers it of
the very greatest importance that you should be made acquainted with
the facts of the case, and that you should thus realize that he was
struggling in no unjust cause.
Now I commend the man for other qualities, for he is one after my
heart, but I exceedingly admire the feelings of respect by which he is
moved for the dignity of your holy office. This I swear by your dear
and sacred head: his fellow-poor at Alexandria
owe Dioscurus much gratitude, for he helps them to cultivate their
lands, and he is ubiquitous, and indefatigable in getting a profit from
these even in bad years, and he knows how to turn all available chances
to their advantage.
Thus the quarrel between the two bishops has come to an end. You also
gave me instructions to listen to the complaint of the presbyter Jason,
the man who accused one of his colleagues of treating him with much
unfairness. The case is somewhat as follows: Jason convicted Lamponian
of wrong-doing, but the latter, though he anticipated the sentence by a
confession, has his punishment in being debarred from attendance at
ecclesiastical synods. Nevertheless he shed tears in repentance, and
the people made supplications for his pardon. Notwithstanding all this,
I confirmed the decision already rendered and left the right of
acquittal to the pontifical seat.
Revision: 28 Dec. 2014