Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.08

Wolfgang Hagl, Arcadius Apis Imperator: Synesios von Kyrene und sein Beitrag zum Herrscherideal der Spätantike. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997. Pp. 224. DM/sFr 84. ISBN 3-515-07046-X.

Reviewed by Noel Lenski, University of Colorado,

Synesius' De Providentia begins: "This story is Egyptian. Egyptians are extraordinarily wise. So perhaps this story, even though it is only a story, might hint at something more than a story ..." For over a century scholars have heeded this not so subtle nudge by attempting to decode the riddle posed by Synesius in this excruciatingly elusive allegorical discourse. In recent years the De Providentia and its companion piece, the De Regno, have generated scores of books and articles filled with disagreements, over dates, personalities, contexts and intentions. In 1993, the publication of A. Cameron, J. Long and L. Sherry's Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius appeared to lay to rest most of the important issues and thereby to have closed the doors to further debate.1 With the publication of his revised Potsdam dissertation, Wolfgang Hagl has reopened these doors with a new examination of die synesische Frage which radically departs from any solution previously offered.

H. begins his first chapter with a brief outline of Synesius' life (10-20). Challenging Cameron's (28-35) contention that Synesius had been Christian from an early age, he follows the testimony of Evagrius (1.15), that Synesius remained pagan down to his consecration as Bishop of Cyrene in 411. Though readers might wish that H. had answered Cameron's case in more detail, it is refreshing to learn at the outset that Cameron's may not be the last word. An extended summary of scholarship follows which demonstrates how studies dating from the nineteenth century and grounded in nineteenth-century preoccupations have distorted readings of Synesius even into the present decade. At issue is the assumption that Synesius was operating as the spokesman for a national-römische Partei which had arisen in opposition to the growing influence of barbarians, themselves supported by a germanenfreundliche Partei. This Pro- and Anti-German model, first articulated by A. Gueldenpenning in 1885, was only seriously challenged in 1984 by G. Albert.2 Cameron (323-33) also addressed the issue and dealt what could be considered the coup de grace to this old orthodoxy. Although H. agrees with this assessment, he disputes Cameron's new chronology and adherence to traditional assumptions about the identity of Synesius' characters in the De Providentia. Investigating the problem with a fresh eye, he focuses on the Herrscherideal and the way it served as the basis for what he argues (31-3; cf. 190-8) were two admonitory panegyrics written in terms sanctioned by the imperial court.

In his second chapter, H. lays out the political situation in Constantinople during the early years of the emperor Arcadius' reign. He (34-46) contests the previous evaluations of Arcadius as a weak emperor who was under the thumb of his ministers. He points out that, while Arcadius' brother, the western emperor Honorius, was dominated by the military regent Stilicho, Arcadius himself confronted the same Stilicho's ambitions to eastern dominance with sufficient resolve to maintain his independence. He (46-62) then turns in more detail to the crisis of 399-400. In 399, a Gothic federate general named Tribigild turned against the Roman state and began ravaging Asia. When the Magister Utriusque Militiae Leo failed to bring Tribigild to heel, another Goth in Roman service, Gainas, was sent against the marauders. Gainas too faltered but blamed his troubles on Arcadius' cubicularius Eutropius, whom he executed. Further frustrations led Gainas to order the removal of more ministers, including the PPO Aurelian. Ultimately, Gainas' compromises with Tribigild led to rumors that he had colluded with his fellow Goth and, when in 400 Gainas returned to Constantinople, riots arose in which 7,000 of his Goths were murdered. In the wake of this violence, Gainas and his forces attempted to flee back across the Hellespont, but their rag-tag fleet was met and destroyed by a third Goth, the MVM Fravitta. In the event, Gainas and his stragglers were caught by a group of Huns while trying to escape north of the Danube. Gainas was killed and his pickled head shipped back to Arcadius in early 401.3 In his analysis of the crisis, H. places a new emphasis on Arcadius' role as a leader: he colluded in the execution of Eutropius (49-50); he had his wife Eudoxia proclaimed Augusta to show imperial fortitude (54-5); even when forced to give ground to Gainas by exiling Aurelian, he quickly made good by directing the reaction against the Goths in Constantinople (57-61). In all of these instances, H. believes Arcadius was not simply reacting to the whims of his ministers but skillfully enacting a calculated policy designed to weaken the influence of the Militärapparat. Arcadius is thus rehabilitated as a proactive leader and the model is shifted from an opposition between pro- and anti-German to one between pro- and anti-military.

With the third chapter H. turns to the texts themselves, beginning with the De Regno. At the outset, he (64-5; cf. 96-8) rejects Cameron's new dating for the embassy during which this discourse was composed in favor the traditional chronology, AD 399-402. He (66-82) then describes the circumstances of its composition and treats the question of its genre. This last constitutes the substance of H.'s main contribution on the De Regno which he describes as a generic hybrid between a crown gold speech and a philosophical discourse. For H., Synesius used the De Regno as a Fürstenspiegel to display simultaneously the Herrscherideal and its tarnished reflection in Arcadius' own rulership. H. supports his hypothesis with a clearly self-referential passage from the De Providentia (114A) where Synesius portrays himself as a rustic philosopher offering an admonitory address to the king Typhos. At the heart of Synesius' advice is his insistence that Arcadius dismantle the influence of barbarian military leaders and seize control of the military himself. According to H. (96-101), Arcadius had even begun to enact this program in 400 but was halted when Gainas had its main proponent, Synesius' friend Aurelian, exiled.

H.'s fourth and final chapter looks at the De Providentia. This maddeningly elusive roman à clef rewrites Plutarch's Osiris myth as an allegorical commentary on contemporary politics. Encrypted in the narrative as the good King Osiris and his wicked counterpart Typhos are two contemporary political personalities whose identity has long resisted decipherment. Since the early nineteenth century, most have agreed that these two holders of what Synesius calls the "supreme office" (MEGA/LH A)RXH/) were Praetorian Prefects. But which two Prefects? All agreed that Synesius' friend Aurelian was Osiris but there was no consensus as to whether Typhos should be identified with Caesarius or Eutychianus. H. has turned the debate on its head by denying that Synesius alludes to Prefects at all. Once again, H. builds much on the framework of genre. Following a brilliant chapter in Barbarians and Politics written by J. Long -- whom H. consistently fails to identify -- he (110-24) emphasizes the generic complexity of the De Providentia with its combination of mythological, panegyric, invective and apocalyptic elements. Out of this eclecticism, H. feels that Synesius' main emphasis lay in the mythological. Myth, he argues, was a classic tool for philosophical instruction and the Osiris myth was particularly suited to instruction on kingship. H. breaks the content of Synesius' version into three themes -- the transfer of kingship from father to son; the battle for rule between a king's sons; and the revolt against foreigners or "Scythians" -- and argues that any one element could be considered purely mythological. While he concedes that the last -- the need to rid the kingdom of foreigners -- makes clear reference to the actual events of 400, he denies that the first two operate on anything but the vaguest historical level. All those who have tried to identify the brothers Osiris and Typhos with contemporary politicians have thus been blind to the fact that Synesius was actually describing kingship more broadly and its specific embodiment in the Roman emperor(s).

H.'s argument is not without merit. He (129-45) points out a number of problems with attempts to reconstruct the careers of Aurelian and Caesarius (or Euthychianus) based on indications from the De Providentia. For instance, previous scholars had taken Synesius' description of Osiris and Typhos (88A) as the "sons of Taurus" to mean that Aurelian and Caesarius (or Eutychianus) were the sons of the famous Prefect Flavius Taurus. Yet this allusion is our only real source for the connection. H. holds that this and other difficulties could be avoided by treating the two figures as real kings, specifically Arcadius and Honorius. Their father Theodosius I had, after all, erected a column in the hippodrome of Constantinople whose hieroglyphic inscription began "Horus, the powerful bull," an inscription which H. (164-9) believes Synesius refers to at De Providentia 114C. Theodosius had also constructed, on what H. believes was the old cattle market of Constantinople, a forum which retained the name Forum Tauri well after his death (169-72). Moreover, H. (174-8) notes, at least two statues of the second century portray emperors with the features of the Egyptian bull god Apis and, in the fourth century, Julian adopted Apis imagery on his own coinage. Since the ideal emperor is often portrayed as a bull, H. argues that "the sons of Taurus" are allegorical equivalents of good and bad kingship and, by extension, of the good and bad kings then in power. The De Providentia is thus both a discourse on rulership which praises and admonishes Arcadius and also a piece of court propaganda which contrasts the generally laudable eastern emperor with his reprehensible western brother.

It is encouraging that H. has undertaken the reinterpretation of these difficult texts so soon after Cameron's monumental book. Revision is, after all, exactly what Cameron was up to and he as much as anyone would discourage any hesitancy to slay sacred cows. Unfortunately, H. has not succeeded in stepping outside of the very long shadow cast by Cameron's work. Crucial objections to H.'s reading which have been anticipated in Cameron are either perfunctorily dismissed or ignored altogether4 and the major building blocks of H.'s case often rest on very shaky ground. Here I will discuss only three serious problems but much more could be said.

First chronology. Both the De Regno and the De Providentia were composed by Synesius during what their author tells us was a three year embassy to Constantinople (De Insomniis 148C; Hymni 1.430-5). Unfortunately, we have no absolute indicator of when this term began or ended. Because Synesius (Ep. 61) does tell us that, on the day he left Constantinople, an earthquake rocked the city and because Marcellinus records an earthquake in 402, O. Seeck had argued that the embassy stretched from 399 to 402.5 This chronology remained canonical until 1986, when T. Barnes6 pointed out that, because the purpose for the embassy was to offer crown gold (De Regno 2C-D) and because crown gold was generally paid on the occasion of an emperor's quinquennial jubilee, it could not have begun in 399, when Arcadius had no jubilee, but had to be redated to 397, when he did. Though Barnes could offer no evidence for an earthquake in 400, Cameron published an article in 1987 which used a host of passages from Chrysostom's Homilies on Acts to prove that there was indeed an earthquake then.7 The case seemed closed. H. (64-5; 96-9), however, reopens it based on three arguments. First, he disputes Barnes' point that the payment of crown gold needed to correspond with imperial jubilees. For this he cites only the entry on aurum coronarium by T. Klauser in RAC. Had he consulted the article on which Klauser's entry is built, he would see that Synesius' case alone supports the contention that crown gold could be offered with a simple request for tax relief.8 Because this argument is circular, Barnes' case must stand. Second, H. questions the chronology of the homilies Cameron uses to date the 400 quake. For this he cites only Seeck's 1894 article even though Cameron has already soundly disproved Seeck's dating. Finally, H. misrepresents Cameron as needing to emend the date of Marcellinus' earthquake. In fact, Cameron -- like Barnes -- is quite comfortable with the possibility of two quakes, one in 400 and a second in 402 -- or possibly 403. H. has thus done nothing to disprove the much sounder case of Cameron and Barnes. Since his entire book is built on the composition of the De Regno in 4009 and the De Providentia in 402, the consequences of this misdating are profound.      

H.'s (94; cf. 100) attempts to seal his case by contending that the De Regno makes a direct allusion to the troubles caused by Gainas and Tribigild (399-400) also fails. Here he takes on another scholar, P.J. Heather, who has shown convincingly that the "Scythian" threat described in the De Regno was not from the Goths of Gainas and Tribigild but rather those of Alaric (c. 397).10 Moreover, Heather argued, the threat was not actual but potential when the speech was written. H. insists, however, that Synesius' reference to threats from OI( STA/SEWS A)\N A)/RCANTES and STRATHGOU/S at 24B-C must be to the two Gothic menaces of 400 rather than the one of c. 397. A closer look at the passage shows the contrary. Here Synesius contrasts the current threat with that posed by two trouble makers of yore, Spartacus and Crixus. Where these were only two in number, lowly and of different races, the current situation is quite distinct: "those who would raise revolt (OI( STA/SEWS A)\N A)/RCANTES) are not just two nor dishonored among us (OU)/TE GA\R DU/O E)STO\N OU)/TE A)TI/MW PAR' H(MI=N), but great and criminal armies of men related by blood to our slaves put forth generals (STRATHGOU/S) who hold special honor both in their own circles and ours." H. ignores the potential force of the A)\N in the first phrase, which refers to possible, not actual revolt. He has also ignored Synesius' choice of the dual in the first clause of this opposition but not the second. Synesius would never have avoided the dual -- a form he relishes -- if the current leaders had also been two in number. Rather, he contrasts the two leaders of yore with the many of the present. This is no direct allusion to Gainas and Tribigild but a vague warning about threats from the many Goths in Roman service by the late 390's, especially Alaric.

Second, the question of audience. Cameron (127-42) made a very solid case that Synesius' De Regno was far too acid to have been delivered to Arcadius and that the De Providentia was aimed at a salon politique which also excluded the emperor. H., by contrast, insists not only that Synesius delivered the De Regno to Arcadius but that he makes reference to his bold admonitions in the De Providentia (114A). H. is right that Synesius casts himself as the rustic philosopher boldly addressing "king" Typhos in this scene, but there is no reason to believe that it is any less fictitious than many other vignettes in the De Providentia. No sane ambassador would have told the emperor that he "is ignorant and lives like a jellyfish" (14D); that he skulks like a lizard in his lair (16D); and that his associates have "small heads and petty minds" (15A). These examples offer only a taste of Synesius' bile, which even included a direct swipe at the powerful eunuch Eutropius. At 15B Synesius tells Arcadius, "you despise and disdain sensible people while admitting the senseless and stripping in front of them" (A)POGUMNO/MENOI). Barnes and Cameron rightly identify this as a reference to Arcadius' notorious cubicularius.11 H., however, claims that they have überinterpretiert the passage and that A)POGUMNO/MENOI is better translated sich freimütig äußern. This not only makes nonsense of the context -- which emphasizes Arcadius' spinelessness -- it misrepresents the entry in LSJ which, pace H. (73 n. 85; 98-9 n. 255), offers no such definition.12 One need only read the honeyed imperial addresses of Themistius and Libanius to know that the late Roman orator had a firm conception of the difference between parrhesia and psogos. Had Synesius spoken so boldly to the emperor, he would certainly have been exiled or even executed. In fact, H. (101; cf. 53-4) himself argues that, when Gainas read the De Regno -- a dubious supposition -- he actually did order exile, not for its author but rather his friend, the PPO Aurelian. The two must have been very close indeed if this constituted appropriate punishment for Synesius' impudence.

Now to the identities of Osiris and Typhos. Given the fuzziness of Synesius' imagery and his determination to keep innumerable allegorical balls in the air, it is unlikely that any solution can be reached for the puzzle which suits H.'s (33) criterion of being widerspruchsfrei. The question remains, however, which solution fits Synesius' clues best? Synesius maps out very clear career paths for his hero and anti-hero at 91D-92B: Osiris shared in the generalship, was commander of the guards, in charge of royal audiences, city prefect and leader of the Senate. Typhos was a treasury official, governor of a province which underwent a bad year, and subsequently of other provinces. Later details in the narrative add more: Osiris was appointed to the "supreme office" (93D-94B) but sent into exile under the influence of his brother, who replaced him (110B-111B); he subsequently returned in his "eponymous year" (123D-124A). These vitae are far too specific not to refer to specific civilian administrators. In fact, Osiris' career, the fuller of the two, corresponds well with offices attested elsewhere for Aurelian: PUC in 393-4; Consul and PPO in 400; exiled this same year. The case for Aurelian is thus quite strong, and H.'s only real objection to it is in fact a red herring. H. (136-8) argues that Aurelian, a civilian official, would never have "shared in the generalship" since civilian and military careers were never mixed in the late empire. A second look at Synesius, however, indicates that his Osiris was not in fact a soldier. De Providentia 91B-92A says "While still a youth Osiris shared in the generalship (SUNESTRATH/GEI) with the men appointed to that office: the law did not permit arms to someone so young, but he ruled their will as if he were their mind and used the generals as his hands." Contrary to H.'s assumptions, STRATHGE/W and its cognates were often used to refer to civilian service in late Greek. Moreover, even though Synesius indicates that Osiris served generals, he also makes it clear that he did not himself bear arms but used only his brains. The most likely solution for this piece of the puzzle is that Osiris / Aurelian was a tribunus et notarius, a civilian secretary who held quasi-military rank and was often seconded to a general's staff.13 H.'s objections to the identification of Osiris with Aurelian are thus not particularly strong. Moreover, there is one piece of circumstantial evidence that Aurelian's father was indeed Taurus. A letter of Synesius (Ep. 31) reveals that Aurelian's son was named Taurus, a point which earlier scholars regarded as a strong indication that his father shared the same name. H.'s contention (151-5) that this assumption is fragwürdig flies in the face of an elementary principle of Greek onomastics, bigenerational name repetition. His examples to the contrary (152 n. 151) -- a series of western grandees -- could easily be countered with innumerable instances from the east.

Not only is the traditional identification of Osiris and Typhos more sound than H. contends, his own reconstruction presents serious difficulties. The bull inscription on the obelisk of Theodosius is not -- as even H. admits (175) -- especially striking. The title "Horus the powerful bull" was used by most pharaohs on their obelisks, making that of Theodosius seem quite generic. Similarly, the Forum Tauri was probably not named after a cattle market but after the very Flavius Taurus who was probably Aurelian's father.14 Neither example provides cogent confirmation of an association between Theodosius and bulls. H. (174-8) also argues that a few Roman emperors, including Julian, identified themselves with the Apis bull, yet he makes no mention of the fact that all three of his examples were pagan and that the pious Arcadius would have bridled at following this tiny herd precisely because Julian had done so. Other aspects of H.'s reconstruction are also far from widersprüchsfrei. Osiris' career, for example, cannot be explained if his real life parallel were Arcadius. His exile in particular is entirely inappropriate for the emperor. Though H. (145-7) tries to explain the exile away as Arcadius' brief lapse into a negative alter-ego in 400, it is much more comfortably explained simply as Aurelian's exile. Along the same lines, the attempt to make Typhos simultaneously the western ruler Honorius and a symbol of the negative aspects of Arcadius' own rule (196-8) overburdens even Synesius' powers of association. The very fact that Synesius explicitly alters Plutarch, his main source, by making Typhos and not Osiris the older of the two mythological brothers renders dubious any identification of Typhos with Honorius, the younger of the two imperial brothers. Had Synesius truly been acting as the Sprachrohr of the eastern court against the west, he would certainly have followed his western counterpart Claudian by aiming his blows at Honorius' ministers rather than the emperor himself.15

In all, H. has set himself a very tall order. He has taken a pair of texts which have frustrated scholars for centuries and attempted to offer a radically new interpretation of them. His task was rendered doubly complex by the colossal work of Cameron which has explained so well the complex issues underlying these texts. H.'s courage is certainly to be applauded, but his efforts seem to have failed to carry him over the mountain of scholarship which preceded him. While his work will be read with interest by devotees of Synesius, it will not pose a serious challenge to what could now be called the new orthodoxy.  


1. In this text I refer only to Cameron except where I am aware of specific arguments by Long.  

2. A. Gueldenpennig, Geschichte des Oströmischen Reiches unter den Kaisern Arkadios und Theodosios (Halle, 1885) 97-8; G. Albert, Goten in Konstantinopel: Untersuchungen zur oströmischen Geschichte um das Jahr 400 n. Chr. (Paderborn, 1984) 47-80.

3. The narrative is clear from Zos. 5.13-22; Soc. 6.6; Soz. 8.4. Synesius makes allusions to the events in the De Providentia but details are obscured by his mythological frame.

4. Instances of this are numerous: H. (54-7; cf. 14; 145) has ignores the arguments of Cameron (207-11) that the massacre began not as a response to Gainas' siege of the city but simply as a riot; H. (192-3; 56 n. 196) also ignores the solution of Cameron (149-61) to the order of the Praetorian Prefecture between 395 and 405; and he misrepresents (12 n. 15) the arguments of Cameron (13) on Synesius' birth year and (61 n.245) on Fravitta's execution (ctr. Barbarians and Politics 236-52).

5. O. Seeck, "Studien zu Synesios" Philologus 52 (1894) 442-83.

6. T. Barnes, "Synesius in Constantinople" GRBS 27 (1986) 93-112.

7. A. Cameron, "Earthquake 400" Chiron 17 (1987) 343-60; cf. idem Barbarians and Politics 93-102.

8. T. Klauser, "Aurum Coronarium" RAC (1950) 1010-20 with idem, "Aurum Coronarium" Röm. Mitt. 59 (1944) 129-53.

9. H. 60-1; 149-51 is actually rather slippery about the date of the De Regno.

10. P. Heather, "The Anti-Scythian Tirade of Synesius' De Regno" Phoenix 42 (1988) 152-72. P.J. Heather becomes J.P. Heather at 99 and turns American at 145 n. 115. More important than these foibles is H.'s (154 n. 156) misrepresentation of the opinions of Heather "Anti-Scythian Tirade" 157.

11. Barnes, "Synesius in Constantinople" 108; Cameron, Barbarians and Politics 107-9.

12. H. also claims that C. Lacombrade Le Discours sur la royaute de Synesios de Cyrene (Paris, 1951) 52 supports his reading with the translation et vous vous montrez à elle à visage decouvert. Here he has misunderstood the French idiom à visage decouvert which simply means "openly." On Eutropius, see now J. Long, Claudian's In Eutropium (Chapel Hill, 1995).

13. On notarii see H. Teitler, Notarii and Exceptores (Amsterdam, 1985) esp. 34-7; 56-9.

14. R. Janin, Constantinople Byzantine: developpement urbain et repertoire topographique (Paris, 1964) 64-5.

15. H. makes no mention of a similar association of Osiris and Typhos with east and west by G. Dagron, "Aux origines de la civilisation byzantine: Langue de culture et langue d'êtat" Revue historique 241 (1969) 23-56.