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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 132, in which he reproaches his brother's behavior in the struggle against barbarian raiders (Cf. Letter 125), can be dated to 405, and is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 132: War

To his Brother

We may allow that there are worse things than woman shrieking, beating their breasts, or tearing their hair when they see the enemy or when his coming is announced to them. For all that, Plato regards it as scandalous that they should not be willing to stand up like hens against the bravest in the defense of their offspring, and that they should give to the race of man the reputation of being the most cowardly of all animals.

However this may be, that you should commit the same fault as these women, that you should be terrified out of your wits in the night, that you should get out of bed, and go about shouting that the barbarian is already at the gate of the fortress; I ask, is this to be endured any longer? And yet someone has told me some such story about you. It would seem like a transformation to be at one moment my brother, and at another a coward.

For my part, at the moment of dawn I am off on horseback, I am scouting as far out as possible, searching busily wit eyes and ears for any signs of these cattle-lifters, for I cannot give the name of enemy to looters and foot-pads. I wish I could find stronger phrases still with which to characterize them.

They never hold their ground against determined adversaries, and they only attack the timid, whom they slaughter like victims for sacrifice, and then strip them. At night, with an escort of  young men, I patrol the hill and I give the women an opportunity of sleeping without fear, for they know that there are those who are watching over them.

Moreover I have with me some of the corps of the Balagritae. Before Cerialis had taken over the command of the province, these men were mounted bowmen; but when he entered upon his functions, their horses were sold and they became only archers, but even as infantry they are useful to me. We need archery in defense of our wells and of the river, as water is entirely lacking in the interior of our lines.

Now what prevents us from going through our siege in flute-playing and in festal gatherings? It is that we must either conquer now by fighting, or perish in hand-to-hand struggle with the enemy, unless we wish to die of thirst, and what could be more pitiable than this? We must, therefore, of necessity be brave men. Do you, on your side, take heart and rally the others.

As to that pair of voracious horses which you are feeding only the tax-collector, give orders to have them brought to you. Particularly in moments like these a horse is no useless possession. For whether it is scouting, observing the enemy, or carrying messages in the shortest time - all this a horse can do so easily.

If you are in want of archers, send for them and they will come. As to the Phycuntian oarsmen, I can no more count upon them to do their duty as soldiers than I can count on my gardeners. I seek only a small number of men, but they must not be false to their manhood. If I can find such, by God's grace be it said, I shall have courage.

If I am called upon to die, here lies the advantage of philosophy, not to regard it as a terrible thing to retire from this poor envelope of the flesh. But whether I shall be tearless in presence of my wife and child, of this I dare give no pledge; would that Philosophy were so powerful! But may I never have to make trial of her, never, O savior, never, O guardian of freedom!
Online 2006
Revision: 6 November 2006
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