Synesius, Letter 073

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 text of Letter 73, written in c.409, is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald. It is a request to a courtier of praetorian prefect Anthemius (405-414) to intervene in the chaotic situation in the Cyrenaica.

Letter 73: The Destruction of Cyrenaica

[1] To┬áTroilus

You are both a philosopher and a humane man. Therefore I can lament with you the misfortunes of my country. You will honor her because of her citizen, the philosopher, and you will pity her because you have a gentle nature. Thus you have a double motive for lifting her up from her downfalls, and you are able to do so because Anthemius has the character that can save cities, and moreover he has fortune and statecraft.

[2] Now, whereas God has given him many things to this end, the greatest of all His gifts is the gifts of friends, and the greatest of all these is Troilus. Read, therefore, I beg you, this letter which has been moistened with my many tears, read it not only with your eyes, but also with the full power of your mind.

[3] The Phoenicians may not rule Phoenicia, nor the Coele-Syrians Coele-Syria: an Egyptian can be a prefect everywhere except in Egypt. How then does it happen that the Libyans alone may administer their own country? Are the Libyans the only brave men, do they alone know how to defy the laws, these laws against which evil natures throw themselves all the more, in proportion as the penalties assigned are more numerous and terrifying?

[4] Cyrenaean Pentapolis was doomed to perish utterly. War and famine have not yet annihilated it completely, as was foredoomed; but they are wearing it away and destroying it little by little. Now we have actually found out what was wanting for its quick destruction; and yet this is nothing but what the ancient oracle announced as to how Pentapolis must end. We have heard from our fathers and our grandfathers that "Libya shall perish by the wickedness of its leaders". This very sentence is an extract from the oracle.

[5] But even if this is its fate, devise some postponement of the evil. The physician's skill cannot prevent a man from dying sooner or later, for this is the course of nature. The utmost that it can do is to delay the inevitable end. Very well, all that we ask of our statesmen is to do something like this. Let them assist nature against the malady which we are enduring, let them not hasten to our end. I pray that it may not come to pass in the time of the great Anthemius that Roman rule shall perish from the midst of the Province! Say to him, in the name of reason, say to him, is it not you yourself who have caused a new law to be dispatched to supplant the old one, a law which threatens with many severe penalties those who should lay claim to govern their native country? Why does not your wrath, then, fall upon those who glory in breaking your administrative acts? If you know who they are, you are acting unjustly. If you do not know, you are acting carelessly.

[6] The man most fit to govern, ought not to act thus but to give his particular attention to this alone, to choose the most worthy men for the office of prefect. Divine and noble is the forethought which is employed in selecting a good man. In this way alone is it possible to reject such men as trample upon the laws, who govern their country in defiance of the laws, and also, when borrowing money, give us security, as if we were landed property. Put an end to this evil. Send us more law-abiding magistrates, neither knowing us nor known by us, and who judge cases by their innate character, not according to each man's passions.

[7] This is the situation at present. A governor is at sea, on his way here, one who formerly took a line of policy directed against the city, and is now fighting for his divergent political views from the tribunal. How many other evil by-products there are! Slanders are propagated at banquets, a citizen gets into trouble to please a woman. An informer is summoned; whosoever will not indict a person for proposing a measure contrary to the laws is himself condemned, unless before condemnation he has already suffered all the penalties of the condemned. We have seen a man thrown into prison because he did not prosecute a magistrate for embezzling public funds, a magistrate who had just retired from highest office. Or rather, we did not really see him, for they forbade us to approach him (as one is forbidden to approach those under a curse or enemies of the emperor), until they had done everything they wishes. The poor wretch saw the light of day only because he had indicted [praeses] Gennadius. But our own Pentapolis in many cases derived much help from Gennadius the Syrian. And most important of all, administering his office with moderation and persuasiveness, he has without anyone one remarking it, brought more money to the public treasury than those of his predecessors who were most cruel and notorious for their harshness.

[8] Thus no one had to shed tears, no one had to sell his farm. One might justly term this a pious contribution, which neither violence nor the lash compelled. But, as far as the citizens are concerned, alas for the memory of the past, alas for the experience of the present! Now, we are asking nothing new, we only beg Anthemius to enforce the laws of which he is the guardian, and which are worthy of veneration owing to their antiquity, for in this consists the very sacredness of law; or, if it seem best to any one, let him enforce the newer edicts which register what one might call a still living kingdom.