Synesius of Cyrene; A Man for our Times

To read Synesius of Cyrene today is to enter into a small circle even among those who study the late Roman Empire. His works are not available in print in an English translation (though there is a French edition) and there has been no major study of him since 1980s. This neglect is surprising: he has left to posterity nine surviving essays, ten hymns (both pagan and semi-Christian), and over 150 letters. It is even more regrettable as his views of the traumatic times through which he lived have important lessons for us today. Born near the ancient Greek town of Cyrene in North Africa, probably in the 360s AD, in a later era Synesius would have been seen as an educated country squire. ‘My life has been one of books and of the chase’, he remarks in one of his essays. If asked, he would have said that he was a Hellene, and the preservation of the Hellenic World (ie Graeco-Roman civilisation) was his first care throughout his life. His father had been wealthy enough to send him to Alexandria for his education where he became a pupil and life-long friend of the female philosopher Hypatia. Indeed, he is probably best known in the English-speaking world via his depiction in Charles Kingsley’s novel of the same name. It was there that he was introduced to Neo-Platonism, which remained the dominant guide throughout his life. Unlike many of its practitioners however, who turned to inward looking contemplation, Synesius remained very much a man of the world. He later visited Athens, but was unimpressed. His reaction to the famous old town was like that of many today towards famous long-standing academic institutions. He held that it was but a shadow of a great name. ‘Just like an animal sacrifice burnt up in the temple fire’, he wrote to his brother, ‘there is nothing left but its skin to help us to reconstruct that which was once alive’.

Just before the turn of the fifth century, Synesius was sent as an ambassador to the capital for his hometown. Embassies to emperors were expensive and time consuming and Synesius laments ‘these three unspeakable years lost to my life’, but his stay in the Eastern Capital of the Empire made a deep impression. In particular it showed him that the empire was in danger and why. His reasoning was apposite both at the time and mutatis mutandis has striking resonance for our own day. However it is also something which those who dominate academic history today don’t want to hear and perhaps there we can see a reason for Synesius’s neglect.

During Synesius’s childhood a massive horde of Goths had swarmed across the Danube into the Empire. They proved impossible to subdue and in AD 378 defeated and killed the emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in modern-day European Turkey. After this catastrophe Theodosius ‘the Great’, the Imperial strongman of the day, relied on deals with them to cement his rule. When Synesius arrived at the court of his son, the emperor Arcadius, he found both a host of Goths there and Gothic chieftains established in positions of power. In particular one, Gainas, had risen to the rank of field marshal. Gothic ghettos had grown up round the city, complete with churches for the Goths’ distinct form of Christianity.

Synesius chose to use his ambassador’s speech to the emperor (now normally called by its Latin name the De Regno) as a general warning to him. Its sharp criticism of contemporary politics marks out its author as a man of substantial courage and in another work he states that there had been plots against him in the capital. Synesius’s overall theme is how to be a good ruler. Some of what he says is drawn from earlier works of writers that he admired. He expresses alarm at the way the emperor has distanced himself from his people and in particular at the extravagance of court ritual and apparel. He urges the emperor to cut away this pointless, debilitating expenditure and lead by frugal example from the front. He also advises his ruler that he should not treat the empire as a ‘business,’ but rather act as the father of his people, noting that ‘this tribe of businessmen is the most sordid, wicked, and downright petty-minded of all men’. Such perhaps are clichés, albeit timely ones as the empire was indeed becoming more and more socially fragmented and taxes were rising. However, there was, as Synesius saw, a bigger and newer danger: that of ‘diversity’. The Graeco-Roman world had always managed to assimilate outside groups, but in the past this had always been accompanied by a recognition that Graeco-Roman culture was the leading and defining norm of society. That had now changed radically. Of the emperor’s Gothic mercenaries, he warns ‘a ruler should not give arms to those who were not born and brought up under his laws, for he has no guarantee of loyalty from such men. It is indeed the mark of a fool…. to see and yet not fear of this mass of youth, brought up with different customs, pursuing their distinct life-style, but at the same time practising the art of war in this country.’ 

The centre of Synesius’s objection here is his insight that this new and large immigrant group of Goths had no commitment to, or felt any identity with, the empire or its way of life. It was simply a place to garner wealth that they could not dream of in their homelands. This indifference (at best) to Rome was as true at the top as at the bottom of Gothic society. Speaking of the Goths’ leaders to be found at the Imperial court, Synesius observes that they ‘take off the sheepskins they wear to put on a toga and enter the council-chamber to debate on matters of state with the Roman magistrates’. But he also sees this for the superficial gesture that it was: ‘when they have gone a little way from the assembly, they are found once more dressed in their sheepskins and when they are again among their own followers, they laugh the toga to scorn’. 

Nor had this contempt and cultural-separatism been ameliorated when Rome gave these groups land. Synesius notes that the emperor Theodosius had ‘raised them up from their prostate position, made them allies, and deemed them worthy of citizenship. In addition he opened up public offices to them, and given over part of Roman territory to their bloodstained hands, performing through the magnanimity and nobility of his nature an act of clemency.’ But such gestures, far from producing gratitude among their recipients, were seen as weakness by them and only produced contempt, demands for more concessions, and tempted others to follow in the original Goths’ footsteps to gain similar concessions. ‘Unfortunately the barbarian does not understand chivalrous conduct. From the very beginning down to the present these men have treated us with contempt, knowing both what they deserved at our hands, and what they were then deemed to deserve by us. This reputation of ours has encouraged their neighbours to come here too, so now hordes… keep pouring forth seeking out our complaisant people, begging for their indulgence and pointing out the case of these scoundrels as a precedent for it.’ 

Synesius found the reaction of the ruling classes to this threat baffling. ‘They must either think all these incomers to be as wise as philosophers; or if they, quite rightly, have their doubts about that, they must see that the rock of Tantalus is suspended over our State by flimsy cables. For these men will fall upon us as soon as they think that their efforts are likely to succeed. Even now some skirmishes of this kind are to be seen….’ As he saw it, firm action was required by the emperor to re-assert the primacy of the classical way of life and it needed to be swift ‘Evils can be overcome in their infancy’, he warns, ‘but as they age, they gain the upper hand’.

Synesius does not, however, succumb to self-pity and place the blame for Rome’s state entirely on the Goths. It is the Romans themselves who are guilty of letting this state of affairs evolve. While he tactfully suppresses the fact that the Goths had been rather useful to Arcadius’s father, he is happy to look at Roman laxity in general and denounces the complacency to be found amongst a population, which would rather run the risk of destruction than engage in necessary labour itself. 

Rather than allow the Goths to be under arms here, we ought to seek out from the farms which are so dear to them the men who would fight to defend our land… the philosopher from his study, the craftsman from his lowlier calling, and from the shop its salesman. As to the drones who spend their lives in the theatre because of their unlimited leisure time, we should urge them for once in their lives to make haste, before they should come to weep rather than laugh….

It was a theme to which he revisited in his letters on his return to Cyrene, where he threw himself into organising a militia against enemy raids. 

None of us shows any indignation. We remain helpless in our homes. We always wait for our soldiers to defend us, and what little use they prove to be! Yet despite this, we never stop moaning about the pay we give them and the privileges that they enjoy in peacetime, as if now were the time to condemn then rather than drive off the barbarians…. When shall we have done with our useless chatter? When shall we act seriously?

He was convinced enough of his case to make it again, casting it strangely in the form of an Egyptian fairy tale (usually called the De Providentia) about a good ruler Osiris and his evil rival Typhon. In it, Typhon with the aid of the Scythians (ie the Goths) threatens to take over the state. It is only a Scythian atrocity against a poor, old woman which rouses the Egyptian people to rise up and avert the danger into which they are falling (Synesius, it seems, feels there is more hope in the common people than their rulers).

Synesius had accurately located the twofold malaise of empire. He had both a warning and a solution. For Edward Gibbon his words were ‘the dictates of a bold and generous patriot’. In the 1950s Christian Lacombrade, the French editor of the De Regno, speaks of ‘L’honnête clairvoyance d’un patriote vigilante’ and likens Synesius’s warnings to those given by Demosthenes to the Athenians about the menace posed to them by Philip of Macedon which had been delivered some eight hundred years previously (the warnings came true…). It would be interesting to know if Lacombrade’s views could survive in academe today, but let Gibbon have the last word: ‘the court of Arcadius indulged the zeal, applauded the eloquence, and neglected the advice of Synesius.’ Again, the changes of the times are all too clear. The advice of a modern-day Synesius would certainly be ignored, but far from generating admiration, his zeal and eloquence would more likely be the subject of criminal proceedings. The year after Synesius delivered his address, there was a major rebellion involving the Goths at Constantinople led by Gainas and a leading courtier, also a Goth, named Tribigild. It was suppressed only with difficulty; the main figure in doing so was one Fravitta, himself a Goth who was executed for treason the following year. Some ten years later Rome was sacked by the Goths led by Alaric. Two generations later, the last western Roman emperor was deposed by another German in Roman service.

On his return to North Africa Synesius helped organise the region’s defence against barbarian nomads from the south. He then, after much self-doubt, accepted the office of local bishop. There were conditions though – ‘if I am called to the priesthood, I declare before God and man that I refuse to preach dogmas in which I do not believe. Truth is an attribute of God, and I wish in all things to be blameless before Him… I can take over the holy office on condition that I may prosecute philosophy at home and spread legends abroad.’ One of those legends, as far as Synesius was concerned, was The Resurrection. Another condition was ‘I will not be separated from my wife, nor shall I associate with her surreptitiously like an adulterer; to do one is impious, and the other is unlawful. I wish and pray to have many virtuous children.’ Given these difficulties, why did Synesius accept Episcopal office? It was because, rightly or wrongly, he believed that Christianity now had changed from being an enemy of the culture he loved into one of the few forces that could defend it. Alexandria, where he had learnt his philosophy, had produced a strain of Christianity which had wished to accommodate pagan philosophy (the Alexandrine School most famously associated with the name of Origen) and maybe he hoped that this would become a general tendency. He seems to have worked hard as a bishop trying to defend his flock from corrupt secular authorities and making strong efforts to extirpate the Arian heresy favoured by the Goths.

Sadly Synesius’s end was tragic. All three of three sons whom he dearly loved predeceased him. He would have heard of the sack of Rome, but does not mention it in his letters. His last known letter was written to Hypatia and is full of despair. It is unlikely he lived long enough to know of her lynching at the hands of a Christian mob in AD 415. It remains to be seen whether our own society can avoid the traumas he so acutely predicted would befall his own. As the De Provdentia ends, the coming days are our surest witnesses.© This article appeared in the Winter Edition of the Salisbury Review

Andy Fear obtained a double first and was awarded a DPhil in Ancient History from Oxford University.


This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of The Salisbury Review. (Subscriptions from as little as £10 a year)



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5 Comments on Synesius of Cyrene; A Man for our Times

  1. Another forgotten figure we need to re-listen to is Henry George. His formula – the once much campaigned for single tax- is the only one for ending systemic inequality.

  2. Contemporaneously in the western Empire there was the (mostly) Vandal commander of the Romans – Stilicho. His loyalty is not, I think, challenged. And finally in the west the Empire won over those who destroyed her. In the east something very different happened (consider whether the Hellenic inheritance is any more living in Egypt than the Pharaonic) and the cause of this is the revealed-book-basis of the final conquerors in the east.

    If the proposed pattern is true and Europe is once again overrun, the question will be – is it overrun by those who will in time preserve & enlarge the old estate, or is it overrun by those who will obliterate it.

  3. Can we avoid traumas…? No, we cannot.
    What will the future be? Three scenarios:
    a. More of what’s now happening -that is continued tattering of institutions, with casualities
    b. The Left really does a 1984 on us, with casualities
    c. A coalition of Right-of-Centre forces does what its forebears have done: Use ruthless brutality to greatly reduce/eliminate the bad guys, and then return the polity and the community to rubbing along together, and pleasantly so.