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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 104, written in 401, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It deals with the first stages of the war against the nomads, which was to dominate Synesius' final years. Letter 113 suggests that Synesius' brother Euoptius was shocked.

Letter 104: Cowardly Behavior in a War

To his Brother

How often one sees the same men who are very courageous in peace-time showing themselves cowardly at the moment of combat! That is to say, they are worthless everywhere. Thus it seems to me that everyone should be thankful to war, for it is an exact touchstone of the blood in the heart of each one of us. It takes away many boasters, and returns them to us more temperate men. In the future, we shall no longer see the guilty Joannes swaggering about the public square, and attacking with kicks and blows men of a peaceable disposition. Indeed, yesterday the proverb, or rather the oracle, received clear information, for you certainly know it as an oracle: There be no long-haired men who are not degenerates?

For some days now they have been warning us of the approach of the enemy. I thought that we ought to meet these. The leader of the Balagritae [1] drew up his forces, and sallied out with them. Then, having occupied the plain first, we waited. The enemy did not appear. In the evening we went away home each of us, after we had arranged to return upon the following day.

During this time, Joannes the Phrygian was nowhere; at least he was invisible, but he spread rumors in secret, at one moment that he had broken his leg and they had been obliged to amputate it, at another that he was suffering from asthma, later that some other untoward fate had overtaken him. Such tale-bearers kept drifting in from different sides, or so they pretended, the object being, no doubt, that no one should know into what retreat our man had slipped, or where he was concealed.

And you should have heard them in the midst of their narration deploring the unlucky misfortune with tears in their eyes. "Ah! Now is the moment when we need his generous spirit - strong hands like his. What wonderful things he would have done, how he would have shone!" In each case, crying "Oh, evil destiny!", they wrung their hands and disappeared.

Of course, they all belong to that company which Joannes fed at his table, for no good purpose - men with long hair like himself, base creatures, "impudent thieves of lambs and goats" [2] and, by the gods, sometimes of women also. Such are the henchmen that he has been preparing for a long time. To be a man amongst them he never attempts. That would be too difficult. He is a cunning fellow withal, and he seeks the best opportunities of appearing a man in the eyes of those who are real man, but methinks fortune has upset all his calculations famously.

For five days we had in vain sallied out in arms to find the enemy, but they were always at the frontier places which they were engaged in devastating. Then when Joannes was convinced that the enemy would not dare to come into the heart of the country, he himself appeared and is now turning everything into confusion.

He ill? Never! Why, he was even laughing at people who believed such a story. He had come from a great distance, he said, I know not whence. He had been called there to bring assistance, and it was owing to this that the districts which had called on him were saved, for the enemy did not invade, terrified as they were at the mere rumor of the approach of Joannes. Once he had tranquillized everything there, he rushed up, he said, to the menaced province. He is waiting for the barbarians, who may appear at any moment, so long as they are not aware of his presence, and so long as his name is not mentioned.

So, here he is, spreading confusion everywhere. He is claiming to be the general's right hand, he is promising that in no time at all he will teach the art of victory. He is shouting "Front form! Fall into line! Form square to the flank!" In a word he is using all the words of the military profession without any knowledge of their meaning.

Thus some considered him a man of consequence and praised his talents, and were eager to become his pupils.

It was now late in the evening. It was time to pursue our attack. When we came down from the mountains, we pushed on to the plain. There four young men - peasants, as their clothes indicated - rushed to us at top speed shouting as loud as they could. No one had need of a diviner to see that they were in terror of the enemy, and that they were in a hurry to find refuge amongst our troops. Before they had time to tell us properly that the enemy was there, we saw some wretched creatures on horseback, men who, to judge from the look of them, had been pushed into battle merely by hunger, and were quite ready to risk their lives in order to possess of our goods.

The moment that they saw us, as we also saw them, before they were within javelin throw, they jumped from their horses, as is their way, to give battle on foot. I was of the opinion that we ought to do the same thing, for the ground did not lend itself to cavalry maneuvers. But our noble friend said he would not renounce the arts of horsemanship, and insisted on delivering a cavalry attack.

What then? He pulls the horse's head sharply to the side, turns and flees away at full gallop, covers his horse with blood, gives it full rein, incites it with frequent application of spear, whip, and voice. I really do not know which of the two to admire the more, the horse or the rider, for if the horse galloped up hill and down hill and over rough country and smooth alike, cleared ditches and banks at a bound, the horseman for his part, kept his seat in the saddle firm and unshaken. I am sure the enemy thought it a fine sight, and were only too anxious to have many such.

We could not give them this satisfaction, but you may imagine that we were disconcerted after having taken the promises of this hirsute beauty so seriously. So we drew up the line of battle to receive the enemy, if he should attack us. But we did not wish to take the initiative in the engagement ourselves. With such an example before us, the bravest of us distrusted his neighbor. Here nothing was a greater abomination than a head of hair, for the possessor seemed the most likely to betray us.

However, the enemy did not seem in a hurry to open the attack any more than we were, for they drew up their line of battle and waited for us, in order to drive us back, in case we should take the offensive. On both sides the troops stood watching each other. Finally they drew off to the left and then we to the right, but at a walking pace and without haste, so that the retreat might not have the appearance of a flight.

Notwithstanding all these anxieties, we tried to find out where in the world Joannes was. He had galloped without reining up as far as Bombaea, and he remained hidden in the cave there, like a field-mouse in its hole. Bombaea is a mountain full of caverns, where art and nature have combined to form an impregnable fortress. It has been long celebrated, and justly: they often compare it to the subterranean vaults of Egypt. But today everyone admits that there are no walls behind which one could be safer than at Bombaea, since even the most prudent of all men - I am too polite to say the most cowardly, the right word to use - has gone thither to hide himself, as to the surest refuge. The moment one enters this place, one is in a regular labyrinth, hard to get through, so that it by itself could provide places of refuge for Joannes.

Note 1:
A military unit.

Note 2:
Homer, Iliad, 24.255-262.
Online 2007
Revision: 12 August 2007
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