Late Antiquity’s Library: Re-assessing the Classical Canon in the Age of Synesius

16 April 2020 - 17 April 2020

SG1/2, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT

Further details about this conference will be made available in the near future. 

Please email if you would like to be kept informed about the event, or have any other questions. 



Aaron Kachuck (University of Cambridge)

Lea Niccolai (University of Cambridge)



This two-day interdisciplinary conference aims to re-assess the shape and make-up of classical culture in the context of the fourth-century transformation of the literary, philosophical, and theological past of Greece and Rome. The structure of the event is conceived as an experiment in form. The touchstone of each panel will be the life and writings of one of the most complex, heterodox, and polyvalent figures of the time: Synesius of Cyrene. Politician, poet, rhetorician, philosopher, (reluctant) bishop, consecutively (or simultaneously) pagan and Christian, Synesius, self-confessed heir to a vast classical tradition, represents in his eclecticism an ideal way to understand the strange new forms that the cultural canon that he received was to take in his hands and in the traditions that followed him. A descendent (or so he claimed) of the ancient Spartans, he was born in Libya, educated in Alexandria of Egypt, posted for three years to Constantinople, railed and fought against the barbarians: he represents the cross-roads of impulses deriving from both the core of the Greco-Roman empire, as well as its far-flung peripheries, not only around the Mediterranean littoral, but also across the Near East. 

Each panel will explore a different theme central to Synesius’ work and of interdisciplinary impact, including the mind and body problem; the relationship between Greco-Roman and Near Eastern cultures; elite relationship with lower classes; strategies for political rhetoric; forms of worship of the divine; and the challenge of laughter in an age of rising dogmatism. In every panel, a paper on Synesius will be matched by one that looks at the same theme or genre through the eyes of one of his near-contemporaries (e.g. the bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo; John Chrysostom, charismatic preacher and bishop of Constantinople; Claudian, poet and propagandist on behalf of the Western Roman emperor; Proclus, philosopher resident in Athens, and a militant pagan). As Synesius worked in a dazzling array of genres – including philosophy, lyric (Hymns), political rhetoric, homily, even allegorical history (Egyptian Tales), philosophical anthropology (Dion) and epistolography – his works are easily put in dialogue with major thinkers of his time, allowing scholars today the chance to achieve, through him and his works, for a synoptic view of contemporary culture. 

All papers will be pre-circulated to speakers and registered participants.   




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and the A.G. Leventis Foundation.