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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 159 is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It was written in 411.

Letter 159: Olive Oil

To an unknown correspondent [1]

Your wise letter has come to us, so tasteful and withal so brief, yet so eloquent, the offspring of your marvelous brain. I am greatly delighted with it, for it pleases me doubly, first, as coming from the best of friends, and from one entirely worthy of praise, and second, on account of the rare grace with which it has been composed.

Nay, it has incited me to something else more formidable and audacious. Did not our old affection, with its power to unite things far separated, and often to bring into accord forces antagonistic to each other - did not this old affection, I say, make a plea for forgiveness in this matter, perchance we should thus be very little removed from the position of those who have good cause to be angry. To what, perhaps you ask, has it incited me? Why, to make response, as you see, with my own tongue to such a great man, assuredly initiated by the muses, if any man ever was; to one of whom Demosthenes would have said,[2] had he seen him amongst us, that he had come among men as a copy of Hermes the eloquent. This tongue of mine never in old days had the least share in the best, and now it is so rough that it can scarce call a spade a spade. For I tell you in all confidence that the suffering which I endure in silence now rather threatens to gain the mastery over me, so fate has willed it.

This indeed makes us pity rather than congratulate ourselves, inasmuch as it is not even accorded us to meet here anyone of the highest destiny, such as yourself, by contact with whom something of our barbarous side might perhaps be filed away, and thus our real qualities gradually emerge from their stale odor of the goat-pen.

Now is the moment to pity myself more than ever before, for your request was inopportune: the oil which you ask me for, and which I wish to give you, or, to speak truly, which I was keeping to give to such a man as you, this oil has remained in the country. As the nature of the case would have it, it was bestowed for use.

Moreover there is not an olive tree without eyes on it - if you will put up with just a little use of the ordinary phraseology - on which my dear friend might be grafted, for each one has been filled already, and is beginning to bring forth fruit with all its might. This is how the matter stands. The rest will be made clear by him who is now with you and perhaps he will state plainly to you how that which you asked for missed the right moment.

Be well and happy in devoting yourself to the whole of philosophy.

Note 1:
Perhaps Olympius, who was almost invited to ask Synesius' olive oil in Letter 148.

Note 2:
In fact an expression by Aristides, who describes Demosthenes: Or. 3.663 (Behr).
Online 2007
Revision: 18 August 2007
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