Synesius (c. 373 - c.414), bishop of Ptolemais in the Libyan Pentapolis after 410, was born of wealthy parents, who claimed descent from Spartan kings, at Cyrene between 370 and 375.
While still a youth (393) he went with his brother Euoptius to Alexandria, where he became an enthusiastic Neoplatonist and disciple of Hypatia. On returning to his native place about the year 397 he was chosen to head an embassy from the cities of the Pentapolis to the imperial court to ask for remission of taxation and other relief. His address to Arcadius (De regno) is full of advice as to the studies of a wise ruler in such perilous times.
His three years' stay in Constantinople was wearisome and otherwise disagreeable; the leisure it forced upon him he devoted in part to literary composition. The Aegyptus sive de providentia is an allegory in which the good Osiris and the evil Typhon, who represent Aurelian and the Goth Gainas (ministers under Arcadius), strive for mastery; and the question of the divine permission of evil is handled.
After the successful Aurelian had granted the petition of the embassy, Synesius returned to Cyrene in 400, and spent the next ten years partly in that city, when unavoidable business called him there, but chiefly on an estate in the interior of the province, where in his own words "books and the chase" made up his life. His marriage took place at Alexandria in 403; in the previous year he had visited Athens.
In 409 or 410 Synesius, whose Christianity had until then been by no means very pronounced, was popularly chosen to be bishop of Ptolemais, and, after long hesitation on personal and doctrinal grounds, he ultimately accepted the office thus thrust upon him, being consecrated by Theophilus at Alexandria. One personal difficulty at least was obviated by his being allowed to retain his wife, to whom he was much attached; but as regarded orthodoxy he expressly stipulated for personal freedom to dissent on the questions of the soul's creation, a literal resurrection, and the final destruction of the world, while at the same time he agreed to make some concession to popular views in his public teaching.
His tenure of the bishopric was troubled not only by domestic bereavements but also by barbaric invasions of the country (in repelling which he proved himself a capable military organizer) and by conflicts with the prefect Andronicus, whom he excommunicated for interfering with the Church's right of asylum. The date of his death is unknown; it is usually given as c. 414. His many-sided activity, as shown especially in his letters, and his loosely mediating position between Neoplatonism and Christianity, make him a subject of fascinating interest. His scientific interests are attested by his letter to Hypatia in which occurs the earliest known reference to areometry, and by a work on alchemy in the form of a commentary on pseudo-Democritus. He was a man of the highest personal character.
His extant works are:
- a speech before Arcadius, De regno
- Dio, sive de suo ipsius instituto, in which he signifies his purpose to devote himself to true philosophy
- Encomium calvitii (he was himself bald), a literary jeu d'esprit, suggested by Dio Chrysostom's Praise of Hair
- De providentia, in two books
- De insomniis
- 157 Epistolae
- 12 Hymni, of a contemplative, Neoplatonic character
- several homilies and occasional speeches
The editio princeps is that of Turnebus (Paris, 1553); it was followed by that of Morell, with Latin translation by Petavius (1612; greatly enlarged and improved, 1633; reprinted, inaccurately, by Migne, 1859). The Epistolae, which for the modern reader greatly exceed his other works in interest, have been edited by Demetriades (Vienna, 1792) and by Glukus (Venice, 1812), the Calvitii encomium by Krabinger (Stuttgart, 1834), the De providentia by Krabinger (Sulzbach, 1835), the De regno by Krabinger (Munich, 1825), and the Hymns by Flach (Tubingen, 1875).
See Clausen, De Synesio philosopho (Copenhagen, 1831); R. Volkmann, Synesius van Cyrene (Berlin, 1869); A Gardner's monograph in "The Fathers for English Readers" (London, 1886); and a life by WS Crawford (London, 1901).