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

Letter 133: Preparations for War

To Olympius

Just the other day, during the recent consulship of Aristaenetus and of - I don't know the name of his colleague - [1] I received a letter sealed with your seal, and singed with your sacred name. But I conjecture it was a very old one, for it was worm-eaten, and the words for the most part were illegible.

I wish very much that you would not content yourself with merely sending me one letter a year, as a sort of tribute, and that you would not take our friend Syrus for your only postman. In this way nothing comes to me in its pristine freshness, everything seems stale. Do, therefore, as I do - no messenger of the Court changes his horses and leaves our city, without his bag being made heavier by some letter of mine addressed to your eloquent self.

Whether all or only some of them give you my letters, may those who put them in your hands be ever blest! They are excellent men. But if they do otherwise, you will then be the wiser, inasmuch as you will not put faith in faithless men. But that I may not uselessly weary my secretary in dictating letters to him that you will never receive, I should like to be sure about this.

I shall in that case arrange things differently in the future, and entrust them to Peter alone. I think Peter will on this letter through the agency of the sacred hand, for I am sending it from Pentapolis to our common teacher [Hypatia]. She will choose the man by whom she wishes it be conveyed, and her choice, I am sure, will fall upon the most trusted messenger.

We do not know, my dearest and best friend, if we shall ever have a chance of conversing together again. The cowardice of our generals has delivered up our country to the enemy without a single battle; there are no survivors except those of us who have seized fortified places. Those who have been captured in the plains have been butchered like victims for sacrifice.

We are now afraid of a prolonged siege, lest it should compel most of the fortresses to surrender to thirst. This is the reason why I did not answer your counter-charges on the subject of the presents. I had no leisure, for I was taken up with a machine which I am constructing, that we may hurl long-distance missiles from the turrets, stones of really substantial weight. I shall leave you, however, entirely at liberty to send me gifts, for of course Synesius must yield to Olympius, but they must not be gifts of a luxurious sort. I disapprove of the luxury of the quarters assigned to the company.

Send me, then, things that are useful for soldiers, such as bows and arrows, and above all arrows with heads attached to them. As far as the bows are concerned, I can at a pinch buy them elsewhere, or repair those which I have already, but it is not easy to procure arrows, I mean really good ones. The Egyptian arrows that we have bulge at the knots and sink in between the knots, so that they deviate from their right course. They are like men starting in a foot-race, who from the very start are hampered and stumble; but those which are manufactured in your country are long and deftly turned on the pattern of a single cylinder; and this means everything for the straight course of their flight.

Now this is what you ought to send me, and at the same time some serviceable bits for my horses. That Italian horse whose praises you set forth in such beautiful language, I would have very gladly seen, if he will give us, as you promise, some excellent colts. However, at the end of your letter, in a postscript, I read that you were obliged to leave him at Seleucia, because the captain of your vessel refused to embark such a cargo on account of the bad weather; but as I recognize neither a style resembling your own, nor your hand, nor the precision of your script, I think I ought to warn you of the fact. It would be absurd if such a fine horse were preserved neither for you nor for me.

Note 1:
In 404, Aristaenetus shared the consulship with the emperor Honorius.
Online 2007
Revision: 18 August 2007
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