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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 121, written in 410, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 121: Separation of Church and State

To Athanasius

Odysseus tried to persuade Polyphemus to let him leave his cave. "I am a wizard," he said, "and I can give you the timely help to win the heart of the sea nymph whom you are courting without success. I know enchantments, magic ties, and love spells that bind, which it is not likely that Galatea will resist even for a little.

Only undertake to displace this door for me, or rather this rock, which seems to me actually a promontory. I will come back to you quicker than speech, after bringing the young girl to a state of submission. What do I say, a state of submission? Nay, I will by my incantations bring her hither in person, quite manageable through my many spells. She herself shall come to beg of you, to supplicate your favors. You will be able then to affect indifference, and to dissemble.

Meantime there is only one thing that disquiets me. The smell of these fleece will perhaps be offensive to this delicate nymph, accustomed to bathe many times in a day. You would do well, then, to put everything in order, to sweep and wash out the place, and to fumigate your room, and still better, prepare garlands of ivy and convolvulus wherewith to bind your own head and that of your dearly beloved. But why are you so slow? What, you have not yet opened the door?"

In reply Polyphemus laughed out his loudest. He clapped his hands with delight. Odysseus thought that he was beside himself with joy, excited by his hope of soon possessing his beloved, but the giant only chucked him under the chin.

"Noman," said he, "you have all the airs of a very shrewd little fellow and one experienced in affairs; but try some other scheme, for you will not escape from here."

Odysseus, unjustly detained, then prepared to profit by his cunning, but as to you, a Cyclops in audacity and a Sisyphus in your actions, it is injustice which has pursued you, and law which has closed in upon you. May you never be able to mock at these! Even if you must be above the laws, may I never be the one to undo them, and to break down the doors of the prison; for if the government had been in the hands of the priests, it would have been their duty themselves to punish wrong-doing, and the blade of the executioner purifies the town as certainly as lustral water placed at the entrance of temples.

Thus we have heard of the fame of the men that have flourished before us.[1]

It seemed good to them that the same man be charged to pray for the public good, and to act as the occasion demanded. For many years the Egyptians and the Hebrew race were governed by their priests. Later on the two callings were separated. One was appointed to the sphere of religion, the other to that of government. These latter were appointed to the post of action, and we to the office of prayer. If, at present, the law forbids us to lend a hand to justice, or to put the worst criminal to death, how then could it ever allow us to take the side of a criminal against this same justice?

But I do everything that comes within my sphere; I pray at home, and in the churches common to all, that justice shall rise above injustice and that the city may be purified from sin. This is equivalent to saying that the evil man should perish evilly, such a man as you and those that are like unto you. Let it be a sign to you what manner of man I should have been, if it had been permitted me to act in the matter, that since it is not permitted me, I pronounce my curse upon you.

Note 1:
Homer, Iliad, 9.524.
Online 2007
Revision: 18 August 2007
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