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Earthdate 2003-06-02

2.  Cosmopolitan Society  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

During the earlier centuries of the Roman Empire the process of disintegration was completed which had begun with the conquests of Alexander the Great.  Instead of a system of self-contained societies, solidly united internally and fenced off from all external social, political and religious influences, which characterised ancient civilisation, this age saw a mixing of peoples and a cosmopolitan society hitherto unknown.

If fighting went on continuously somewhere or other on the extended frontiers of the great Empire, peace reigned within its vast domains.  A system of roads, for the most part passable all the year round, united the capitals with the extremities, from Britain and Spain on the west to the Euphrates on the east.  The Mediterranean had been cleared of pirates, and lines of vessels united the great cities on its shores.  Travelling, whether for business, health or pleasure, was possible under the Empire with a certainty and a safety unknown in after centuries until the introduction of steam.  It was facilitated by a common language, a coinage universally valid, and the protection of the same laws.  Men could start from the Euphrates and travel onwards to Spain using one lingua-franca everywhere understood.  Greek could be heard in the streets of every commercial town — in Rome, Marseilles, Cadiz and Bordeaux, on the banks of the Nile, of the Orontes and of the Tigris.

With all these things to favour it, the movements of peoples within the Empire had become incalculably great, and all the larger cities were cosmopolitan.  Families from all lands, of differing religions and social habits, dwelt within the same walls.  National, social, intellectual and religious differences faded insensibly.  Thinking became eclectic as it had never been before.

This growing community in habit of thought and even of religious belief was fed by something peculiar to the times.  The soldier of many lands, the travelled trader, the tourist in search of pleasure, and the invalid wandering in quest of health were common then as now.  But a special characteristic of the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century was the widely wandering student, the teacher far from the land of his birth, and the itinerant preacher of new religions.

The empire was well provided with what we should now call universities.  Rome, Milan and Cremona were seats of higher learning for Italy; Marseilles, Bordeaux and Autun for Gaul; Carthage for North Africa; Athens and Apollonia for Greece; Tarsus for Cilicia; Smyrna for Asia; Beyrout and Antioch for Syria; and Alexandria for Egypt.  The number of foreign students to be found at each was remarkable.  Young Romans enrolled themselves at Marseilles and Bordeaux.  Greeks crossed the seas to attend lectures at Antioch, and found as their neighbours men from Assyria, Phoenicia and Egypt.  At Alexandria the number of students from distant parts of the Empire exceeded largely those from the neighbourhood.  At Athens, whose schools were the most famous in the beginning of the fourth century, the crowds of Barbarians (for so the citizens called those foreign students) were so great that it was said that their presence threatened to spoil the purity of the language.  Everywhere, in that age of wandering, the student seemed to prefer to study far from home and to flit from one place of learning to another.

Nor were the professors much different.  They commonly taught far from their native land.  Even at Athens it became increasingly rare to find a teacher who belonged by birth to Greece.  They too travelled from one university seat to another.  Lucian, Philostratus, Apuleius, all who portray the age and the class, describe their wanderings.

Missionaries of new cults went about in the same way.  Bands of itinerant devotees, the prophets and priests of Syrian, Persian, possibly of Hindu cults, passed along the great Roman roads.  Solitary preachers of Oriental faiths, with all the fire of missionary enthusiasm, tramped from town to town, drawn by an irresistible impulse to Rome, the centre of power, the protectress of the religions of her myriad subjects, the tribune from which, if a speaker could only ascend it, he might address the world.  The end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century was an age of religious excitements, of curiosity about strange faiths, when all who had something new to teach about the secrets of the soul and of the universe, hawked their theories as traders their merchandise.



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