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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, Synesius reports several ecclesiastical matters to the patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus. An introduction can be found here.
The translation was made by A. Fitzgerald.

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.

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Online 2007
Revision: 13 August 2007
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