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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.

The text of Letter 101 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It was written in 402.

Letter 101: Literary Life

To Pylaemenes

A man from Phycus (Phycus is a harbor of the Cyreneans) has brought me a letter written in your name. I have read it both with pleasure and admiration. It was worthy of both, because of its note of feeling and because of the beauty of its language. I quickly called together in your honor an assembly of the Greeks who reside in Libya, and I told them to come and listen to an eloquent letter. And now in our cities Pylaemenes, the creator of the divine letter, is famous.

One thing only seemed strange, and struck the audience as contrary to expectation. You asked for my Cynegetica, as if there were some value in it. You seemed, therefore, to reveal a humorous disposition, and to be brimming with sarcasm; but the Cyreneans did not admit that the poorest speaker among them could have produced something in a sportive vein worthy of your attention: but I acquitted you on this charge of sarcasm. I explained that besides the rest of your good qualities, you were extremely kind, and lavish in your praise; that thus you had not made the request in jest, but rather to fill me with joy that I had been honored by such a judge as you. Write to me, therefore, as often as you can. Give the Cyreneans a feast of eloquence.

No recital could be pleasanter to them than the letters of Pylaemenes, now that they have been inspired by this example. At all events you will meet plenty of men on their way here, and if no others, at least those who are to be our rulers, both of the less and of the greater province, and the province of Egypt as well.

It is easy to recognize them by the train of money-lenders who follow them. Since it interests you to know about my life, we study philosophy, my dear friend, and we have only splendid isolation for our fellow-worker, not one human being. I have never anywhere in Libya heard a man uttering a philosophical phrase except when an echo is repeating my own voice. But as the proverb says, "Adorn the Sparta which fate has given you."[1] And for my part I think I shall be content with my own fate, and shall myself adorn it, regarding this as a contest set before my life, and a test, whether I am abandoning philosophy in her evil days. If I have no other witness, at least God himself will bear witness for me, God whose seed, the intellect, has come to man. I think even the stars at all times fix a kindly gaze upon me, for they see that I alone in this vast stretch of country examine them with knowledge. Pray for me, then, that I remain in my present way of life, and for yourself, that you may abandon the ill-omened forum, you who use your natural gifts so ill.

How I long to see you turn thoughts to what is within, even when your outward circumstances are prosperous; for to exchange happiness for prosperity is to barter gold for bronze. For myself, I rejoice when they twit me with being myself a private citizen, the while all my many relations are eager for office. I prefer that my soul should be guarded by virtues, rather than my body by soldiers, since no longer do circumstances afford room for a philosopher to control the State. Even if you do not get on any better in the forum (which I do not believe for a moment), at all events I have never had gloomy anticipations about you, such as thinking that you would turn false to your character, and that you might come to resemble those famous scribes; I would not dignify them by the name of orators.

Now in no other manner is it possible to get rich in your courts except by a general confusion of human and divine justice, and by not even getting rich, look to philosophy all the more. If you come across an earnest philosopher, share with me your great acquisition. It is quite a harmless quest, to wander through Greek and foreign lands on such a hunting expedition as this.

But if, amidst a harvest blighted by drought, we seem to suffice unto you, come and take your share of us and whatever is ours, "on fair and equal terms", as the Lacedaemonian saying has it. Give all my kindest message to the venerable Marcian. If I had said in the language of Aristides that he was the image of Hermes, the god of eloquence, come amongst men,[2] I should scarcely have praised him as he deserves, for he is more than an image. I should have liked to write to him directly, but I have become stiff, that I may not expose myself to correction from the pedants who polish every syllable. There is no small danger that the letter would be read in the Panhellenion. This is the place in which parts of the world meet, to hear the sacred voice of the old gentlemen whose researches comprehend tales both past and present. Give my compliments to my friend Eucharistus, and to all those to whom you think fitting.

Note 1:
Fragment 723 from Euripides' Telephus (ed. Nauck).

Note 2:
Aristides, Or. 3.663 (Behr).
Online 2007
Revision: 17 August 2007
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