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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 136, which describes a visit to Athens in 396 (or 400?), is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. Cf. Letter 54.

Letter 136: A visit to Athens

To his Brother

I hope that I may profit as much as you desire from my residence at Athens. It seems to me that I have already grown more than a palm and a finger's length in wisdom, and I can give you at once a proof of the progress I have made.

Well, it is from Anagyrus that I am writing to you; and I have visited Sphettus, Thria, Cephisia, and Phalerum.

But may the accursed ship-captain perish who brought me here! Athens has no longer anything sublime except the country's famous names! Just as in the case of a victim burnt in the sacrificial fire, there remains nothing but the skin to help us to reconstruct a creature that was once alive - so ever since philosophy left these precincts, there is nothing for the tourist to admit except the Academy, the Lyceum, and -by Zeus!- the Decorated Porch which has given its name to the philosophy of Chrysippus.[1] This is no longer Decorated, for the proconsul has taken away the panels on which [the painter] Polygnotus of Thasos has displayed his skill.

Today Egypt has received and cherishes the fruitful wisdom of Hypatia. Athens used to be the dwelling place of the wise: today the beekeepers alone bring it honor. Such is the case of that pair of sophists in Plutarch who draw the young people to the lecture room - not by the fame of their eloquence, but by the pots of honey from [the Athenian mountain] Hymettus.[2]

Note 1:
The Academy was the school of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Decorated Porch ("Stoa Poikilê") of Zeno and Chrysippus.

Note 2:
The anecdote from Plutarch cannot be identified.
Online 2006
Revision: 27 Nov. 2006
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