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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.11


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.

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.

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

[1.11] [1233] You must have admired, my son, the purpose of our fathers as expressed in sacred images. In the case of Hermes, we Egyptians make the image of the divinity a double one, placing a young man beside an old one, signifying that if anyone is to watch over us worthily, he must be both wise and brave, since either of these qualities is ineffectual for good without the other.[1] The same idea is expressed by the Sphinx which is set up by the enclosures before our temples, in force a wild beast, in judgment a man, a sacred symbol of good qualities. And justly so, for force deprived of prudent leadership is carried capriciously away, mingling and confusing everything; and intellect is useless for action when unserved by hands.

Virtue and fortune scarcely come together except for great purposes, as they have done in your case. Do not therefore importune the gods any longer, you who are able to save yourself by your own resources, if you so desire. It is not well that the gods should always be away from their own spheres, and haunt foreign and inferior places. Take heed lest it be impious to use wrongfully the foundations that have been implanted in us to the end that we should take care of the things upon earth with due order, and in accordance with the cosmic scheme that has been given us. For this is the course of men who make it necessary for the gods to come again, before the appointed time, to busy themselves with affairs below. At that appointed time, however, when the tuning which they have attuned is becoming unstrung and old, they come back to tighten it again, and as it were to kindle it into flame when it is growing cold. This they do joyfully, for they are fulfilling this service, to use the expression, for the nature of the universe. Otherwise they will only come when this harmony has been destroyed and broken, through the iniquity of those who have taken the charge over, and only when it is possible in no other way to save these things below. A god is not at all disturbed about small things, nor whenever a mistake has been made concerning this or that detail; a tremendous fellow he would be, that single man on whose account some member of the happy race should descend here!

But whenever the whole order, and the vast elements therein are destroyed, then must the gods come to give the impulse to another dispensation. Let not men be wroth, then, when they suffer from self-inflicted evils, nor accuse the gods of not providing for them, for Providence demands that they in turn should contribute their share. Of a truth, in the place for evils, it is not a matter for wonder that evils should be, but it would be a matter for wonder if anything of a different nature were there. For this last is foreign and even alien, and this is the gift of Providence, which makes it possible for all of us men to be happy in all ways, if we will but bestir ourselves and use the gifts which we have therefrom. [1236] For Providence is not like the mother of the new-born babe, whose one care is to scare away what may fly at it and do it harm, inasmuch as her infant is as yet undeveloped and helpless in itself; but [Providence] resembles that mother who, having brought it up and having armed it, bids it use its weapons and ward off evils.

Study this at all times, and consider it as of the highest importance for men to know, for so they will believe in Providence, and will take heed for themselves, and at the same time will be pious and vigilant, nor will they imagine that an intervention of God is discordant with the practice of virtue. Farewell! You will, if you are wise, restrain your brother, removing beforehand the fate that overhangs you and the Egyptians, for this is in your power; but if you give way and show weakness, await the gods when it is too late!’

>> to section 1.12 >>

Note 1:
Cf. On Imperial Rule, 3.
Online 2007
Revision: 4 Dec. 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other