Gateway to the Classics: The Book of Saints and Heroes by Mrs. Lang
The Book of Saints and Heroes by  Mrs. Lang

Synesius, the Ostrich Hunter

I F you ever read a novel called "Hypatia," written by Charles Kingsley, you will hear a great deal about a young man called Synesius, who came to Alexandria, in Egypt, about the year 393 A.D., to listen to her lectures, and to study in the library which was one of the wonders of the world.

Alexandria had been founded more than six hundred years before by Alexander the Great, and its lighthouse or pharos threw its beams far out into the Mediterranean. The city had a magnificent harbour which was always crowded with ships of different build, and its streets were filled with men in the costumes of all nations speaking all tongues. At the time it was built the North African coast was full of flourishing cities, of which the two most famous were Carthage and Cyrene. Carthage was, of course, built by the great traders of the old world, the Phœnicians, but the people of Cyrene were very proud of themselves as the descendants of a body of Spartans, who had come over—so the tale ran—from Greece, nobody quite knew when, and settled along the part of the coast which lay west of Egypt. Certainly the Spartans had chosen a beautiful place for their new home, for Cyrene stood on a ridge of high ground overlooking the Mediterranean, and below it was a green plain where corn grew as if by magic. There were harbours, too, in plenty, close at hand, for at that date the ships were small to our ideas, and worked by oars as well as sails, so that they could come quite near the shore and take off the cargoes which the merchants had ready for them. Very soon other towns sprang up, but none was so large or so famous as Cyrene, where a quantity of Jews speedily arrived, eager to share in the trading advantages.

When Synesius was born, about 375 A.D., the glory of Cyrene was a thing of the past. It no longer took the lead in the study of medicine, and its school of philosophy had died out. Though the sea had as yet kept it safe from the flood of barbarians of all sorts, which had for some time been pressing on the boundaries of the empire in Europe, the fierce tribes of Libya were constantly pouring in from the south, taking prisoners and holding them for ransom. Besides this, locusts—formerly almost unknown—appeared to have discovered the country, and eaten up the crops, while the houses tumbled down in frequent earthquakes, and sailors from distant lands brought horrible plagues into the once healthy province of Cyrenaica.

Such was the state of matters at the birth of Synesius.

He seems to have been the eldest of three children, his brother Euoptius coming next, while his beautiful sister, Stratonice, was the youngest. The parents of the children were rich, and had a country place near Cyrene, and as that is all we know of them it is probable that they died early and left their sons and daughter to the care of a guardian. The children were well-mannered, affectionate little creatures, and made many friends in their native city, but Synesius tells us nothing about their education, and most likely their guardians were too busy to take much trouble about it. However, Synesius, who was very proud of his Greek ancestors, had his father's good library open to him, and the study of books is the very best of all educations. The men and women who are most interesting to talk to, and who know most about things, are nearly always those who have lived with  a library and in  a library, and have read books because they loved them and not because they were forced to do it.

Thus it was with Synesius. When he was a very small child he could have told you stories of the Spartan boy and the fox (he may have secretly hoped that the valiant young person was one of his own forefathers), and of Perseus and Andromeda and of the Seven Labours of Herakles—from whom he really did  think he was descended—and of Bellerophon, the winged horse, and many more. But as he grew older he felt that there were some books even outside the library which he wanted to read, and where could he find them as well as at Alexandria? So the guardian's consent was obtained, and when Synesius was almost eighteen and Euoptius a year younger, they took ship at the port of Apollonia and sailed eastwards to the famous city.

For several hundreds of years a colony of Jews had been settled in Alexandria. Some were engaged in trade; others, students of the Hebrew writings, collected in the immense library, destroyed later by the Mahometans; others, again, to learn mathematics and medicine in the schools. By the time that Synesius took up his abode there, the school of medicine was no longer as famous as formerly; but the books were still in the library, and lectures on Greek philosophy were given by the celebrated Hypatia to a large audience.


Synesius attends the lectures of Hypatia.

In this year, 393 A.D., Hypatia, though always beautiful, was not nearly so young as she is represented in the novel, but that did not matter to Synesius. They made great friends, although he some time afterwards became a Christian and she remained a pagan, and he wrote to her about everything in which he was interested. Besides attending her lectures on philosophy she gave him lessons in mathematics, and before he published his books she always read them and criticised them. Of course, in those days publishing was not quite the same as in these. An author sent his book straight to a bookseller, who added its name to a list outside the door, with the price to be paid for it. And no doubt it was he who arranged with the author as to the number of copies to be made, and settled the cost of each with the scribes who earned their living in this way.

Synesius stayed in Alexandria two or three years, and during that time mixed freely with both pagans and Christians, most of them well-educated people. Now and then some order of the emperor reigning in Constantinople, or some action on the part of the bishop or his monks, would cause an outbreak on the part of the populace—it was in one of these that Hypatia later met with a horrible death—but in general each party was content to be at peace with its neighbours and obey its own laws. So Synesius went happily about among his friends, seeing everything, enjoying everything, and watched, with a lump in his throat, the tall lighthouse fading from his sight on the day that he sailed back to Cyrene.

Things had changed for the worse in the province of Cyrenaica since Synesius had left it. We do not know very much of what had happened, but we gather that some of the officials whose business it was to collect the taxes and carry out the laws, either kept back part of the money due to the Government, or took bribes from the rich in order to wink at their offences. Cyrene, like old Rome, had a senate, but the senators were powerless to fight against the governor of the five cities of Cyrenaica, who was responsible only to the Imperial Prefect itself. But one thing it could do, and that was to send an ambassador to the emperor stating the cause of complaint, and, in 397, the young Synesius was chosen for this purpose.

With what feelings of excitement Synesius must have sailed up the Ægean and gazed on the country which he always considered his native land. Almost every name recalled something to him, some story, or some event in the great past of Greece, and how his heart burned to think that only a year earlier the Gothic invaders had dared to tread that sacred soil and destroy the ancient landmarks.

With thoughts such as these crowding upon him, Synesius entered Constantinople. It did not take him long to understand that only a miracle could save the city from ruin. The reigning emperor, Arcadius, was a poor, weak creature, governed entirely by his wife or by his minister and slave, Eutropius. This Eutropius was a person entirely without shame, who put up to auction all public posts. The richest man, therefore, could always obtain the highest office, and the money went into the pocket of Eutropius. Everybody knew this and bore him a bitter hatred, but there was only one man who did not fear him, the bishop John, surnamed Chrysostom, or the golden-mouthed, whose prayer you read every Sunday in church.

The insurrection of a colony of Goths, established in Asia Minor, brought about the downfall of Eutropius, for one of the conditions of peace made by the rebels was the head of the minister. For a moment the emperor wavered; even to him there seemed something base in giving up his servant, but his wife had no such hesitations.

"If they demand Eutropius' head, they can have it," said she; and as ill-news flies fast, her words shortly reached the ears of the doomed man. Without losing an instant he fled for sanctuary to the altar of the great church of St. Sophia, forgetting in his terror that he himself had declared that there was no refuge for man even in the Holy of Holies.

Next day a vast crowd filled the church, but the excited murmurs died down into silence as the bishop went up the pulpit stairs and turned to gaze at his enemy, clinging to the altar. After a stern rebuke of the wickedness of his deed he begged the multitude who listened to him to spare Eutropius' life. The appeal was unexpected and for some time no one could tell what counsels would prevail. Still in the end Chrysostom gained the day; Eutropius was sent into exile and allowed to live a little longer.

It must have been a wonderful scene if Synesius was there to witness it, but it was by no means the last or the worst that he was destined to see. The Goths demanded more victims and the emperor was ready to yield them. The barbarians likewise required to be allowed to enter Constantinople, and soon there was fierce fighting in the streets. At last they were got rid of, and for a while Arcadius breathed freely.

Now that these enemies were disposed of, Synesius felt that his long waiting was over, and that there was a chance of obtaining an audience with the emperor. According to custom, he appeared before Arcadius with a golden circlet for an offering, and began his speech. It was very long and very eloquent, and pointed clearly out to the emperor where his duty lay, but only a man as young as Synesius would have expected any good to result from it. Most likely Arcadius did not even listen, but the Cyrenian ambassador was satisfied at having fulfilled his mission and had no doubts but that for the future all would go well with Cyrenaica.

Having finished his business with the emperor, Synesius felt himself free to give his attention to astronomy, of which he was very fond, and he made a kind of map of the heavens, marking the sun's path through the constellations, and the places of the different stars. In the midst of this fascinating study, he was rudely reminded that something else existed besides the sky, by an earthquake which frightened the people of Constantinople out of their senses. The churches had never been so crowded before; everyone wanted to confess his sins and obtain absolution for them. Synesius, however, was of another mind, and he rushed down to the sea where he got on board a ship that was sailing for Alexandria. When he was safely out of the harbour—although the voyage was so bad he only exchanged one danger for another—he remembered that he still owed money to various tradesmen in Constantinople, and this he carefully paid as soon as he arrived at Cyrene.

After the bustle of his life in Constantinople, Synesius settled down for some years in his native province passing the summer on his country estate.

He could always make himself happy wherever he was and find enjoyment in little things. He could forget the bad harvests and dark tales of what the Goths were doing in Italy, in the lively talk of his friends, in the books he was writing, in the wonders of the desert which bordered Cyrenaica, and in the supreme joy of a short visit to Athens. Then, when he was twenty-eight he went over to Alexandria to be married to a girl whom he had probably met at the time he was living there. We do not know very much about her, not even her name, but she seems to have made Synesius quite happy, and to have looked well after their children. One thing we gather about her, in spite of his silence, and that is, she was a Christian, for the ceremony was performed by the Bishop of Alexandria, though Synesius himself was as yet unbaptised.

There was soon a large nursery of children in the house, for besides his own boys and girls Synesius took charge for some time of his nephew Dioscurius, the son of Euoptius, and also of a daughter of his sister Stratonice, who had married as her first husband a man named Theodosius, an official of the Imperial Court. Synesius may have made the acquaintance of this little niece when he had gone there on his embassy, but at any rate he was so fond of her that one of his letters is full of lamentations, when, at the end of her visit to him, he was obliged to give her up to his brother Euoptius, then living on the seashore a few miles from Cyrene.

"I shall often come to see you," he said, as he put her into her litter with her nurse, and ordered his slaves to watch over her till she reached the end of her journey. Phycus, the home of Euoptius, was only a few miles from Cyrene, and Synesius could easily have walked over there in the afternoon, and would  have done so if he had been alive now. But the only time he spoke of walking, his whole household looked at each other in speechless horror.

"As if any gentleman would dream  of going on foot beyond his own garden!" they whispered to each other in hushed voices, and somehow when Synesius called for his cloak to protect him from the night air, it had mysteriously disappeared. He had known by experience the chills which come on in the south at sunset, and dared not venture without it, and for that day he was obliged to stay at home.

Though he was always ready to join in the children's games, Synesius looked after their education himself and did not entrust it entirely to tutors. Most likely he told them in the evenings the tales of Greece which he had learned as a little boy from his own mother—the beautiful fairy stories as well as the things that really happened; how Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans defeated the Persians in the Pass of Thermopylæ; how the rulers of Carthage, the town which they should some day visit westwards beyond the setting sun, had sent forth Hannibal, one of their bravest generals, to conquer Rome, and how he had failed in consequence of their wicked treatment of him. These and other tales they heard, and listened to them with breathless interest. "If you want to know the saddest story in the whole world," he would say, "you can read it by and by in this roll containing the book of Thucydides, with his account of the Sicilian expedition, and if you wish to hear how Egypt appeared to a Greek traveller 800 years ago, you will find all sorts of funny things in Herodotus." He also took pains that, young as they were, they should learn the most splendid passages in the Greek and Roman poets, and every morning Dioscurius, who seems older than the rest, came to his room and repeated to him fifty lines of poetry.

In Cyrene, Synesius had many slaves to do the work of the estate. The greater number of these had been born in the service of the family and were quite as much interested in seeing that everything was well done as Synesius himself. "Ah! if that man had always lived here, he would never have dreamed of running away," he said once of a slave who had disappeared, and when another, who had come from a distance proved too drunken to keep, his master merely sent him home with the remark, that vice always brought its own punishment.

Great was the rejoicing among the children—his own and probably some others also—when the time arrived for them all to go into the country. It was not only the change and the freedom that they liked, but the people were an endless amusement to them as well as to their father.

"Just fancy! they have never seen fish before!" they shrieked with delight, on watching the farmers and labourers crowding round a barrel of salt fish which had just arrived from Egypt.

"Come near," whispered one of the band, "and let us listen to what they say."

"Why they seem quite frightened," cried another, "at the idea of anything living in water!"

"Well, of course," answered the eldest, who had read more and travelled more than the rest, "there are no rivers here,  and it would never do to have things living in wells.  But you are too small to know anything about that,"  and he moved away with his head in the air, leaving the little boys much subdued behind him.

Although Synesius was always happy in the country, whether he was ostrich-hunting or observing the bees in their hives, or drilling his children or studying some new question of the day, he was not a very successful farmer, and it was lucky for him that the soil was so rich that the crops almost grew of themselves. The slopes were covered with olives which gave them oil for their lamps, grapes grew on trellises or trees, the fields were yellow with barley, figs were everywhere. Goats, from which they got their milk, jumped about and tried to butt the passers-by; while camels, horses and cattle were proudly shown off to Synesius' visitors. He made a collection, too, of the arms used by the various tribes in the district, and spent many hours practising with them. On wet days he shut himself up with his books, and wrote a great many letters and pamphlets which we still have, and at these times he was happiest of all.

During the year after his marriage some of the barbarians that dwelt in the surrounding country flung themselves, as they frequently did, upon the rich Pentapolis, or district of the Five Cities, and laid waste the crops and drove off the cattle. They also besieged some of the towns, in one of which Synesius was for a time shut up. We do not know what became of his wife during this time. Perhaps she had been sent back at the first hint of danger to her relations in Alexandria, and Synesius would certainly have felt more free without her. From the besieged town he managed somehow to get a letter conveyed to a friend in Syria begging for some of the native arrows, which were far better than those of Egypt, and also for a horse called Italus, which had some time before been offered to him, probably as a wedding present. In all ways he did his utmost to spur the citizens to resistance, but does not appear to have been very successful, as they were extremely reluctant to wield the lances, swords, axes, and clubs he provided for them. Happily the enemy melted away this time, though another soon sprang up, and the blades of the weapons were never suffered to grow rusty if he  could help it.

The year 409 was the most important in the life of Synesius, for it found him a country gentleman, a farmer, a student, a philosopher, even a soldier; and left him, as yet unbaptised, the chosen bishop of the city of Ptolemais.

"I would rather die than be a bishop," he writes to a friend at the end of the eight months allowed him by the Patriarch of Alexandria to make up his mind, for he knew that his consecration would mean the giving up of almost everything he cared about, if he was to do his duty. Yet there was a general feeling, not only amidst the bishops and Patriarch of the Egyptian Church, but also among the people of the Pentapolis, whose consent was needed, that he was the only man who could stand between them and the barbarians from the south—every year more daring and troublesome. It was thought, too, and not without reason, that his word would have influence with the men in power at the court of Constantinople, many of whom were his friends. So the result of these considerations was that one day Synesius received a letter saying that he had been appointed bishop by the voice of the clergy and of the people.

It came to him as a great surprise, though, of course, he knew of many instances—as for example, that of Ambrose—when a man who was not even in orders had been compelled to undergo consecration. He turned over the matter from every point of view for some time, and at length wrote an answer to his brother, then in Alexandria, which was also to be shown to his friends in the city and to the Patriarch Theophilus.

"He had all his life been a learner," he says, "and how does he know that he is fitted to become a teacher?" Though he has loved the society of his fellow-men, his happiest hours were those which he passed alone. As a bishop he will have to be at the beck and call of every one, and he will hardly find a single moment in which to examine his own soul. Still, if it is his duty to accept office, he will be ready to set aside his studies, and to relinquish the amusements which have been so great a pleasure to him; he will consent to let his hounds pine in vain for a hunt, and his bow rot upon the wall. But one thing he will never give up, and that is his wife, and more than that, he will suffer no compromise such as others have made with their consciences, and will live openly with her as before. He closes the letter by pointing out certain subjects on which he desires more teaching and explanation, and leaves the decision to the electors.

In reply, the Patriarch bade him take eight months to weigh the matter, and at the end of this period Synesius gave in to their wishes, though holding fast to his own principles. "If he finds that he is unfitted to do the work demanded of him," he says, "he will resign and go to Greece." So with a firm intention to fulfil the duties thrust upon him, he accepted baptism, and immediately after was consecrated Bishop of Ptolemais.

The three years of life remaining to him were spent in labouring for his people and in trying to forget in his work the troubles and sorrows which crowded upon him. To a man who had always felt that others had as much right to their own consciences as he himself, it was painful as well as tiresome to be continually inquiring into the particular religious principles of the dwellers in his diocese; to pass hours deciding their quarrels and in writing to officials either at Alexandria or Constantinople, to complain of the exaction of a tax-gatherer or the corruption of a magistrate. Yet he had to do all these things, besides conducting the services in his own church, watching carefully over the men who were allowed to preach in his diocese and making visitations to every part that he might see with his own eyes how his rules were carried out. If he could sometimes have had a day's hunting or a few hours alone with his books, he would have gone back rested to his work, but there was never a moment he could call his own.

He had counted the cost when he accepted the charge, and he paid the price in full.

Synesius and his family no longer lived in Cyrene or in the country. Those two homes had to be parted with, as well as other things, when he was made a bishop; and Ptolemais, further to the west, and once the port of Carthage, was where they now lived. But no sooner had they settled there than one of Synesius' little boys fell ill. Every instant that his father could spare was, we may be sure, spent with the dying child; but besides the duties demanded of him by the Church, the bishop was engaged in a hard struggle with the newly-appointed Governor of the Pentapolis, Andronicus by name, who was grinding down and oppressing the people. At length a meeting was called, and after Synesius had spoken on the difficulty of his position in having to keep order in the land as well as in the Church, he read out the sentence of excommunication passed by the clergy against "Andronicus of Berenice, born and bred to be the curse of the Pentapolis," whereby he and those that went with him were cut off from God and man.

The tyrant was not strong enough to stand for long against the power of the bishop, and shortly after the resignation which was forced upon him, he died miserably.

Scarcely was this affair settled than another of the children fell ill and died in a few days. But again Synesius was forced to put aside his private grief and take thought for the defence of the country, which was harassed by the raids of some tribes of barbarians, who took delight in kidnapping the children in order that they might be taught to fight against their own countrymen. The skilful young General, Anysius, beat them back for a while; but after he was recalled by order of the Prefect of Constantinople, things became worse than ever, for the new leader was old and useless. In this desperate state of things, Synesius not only used all his influence to obtain a larger army and a better general, but worked hard himself at the defences, and often shared the duties of the common soldiers.

His work and his sorrow together proved too much for him, and a letter to his old friend Hypatia, in the year 413, tells a sad tale of weakness that is fast overpowering him. We do not hear anything of his wife, and it is uncertain if at this moment she is alive or not, but the death of his third son gave him the final blow. He had no strength and no wish to continue his labours as bishop, and there are signs in one of the last letters we possess, that he intended ending his days in a hermitage. Whether he lived long enough to do this we cannot tell, but this much we know, that in the year 413 a severe illness overtook him, and after that his history is a blank. It is better to think that he died then, for he had been taken from the life that suited him and thrust into a place for which he was not fitted, and the effort to live up to what was required of him wore him out.

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