Synesius of Cyrene: Bishop and Soldier


(ruins of Cyrene)

Well at the moment I am preparing a draft that is due in December for a monograph based on my 2012 dissertation The Soldier’s Life. The draft will entail much culling to fit in three chapters that did not appear in the original. Unfortunately my work on the fascinating Synesius may end up on the cutting room floor. So I thought I would share it here.

Let us a look now at an Eastern writer from the late fourth and early fifth century, Synesius of Cyrene ( ca. 370 –ca. 414), whose personal and public writings centred on martial metaphors as a means to comment on contemporary events and rulers.[1] A brief survey of some of the themes found in his writings will give way to a more detailed analysis of the classicising and ecclesiastical historians’ views on Late Roman men’s militarism as an essential aspect of men’s heroic conduct and masculine self-fashioning in the chapters to follow. As a Christian from the Eastern provincial elite who served both as soldier and as a local bishop, Synesius provides an ideal focus for our discussion on the continued vibrancy of classical martial virtues as an essential component of the emperor’s, and indeed every Roman man’s, masculine identity. His life also serves as a reminder that not all Christian Roman aristocrats had abandoned their civilian and military roles within the Late Roman administration.

Though largely fictitious, the following excerpt from his purported speech to the Emperor Arcadius provides us with a poignant example of how depictions of virtuous and manly emperors remained tied to the military ethos.[2] Relying upon conventional imagery regarding the unmanliness of peoples from the Eastern Mediterranean, Synesius opened his discussion on ideal leadership with an anecdote about a Persian embassy arriving at the military camp of the Emperor Carinus (ruled 283-285) to sue for peace.[3] Accustomed to the lavish and unmanly lifestyle “typical” in the Persian court, the ambassadors entered the emperor’s camp expecting to find similar pomp and ceremony. Synesius painted, however, a scene of egalitarianism typical in conventional Roman literary depictions of manly military men.[4] He wrote:

A tunic in purple was lying in the grass, and for repast, he had a soup of yesterday’s peas, and in some bits of salted pork that had grown old in the service. Now when he saw them [the Persians], according to the story, he did not spring up, nor did he change anything; but he called out to these men from the very spot and said he knew that they had come to see him, for he was Carinus; and he bade them tell the young king [Barham II] that very day, that unless he conducted himself wisely, he might expect the whole of their forest and plain would be in a single month barer than the head of Carinus. And as he spoke, they say he took off his cap and showed his head, which was no more hairy than the helmet lying at his side. And he gave them leave if they were hungry to attack the stew-pot with him, but if not in need, he ordered them to depart at once. Now it is said that when the messages were reported to the rank and file and to the leader of the enemy, namely all that had been seen and heard, at once—as might be expected—shuddering and fear fell upon everyone at the thought of fighting men like these, whose very king was neither ashamed of being king nor being bald, and who offering them a stew-pot, invited them to share a meal. And their braggart king arrived in terror and was ready to yield in everything, he of the tiara and robes, to one in a simple woollen tunic and cap.[5]

It was probably no accident that in an address to an emperor he later denigrates for being unwarlike and “living the life of a jellyfish”, Synesius promoted the conventional lifestyle of an archetypical Roman warrior-emperor shunning the luxurious life of the imperial court for the rigors of the soldier’s life. Persian despotism and the unmanliness of Barham II appear to parallel the conditions he found in the court of Arcadius.[6] Synesius’ audience would have been immediately struck by the stark contrast of the ascetic manliness of Carinus with the current rulers’ abandonment of the martial life for the “softer” and more unmanly lifestyle of the palace.

This spoken and unspoken criticism of the existing regime leads the reader to the most memorable part of the speech, where Synesius recommended the removal of all barbarians from high office and the army. Synesius relied heavily upon gendered metaphors tightly bound to traditional manly martial virtues to condemn the demilitarisation of the Romans from all levels of society. Once again, Synesius’ own words are worth quoting in full:

The same organization holds good for the State as in the family; the male element must defend and the female occupy itself with the care of the household within. How then can you endure that the male element should be foreign? Is it not disgraceful that the empire richest in men should yield the crown of glory in war to aliens? For my own part, however may victories such men might win for us, I should be ashamed of the aid so received. This very thing, ‘well I know, I do opine’ (for it is obvious to any sensible man) that when the male and female of which we speak do not happen to be brother and sister, or in any other way related, the armed portion of them will need but a slight excuse to demand mastery of the civilians, and then the unwarlike will be pitted against those inured to the shock of arms. Before matters have come to this pass, one to which they are now tending, we should recover courage worthy of Romans, and accustom ourselves to winning our own victories, admitting no fellowship with these foreigners, but disowning their participation in any rank. But first let all be excluded from magistracies and kept away from the privileges of the council who are ashamed of all that has been sacred to the Romans from olden times, and has been so esteemed.[7]

We can sense in the passage above, the author’s conviction that Roman males’ time-honoured role as soldiers had led to the state’s dominion over only foreigners, and by abandoning their role as soldiers Roman men threatened the survival of the state. These sentiments seemed to represent more than just traditional rhetoric to Synesius. We know in fact that when “barbarians” invaded Synesius’ own lands in 406, he responded by recruiting and leading his own soldiers into battle.[8]

So too may Synesius’ insistence on the nexus between political rule and masculine virtues represent a contemporary conservative reaction against the increasing independent authority of Theodosian women within Arcadius’ court, particularly the empress Aelia Eudoxia .[9] Indeed, as Liz James and others have shown, the early Byzantine period had witnessed an increase in the empresses’ political influence. Christianity played a part in this change. At the beginning of each emperor’s reign, elaborate court rituals were performed that emphasised the link between the dual power of the imperial couple. Since these ceremonies portrayed the emperor as God’s representative on earth, it was natural for his partner to attain an aura of authority as well.[10]

Some of Synesius’ concern over the “independent” political power of women appears connected to older gendered rhetoric that sought to limit feminine power. Greco-Roman literature had a long tradition of criticising influential women for over-stepping the boundaries of “accepted” feminine political roles. Yet it is important to emphasise that women from the upper classes had long played a role in Roman politics.[11] Even though Roman and early Byzantine societies were patriarchal and dominated by men, aristocratic women in these periods could influence their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons as wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. Ideal mothers often served as guides seeking to protect and further the ambitions of their male relatives, and this influence continued even when the boys reached maturity. In contrast to fathers or other male relatives who could become potential political rivals, mothers and sisters could be depended on to support their sons or brothers’ political goals. Their political duties remained, however, highly regulated. The system permitted women to hold significant power, but it tended to exclude them from overtly participating in society to promote their personal aspirations. In fact, if she spoke out on her own behalf she risked being condemned as egotistical, licentious, greedy, and unwomanly.[12] Given this paradigm, it should come as no surprise that empresses like Eudoxia and Theodora remained vulnerable to criticisms from “traditionalists” like Synesius and Procopius. Indeed, despite the significant roles that women from all social classes played in the early Byzantine world, the strict gender hierarchy of men over women proved persistent. Men’s domination of the political hierarchy of the Eastern and Western Churches serves as a timely reminder of the “ceiling” placed upon women in the Late Antiquity.

In the next part of his address, Synesius depended upon traditional Roman rhetorical prejudice that suggested that, like other marginalised groups such as women and slaves, foreigners remained best suited for submissive roles in both the public and private realms of Roman society. Synesius, below, relates the age-old Roman belief in intimate connection between notions of proper masculine conduct and Roman men’s right to dominion:

For my part, I wonder at many other things, but not least at this our absurd conduct. All this is in the face that every house, however humble, has a Scythian [Goths] for a slave. The butler, the cook, the water-carrier, all are Scythians, and as to retinue, the slaves who bend under the burden of the low couches on their shoulders that their masters may recline in the streets, these are all Scythians also; for it has been proved of old that theirs is the most useful race, and the fittest to serve the Romans. But that these fair-haired men who arrange their locks like the Euboeans should be slaves in private to the same men whom they govern in public, this is strange, perhaps the most incredible of the spectacle, and I know not what sort of a thing the so-called riddle may be, if this is not one.[13]

Like many within the predominantly conservative nobility of the day, Synesius made it clear that Roman imperium depended upon its men’s ability to assert their authority in the public and the private arenas. We see further evidence of this conviction when Synesius concluded this part of his harangue by asserting that Roman men’s “strong arm” and “their will” had earned them the right to “govern all men with whom they come in contact”. It is probable that from Synesius’ vantage point, by treating these “barbarians” on near equal terms with the “god-like” Romans of the senatorial classes, Theodosius I and his heirs had upset the natural hierarchal order whereby women were inferior to men, slaves to freeborn, the low-born to the nobility, and non-Romans to Romans.[14]

As one specialist on the period has noted, Synesius’ impractical suggestion to eliminate all barbarians from the army and political office probably represents more “emotive rhetoric” than a “serious political suggestion”.[15] When read along with Synesius’ personal letters where he praised the courage and manliness of those Romans like himself who took up arms to defend their lands from barbarian raiders, while condemning those who refused to fight as cowardly and unmanly (including his own brother), it points to the continued relevance of martial virtues as an essential part of conceptualisations of heroic Roman manliness.[16]

Moreover, while his address was probably never delivered in front of Arcadius,[17] it neatly sums up the attitudes of many elite Roman men frustrated with a political situation whereby select generalissimos and eunuch advisors had increasingly monopolised access to the imperial family and, for some, represented the true power behind the feeble and “effeminate” sons of Theodosius I.[18]

As we will see in the chapters to come, this negative attitude towards “unwarlike” emperors and their closest advisors is common in the literary sources from the Later and the early Byzantine Empire. Part of this disdain seems to reflect the upper classes’ frustration at being cut off progressively from access to the emperor’s confidence and political power. One recent study on ancient Roman masculinity even claims that the “minor political role” that the men from the aristocracy had in the Later Empire played an essential part in the reshaping of these men’s masculine identity, and the creation of a “new” Christian masculine ideal.[19]

Though one should remain sceptical of such sweeping generalisations, without a doubt, many Late Roman authors, who largely hailed from the aristocracy and bureaucracy, appeared uncomfortable with the growing autocracy of the Later Empire.[20] This stance is not startling, considering that the classical texts that made up much of the foundation of these men’s early education stressed the importance of free will for men seeking to achieve “true” manliness.[21] These established ideals preached that “manly freedom and nobility” depended upon a man’s propensity to challenge and reject despotic rule.[22] The Eastern Roman historians in their works adhered to the traditional Hellenistic distrust of despotism, and tended to link servility to effeminacy.[23] With these thoughts in mind, let us conclude this chapter by briefly examining how the growing dominance of the emperor and his supporters influenced the masculine identity of those within the ruling hierarchy, as well as the Roman nobility, who as we have seen were playing less significant roles within the military and administrative branches of the Later Roman government.

[1] For a detailed study on Synesius, see Denis Roques, Synésius de Cyrène et la Cyrénaique du Bas-Empire (Paris: Presses du CNRS, 1987).

[2] The political and social circumstances surrounding this address are reconstructed by Cameron, Barbarians and Politics, esp.103-142. Cf., however, the overly revisionist views of Wolfgang Hagl, Arcadius Apis Imperator: Synesios von Kyrene und sein Beitrag zum Herrscherideal der Spätantike. (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997).

[3] For the depiction of peoples from the Eastern Mediterranean as unmanly in the Classical tradition, Sarah E. Harrell, “Marvelous Andreia: Politics, Geography, and Ethnicity in Herodotus’ Histories”, in Andreia: Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. Ralph Rosen and Ineke Sluiter (Boston: Brill, 2003), Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 47.

[4] For the linking of the austere life of the soldier with codes of ideal Roman masculine conduct, see McDonnell, Roman Manliness, 4-50, Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 62-80, Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 42-3.

[5] Synesius, On Kingship 12.

[6] Synesius, On Kingship 14. For similar contemporary Roman perceptions of Arcadius, see Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses: Women and Dominion in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982), 50.

[7] Synesius, On Kingship 14.

[8] Synesius, “Letter 132”, (ed. and French trans. Antonio Garzya and Denis Roques, Synésius de Cyrène, Correspondence [Paris: Les Belles Lettres 3 vols. 2000]; English trans. Augustine Fitzgerald [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926]).

[9] Cf. Eunapius, frag. 72, Socrates, HE 16.5. Eudoxia was the daughter of Flavius Bauto, a Romanised Frank who served as magister militum in the Western Roman army during the 380s.

[10] Liz James, Empresses and Power in Early Byzantium (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 164-5. The actual authority wielded by these “Theodosian women” has attracted some debate. Holum (Theodosian Empresses) sees a great deal of influence, whilst, R.W. Burgess suggests that women from the Theodosian imperial family had far less authority and/or influence over internal and external politics. See R.W. Burgess, “The Accession of Marcian in the Light of the Chalcedonian Apologetic and Monophysite Polemic”, Byzantion 86/7 (1993/4): 47-48.

[11] For this authority in the early Roman period, see Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the Elite Family (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

[12]Mary R. Lefkowitz, “Influential Women,” in Images of Women in Late Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983), 59.

[13] Synesius, On Kingship 15. The comparison to the Euboeans is probably a reference to Synesius’ literary model the second-century sophist Dio Chrysostom’s (Discourse 7, the Euboean 151-52) condemnation of pederastic behaviour because it “humiliated future leaders”.

[14] For the prevalence of this anxiety amongst the nobility during the reigns of Theodosius I and his heirs, see Williams and Friell, Empire at Bay, 34-35.

[15] Cameron and Long, Barbarians and Politics, 136.

[16] See, e.g. Synesius, Letters, esp. 94,104, 113 130,132. Synesius condemned those like his brother who fled these raids in what he saw as a cowardly and unmanly panic. He was also highly critical of certain commanders of the Roman military, and somewhat scornful of the supposed military might of both the allied and enemy “barbarians”.

[17] Contra Jones (Later Roman Empire, 1037). Alan Cameron (Barbarians and Politics, 128) rejects the idea that this speech was ever given in front of Arcadius.

[18] See, e.g. Eunapius, frag. 62, 65.

[19] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 49-69.

[20] P. Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, 137.

[21] E.g., Herodotus, Histories 7.107, Plato, Republic 579a.

[22] Kaldellis, Procopius, 142.

[23] For the use of these topoi in Eunapius: Sacks, “Eunapius’ History”, 63; and for Procopius, see Kaldellis, Procopius, 145.


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