Synesius, Letter 032

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, and about the christianization of the Roman world.

The addressee of the letter that is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald, was Synesius' brother Euoptius, who lived in Ptolemais. About a quarter of the entire correspondence was directed to him: letters 51 (394), 55, 56, 54, 136, 135, 110 (all 396), the long letter 4 about a shipwreck in 397, 120, 104, 113 (401), 3, 35, 39, 32, 52, 65, 92, 106, 114, 109, 36 (all in 402), 127, 50, 18 (404), 125, 132 (405), 108, 107, 122, 95 (407), 53, 82, 84, 85, 86, 105 (409), 8, 87, 89 (411).

Letter 32: A Bad Slave

[1] To his Brother

The man I quite ignorantly bought as a teacher of gymnastics from the heirs of Theodorus, was a slave both in name and in nature. He was worthless from the beginning, badly born and badly brought up, nor had he failed to receive a training worthy of his natural bent. From his childhood he had wallowed in cock-fighting, in gambling, and in drinking at taverns. Today, as Lysias would say, all is up with him, he has attained his goal, he is the very limit of all that is unsavory. He cares not in the very least for Hermes and Herakles, the guardians of the palaestra, but serves Cotytto and the other Attic gods of lechery, and whatever other demons of that stamp there may be.

[2] All these are his, and he is theirs. I have no idea of punishing him in any other way than this. Vice is a sufficient penalty in itself for the vicious, but as a proved wretch of this sort is quite unfit to live with masters who are philosophers, and whom shame haunts in their homes because of such, let him be banished from the city that harbors us. At the sight of this debauchee swaggering through the forum, garlanded, perfumed, and drunken, giving way to every excess and singing aloud songs of a piece with the life he leads, everyone naturally attributes the fault to his owner.

[3] Contrive, therefore, some way of handing him over to the captain of a ship, to take him to his native land, for that country may tolerate him with more reason. But during the voyage by all means tie him upon the deck. If he is allowed to go down below, let no one be surprised to find many wine jars half empty. And if the voyage is prolonged, he will drain the perfumed liquid to the dregs.

[4] Furthermore, he might incite the whole crew to do these very things, for in addition to other motives, evil is most persuasive when it assumes the leadership for enjoyment's sake. And of those who sail in the ocean for pay, who is so austere as not to give way to the dissipation at the sight of this pest dancing the cordax as he passes round the cup? He is an adept in every sort of buffoonery, and the captain of the ship must steel himself against him. Odysseus indeed passed by the shore of the Sirens fast bound, that he might not succumb to pleasure, and this wretch too will be bound, if the crew are wise, that he may not destroy the ship's company with indulgences.