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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 1.16


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

[1.16] [1249] The story refuses to linger over the sorrows of Osiris, for it is not in nature for a man to persist complacently in a harrowing recital. From that time till now the days of the sacred tears are accounted as ill-omened, and any who have the hallowed privilege of beholding [1252] may see images of these personages moving miraculously. But ’tis said this much is lawful for everyone to hear, how that Osiris for country, for temples, for laws, gave himself up to men threatening to destroy all unless they capture him; that he crossed the river in a cargo boat, and a guard was straightway put over him wherever he might be on land or sea, and a foreign assembly to decide what punishment he should suffer. Before this assembly Typho demanded he should die as quickly and as brutally as possible. But the foreigners, although they considered themselves wronged, were indignant at this, and showed respect for virtue. They were for condemning him to exile; then they felt shame at this solution, and decided that it should not be a case of exile for him, but a voluntary withdrawal from the country. They allowed him to keep his money and property, although even these Typho had offered them for their own. They would no more touch them than the treasures of the temples.

So he was sent on his way escorted by the god and goodly heroes, that he might leave the country at an appointed time, for it was not fated that the evil elements should triumph in Egypt, and that everything should so quickly fall into disorder and shame, as long as a holy soul dwelt there. That these evils might take place, the demons to whom such works belonged had in the beginning combined against him, and their own servant whom they had first brought into being, and quite recently into the position of tyrant, was now regaling them with all sorts of misfortune. Taxes of every sort, manifold in number, were at once imposed upon the cities, obligations that had no existence were discovered, and debts that had become a dead letter were dug up anew. The river dweller was compelled to take over some public work on the land, and boats were demanded from the land-dweller, so that no human being might have the leisure in which to be happy.

These were the most public forms of abuses, and there was another more common still. Typho would send men under his own control to govern tribes, corrupt wretches to whom he sold the cities openly. Now as to those who purchased the right to govern any tribe: however young a man might be, although the lease of the district was signed for one year only, he counted on being able to acquire in that years supplies for a dissolute old age. This is a specimen of the sort of thing that happened in Typho’s reign. By written contract he agreed upon the period of their rule for those who paid him down the price.

Formerly a man was turned out of office for cause of misconduct, whereas to another the reward of virtue was still a more distinguished honor, namely the rule over a greater number of men, and a longer tenure of his post. But from this time on there was wailing everywhere from all, every man having a personal grievance to tell of, and throughout cities and town councils men were harried with every kind of ill-treatment; so that one cry alone rose from Egypt to heaven, the sound of a universal dirge.

But the gods took pity on the race and prepared to come to its rescue. It did not seem good to them, however, to do so, before virtue and evil-doing had been still more clearly compared with each other, to the end that even men who used their minds and perceptions only a little might clearly distinguish the better from the worse, might pursue the one and eschew the other.

>> to section 1.17 >>

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