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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 148, written in 408, is essentially an utopia: Synesius describes his fatherland in highly idealized terms. At the end of the letter, when he wants us to believe that the shepherds are familiar with the Odyssey, he betrays that what he offers is the perfect life according to a highly educated man. The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.

Letter 148: The Good Life

To Olympius

I have neglected the duty to pay tribute, but what could I do? Not one of the Greeks settled in Libya is willing to dispatch merchantmen to your sea. At the same time I release you from your contribution, for Syrians never take the trouble to call at the ports of the Cyrenaica, and if one did by chance come, I should never know of it.

As a matter of fact, I do not live near the sea, and I rarely come to the harbor. I have moved up country to the southern extremity of the Cyrenaica, and my neighbors are such men as Odysseus was in quest of, when he steered from Ithaca, to appease the wrath of Poseidon, in obedience of the oracle:

Men, who know not of the sea, nor eat food mixed with salt.

But do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that people here do not take to the sea, even for the purpose of getting their salt, nor yet suppose that thus they eat their meat and cakes unsalted. We have, I swear by holy Hestia, at a distance to the south less than that which separates us from the sea to the north, a native salt which comes from the earth and which we call Ammon's salt. It collects under a scab, as it were, of crumbling stone, and when this scab, which conceals it, has been removed, it is easy enough to scoop out the depths with one's hand or with a shovel, and the lumps that you may take up in this manner are salt, pleasant both to look at and to taste.

Do not think it sophistical vanity on my part, this account of the salts found in this country. Rustic people such as we are the last to harbor vain glory.

But you express a wish to learn from me about everything in my part of the world; therefore be prepared for a loquacious letter, that you may pay the penalty for your untimely curiosity. At the same time, what is foreign to anyone is difficult of credence. A Syrian will not easily acknowledge the existence of salt from the earth, very much as people here are hard to convince when I answer questions about ships, sails, and the sea.

You may remember that once when I was studying philosophy with you, I looked out upon this very thing, the sea, and the great deep lake which stretches from Pharos to Canopus. One ship was being towed in; another was moving with all sails set; another was propelled by oars. You laughed at me when I compared this last one to a centipede. Now the people here are in the same state of mind as we ourselves, whenever we listen to tales in the world beyond Thule,[1] whatever Thule may be, which gives to those who have crossed it freedom to lie about it without criticism or censure. Even if they admit what is told them about vessels, or only seem to laugh at it, at all events they stoutly refuse to believe that the sea too is able to nourish mankind. According to their idea, this privilege belongs to mother earth alone.

On one occasion, when they refused to believe in the existence of fish, I took a certain jar, and dashing it against a stone, showed them plenty of salted fish from Egypt, on which they said they were the bodies of evil snakes, sprang up and took to flight, for they suspected that the spines were as dangerous as the poison of serpent's fang. Then the oldest and most intelligent of them all said that he found it difficult to believe that salt water could produce anything good and fit to eat, since spring water, excellent though it be to drink, produces nothing except frogs and leeches, which not even a madman would taste. And yet their ignorance is natural.[2]

"For the onrushing wave" of the sea "awakens them not in the night" - only the neighings of horses, the bleating of a herd of goats, the cry of sheep, or the bellowing of a bull; then at the first ray of sunshine the humming of bees, yielding the palm to no other music in the pleasure it gives. Does it not seem to you that I am setting forth in detail the topic of Anchemachus, when I speak of the country where we live, far away from the town, far from the roads, far from commerce and its wily morality? For us there is time for philosophy, but no time to do evil.

All our meetings are full of comradeship for all, for we depend on each other for farming, for our shepherds and flocks, and for every sort of hunting which the land affords. No one of us, either man or horse, may take his food without the sweat of his brow. We lunch off barley-groats, most sweet to gobble up, most sweet to gulp down, like that which Hecamede prepares for Nestor.[3] After heavy fatigue this drink is a safeguard against the summer heat.

Then again we have wheaten cakes, and fruits, either wild or cultivated, all grown in our country - with the flavor of the best soil; also honey from our bees and milk from our goats, for it is not the custom here to milk cows. Moreover, hunting with the assistance of dogs and horses brings no less abundance to our tables.

I do not know why Homer has not described hunting as a glory to man and as ennobling those that pursue it. He has so eulogized the forum, that makes us poor men shameless and utterly vile, a place in which there is no health, but only railing and skill in contriving evil. When they of the forum are under our roofs, we laugh at them, for they shiver at the sight of wild beasts' flesh fresh from the fire.

What do I say? Wild beasts' flesh? Why, they would rather take poison than any such dishes of ours! They seek the lightest wine, the thickest honey, the thinnest olive oil, and the heaviest wheat. They are always singing the praises of places where these products may be obtained, such as Cyprus, a certain Hymettus, Phoenice, and Barathra. Our country, even if it is inferior to each country that holds the first place in some one particular, surpasses the rest in the rest; and this to hold the first place by virtue of the second places, just as by gaining this distinction, Peleus and Themistocles were proclaimed to the Greeks the best of all in all things.[4]

We will admit, if you like, that our honey is not as good as the honey of Hymettus; nevertheless, it is so good that, when you have it, it falls not short of the foreign flavor. As to the olive-oil of this country, it is certainly the best, if one does not listen to people whose taste is depraved, for these persist in judging oil by weight, and the less heavy they hold to be more valuable. With us scales are not forged for oil, but we assert that if this must be done, it would be natural to give preference to the heavier. Moreover, their oil, however famous and costly, when once put into a lamp, is so feeble that it scarcely gives any light at all. But our oil is so good that it gives out a complete flame, and when a lamp is needed, it produces artificial daylight. It is useful for enriching cakes, or to make the sinews of athletes supple.

Again, the art of music is especially native to our country. Our Anchemachetae play upon a little shepherd's lyre, a simple thing made by themselves, sweet-toned and fairly masculine in its note, not unworthy for the bringing-up of children in Plato's city. For it is not supple, nor does it have the virtue of adaptation to every note. However, our singers accommodate themselves to the simplicity of its strings, for they do not attempt sentimental subjects. One fair subject of song amongst us is praise of a the vigorous ram,[5] and the dog with the lost tail comes in for a eulogy, because I suppose he deserves it for not fearing the hyenas, and strangling the wolves. Then the hunter is not least a subject of song, who brings peace to our pastures and feasts us with every sort of meat. Nor is the twin-bearing ewe deemed unworthy of our lyre, she who rears lambs more numerous than the years. We also often sing with vigor the praises of the fig-tree and the vine, but above all we sing to supplicate Heaven, asking blessings for men, and crops, and cattle.

Such are our celebrations, seasonable and of old tradition, the good things of the poor; but as to the emperor, as to the favorites of the emperor, and fortune's dance, which we hear about when we come together, all those mere names which, like flames, are shot up to great height of glory, only to be extinguished - no one, or hardly anyone, speaks of them here. Our ears have rest from such stories.

No doubt men know well that there is always an emperor living, for we are reminded of this every year by those who collect taxes; but who he is, is not very clear. There are people amongst us who suppose that Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, is still king, the great king who went against Troy. From childhood we have heard the king spoken of by this name and no other. He has for a friend, our good herdsman say, a certain Odysseus, a bald man, quite wonderful in dealing with events, and finding a way out of difficulties, and indeed they tell with laughter the story of the Cyclops, imagining that Odysseus blinded him only a year ago; and how the old man was conveyed under the belly of a ram, how this outcast mounted guard at the entrance, and imagined that the leader of the flock was bringing up the rear, not from the weight he was carrying, but through sympathy for his master's fortune.

Through this letter you have at all events been with us in spirit for a while. You have watched our fields and seen the simplicity of our life, and no doubt you will say to yourself, it was thus that they lived in the time of Noah, before justice was enslaved.

Note 1:
Thule was the proverbial country on the edge of the earth. It is mentioned for the first time by Pytheas of Marseille in c.325 BCE.

Note 2:
This is probably exaggerated. Even in the wells in the desert, small fish can be found.

Note 3:
Homer, Iliad, 11.624.

Note 4:
According to Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Histories, 8.123), all Greeks who had fought in the naval battle of Salamis (September 480 BCE) voted themselves to have been the most courageous, but Themistocles obtained most second votes, and in the end was recognized as the greatest of them all. That Cyrene was never the very best, but came in second often, appears to have been proverbial: the great scientist Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c.275-192) was also nicknamed Bêta, "number two".

Note 5:
This may be a reference to the cult of Ammon.
Online 2007
Revision: 17 August 2007
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