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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.

Letter 95 was written in 407 and it is offered on this page in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 95: "Even Enemies Have Their Uses"

To his Brother

You think that I am inclined to yield to your injunctions, at least so you write to me. You are quite right in entertaining this opinion of me. How grateful I am to you for the favor I have received, if one may admit that an elder brother owes gratitude to a younger one for his obedience, and this I can scarcely believe. But it suffices me for recompense that you recognize my attitude, that you are the only person in the world at whose mercy am I.

When, however, you say that you are sure that friendship with me is Julius' great desire, this idea is not worth a moment's consideration. Yours is the view of man who is deceived, I do not say deceiving. At the very moment when I was reading your letter, another person was reading one from Julius. You tell me one story, and he says the very reverse.

He knows also from what he has read and heard, that Julius expresses himself about me in very unfriendly language. Now, as he is an honorable man who has reported this to me, it is impossible for me not to believe him: but although I believe him, I call to witness the God who presides over our brotherly affection, that I do not regret having been useful to Julius.

Only yesterday I had to resort to force to rid him of the prosecutor who was arraigning him on a charge of impiety, for an offense to the Emperor's household. Now -by your sacred head- I had to resist innumerable attempts on the part of the judge and the accuser. The first, out of cowardice, would not admit of a change of front in an affair of this sort: the second, with the courage of despair, and as one pleading dire necessity, showed himself determined both to do and undergo evil.

The whole case might have had awful consequences, not only for Julius' wife and children, but also for very many of his relations and friends, rich and poor. In a word, a very "Iliad of misfortunes" [1] would have threatened our city from the mere fact that one desperate individual was determined to die. Julius might have won the case, but only under conditions which would have rendered his life impossible. For all these reasons I felt compelled to act as I did.

By all means let my enemies profit of my nature and will! I would much rather do kind offices to someone unworthy of them, than leave many to be a target for undeserved blows of fortune, when I can save them. I certainly do not hate this man's well-born wife, or his young children. And yet neither does he deserve to suffer any evil from me on account of his slanders of me; far from this.

It is true that the man is detestable. He talks with the intent to injure me, and only opens his mouth for the purpose of backbiting me. His purpose therefore is not blameless, but culpable. Nevertheless, let him know, or rather let him not know all this, for in the case he might cease benefiting me. You at any rate must know by experience the truth of the old proverb, "Even enemies have their uses." Now this has been proved by the facts. After all, what does the fellow not contribute for my glory? When people desire to speak well of me, if they are at a loss how to add to their praise of me, the highest eulogy, the very ne plus ultra of praise, is theirs in these few words, "Julius speaks ill of him".

What a swarm of truths is there not in this one phrase, for to be antagonistic to every kind of evil is to be intimate with every kind of virtue! For myself, I could never be conscious of such virtue. It is he who declares it, and as everything he denies gains credence, I am very grateful to him for this result. I swear by thy sacred head and by the life of my children, that there is no greater favor he could confer on me than to slander me, for this is the highest claim that I have to the esteem of God and man.

Julius will end in being punished for his line of conduct, not that I shall ever take vengeance on him - no, perchance not even if I could, would I do so; and certainly even if I would I could not. What influence could an unfortunate man like me have with the present governor? Hunted as I am from my home, wandering without hope of return, with the enemy encamped on my property, and making of my house a base whence to menace Cyrene? To whom them to whom will he pay the penalty? To Justice herself. I pledge myself to this. I am profoundly convinced of it. Justice will overtake him in behalf of me and our common city, for it is for her sake we have adopted opposite courses in public affairs, and on her account that we have become enemies - he and I.

Even he could not say that I acted for any private interest of my own, for in the first place I saw the army and the Senate falling under the yoke of mercenaries, and I endeavored to resist.[2] Then the matter of the embassy was a most conspicuous cause of discord between us. I pass over the case of my friend Dioscurides; for that was conducted with restraint, and so as not to stir up the wrath of God or man. Clearly it is Justice about we sing with the lyre thus:
   
Thou comest in secret at their heels,
Thou bendest the proud neck,
Thy law imposes itself on every mortal.

But when we had to vote, I proposed for the sake of my native city that the ranks of the army should be closed to foreigners, but he opposed me in the interest of Helladius and of Theodorus. And yet, who does not know that even the most enthusiastic officers lose all their professional spirit, once they are in touch with these foreigners, and they are changed into merchants?

On another occasion I made a proposal to abolish the supreme military command in our country, for everybody here agrees that the only remedy for our evils is for the cities to revert to their old government; in other words, that the Libyan cities ought to be put under the prefect of Egypt. But Julius opposed all this in order to keep his gains, and he had actually the impudence to say that it is a good plan to make soldiers out of the worst types of men.

"Well, my friend" (say this to him, for it is fitting that he should be told this by you), "the reason that you are now execrated is that you scheme against the common weal; you are happy, while the people are miserable; but I am suffering with my fellow citizens. Understand, nevertheless, that it is a law of nature that the parts are involved in the whole. When from a disease of the body the spleen becomes seriously enlarged, as long as the body endures, it grows strong and fattens, but when that dies it perishes also. So at the present moment everything smiles on you, but you do not see that by your measures you will ultimately be fatal both to your city and to yourself. Lasthenes was called the friend of Philip up to the day when he betrayed Olynthus. When one has no longer any city, how can one be happy?"

Note 1:
Demosthenes, On the False Embassy, 387.

Note 2:
A reference to Synesius' speech On Imperial Rule.
Online 2007
Revision: 17 August 2007
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