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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 130 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It was written in 405.

Letter 130: Cyrene Besieged

To Simplicius

When you asked Cerialis to bring me your congratulations, you did him this good service, that you kept me in ignorance during five days as to what a contemptible man he is, for our cities had some hopes of one whom Simplicius deemed not unworthy of his acquaintance; but now he has made haste to dishonor -not you, for may your reputation never depend on any other mans!- himself, his mission, and in a word the affairs of the Romans. A venal fellow he is, and cheap at that: he takes no account of public opinion, is unfit for war and a real nuisance during peace, a peace which has brought him little profit, for it did not take him long to sow trouble and discord everywhere.

As if the possessions of soldiers belong rightfully to the general, he takes away whatever they have, and gives them in return exemption from service, and allows them to go freely, wherever they hope to find anything to live on. After having behaved to the inhabitants of the counter in this manner (for as to the foreigners, it was impossible to levy money upon them), he proceeded to extract money from their cities by conducting troops there and moving them, not where there was the greatest military advantage, but where there was most plunder. Burdened by this billeting of troops upon them, the cities paid in gold.

This was soon known to the Macetae; there half-barbarous people told the story to the barbarians themselves and these latter.

Came countless like the leaves and flowers in spring.[1]

Alas! for the young men we have lost. Alas! for our crops which we hoped for in vain! We have planted our fields for the fires lit by our enemies. Our wealth for the most part of us was our cattle, our herds of dromedaries and horses which grazed on the prairie. All are lost, all have been driven away.

I feel that I am not master of my grief, but forgive me. I write to you shut up behind ramparts and besieged. Often in an hour I see torches gleaming, I am lighting some myself, and raising them as signals to others. But those hunts of yore which drew us on so far, and in which we rejoiced formerly in perfect safety, thanks, above all, to you, all these have gone. It is with a groan that we call to mind "those young years, that mind, and those thoughts".

Today we suffer from entire lack of horses, the country is held by the enemy, and I, placed as a sentinel between two towers, am struggling against sleep.

To my lance I owe my bread;
To my lance I owe my Ismarian wine;
Leaning on my lance I drink.[2]

I do not know if it was more true for Archilochus than for me.

May the wretched Cerialis perish wretchedly, if he has not already perished, before these my curses. He richly deserved to become a victim of that last storm, he, who at the sight of the dangers into which he had thrown his province, for once in his life lost faith in earth itself. He embarked his gold on double-sailed merchantmen and he is tossing about on the high seas.

A little ship is carrying us letters from him enjoining us to do exactly such things as we are doing now, namely, to keep within the walls, not to attempt any sortie from the trenches, not to give combat to an enemy who is unconquerable. If we do not obey him, he protests that he will not answer for the consequences. Then again he advises us to establish four watches in the night, as if our hopes lay in matters, like a man who is accustomed to misfortune. Nevertheless, he took very good care not to share our troubles. Instead of being upon the ramparts, like me, Synesius the philosopher, the general keeps himself close to the oar-blade.

If you really wish to have the poems you asked me for, I must tell you that I see nothing therein felicitous, except the subject. Pray then with the Cyrenaens for a slight respite from war. In our present state we cannot take our books from their cases. 

Note 1:
Homer, Odyssey, 9.51.

Note 2:
Archilochus, fragment 2.
Online 2007
Revision: 15 August 2007
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