Synesius’s Wise Advice On Kingship

By 400 A.D. the Roman state was struggling with severe problems both internal and external.  In 395, the Goths, a foreign nation Rome had unwisely permitted to settle within the empire’s borders, initiated an armed revolt, and laid waste to the provinces south of the Danube.  “[They] boldly avowed the hostile designs,” says Gibbon, “which they had long cherished in their ferocious minds.” (Ch. XXX). 

In the east things were little better.  The Visigothic king Alaric marched unopposed into Greece in 396.  The exhausted and degenerate Greeks were too depleted to offer significant resistance. A deluge of barbarians soon swept through the mountain passes that, many centuries before, had once been brilliantly defended by Greek patriots against Persian invaders.  Two years later Alaric was declared master of Eastern Illyricum.  In 400 he launched an invasion of the Italian peninsula.  The dissolute and worthless emperor Honorius, instead of defending his homeland as a responsible prince, took flight from Milan for safe refuge in Gaul.  Only Stilicho (a prominent Roman military commander of the day) had the courage to face down Alaric’s forces. 

It is against this miserable tapestry that history first notes the brave voice of the Grecian philosopher Synesius of Cyrene.  His name is little known today, but it deserves a far wider familiarity among those concerned with the nature of leadership and the destinies of states.  He was born around 373 A.D. and entered the clergy after several years of philosophical study in Alexandria.  The fount of Neoplatonic vitality there was still strong, and would endure even until centuries after the Arab conquest.  He must have been a respected figure in his community, for in 398 he was selected to be an envoy to the imperial court in Constantinople. 

We imagine Synesius to have been a conscientious and diligent official, angered by the corruption, venality, and incompetence he witnessed at first hand in the empire’s seat.  During the reign of the emperor Arcadius (383—408), Synesius wrote a remarkably astute essay (or “speech” in the rhetorical parlance of the era) called De Regno (On Kingship), in which he offered advice on leadership and selected political affairs.  Synesius still awaits a modern English translator. It seems that the only complete English rendition is that of Augustine Fitzgerald, which dates to the 1920s. There are several Latin translations dating from the sixteenth century, which I suspect are of dubious reliability.  So the patient scholar must make do with the resources available to him.  “The measures which Synesius recommends,” says Gibbon, “are the dictates of a bold and generous patriot.”  We agree with him, and will summarize below, as accurately as possible, the main points of De Regno.

Synesius begins with the obligatory statements of sincerity about his intentions.  Truthful speech, he says, is a great thing, and of inestimable value to a prince.  Arcadius rules a vast domain; for this he is to be congratulated, but not praised.  Praise can only from what has been earned, not inherited.  Arcadius’s father, Theodosius, ascended to the purple by his own merits, while Arcadius was born into it.  Synesius then begins to describe what he considers to be the attributes of the ideal prince.    

The Necessity of Virtue.  The true prince is he who puts the interests of his people ahead of his own.  He is unrelenting in his efforts to better their lot, and sees himself as a caretaker.  Philosophy is a necessary tool for shaping and molding the character of the prince, especially in his youth; for youth is especially malleable.  Virtue and vice are mirror images of each other, and can change places very quickly.  Good leadership can devolve into despotism with startling speed if the prince is not mindful of the nature of wisdom and the classic virtues.  Prosperity and power, or any external goods, are nothing without virtue, which is the rudder steering the ship of state.  A good king, therefore, must master himself before he can hope to master what happens within the borders of his domain.

The Qualities of Leadership.  Synesius despises flatterers and warns the prince of their corrosive and noxious power.  In an age when eunuchs and court flunkies wielded considerable influence, this was indeed a brave thing to say.  Yet Synesius sees flattery as a kind of opiate; it dulls the prince’s senses, blinds him to reality, and inevitably becomes addictive.  A good prince should share the military burdens of his army.  He should frequent the camp and take an active part in campaigns.  The prince should avoid all luxury and pomp, as such habits become debilitating over time; he should look to the old Romans of the republican period for examples of abstemious virtue.  Synesius then offers a bitter indictment of the corrupt state of Roman emperorship:

The pavement and the bare earth are too hard for your delicate feet; your progress must be sprinkled with gold dust brought over land and sea from distant climes.  Is it better so than in the days when our armies were led by generals who lived a soldier’s life?  Browned by the sun, plain to severity in their habits; breathing no dithyrambic airs of empty pride—they wore the woolen cap of Sparta, that the boys of today mock at upon their statues—until even the older generation begin to think that these heroes, far from being happy, were miserable in comparison with you. Yet they had no need to fortify their homes against the invasion of barbarians from Asia or from Europe.  It was in their own achievements that they found the best rampart against the foe…Today, the very people they conquered, bring panic to your gates and demand tribute from you as the price of peace.  [Trans. by J.C. Nichol]     

A good prince should also avoid familiarity with his people, for nothing engenders contempt so quickly.  The prince should be able to wield power with authority and finality.  And as an example of this, Synesius relates an anecdote about the Roman emperor Carinus and some Parthian ambassadors who visited him to settle a dispute.  When the ambassadors visited the plainly-dressed Carinus, he was eating with his officers a simple meal of salted meat and peas.  The Parthians, startled to see so frugal an emperor, were even more surprised when the emperor removed his helmet and showed them his hairless scalp.  Carinus pointed to his shining crown and said to the ambassadors, “Tell your king that if he does not come to his senses, his kingdom will be as bare as my head.”  We are told that when this story was eventually related to the Parthian king, he quickly reached a settlement with Carinus.    

The Necessity of Military Service.  Weapons should only be given to citizens of the empire, not to foreigners or mercenaries.  Arming unassimilated foreigners—such as Goths or Scythians—is nearly a guarantee of eventual insurrection.  The military is the backbone of state security, and it must be scrupulously looked after.  Citizens should have a stake in the health and safety of the empire, and should do their part in its defense.  As Gibbon says in his summary of Synesius’s ideas, a wise prince should force “the mechanic from his shop and the philosopher from his school” to perform military service. Military forces that are not grounded in the citizenry can be neither lasting nor effective. 

The Proper Selection of Offices.  Important posts should go to men of proven merit.  Wealth or connections should have no bearing on selection.  Furthermore, offices should be manned by loyal citizens.  Synesius is alarmed that Scythians were filling Roman offices (magistracies, military commands, etc.), but had little real loyalty to the Roman state.  They should be either confined to the arts of agriculture, he counsels, or sent back to the places from where they came.  

These, then, are the essential ideas found in De Regno. They remain as valid today as they did in 400 A.D. And when a nation has become debilitated by a corrupt and indolent leadership, which values its own privileges over its responsibilities to the health and security of the people, there can be no better restorative guidance.   



To listen to an audio recording of this essay read by the author, click here.


Read more on the effects of moral corruption, and the attributes of moral goodness, in the new translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends:


One thought on “Synesius’s Wise Advice On Kingship

  1. As much I am an atheist and believe in an amoral universe, the importance of virtue ethics is paramount to a functioning, and even flourishing society. Sadly, the latter is often lost on people lost in their vices.

    Liked by 1 person

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