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Philosophy and Travel in the Letters of Synesius

Alex Petkas

Synesius of Cyrene (ca. 370-414) is the author of two of the most famous travel accounts from the Late Roman East, both appearing in his Epistles. Recent work on Synesius’s letters has drawn attention to the status of the corpus as a unified literary artifact (Hose 2001, 2003; Harich-Schwarzbauer 2012, cf Gibson 2012).  Building upon this premise, I argue that Synesius uses these narratives both to craft his literary-political ethos and, as an aspect of this, to valorize certain locales, in a way that connects with broader themes in his oeuvre about the importance of both natural and human geography for philosophy. This rhetoric is deeply implicated in a hierarchical network of loyalties and landscapes, involving the binaries of city vs. country, imperial (Constantinopolitan) vs. provincial, and active vs. contemplative life.  The connection between these themes in Synesius’s life and writings have hitherto not been subjected to synthetic analysis.

Epistle 5 describes his storm-tossed sea journey from Alexandria to Libya.  The letter engages in a subtle intertextual dialogue with Gregory of Nazianzus’s account of a journey which left from the same port, several decades earlier (De Vita Sua 124ff).  Whereas Gregory’s near-death experience moves him to a prayer which brings as its “merchandise” (emporeuma) the newfound piety of most of the sailors, at the paroxysm of Synesius’s storm, amidst the groaning of men and wailing of women (all were calling upon God: etheoklytoun), Synesius silently ponders a Homeric verse (δ.511), drawing psychological philosophoumena in the manner of an allegorizing pedant (Pizzone 2006): is it true what the great poet says, that death by water destroys the soul as well? Thus the voyage becomes an arena for a self-ironizing literary rivalry with Gregory through which Synesius – here at least – disavows any claim to holy-man status.

            I argue that a related but more wide-ranging rivalry is at stake in the Epistles about Synesius’s ostentatiously disappointing visit to Athens (letters 56, 136).  In letter 136 he writes to his brother from Athens, whose philosophical antiquities (the Academy, Stoa Poikile, etc) he compares to the carcass of a sacrificed animal (hiereion): philosophy has emigrated to Egypt, which now houses the intellectual offspring of Hypatia.  He suggests that the only worthwhile thing Athens produces now is Hymettian honey, which he undercuts elsewhere as a decadent and excessive luxury export good (Ep.148): perhaps a metaphorical jab at Athenian philosophers.  The location of 136 in the corpus is furthermore not accidental: the very next letter, to Herculian, invites the addressee – a fellow student of Hypatia – to a sustained epistolary friendship, based on philosophy and their common autopsia of that genuine “mistress of mysteries.” This same letter, significantly, discusses the problems which long distances pose for philosophical friendships, problems that the expedient of the letter only imperfectly surmounts.  This pair of letters (among other references), show the importance of the philosophical school as a center for establishing pedigrees based on personal relationships.

I suggest that Synesius’s engagement in the Athens-Alexandria rivalry through travel narrative is an aspect of his crafting of a unique (and often explicitly “rustic”) provincial identity.  He employed this identity variously and to various ends, but most conspicuously he activated his outsider status in order to distinguish his own voice from the crowd of other ambitious litterati when he traveled to Constantinople on embassy in the late 390s.  He thus laid claim to philosophical authority and parrhesia not despite, but by means of this arriviste persona.

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Travel, Travelers and Traveling in Late Antique Literary Culture

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