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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.15


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

[1.15] [1245] While they are engaged in these affairs, the idea of seizing the kingdom comes into their minds, at the suggestion of evil demons who show the way, and already they were for openly administering everything else, being on the spot and making tours together. It was intolerable to these demons to see their own schemes going to ruin and dishonor, prudence exercised, and piety gaining ground, injustice driven away, harmony established, and all good things flourishing. To the Egyptians weeping was now only a word. All things were propitious, all things in order. The state, like a single living organism, had law for its soul, and was moved by this, its parts the while harmonizing with the whole. These things goad the demons to madness, to these they cleave, employing as their instruments men akin to them.

The evil is hatched in the women’s quarters in two houses. There was indeed a hearth in the royal city belonging to the commander of the foreign troops, one whom it seemed good to the Egyptians to send upon a campaign, himself and his forces. At the moment in fact they were waging an unsuccessful ware against a section of their own country which had revolted, and several Egyptian villages had fared ill, for the demons had prepared this trouble for their drama. Typho’s wife, that crafty ape-like creature, visiting the wife of this very man day and night, convinced without difficulty that old woman, a foreigner and unintelligent, that she held her in great regard, and foresaw misfortune which would befall them if affairs turned out as Osiris wished. ‘For’, said she, ‘he makes a charge of betrayal, and thinks it is a war already arranged in which he is engaged, since the foreigners have divided their army, although their policy is unanimous. [1248] He has therefore decided,’ she said, ‘to bring back the general by every violence and contrivance, and as soon as he is away from the camp, to ruin him completely, by relieving him of his command, as well as you, and your children. This noble offspring of yours, yes, these most lovely nurslings, even these he has decided to slaughter, while still in their youth.’

And meantime she would weep, touching the young children lightly under the chin, and winning their goodwill by the pity she showed. At this, the old Scythian woman straightway wailed aloud,  thinking to see these horrors before her eyes, and to suffer them herself. But the other woman added still another terror, and every day one more, announcing, forsooth, plans of secret machination against themselves. The Scythians were to be destroyed root and branch out of the land, and for this Osiris was working every day; he was secretly bringing the battalions up to their strength, and was making all other arrangements for the Egyptians to live by themselves, once they had either butchered the foreigners or driven them out. This would be quite easy, as soon as he had proclaimed their general a private citizen, by serving him with a notification of his dismissal, and had brought him up for impeachment by the law.

‘And when the general had been thus disposed of, he thinks that the other will involve little trouble. Now,’ she continued, ‘Typho is weeping at home, for he has your interest at heart, and he was always supported the foreigners politically, albeit through them we actually lost the kingdom, for they had not arrived on the scene at the moment when the result was announced. Had they done so, it would have now been possible for you to insult the Egyptians, to possess yourselves of their goods, and to treat these masters of yours as slaves. But as then we were not aided by you, so now we are powerless to come to your rescue. None the less, when disasters approach our friends, it is we who suffer misfortune.’

When she had thus outwitted the old woman by her maneuvers, and had driven her into the last degree of panic, in the belief that there was no way of escape for them; now that she had enough of this, she applied another device to recall the foreigner from her terror, seeing that she had already learned to follow the one who had caused her judgment to waver as she pleased. So, little by little, she infused courage into her and filled her with hope. ‘Great is the plan,’ she said, ‘and one that requires special courage, to the end that we may not be under the power of Osiris, and live or not live when he pleases.’

At first she hinted darkly at the insurrection, then made insinuations about it, and at last revealed it, gradually accustoming her to the story and the enterprise, until finally she made the timid creature bold, by showing her that the power of Osiris was as nothing if once they were determined. ‘For the law,’ she said, ‘and the habit of honor, and the ancient and ancestral tradition, enslave the slothful of their own free will. But he who rebels is only making trial of the weak, and that man is free who has strength, if he is not dumbfounded before habit, and we shall never experience that, as long as you are under arms, and Osiris does nothing else but pray to the gods, at one time giving audiences to embassies, at another stating judicial decisions, and at another engaging in some other task of peace. For Osiris will never be an evil to any of the Scythians, if we combine with you, and contribute, for our part, the prestige of rank, for yours, the military strength. Nor will you appear to be committing any great fraud, or to be disturbing the peace of the Egyptians, or to be changing the constitution, but rather to be establishing it, and making better arrangements for everyone, [1249] if you secure the rule for Typho, born of the same stock as Osiris, the eldest to boot, and a more legitimate sovereign to govern Egypt.

Thus in the first place it is not even likely that the Egyptians would combine against you, inasmuch as the change in regard to the hereditary constitution is not a great one. While the outward form of the government will be ours, the benefits of it will be yours, and you can batten on the whole of Egypt as if it were your own dinner table. Only promise to persuade your husband.’

‘And you,’ said the other, ‘will join in persuading him.’

This they set about doing, and when the commander was announced to be approaching on horseback, scouts suborned thereto spread rumors secretly about the plot, and under a mask of discretion succeeded in announcing what they were pretending to conceal, more clearly than those who shout loudly, and mysterious letters troubled people profoundly, letters enjoining them to secure their own safety. Finally someone said quite openly that they must save themselves from the ambush, and another would repeat this still more clearly, and then another, and again another, all these partisans of Typho and confederates of the women.

The finishing touch now comes, the women meet him, they the artificers of the plot, and Typho himself, as if he had gone out of town on some other errand, joins the commander secretly, and confers with him concerning the kingdom. He persuades him to undertake this work immediately, and if necessary to let the regal city perish with Osiris, adding that the rest of Egypt was sufficient for him. ‘And at the same time,’ he said, ‘your soldiers may enrich themselves by enslaving the prosperous city, the common hearth of all the conspicuous Egyptians, and by plundering its wealth.’

So our worthy Typho sacrificed the city to his hatred of its inhabitants because of their goodwill towards Osiris. This the Scythian refused to do, for he felt in awe of the sacred senate, and of the well-disciplined people, and of the privileges that the city conferred. He said that he was marching against Osiris not of his own free will, but of necessity, and that if he succeeded in overthrowing him, consistently with the safety of the city and the preservation of the country, he would regard it as a point gained, that the necessity for a greater evil had not arisen.

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Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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