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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 2.2

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

[2.2] [1262] A poor woman and very old at that, plied a trade near one of the side gates of the city, not a lucrative trade, but withal necessary for her, namely that of stretching out her hands on the chance that someone might put an obol therein. She had come very early to her vagabond’s station, for life’s needs are skilled in cheating nature of its sleep. Once seated, she did the proper thing. She speeded on their way with her blessings those who had roused to their work, she brought good news of the day, she prayed, and promised that the god would be propitious. Now when she saw from afar what was being done by the Scythians, as soon as it was broad daylight, and how they did not cease running out like thieves, all of them packing and removing their belongings, she takes it to heart that this is the last sun that Thebes will look upon, for she thought they were doing this that the city might hold no pledge from them, so that when they had once moved camp, they might begin an assault, having no fear about the prospect of further gain, since the wrongdoers share the hearts of the wronged.

So, upsetting the cup in which she collected her coins, with many bitters lamentations and appeals to heaven, ‘You’, she said, ‘when turned out of your own country, and when wanderers, Egypt received as suppliants. Moreover she treated you not merely as it were well to treat suppliants, but she gave you the honor of citizenship, and made you share in its privileges, and, to crown all, made you masters of the situation. Now even native-born Egyptians are adopting Scythian manners, their affection of these being actually conducive to their interests. Your very ways are held in greater honor than our own. What then does all this mean? Why are you moving your camp, why are you packing up, and removing your possessions? I suppose the gods are not trying you for ingratitude on account of your present conduct to your benefactors; yet they exist, and will come on the scene even if it be after the downfall of Thebes.’

When she had finished, she threw herself face downwards on the ground. [1264] Thereupon a Scythian made for her with drawn sword, as though to strike off the poor creature’s head, for he surmised that she was abusing them and making their night’s work public, imagining that their action was still unobserved, since none of those who had been spectators had dared to denounce them. She therefore would have become the victim of the sword. But someone appears now, whether a god or a divine personage (at all events he seemed a man), who was evidently indignant, and turning the Scythian against himself, he meets his onset, and anticipating his blow, gathers him up and hurls him on the ground. Another Scythian then attacked him, and quickly met with the same fate.

Then a hue and cry went up and men rushed to the spot. There were many foreigners, on the one hand, who, leaving the baggage animals, were caught by the incident at the gate. They were either about to go or already had gone out, and returned to help their own people as quickly as possible; on the other hand there was a great concourse of the natives. One of them is struck down and dies, another kills a Scythian, and again still another Scythian the slayer; a man falls at every moment, and at every moment a man kills another on either side.  To the people anything at hand was the arm needed; they were able also by despoiling the dead and by robbing the living to make use of their swords; they were superior in numbers to the aliens, for part of these were encamped as far as possible from the town, that they might have less reason to fear an ambush, with which, though it did not really exist, the god threatened them, that they might leave the city, the heart of which they held in their hands; and another part of them, inferior in number to the civil population, were busying themselves over their goods and chattels to the end that nothing should be left behind. Far more numerous, therefore, as they were, they were brought into collision with those less in number than themselves who encountered them near the gates, and those who were continually coming to the place to affect an exit.

The noise grew louder, and now the action of the gods could be clearly distinguished there. For when a perception of the uproar broke over the whole extent of the city, and had reached to the camp of the aliens, since each faction had long been in fear of an attack from the other, every man of the townsfolk, thinking that now had come the decisive day for Egypt, one in which the foreigner had agreed to throw aside all decency, every man of them determined to die in action, and to make a monument of his valor, since not even a god would have seemed to them a trustworthy guarantee that they should not suffer. All invariably, therefore broke through to the center of the disturbance, each man wishing to distinguish himself, and esteeming that it would profit him if he braved all dangers while witnesses were still alive.

The foreigners on the other hand had concealed their departure, and thinking that they had been discovered, took little heed of those left behind in the city, although they made up about fifth part of their army. Fearing only for themselves, lest their enemies should make a sortie, they took to flight, and encamped farther away, only too thankful that they had been saved with the greater part of their force instead of having to confront danger with the whole.

But of the residue left behind, those in the houses, through being for long divinely infatuated, and filled with suspicion that the Scythians would suffer an intolerable disaster at the hands of the Egyptians, supposed that an attack had been made upon them, in their retreat, as on fugitives, and that soon their camp would be plundered. They thought then that it would be to their own advantage to remain on the spot and lay aside their arms, taking the place of suppliants, [1265] since then it would seem that they also had been the only ones left behind, because they had done no evil to the Egyptians, whereas the others had left the town, fearing to suffer for the acts they had committed.

But those alone who happened to be near the gates and around whom the panic was in full blast, knew the truth, how that the Egyptians possessed no powerful military organization, not a hoplite, not a weapon, not a spearmen, not a spear. And so these Scythians made up their minds, at the present juncture, to get possession of the gates if possible, and to call in those who had vainly given way to panic, for the whole city was being harried like a bird’s nest.

Now is a fierce fight waged about these gates, and in this the Egyptians are victorious and sing a paean of victory. This was another terror to the foreigners both within the city and those without, for the latter party thought the matter had been settled by the Egyptians against the former, the former against the latter, and thus each section lamented over the other. The victors do not succeed in closing all the doors in all the gates (no small work this in Thebes, whose hundred gates are celebrated in Greek song [1]), before a man who had shared in  the struggle round the gates runs through from the midst of the fighting for this very purpose, announces the news to the Scythians, and promises them the city. These then came to the spot in vain, and at once praised and blamed their fortune: for a while they greatly congratulated themselves on their escape from the net, but later they demanded orders to burst through the wall for the purpose of again occupying the town.

Thus the wisdom of god is an irresistible thing, and neither is weapon strong nor mind devising, unless a god be present with it, and so men have ere now conducted a campaign against themselves. It seems to me to have been most happily said that man is a plaything of a god, one who is always sporting and playing a game of draughts with events.[2] And I think that Homer was the first of the Greeks to observe this, and sang of a contest and of prizes offered for every sort of struggle over the tomb of Patroclus, though in every respect those who are most expected to win fall short. Teucer loses the first prize to an insignificant bowman, and

The best driver of whole-hoofed horses is last;

again in skill of foot a young man is defeated by a man in his prime, and in  the competition in heavy armor, Ajax is worsted - and yet, Homer heralds Ajax as being by far the best of all those assembled before Troy, with the exception of Achilles.[3] He asserts that skill, training, youth, and superiority of constitution are al small things in comparison with divine power.

>> to section 2.3 >>

Note 1:
Homer, Iliad, 9.381.

Note 2:
Plato, Laws, 803C

Note 3:
Teucer: Homer, Iliad, 23.850-883; the quote is 23.536; races: 23.785, 836, 859; Ajax: 2.768.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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