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Synesius' Egyptian Tale, 2.3


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

[2.3] [1268] The Egyptians, then, when they had now brilliantly carried the gates and had put the wall between themselves and the enemy, turning upon those who were left within, alike stray individuals an assembled masses, threw missiles, cast javelins, struck them, and ran them through. Some of them, who had found a fortified shelter, they smoked out as though they had been wasps – temples, priests and all. Typho, the while, thundering complaints (for he had become Scythian even in his religious views), demanded a treaty of peace with the barbarians, scheming again to admit the enemy army, on the ground that no irremediable evil had occurred. But they, the people, were all unbidden, without generals, except that by the gift of the gods every individual was himself general and soldier, captain and private. What might not happen at a moment when the god is willing and gives the initiative to men to save themselves by every means in their power? Nor did they yet give over the gates to Typho, and in other respects the despotic rule was lifeless, the moment that the party which organized it had been banished from the city.

The first meeting was held at the house of the high-priest, a sacred fire was kindled, prayers of thanksgiving were offered up for what had been accomplished, and intercessions for what should happen in the future. Then they called for 
Osiris on the ground that there was no other salvation for their government than he. Now the priest promised him to them, the gods granting it, together with any men who had fallen with him because they were accused of sharing his views. But they decided to beguile Typho for some time still. He had not indeed suffered immediately his due penalty (and the penalty was that the man most culpable for the sometime servile attitude of the Egyptians towards the Scythians should now become a victim and a preparatory sacrifice for the war), and when Justice – who is wise and knows well how to keep opportunities under her control – delayed his case, the latter, I say, even then thought that all this would escape the gods. And as he was still in the outward panoply of the despotic power, he began levying taxes more keenly and shamefully than ever, and went so far as to extort contributions a second time even from his servants.

At one moment he would threaten to do violent mischief while he still had the power, at another again he was groveling, and speaking piteously that, quoth he, ‘I may not lose my kingdom’. So completely had he lost his head, and had actually become so puffed up in mind as to expect to get round the priest by flattery and bribes. But it was not right of him to place money before the ordinances of his fathers. Nay, even when the aliens had broken up their camp with all their might and were already far from 
Thebes, he again brought them back, by envoys and suppliants and presents. Every act and device of his was a glaring announcement that he would again had over Egyptian interests to the foreigners. He himself was evidently quite without anxiety on the score of his beloved Scythians, and even if he had not been so, at all events he was glad that he would not live to see Osiris returned from exile, and taking a place in the government.

Since in any case, the foreigners now attacked the country, obviously not, as they had done before, with a view to changing Egyptian institutions, [1269] but rather tearing them up by the roots, and to Scythianizing the government, and since, in a word, the drama now being enacted held the most disastrous elements of two evils – war and faction –: the evil of faction, namely, the domestic cessions and betrayals which are attempted least of all in war-time; and of war, that danger which is the common lot of all: since these factions then, in an attempt to save the commonwealth, sought the transference of the leadership from its possessors to others, at that time, from both sides, the worst elements prevailed, and not one of the Egyptians, not even the most utterly worthless, was left, to whom the tyrant did not seem to be planning and doing things deserving of indignation: for they were chastened through fear.

Now this was the moment for which the gods had determined to wait, that no smoldering ember of the opposite faction should be secretly kept alive in the state, which might contain pretexts for evil, if not just, at least plausible. So, although late in the day, there is a meeting of gods and elders concerning Typho, and what has long been the common talk of all in private, is disclosed. Women who spoke both tongues for the benefit of the women who did not understand each other’s views, translated the words of the foreign language into the Egyptian, contrariwise the words of the Egyptian into the foreign.

And there were, moreover, the effeminate men,[1] and spies, and all belonging to the company of those suborned by Typho and his wife against Osiris, who themselves were to give the most terrible evidence, namely that Osiris had surrendered the occupation of key positions, and had all but brought on the siege himself, that a reign of terror might envelop the sacred city: that he [Typho?] was in all haste to make the Scythians pass to the other side of the 
river also, that the Egyptian fortunes should not merely half suffer, but that all things should be removed root and branch, and that they should not have time to send for Osiris. When all this had come out, the men, on the one hand, unanimously condemned Typho to confinement, and decided to institute a second trial for him to determine what punishment he should suffer, or what fine he should pay.

The gods, on the other, praised the assessors who took part, for having condemned the man according to his deserts, but they themselves voted that when he had left this life, he should be given up to the avenging deities, and should dwell in Cocytus,[2] and should finally become a pernicious and infernal demon, an object to be classed with the Titans and Giants, and should never see Elysium even in a dream, bit would lift up his eyes with difficulty to get a glimpse of that sacred light which is an object of contemplation to virtuous souls and blessed gods.

>> to section 2.4 >>

Note 1:
Eunuchs.

Note 2:
One of the rivers in the Underworld.
Online 2007
Revision: 23 June 2007
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