Libyans and Ausourianians: Synesios on years of incursions into Cyrenaica (early fifth century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans and Ausourianians: Synesios on years of incursions into Cyrenaica (early fifth century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2023,

Ancient author: Synesios of Cyrene, Letters 57, 104, 108, 125, 130, 132, 133 and Downfall / Catastasis 1-2 (link; link to Greek text in PG 66).

Comments: Seldom do we have first-hand descriptions of, or reactions to, encounters with so-called “barbarian” peoples. In addition, our information about the various peoples enveloped under the rubric of “Libyans” or “Africans” or Maurians / Moors or “Berbers” is somewhat limited as well. So the letters of Synesios (or, Synesius), in which he repeatedly makes reference to incursions by “barbarians” and Ausourianians (equivalent to Austourians or Austurians) specifically are particularly important for assessing ethnic relations between Greeks and others in Cyrenaica in the early fifth century CE. Not only does Synesios detail some incidents and the reactions of various figures to the incursions, but he also repeatedly characterizes the Ausourianians in various ways, particularly employing the notion of a savage “bandit-people” along the way. These passages by Synesios may be read alongside Ammianus Marcellinus’ description of this same people or set of peoples (link) and Corippus’ later poetic list of Libyan peoples (link). For Pliny the Elder’s earlier overview of peoples of Africa / Libya, go to this link.

Works consulted: C. Luckritz Marquis, Death of the Desert: Monastic Memory and the Loss of Egypt’s Golden Age. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), 97-124; D. J. Mattingly, Tripolitania (London: B.T. Batsford, 1995), 26-86.

Source of translation: A. Fitzgerald, The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene (Oxford: OUP, 1926) and Augustine Fitzgerald, The Essays and Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene (Oxford: OUP, 1930), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Letters (ca. 404-412 CE)

[God’s use and then punishment of evil peoples, including Ausourianians]

(57) Address [before the bishops] against Andronikos [of Berenike, who had violated a church’s asylum and was excommunicated as a result of this address, ca. 412 CE]: Evil forces in the universe fulfill the designs of providence, in so far as they punish those that deserve punishment. Nevertheless, they are hated by God and are to be shunned. “For I will raise against you,” he [God] says, “a people (ethnos)” at whose hands you will suffer terrible things [Jeremiah 27]. And yet those very ones through whom he makes war, he declares that he will in turn attack. This is because once they had you in their power, they showed you no pity and did not treat you with humanity. I cannot recall the exact words, but I am sure that somewhere in the sacred books God is represented as speaking in this way. Nor did God merely speak in this way without giving effect to his words, but in actuality the Babylonian king completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem and delivered its people into bondage. Furthermore, this very king himself was soon afflicted with madness. So it happened that, by the justice of God, that city was made desolate, so that no man would believe that a city has ever stood on the spot. . . [omitted sentences].

. . . So whenever God is in need of avengers, he employs, demons who lead hordes of locusts, at another those whose work are pestilences, or perhaps a barbarous people (ethnos) [i.e. Ausourianians, as mentioned below], or again a wicked ruler [i.e. Andronikos of Berenike], and, in a word, those that naturally commit harm to the community. Nevertheless, he hates those very natures, because they are suitable for this purpose. For God did not make instruments of disaster, but he readily made use of those appointed by themselves to that end. . . [omitted some paragraphs].

Certainly it is not a clever line of defense to plead that one has already contributed to a destiny in the way in which it was bound to be accomplished. So it is of the utmost importance that the Ausourianians (or: Ausourians / Ausurians) and Andronikos should suffer a well-deserved punishment for the evils which they have done to us. For look at the locusts which have destroyed our fruits, have eaten the crops to the stalk, and have stripped the trees to the bark. A wind has risen against the locusts sweeping headlong to the sea, and has scattered the locusts in the midst of the waves. And as against this pestilence God has arrayed the south wind, so now has a leader been chosen by him against the Ausourianians. Oh, may it prove that he is the holiest and most just of all his generals! . . . [omitted Synesios’ lengthy autobiographical account. Andronikos was excommunicated, on which see “letter” number 58].

[Cowardice during the barbarian incursions]

(104) Synesios to his brother [Euoptios]: How often one sees the same men who are very courageous in peace-time showing themselves cowardly at the moment of combat! That is to say, they are worthless everywhere. So it seems to me that everyone should be thankful to war, because it is an exact touchstone of the blood in the heart of each one of us. It takes away many boasters, and returns them to us more temperate men. In the future, we will no longer see the guilty Joannes swaggering around the public square, and attacking with kicks and blows men of a peaceable disposition. Indeed, yesterday the proverb, or rather the oracle, received clear information, for you certainly know it as an oracle: There is no such thing as long-haired men who are not degenerates.

For some days now they have been warning us of the approach of the enemy. I thought that we should meet them. The leader of the Balagritians [group of soldiers drawn from town of Balagrai] drew up his forces, and attacked with them. Then, having occupied the plain first, we waited. The enemy did not appear. In the evening each of us went home after we had arranged to return upon the following day.

During this time, Joannes the Phrygian was nowhere. At least he couldn’t be seen. Nonetheless, he spread rumours in secret: at one moment he spread rumours that he had broken his leg and they had been obliged to amputate it, at another that he was suffering from asthma, and later that some other unexpected fate had overtaken him. Such tale-bearers kept drifting in from different sides, or so they pretended, the object being, no doubt, that no one should know into what retreat our man had slipped, or where he was concealed. And you should have heard them in the midst of their narration deploring the unlucky misfortune with tears in their eyes. “Ah! Now is the moment when we need his generous spirit, need strong hands like his. What wonderful things he would have done, how he would have shone!” In each case, crying “Oh, evil destiny,” they wrung their hands and disappeared. Of course, they all belong to that company which Joannes fed at his table, for no good purpose. Those were men with long hair like himself, base creatures, “impudent thieves of lambs and goats” [Homer, Iliad 24.255-262] and, by the gods, sometimes of women as well. Such are the henchmen that he has been preparing for a long time. He never attempts to be a man among them. That would be too difficult. He is a cunning fellow overall, and he seeks the best opportunities of appearing a man in the eyes of those who are real man, but I think fortune has really upset all his calculations. For five days we had in vain set out to attack the enemy, but they were always at the frontier places which they were engaged in devastating. Then when Joannes was convinced that the enemy would not dare to come into the heart of the country, he himself appeared and is now turning everything into confusion. Was he ill? Never! In fact, he was even laughing at people who believed such a story. He had come from a great distance, he said, I know not from where. He had been called there to bring assistance, and it was owing to this that the districts which had called on him were saved, for the enemy [barbarians, likely Ausourianians] did not invade, terrified as they were at the mere rumour of the approach of Joannes. Once he had tranquillized everything there, he rushed up, he said, to the menaced province. He is waiting for the barbarians, who may appear at any moment, so long as they are not aware of his presence, and so long as his name is not mentioned. So, here he is, spreading confusion everywhere. He is claiming to be the general’s right hand, he is promising that in no time at all he will teach the art of victory. He is shouting “Front form! Fall into line! Form square to the flank!” In a word he is using all the words of the military profession without any knowledge of their meaning. Thus some considered him a man of consequence and praised his talents, and were eager to become his pupils.

[Synesios fighting off, and characterizing, the barbarians]

It was now late in the evening. It was time to pursue our attack. When we came down from the mountains, we pushed on to the plain. There four young men – peasants, as their clothes indicated – rushed to us at top speed shouting as loud as they could. No one needed a diviner to see that they were in terror at the enemy, and that they were in a hurry to find refuge amongst our troops. Before they had time to tell us properly that the enemy was there, we saw some wretched creatures on horseback, men who, to judge from the look of them, had been pushed into battle merely by hunger, and were quite ready to risk their lives in order to possess of our goods. The moment that they saw us, as we also saw them, before they were within javelin throw, they jumped from their horses, as is their way, to give battle on foot. I was of the opinion that we should do the same thing, for the ground was not conducive to maneuvering horsemen. But our noble friend said he would not renounce the arts of horsemanship, and insisted on delivering an attack by horse.

What happened then? He [Joannes] pulls the horse’s head sharply to the side, turns and flees away at full gallop, covers his horse with blood, gives it full rein, incites it with frequent application of spear, whip, and voice [i.e. Joannes flees and abandons the rest of the army holding off the barbarians]. I really do not know which of the two to admire more, the horse or the rider. For if the horse galloped up hill and down hill and over rough country and smooth alike, cleared ditches and banks at a bound, the horseman for his part kept his seat in the saddle firm and unshaken. I am sure the enemy thought it a fine sight, and were only too anxious to have many such. We could not give them this satisfaction, but you may imagine that we were disconcerted after having taken the promises of this hairy beauty so seriously. So we drew up the line of battle to receive the enemy, if he should attack us. But we did not wish to take the initiative in the engagement ourselves. With such an example before us, the bravest of us distrusted his neighbour. Here nothing was a greater abomination than a head of hair, for the possessor seemed the most likely to betray us.

However, the enemy did not seem in a hurry to open the attack any more than we were, for they drew up their line of battle and waited for us, in order to drive us back. They did this in case we would take the offensive. On both sides the troops stood watching each other. Finally they drew off to the left and then we to the right, but at a walking pace and without hurrying, so that the retreat might not have the appearance of a flight.

Notwithstanding all these anxieties, we tried to find out where in the world Joannes was. He had galloped without reining up as far as Bombaia, and he remained hidden in the cave there, like a field-mouse in its hole. Bombaia is a mountain full of caverns, where skill and nature have combined to form an impregnable fortress. It has been long celebrated, and rightly so: they often compare it to the subterranean vaults of Egypt. But today everyone admits that there are no walls behind which one could be safer than at Bombaia, since even the most prudent of all men – I am too polite to say the most cowardly, the right word to use – has gone there to hide himself, as to the surest refuge. The moment one enters this place, one is in a regular labyrinth, hard to get through, so that it by itself could provide places of refuge for Joannes.

[Planned encounter between Synesios’ soldiers and the barbarians]

(108) Synesios to his brother [Euoptios]: I have received three hundred lances and as many scimitars. As to two-edged swords, I never had more than ten, for they do not manufacture these long iron weapons in our country. I think, however, the scimitars strike the bodies of our enemies a more terrible blow, and for that reason we will use them. As a last resort, we can have clubs, for our wild-olive trees are excellent. Some of our men also carry hatchets, ground on one side, in their belts. By battering the shields of our enemies with hatchets, we force them to fight on an equal footing with us, as we have no defensive armour.

Tomorrow, I think, the battle will take place. A band of the enemy [i.e. barbarians, likely Ausourianians] met some of our scouts recently. The band pursued them vigourously. Then, seeing that our people were too well mounted to be overtaken, the barbarians commanded the scouts to announce news to us, cheerful news, in fact: we will no longer have to wander around looking for men hiding in the vast expanses of the country. For they told us that they would wait for us, that they wished to know what sort of men we were, who had not hesitated to leave our homes for so long a time, to go out to fight a war-like people living a nomadic lifestyle perpetually as we live only when we are making an expedition. I hope, therefore, that tomorrow by the aid of God I may vanquish the enemy or, knock on wood, I will vanquish them in a second attempt. I commend my children to you. You are their uncle, and should remember to show favour to them.

[Impact of the barbarian incursions in the five cities of Cyrenaica]

(125) Synesios to his brother [Euoptios]: It is so sad to only have bad news to send when we write to each other. For, look, the enemies [barbarians, likely Ausourianians] have occupied Battia, attacked Aprosylis, burned the threshing-floors, ravaged the fields, and sold the women into slavery. Regarding the men, there was no option but death. Formerly they used to take away the little boys alive. Yet now, I suppose, they do not consider themselves sufficient in number to guard the plunder, and at the same time to meet all the necessities of war, in case any one should attack them.

However, none of us shows any righteous anger. We remain helpless in our homes. We always wait for our soldiers to defend us, and a pathetic help they are! In spite of this, we are never done talking about the pay we give the soldiers and the privileges which they enjoy in time of peace, as if this were the moment to impeach them, and not the moment to throw back the barbarians.

When will we be done with our useless talk? When will we act seriously? We need to collect our peasants, the farmers of the soil, to advance against the enemies, to assure the safety of our wives, our children, our country, and also, I may add, our soldiers. It will be a fine thing in time of peace to go around saying that we took care of the troops, and that we saved them.

I am basically dictating this letter from my horse. I myself enrolled companies and officers with the resources I had at my disposal. I am collecting a very considerable body of AsÎżusamas also, and I have given the Dioestians a message to meet me at Kleopatra. Once we are on the march, and when it is announced that a young army has collected around me, I hope that many more will join us of their own free will. They will come from every side. The best men will come to associate themselves with our glorious undertaking, and the worthless ones in order to gain plunder.

[Situation with corrupt Roman general in the area around Cyrenaica, mentioning the “half-barbarian” Maketians and the “barbarians,” likely Ausourianians]

(130) Synesios of Cyrene’s letter to Simplicius [evidently a friend and a supreme Roman commander of the military]: When you asked Cerialis [a subordinate Roman general sent by Simplicius] to bring me your congratulations, you did him this good service: you kept me in ignorance for five days regarding how contemptible a man he is. For our cities had some hopes from one whom Simplicius considered worthy of his acquaintance. However, now Cerialis has hurried to dishonour. Not you, though – for may your reputation never depend on any other man’s – but himself, his mission, and, to put it briefly, the affairs of the Romans. He is a corrupt person, and cheap as well. He takes no account of public opinion, he is unfit for war and he is a real nuisance during peace. This is a peace which has brought him little profit, because it did not take him long to sow trouble and discord everywhere. As if the possessions of soldiers belong rightfully to the general, he takes away whatever they have; gives them in return exemption from service; and, allows them to go freely, wherever they hope to find anything to live on. After having treated the inhabitants of the country in this manner (for as to the foreigners, it was impossible to impose a levy on them), he proceeded to extract money from their cities by conducting troops there and moving them, not where there was the greatest military advantage, but where there was most plunder. Burdened by this hosting of troops, the cities paid in gold.

This situation was soon known to the Maketians (Macetae) [likely synonymous with the Mazikians / Mazices]. These half-barbarians (mixobarbaroi) told the story about this situation to the barbarians themselves. Then these barbarians “came countless like the leaves and flowers in spring” [Homer, Odyssey 9.51]. How terrible for the young men we have lost. How terrible for our crops which we hoped for in vain! We have planted our fields for the fires lit by our enemies. Our wealth for the most of us was our cattle, our herds of camels and horses which grazed on the prairie. All of them are lost, all have been driven away. I feel like I have lost control of my grief, but forgive me. I write to you secured behind ramparts and besieged. Often in an hour I see torches burning. I am lighting some myself and raising them as signals to others. . . [omitted Synesios’ nostalgia for the good old days hunting with Simplicius and curses against Cerialis for not protecting Cyrene from barbarians].

[Reactions to incursions and characterizations of the barbarians]

(132) Synesios to his brother [Euoptios]: We can accept that there are worse things than women shrieking, beating their breasts, or tearing their hair when they see the enemy or when the enemy’s coming is announced to them. Nonetheless, Plato [Laws 814A] considers it scandalous that such women should not be willing to stand up like hens against the bravest in the defence of their offspring, and that they should give to humankind the reputation of being the most cowardly of all animals. Regardless, you commit the same mistake as these women by being terrified out of your wits in the night and by getting out of bed and running around shouting that the barbarian is already at the gate of the fortress. I ask, is this to continue any more? And yet someone has told me such a story about you. It would seem like a transformation to be at one moment my brother and at another a coward.

For my part, at the break of dawn I am out on horseback. I am scouting as far out as possible, searching carefully with eyes and ears for any signs of these cattle-stealers. For I cannot give the name of “combatants” (polemoi) to bandits (lēstai) and thieves (lōpodytai). I wish I could find even stronger phrases to characterize them. They never hold their ground against determined adversaries, and they only attack the timid, whom they slaughter like victims for sacrifice, and then strip.

At night, with an escort of young men, I patrol the hill and I give the women an opportunity of sleeping without fear, for they know that there are those who are watching over them. Moreover I have with me some from the contingent from Balagrai [modern El Beida, Libya]. Before Cerialis had taken over the command of the province, these men were mounted bowmen. But when he commenced his functions, their horses were sold and they became only archers. Nonetheless, even as infantry they are useful to me. We need archery in defence of our wells and of the river, as water is entirely lacking inside the boundaries of our territory.

Now what prevents us from going through our siege in flute-playing and in festal gatherings? It is that we must either conquer now by fighting or die in hand-to-hand struggle with the enemy, unless we wish to die of thirst, and what could be more pitiful than this? So you must be brave men. Do you, on your side, take heart and rally the others. As to that pair of voracious horses which you are feeding only for the tax -collector, give orders to have them brought to you. Particularly in moments like these a horse is not a useless possession. For whether it is scouting, observing the enemy, or carrying messages in the shortest time – all this a horse can do so easily. If you need archers, request them and they will come. Regarding the Phykountian oarsmen, I cannot count on them to do their duty as soldiers any more than I can count on my gardeners. I am looking for only a small number of men, but they must be manly. Let it be said that, if I can find such men by God’s favour, I will have courage. If I am called upon to die, here lies the advantage of philosophy, not to regard it as a terrible thing to retire from this poor envelope of the flesh. I cannot guarantee that I will be tearless in the presence of my wife and child. I wish that philosophy was that powerful! But may I never put philosophy to the test, never, saviour, never, guardian of freedom!

[Synesios’ description of the incursions to Olympios, a friend in Syria]

(133) Synesios to Olympios. . . [omitted opening of the letter] . . . We do not know, my closest and best friend, if we will ever have a chance to talk together again. The cowardice of our generals has delivered up our country to the enemy [barbarians, likely Ausourianians / Austurianians] without a single battle. There are no survivors except those of us who have seized fortified places. Those who have been captured in the plains have been butchered like victims for sacrifice.

We are now afraid of a long-lasting siege, in case this forces most of the fortresses to surrender due to thirst. This is the reason why I did not answer your counter-charges on the subject of the gifts. I had no leisure, for I was taken up with a machine which I am constructing so that we can hurl long-distance missiles from the turrets, stones of really substantial weight. However, I will leave you entirely at liberty to send me gifts, for of course Synesios must yield to Olympios. But they must not be gifts of a luxurious sort. I disapprove of luxury in the quarters assigned to the company of soldiers.

So send me things that are useful for soldiers, such as bows and arrows, and above all arrows with heads attached to them. As far as the bows are concerned, I can if necessary buy them elsewhere, or repair those which I already have. However, it is not easy to get arrows, and I mean really good ones. The Egyptian arrows that we have bulge at the knots and sink in between the knots, so that they deviate from their right course. They are like men starting in a foot-race who from the very start are hampered and stumble; but those which are manufactured in your country [Syria] are long and deftly turned on the pattern of a single cylinder. This means everything for the straight direction of their flight. . . [omitted final discussion of a fine horse that Olympios was describing].


Downfall / Catastasis (after 412 CE)

[Synesios laments the years of problems caused by the Ausourianians]

(1) I for one do not know what I should say about the disasters that are happening before our very eyes, nor could words match the events. No, even the power of weeping has failed some men, so terrified are they by the magnitude of the evils happening to them. But since God has regard for those that lament, and since those who wield the scepter of the Romans should, themselves also, know this, do you write to whomsoever you may of those empowered to bring a statement before the council of the emperor. Let someone announce to this body, in brief, that until the other day Pentapolis [i.e. the five main cities along the coast of Cyrenaica, considered a sub-region] was still a province valuable to an emperor. If it is outdistanced in power by other states, nonetheless it is more loyal than those greater in power. This is known to those who have entered into community life with a mind focussed on administration. Among these, as I hear and am persuaded, the great Anthemios holds the first place. He has seen in how many moments of crisis we have given ready support to our emperor, and of these how many were moments of tyranny.

Until the other day the Pentapolis belonged to the Romans, who have now, to the people’s cost, passed her over in enumerating their provinces. Pentapolis has now quite clearly vanished. Pentapolis has reached a state of extremity. Prolonging Pentapolis’ agony to the seventh year, as some animal tenacious of life, she was drawing in and gathering together what breath remained to her.

(2) The propitious memory of Anysius [general sent by the Romans to help] has made Pentapolis’ time of life a year younger. It was him who used the lances of all men and the hands of the Unnigardians at the critical moment. There came, in consequence, a certain postponement of disaster. For they were not poured over the country in a compact mass. They changed their formation to that of groups of bandits. They kept retreating and advancing. But after changing their minds when already three times drawn up for battle, the plains are captured by their horse, while our own troops are shut up within walled towns, scattered apart, some here, some there – the mistake this of Cerealis’ time – and are useless to each other because they are not concentrated.

The position of the enemy is therefore brilliant. The ones who were on the alert and always ready to retreat last year are now besiegers, are now tearing down the walls of villages, are now investing cities with a large force at their disposal. What indeed has not turned out to their advantage! The Ausourianians have put on the breastplates of the Thracian cavalry, not of necessity, but to mock at the uniform. Besides these they employed the shields of the Marcomannians. The heavy-armed Roman force has degenerated into light foot-soldiers. They find their safety in the compassion of their enemies. I weep for these men, I do not reproach them with the disaster.

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