Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.20

Tassilo Schmitt, Die Bekehrung des Synesios von Kyrene. Politik und Philosophie, Hof und Provinz als Handlungsräume eines Aristokraten bis zu seiner Wahl zum Metropoliten von Ptolemaïs. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd. 146.   Munich and Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2001.  Pp. 832.  ISBN 3-598-77695-0.  DM 210.00.  

Reviewed by Stefanie A.H. Kennell, American School of Classical Studies at Athens/Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens (
Word count: 2089 words

The writings of Synesius of Cyrene, bishop of Ptolemaïs, have long attracted those with interests in late antique belles-lettres, Neoplatonism, and Constantinopolitan political intrigues in the years following the death of Theodosius the Great, as witness the work of Garzya, Terzaghi, Lacombrade, Marrou, Treu, Tinnefeld, Liebeschuetz, Cameron, and Long, among others.1 They have also been exploited lately as a source for the history of Cyrenaica and the chronology of Synesius' life by Denis Roques.2 Tassilo Schmitt (henceforth S) has taken these diverse scholarly threads and woven them into a different pattern whose bold central motif is that of Synesius' conversion to philosophy from politics. By carefully studying all the textual evidence and embedding it securely in its social and historical context, S undertakes to explain the nature, antecedents, and significance of this conversion, which he demonstrates occurred well before Synesius' elevation to the episcopate. The first text S assesses is the Dion, but he ranges throughout the corpus of Synesius' works to document the nature, background, and personal evolution of this provincial aristocrat. Synesius journeyed far from his local power base to play for a while in the high-stakes game of Imperial policy-making for the sake of family and native land, had to return home but tried to maintain his contacts at the court of Constantinople, and finally came to realize that changed circumstances had rendered his political endeavors vain and so turned to philosophical pursuits.

The body of the text comprises eight massive chapters (pp. 13-731), which are discussed below. These chapters are followed by a set of 11 appendices concerning various historical and philological details (pp. 732-767), a bibliography (pp. 769-804), and three indices (passages cited, concepts, and personal/proper names, pp. 805-832).

Chapter 1 introduces the subject of Synesius and how S means to approach it. Showing his hermeneutic colors, S begins with Gregory of Tours' account of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus as adduced by Peter Brown to illustrate the problem of representing the peculiarities of Late Antiquity (pp. 13-17). He then turns to Synesius' own peculiar problem, of seeming adherence to traditional (albeit philosophical) polytheism and acknowledged service as a bishop of the Orthodox Church. Although readers of Synesius' Ep. 105 have been troubled by this apparent irregularity since the early Byzantine period, S trenchantly observes (p. 25) that no one has investigated whether Synesius' relationship to Christianity before his election as bishop was ever a fundamental problem and that only quite recently has his attitude towards barbarians been thoroughly re-evaluated. S notes that the situation is complicated by the variety of labels that can be attached to Synesius -- proud scion of an ancient family, inheritor of the Hellenic literary-philosophical tradition, Byzantine bishop and literary stylist, ambassador to the court of Constantinople, outspoken antibarbarian, defender of his Cyrenaean homeland -- as well as by the fact that no definite date can be attached to any of his works and very few texts by other authors mention him at all, let alone offer chronological help. He then provides a general survey of Synesius' various writings (pp. 29-50) by genre and subject, beginning with the letters and ending with the lost Cynegetica. Admitting there have been some losses to the corpus, S nevertheless maintains that the state of the texts is sound enough to allow progress in verifying the "facts" and chronology of Synesius' life; he gives particular credit to Barnes, Cameron, Long, and Liebeschuetz for putting Synesius' chronology on a firmer footing. At the same time, S takes issue (pp. 55-59) with the 20-plus years of work on the same subject by Roques, whose conclusions, despite their "grave theoretical and methodological shortcomings," have been widely accepted by the majority of scholars.

Chapter 2 (pp. 67-143) deals specifically with the question of Synesius' conversion to philosophy and so begins with a close reading of salient passages in the Dion, after which S proceeds to consider how Synesius regarded the life and work of Dion of Prusa. The interplay of rhetorical and philosophical activity in political life in Dion's own time is analyzed, then contrasted with Synesius' view of the perverted politics of the early fifth century that made it impossible for him to operate as Dion had done. He supplies fuller details of Synesius' attitude with the aid of quotations from the de insomniis, which was composed at around the same time (pp. 115-119), and also discusses the problem of physical distance from the center of Imperial power as a contributing factor in Synesius' change of mind.

Chapter 3, "Das Hesychidenhaus" (pp. 144-242) delves into Synesius' family history in an effort to answer some fundamental questions such as when he was born (sometime in the early 370's), who his ancestors were, what the family's ties with Alexandria were, the nature and extent of paideia within the family circle, whether he was a Christian from his infancy (yes), what place the family of the Hesychii occupied in the Cyrenaean universe, and where his family actually lived (out in the country since the earthquake of 365). As well, S surveys the family's connections within and beyond the region, gleaning information from Synesius' letters about the social and/or political activity of various uncles, siblings, and cousins.

Chapter 4 (pp. 243-387), "Synesius in Constantinople" takes readers onto more familiar ground in terms of political history but, as in previous chapters, not without subjecting all the data to thorough re-analysis. S deals with matters such as the embassy's date (397-400, in agreement with Barnes, Cameron and Long against Roques), participants (which included Synesius' brother Euoptius), financing (initially public, but Synesius was on his own once the official embassy ended), and purpose (presentation of aurum coronarium, tax relief). Adducing passages from de dono and de regno, S places Synesius among the company of "wandering poets," in whose strivings for recognition and influence the lost Cynegetica also figured. But this Synesius is not just a poet, for S shows (pp. 289-294) that Synesius saw himself as following in the footsteps of Olympiodorus and especially of Themistius. Aspects of Synesius' partisanship of Aurelianus are illuminated by details from the often obscure Egyptian Tale. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the political implications of Hymn 6 (pp. 358-387), which has elements common also to Ausonius' Versus paschales.

Chapter 5 (pp. 388-496) is given over to the analysis of Synesius' relationship with Pylaimenes, who received the most letters of all the addressees at Constantinople. Although Roques realized that this particular dossier had significance for the transitional period between Synesius' embassy to the capital and his election as bishop of Ptolemaïs, S demonstrates (pp. 389-391) that Roques' assumptions about the length of the war referred to in Ep. 61, 131, and 134 and the quantity of letters implied by Ep. 153 are completely mistaken. S then redates the letters to Pylaimenes so that they fall between the years 400 and 406, with important consequences for their interpretation. For example, Ep. 101 becomes the first letter Synesius wrote after his return to Cyrene, and Ep. 134 becomes the key to dating several other letters sent in a group (Ep. 118, 119, 131, plus Ep. 123) to the year 405. With those letters, S shows Synesius still engaged in his campaign to influence decision-making at court but also plagued by financial difficulties (pp. 408-415). Other details are also brought into sharper view: S's attentive reading of Ep. 61 reveals that the Egyptian carpet Pylaimenes was to pass on to the stenographer Asterius was, while indeed real, also a statement of Cynic detachment (pp. 400-404), and that Synesius' intended return to Constantinople in the summer of 402 was pre-empted by bishop Theophilus of Alexandria, due to the exigencies of the Origenist controversy and, as a concomitant, Synesius' own marriage (pp. 450-467). Though Synesius tried from afar to maintain his involvement at court, changes at the Imperial court and in the military organization of Cyrenaica made the weaknesses of his own situation inescapably evident by 405. Thus, S painstakingly and persuasively reads Ep. 103, the last letter to Pylaimenes, as a complement to the Dion, articulating Synesius' conversion to philosophy in contrast to his friend's practice of rhetoric for political and legal ends (pp. 475-496).

Chapter 6 (pp. 497-563) deals with the ten letters to Herculianus, an old friend from Synesius' philosophical youth in Alexandria in the school of Hypatia; originating in the years c.395-410, they were transmitted in an unbroken sequence as Ep. 137-146. Again, S attends to questions of dating, but these letters have mainly to do with the practice of literary friendship, the personal connections of Synesius (Herculianus had a brother named Cyrus; cf pp. 518-521), and the politics of Egypt and Cyrenaica. Again, S shows Synesius withdrawing from contact with representatives of the Imperial government by the time the letters end (pp. 549-563).

Chapter 7 (pp. 564-710) is about the military situation and organization of Libya before and during the period in which Synesius experienced his conversion from politics to philosophy. S's concern here is to show that there were substantive practical reasons for Synesius to be disappointed and frustrated in his interactions with the Imperial authorities. Accordingly, S canvasses the sources from Philostorgius to the Notitia Dignitatum to establish the nature of the status quo in regard to the defensive arrangements of Libya. S's most important finding (pp. 590-607) is that until 405, the cities of the Libyan Pentapolis, like other cities of the Greek East, were defended by Imperial troops; those troops were, however, stationed locally and served under commanders of local origin whose interests were tied to local networks of patronage.3 In 405, with the outbreak of hostilities with tribes from the south and the appointment of the commander Cerealius, things changed for the worse. As a result of Cerealius' reforms, troops were reassigned, mounted units were bereft of their horses, and local leaders like Synesius found themselves without a voice in the counsels of the Empire when their own lives and property were in danger, while the mighty for their part seemed no longer to care whether Cyrenaica was adequately defended or not. As an aspect of these changes, S also analyzes the role of foreign troops and border patrols before and after 405, together with Synesius' views on their value. The military men who followed Cerealius might be more able, or seem more congenial, but at the end of the day they were not answerable to local interests; furthermore, their investments in Cyrenaican real estate and marriage alliances with established families caused other problems of accommodation (pp. 692-710). I note that Appendices 1, 3, 9, and 11 also discuss aspects of military personnel and organization; for example, Appendix 9 (pp. 753-756) examines Synesius' references to ephebes and neoi in the defense of the Pentapolis.

Chapter 8 (pp. 711-731) does precisely what it promises, bringing all the findings of the preceding chapters together and summarizing them clearly and succinctly. S recognizes Synesius as an individual whose life mirrors "the possibilities and bounds" of the conflicts between imperial and local systems. Quoting Paul Veyne in support of his endeavor to free the texts to say what they would say if they could see past themselves, S affirms that "Without philology, their language would remain incomprehensible."

The Bibliography is impressively wide-ranging, as befits a Habilitationsschrift; happily, typos are rare, with "Copper" for "Cooper" the only one that I noticed.

Larger, impersonal forces have their place in historical analysis. S's opening reference to the work of Peter Brown, however, indicates that he holds a brief for the contextualized reading of literary texts which are, after all, produced by individuals. S knows his Greek and provides a translation of every passage quoted to let Synesius speak to the reader. He takes great pains to argue each and every point he wants to establish, but, when another scholar has already made a valid point, he also gives due credit. This zeal can make for rather challenging reading, but it is well worth the effort, for S's resolve to test as far as he can the validity of what we think we know about Synesius has freed his own text from the tyranny of blindly cited "authorities." This is a seriously good book, both in its parts, which can be read as essays on specific problems in Synesius, and as a whole, because, unlike many of the works on which it draws, this book is not just about Synesius' politics, or literary culture, or philosophical stance, but about the entire social world of Synesius the aristocratic Christian layman.


1.   E.g. A. Garzya, Sinesio di Cirene. Opere. (Turin, 1989), and numerous articles published 1960-1992; N. Terzaghi, Sinesii Cyrenensis hymni et opuscula, 2 vols. (Rome, 1944); C. Lacombrade, Synésios de Cyrène, Hymnes, (Paris, 1978), and numerous articles 1946-1995; H.-I. Marrou, "Synesius of Cyrene and Alexandrian Neoplatonism," in A. Momigliano, ed., The Conflict of Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, 126-150 (Oxford, 1963); K. Treu, Synesios von Kyrene. Ein Kommentar zu seinem "Dion" (Berlin, 1958); F. Tinnefeld, "Synesios von Kyrene. Philosophie der Freude und Leidensbewältigung," in C. Gnilka, W. Schetter, eds., Studien zur Literatur der Spätantike (Bonn, 1975); J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, Barbarians and Bishops (Oxford, 1990) and numerous articles and reviews 1959-1999; Al. Cameron and J. Long, Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius (Berkeley, 1993).
2.   D. Roques, Synésios de Cyrène et la Cyrénaïque du Bas-Empire (Paris, 1988), Études sur la correspondance de Synésios de Cyrène (Brussels, 1989), and numerous articles 1977-1995.
3.   On this point, Schmitt cites his own in-press essay, "Römisches Militär in städtischer Hand. Das Beispiel Termessos."

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:13, Friday, 03 April 2009