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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 2.1


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

[2.1] [1257] From this point the actions of the gods begin to be manifest, for all things were now full of all manner of evils from every quarter, and a belief in Providence had disappeared from the mind of men, [1260] their impious conjectures being largely sustained by the events witnessed. On the one hand no human agency appeared anywhere to assist them, for the foreigners were using the city as a camp; on the other hand, the commander of these was stricken with terror during the night, the Corybantes[1], I suppose, attacking him, and day by day panic uproars took possession of the troops. The frequent occurrence of this reduced them to a state of frenzy and caused them to lose their wits. They wandered about, alone or in company, all as if possessed by the nymph’s delirium, at one moment attempting to draw their swords, and behaving as about to deliver an immediate attack, at another, on the contrary, claiming pity and asking to be spared; or again, springing up, they seemed alternately like pursuers and pursued, as though some hostile force had been secretly conveyed into the town. But in the city there was neither weapon, nor any man to use it; the people were an easy prey offered up by Typho.

So this also is very clear, that a god is needed even by those well prepared for war, unless their preparations are to turn out useless, and that victory is from no other source: at the same time one deprives the victorious cause of its due in foolishly supposing it to be probable that the better prepared man will win. For when our plans turn out to be successful, a god seems to be superfluous, and disputes the honor of a victory that was already prepared by ourselves. But if no one intervenes to produce the result, and if the unseen alone is responsible, we hold nothing short of a refutation, not stated in words but in evident fact, of the views of those who disbelieve that the gods care for mankind.

Now something of this actually took place on that occasion. Here were the bold, the conquerors, the mail-clad, whose whole work and play alike were a training for war and battle, the cavalry parading in the marketplace in order, or moving off in squadrons at the sound of the trumpet. If any soldier was in need of a huckster, or a cobbler, or wished to polish his sword, all kept guard over the need of each, so that the phalanx might not be dispersed even in the streets. Then lo! these men stampeded in mad flight from the lightly clad, the unarmed, from the men cast down in spirit, and not even praying for victory. At a signal known to all of them, they retired from the town suddenly, secretly taking their children, their wives, their valuables, as though it was not quite possible for them openly to enslave those of the Egyptians as well.

When the population saw them packing up this baggage, they did not even then understand what was happening, they only despaired for themselves once more. And so some of them shut themselves up in their houses, there to await the conflagration; while others preferring the sword to fire, [1261] purchased a lighter implement of death, not for any use, but that they might offer themselves for slaughter when the moment should come. Others attempted to take to their boats, and their minds ran on islands, on villages, and on cities beyond the frontiers; for any spot at that time seemed more secure than great 
Thebes, in which the Egyptian palaces had been constructed. But how gradually and with difficulty the gods brought them round to a state of confidence in events and of renewed courage to prefer safety – this very incredible story has come to our ears.

>> to section 2.2 >>

Note 1:
Servants of the mother goddess Cybele.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other