The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria: Part V
After Graduation: The Calm Before the Storm
AD 395. The Augustus Theodosius dies. He has already appointed his two sons as Augusti to succeed him: Honorius in the West; Arcadius (left) in the East. No one realizes it quite yet; but the Empire will never again be united.
AD 395/6. Synesius returns home. The next year, he is part of the Pentapolitan embassy to Constantinople. While in the capital, he is baptized. (This does not mean conversion. Late baptism was common in those days.) But in AD 400 an earthquake strikes the capital and the embassy leaves. Synesius will later write of this:
“…if you remember the circumstances which I left the town. God shook the earth repeatedly during the day, and most men were on their faces in prayer: for the ground was shaking. As I thought at the time that the open sea would be safer than the land, I rushed straight to the harbor without speaking to anyone except Photius of blessed memory, but I was content simply to shout to him from afar, and to make signs with my hand that I was going away.” (Letter 61)
The Visigoths under Alaric go on a rampage through Greece. Perhaps half of all ancient Greek art is lost. R.A. Lafferty says, It must have been the worst half. They were art critics of exquisite taste.
AD 401. Synesius stops in Alexandria. Despite Hypatia’s scorn of sex, Synesius (now 31) is married before Patriarch Theophilus in Alexandria. Later, in AD 409, when he is up for bishop, he will refuse to separate from his wife, writing to his brother:
God himself, the law of the land, and the blessed hand of Theophilus himself have given me a wife. I, therefore, proclaim to all and call them to witness once for all that I will not be separated from her, nor shall I associate with her surreptitiously like an adulterer; for of these two acts, the one is impious, and the other is unlawful. I shall desire and pray to have many virtuous children. This is what I must inform the man upon whom depends my consecration. (Letter 105)
AD 402 Synesius writes to Hypatia (Letter 15), “I am in such evil fortune that I need a hydroscope. See that one is cast in brass for me and put together.” This hydroscope is not a scientific instrument. It is used for water divination (hydromancy), as described by Hephaestion of Thebes. That should be clear from his stated reason for needing it: not to study buoyancy or something, but because he is in evil fortune. It is not clear what the ‘evil fortune’ is. Perhaps illness. We know that his wife and all three sons will die soon. Synesius is not going to Hypatia as a technical expert in building instruments – he has to tell her how to build it – he just needs her oomph to get the job done.
Stilicho the Vandal, Master of Soldiers, a German more Roman than the Romans, beats off Alaric’s invasion of Italy. A few years later (405) he defeats a more formidable invasion by Ostrogoths and others …
...but he needs the Army of Gaul to do it.
AD 403. Olympius leaves Alexandria for his estates in Syria. Meanwhile, Theophilus, summoned to Constantinople by the Patriarch John Chrysostom, takes all his bishops with him and convenes the bogus Synod of the Oak and attempts to depose John instead. (John is an Antiochene, and the Alexandrians do not want him running Constantinople.) This time, Theophilus has to flee the Constantinopolitan mob, but he eventually succeeds in deposing John. Note that both Theophilus and John are considered saints by the Orthodox (and Roman) churches. Saints were not always nice guys.
AD 404. Synesius visits Alexandria again (and presumably Hypatia). On returning home, he writes “Dion” and sends it to Hypatia for comments. The next year he writes “On dreams” and their interpretation and sends this, too, to Hypatia for her comments. (Letter 154)
AD 406. The Beginning of the End in the West. To defend Italy against Alaric’s Visigoths (402) and against the Ostrogoth/Quadi/Asding Vandal coalition (405), Stilicho had stripped the Rhine frontier of troops. This was one juggler’s ball too many. A coalition of Suevi, Asding and Siling Vandals, plus a clan of Alans from the Caucasus, move toward the now-undefended province of Gaul. On the last day of 406 they cross the frozen Rhine at Mainz.
AD 407. Cyrene comes under nomad attack; Synesius asks Hypatia to send him some bows and arrows.
AD 410 Synesius visits Alexandria again. His friend Heysichius is consecrated bishop. The people of Ptolemais want to make Synesius bishop. He writes to his friend, the devout Olympius in Syria, and confides his doubts. He also writes to his brother in what he evidently intends as an open letter.
FALL OF ROME!!!!
Alaric sacks Rome, sending a shockwave throughout the Empire. The Eternal City has fallen.
AD 411. Synesius is consecrated bishop of Ptolemais. He begins correspondence with Pope Theophilus. Two of his three sons will die within the next year.
AD 411-415. The disintegration of the West continues. The Visigoths pretty much occupy what is now France.
Continued in Part VI: The Feud of Cyril and Orestes