September 27, 2023
Episode 175: Jay Bregman on Synesius of Cyrene
[Thanks to the World History Encyclopædia for the image above (Giralt, S. (2012, April 26). Temple of Zeus at Cyrene. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/image/315/temple-of-zeus-at-cyrene/).
Corrigendum: the name of the Roman military leader helping Synesius in his defence of the Pentapolis was given as Alypius, but was in fact Anysius. See the first ‘Katastasis’; the Katastases are two writings of Synesius laying out the situation on the ground in Cyrenaïca in his day.]
We are delighted to speak with Professor Jay Bregman, a man who knows a thing or two about Synesius of Cyrene.
We discuss Synesius’ basic biography: born in the 370’s as scion of one of the most prestigious families of Cyrene in modern-day Libya, Synesius studied at Alexandria with Hypatia before assuming an active role in the politics of his city. After a trip on Cyrene’s behalf to Constantinople, he was made bishop of Ptolemaïs by Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria (the man on whose watch the Serapeum was destroyed in the year 391). He then became a soldier-bishop by necessity, defending the cities of the Ptolemaïs area, known as The Five Cities (Pentapolis), from Berber incursions, and died around the year 414; his deathbed letter to Hypatia demonstrates that he was blessed not to have lived to see his beloved teacher murdered by the Alexandrine mob in the year 415.
But Synesius seems to have been a remarkably Platonist Christian, if he was a Christian at all. Scholarly opinions have differed on the bishop’s devotion to Christianity, and Professor Bregman simply denies that he was a Christian at all – or if he was, it was to so slight a degree as not to matter. This case can be made very strongly: Synesius’ Easter sermon cites Hermetica, while the bishop seems to have almost no knowledge of the Christian scriptures; he knows and reveres the Chaldæan Oracles as well, as evinced by his writing On Dreams. He refers liberally to ‘the gods’ as well as to ‘god’ – not in itself a clear marker of polytheism, but not exactly a good look for an orthodox bishop in the late fourth century.
We discuss Synesius in his late-antique context vis à vis Christianity, the ‘die-hard’ polytheist Platonism of the Athenian Academy, and more.
Jay Bregman is Emeritus Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Maine, expert on Synesius of Cyrene, and veteran jazzman.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Letter on his reluctance to accept the bishopric of Ptolemaïs and disagreement with various point of Orthodox doctrine: Ep. 105.
- On Dreams (De insomniis): see now Russell and Nesselrath 2014 (see below).
- Hardly ever quotes Christian scripture: see Christian Lacombrade. Synésios de Cyrène: hellène et chrétien. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1951, p. 264, n. 66 for a list of the few times when he does.
Our special episode on the Anonymous Commentary on the Parmenides can be found here.
Gibbon on Synesius’ ancestry: ‘Such a pure and illustrious pedigree of seventeen hundred years … cannot be equalled in the history of mankind.’ Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Strahan & Cadell, London, 1776–1789, I 667, n. 117.
Lloyd P. Gerson, editor. The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.
Pierre Hadot. Porphyre et Victorinus. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1968.
Arthur Darby Nock. Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1933.
U. von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff. Die Hymnes des Synesios und Proklos. Sitzungsberichte der Köninglich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 14:272–95, 1907.
For a quick exploration of Synesius’ writings, check out the beautiful list of English translations culled from various sources, to be found on Livius. An English translation of the Letters is available in Augustine Fitzgerald. The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1926. Of the essays and hymns, Augustine Fitzgerald. Synesius of Cyrene. The Essays and Hymns. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1930.For more serious work, you’ll want to check out the most recent critical edition:
- Lacombrade, Garzya, and Lamoureux, editors. Synésios de Cyrène. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1978–2008.
A new translation (with the Greek) of the On Dreams with commentary, notes, and interpretive essays can be found in Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, editors. On Prophecy, Dreams and Human Imagination: Synesius, De insomniis. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2014. Highly recommended, and available online via open access!
Jay Bregman. Synesius of Cyrene: Philosopher-Bishop. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA/Los Angeles, CA/London, 1982.
Idem. Synesius of Cyrene. In Lloyd P. Gerson, editor, The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Volume 2, pages 520–37. The University Press, Cambridge, 2010 [updates the former, but is necessarily less in-depth, being a short article in an anthology].
Robert Christian Kissling. The OXHMA-ΠΝΕΥΜΑ of the Neo-Platonists and the De insomniis of Synesius of Cyrene. American Journal of Philology, 43(4):318–30, 1922.
Helmut Seng and Lars Martin Hoffmann, editors. Synesios von Kyrene: Politik, Literatur, Philosophie. Number 6 in Byzantios: Studies in Byzantine History and Civilization. Brepols, Turnhout, 2012.
Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler. Synesius and the Pneumatic Vehicle of the Soul in Early Neoplatonism. In Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, editors, On Prophecy, Dreams and Human Imagination: Synesius, De insomniis, volume XXIV of Scripta Antiquitatis Posterioris ad Ethicam Religionemque pertinentia, pages 125– 56. Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
Willy Theiler. Die Chaldäischen Orakel und die Hymnen des Synesios. Schriften der Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, 18:1–41, 1942.
Arguments that Synesius Really was a Committed Christian
Jay Bregman argues that Synesius wasn’t really a Christian, or that, if he was, he wasn’t enough of one for it to make much difference. There has been a lot of modern scholarship arguing the opposite position: here are a few random examples:
Alan Cameron and Jacqueline Long. Barbarians and Politics at the Court of Arcadius, volume 19 of The Transformation of the Classical Heritage. University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford, 1993, pp. 19-39.
Denis Rocques. Synésios de Cyrène et la Cyrénaı̈que du Bas-Empire. Études d’antiquités africaines. Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, 1987.
Christian Lacombrade. Synésios de Cyrène: hellène et chrétien. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1951 [Synesius both a believing Christian and an unrepentent Hellene – actually, not so far from Bregman’s view in our interview].
Carl Jung, Chaldæan Oracles, Christianity, Dreams, Esoteric Hellenism, Hermetica, Hypatia of Alexandria, Late Platonism, Marius Victorinus, Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, Soul-Vehicle, Subtle Body, Synesius