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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, prologue


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, about the christianization of the Roman world, and the military crisis at the beginning of the fifth century.

The Egyptian Tale, or, On Providence, is one part of his diptych on good kingship. (The other part is On Imperial Rule.) Although The Egyptian Tale looks like a retelling of a part of the myth of Isis and Osiris, it is obvious that the two brothers Osiris and Typho represent good and bad 
government. The story, however, is not just a myth, because the man called Osiris can be identified as Aurelian, praetorian prefect of the Eastern Empire during the reign of Arcadius, and one of Synesius' benefactors. His counterpart in this ancient roman à clef, however, is less easy to identify. For some speculations, go here.
  • Prologue: A work in two parts
  • 1.1: Introduction of the two protagonists, Osiris and Typho
  • 1.2: Youth of the pious Osiris and evil Typho
  • 1.3-4: Their careers; death of their father
  • 1.5-6: Procedure of electing a king
  • 1.7: Osiris elected
  • 1.8: Advice from the courtiers
  • 1.9-11: Speech from his deified father: how to be a good king
  • 1.12: Blessed reign of the virtuous Osiris
  • 1.13: Typho’s wife
  • 1.14: Typho’s illness
  • 1.15: Typho’s wife creates a coalition with the Scythian mercenaries, who capture Thebes
  • 1.16: Osiris leaves the city; Typho’s reign of terror
  • 1.17: General corruption of Egyptian morals
  • 1.18: A man from the country denounces Typho
  • 2.1: The gods intervene; the Scythian mercenaries feel uneasy in the city and decide to build their camp elsewhere
  • 2.2: An incident at one of the gates leads to an insurrection
  • 2.3: A Council decides to dethrone Typho
  • 2.4: Triumphal return of Osiris; he pardons his brother
  • 2.5-8: Some reflections by Synesius
The text is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. The green four-digit numbers are page numbers of the Migne edition.

Pr. 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9
1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18
2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8

[1209] This has been written in the days of the sons of Taurus,[1] and the first part here presented was read as far as the riddle of the wolf, precisely at the moment when the inferior man was ruling, after coming into power through a division in the state. [1212] The ensuing part was woven into it after the return of the better men, who begged that this history should not remain incomplete amidst misfortunes; but that since those things which were foretold according to God seemed to be in course of fulfillment, it were better in dealing with the same subject to go on to more happy fortunes than those already recounted. From the moment, therefore, in which the overthrow of the tyranny was already in progress, the story followed the sequence of events. And it is worthy of no ordinary wonderment in all this that the handling suffices for many subjects. Many doctrines which up to this moment remained undecided, have found room for investigation in this story, and each has been examined in detail. Lives are described therein which are to be taken as examples of vice and virtue; the narrative contains a history of contemporary events; and this story has been fashioned and embellished throughout with a view to its utility.

>> to section 1.1 >>

Note 1:
A reference to Aurelian, whose father was probably called Taurus.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other