Synesius, Letter 136

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, was Synesius' brother, who lived in Ptolemais. About a quarter of the entire correspondence was directed to Euoptius: 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).

This letter, offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald, may be read together with Letter 54.

Letter 136: A visit to Athens

[1] To his Brother

I hope that I may profit as much as you desire from my residence at Athens. It seems to me that I have already grown more than a palm and a finger's length in wisdom, and I can give you at once a proof of the progress I have made.

[2] Well, it is from Anagyrus that I am writing to you; and I have visited Sphettus, Thria, Cephisia, and Phalerum.

[3] But may the accursed ship-captain perish who brought me here! Athens has no longer anything sublime except the country's famous names! Just as in the case of a victim burnt in the sacrificial fire, there remains nothing but the skin to help us to reconstruct a creature that was once alive - so ever since philosophy left these precincts, there is nothing for the tourist to admit except the Academy, the Lyceum, and - by Zeus! - the Decorated Porch which has given its name to the philosophy of Chrysippus.note This is no longer Decorated, for the proconsul has taken away the panels on which [the painter] Polygnotus of Thasos has displayed his skill.

[4] Today Egypt has received and cherishes the fruitful wisdom of Hypatia.¬†Athens used to be the dwelling place of the wise: today the beekeepers alone bring it honor. Such is the case of that pair of sophists in Plutarch who draw the young people to the lecture room - not by the fame of their eloquence, but by the pots of honey from Hymettus.note