Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other

Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.14


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

[1.14] [1244] Osiris then (for he had been taught what the difference was between meum and tuum), knew that the soul is the measure of happiness. Undaunted therefore by outside forces, he succeeded in making himself and those of his household of the same way of thinking, both private individuals and rulers. But the others – because they lived by the senses and were devoid of reason – were careless lovers of fortune, and considered the property of others their own; they were impregnated with vanity, they hankered after the kingdom, and, as it did not come to them, despaired of themselves, and thought that nothing was worth living for.

Again and many a time the fact is worth repeating to men, that it is a sign of ill-breeding not to await life patiently, as a portion to be served at the dinner table, which in due course comes to us, that we may help ourselves, but to be one’s self the one to pounce upon it beforehand, and to filch it away. A man who succeeds in this will be laughed at, for he is an unseemly fellow-guest, and will be detested by the master of the feast, inasmuch as he disturbs its decorum, as far as in him lies, by his meanness. On the other hand, if he fails, he will go so far as to weep in childhood’s way, himself clinging to the portion that has been carried past and has gone to his neighbor. Such in all respects was the experience that befell Typho, for he was hated by the gods, he himself was lamenting, and the matter was the laughing-stock of the people.

For not even the fact that he had taken to his bed for many months, and was daily expected to die, not even this did arouse pity, but stirred up anger amongst men of sterner, and laughter among men of gentler judgment, to such a point that the matter was by this time proverbial, and the question addressed to pale people was this, ‘Has not your brother had a piece of good luck?’ He might have perished justly by his own hand, so given up was he to evil.

[1245] But at this point his execrable wife, very much a woman even in the midst of dangers, retrieved both herself and him, always managing him as one easy to control; she deterred him from weeping by occupying him with herself, banishing passion by passion and fencing off pain by pleasure. In this way he then recovered himself with an effort, yielding in a measure to evils the most hostile. At one moment he would lament, at another he would give way to anger. And licentious boys at such times, even in greater numbers, entered his house the more, bringing in their train carousals and drinking bouts, all this that he might kill time in their company and assuage his soul’s gloom. Other things they also devised, that they might have as little leisure as possible to remember the good fortune of Osiris. They constructed swimming-ponds, in these ponds islands, and in the islands artificial hot baths, that men might strip themselves one after another amongst women and satisfy passion without restraint.

>> to section 1.15 >>

Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other