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How big is ‘the world’?

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Pliny the Elder - a 1st century Roman - reports Rome's difficulty in finding the 1000 pounds of gold required to purchase peace for the City after recapturing it from the Gauls in 390BCE (book XXXIII:V). A modern reader might assume he meant war reparations or payment to the French perhaps. Wrong. The gold was placed under the throne of Jupiter in the chief temple and it was left there for centuries (until some of it was stolen): the peace was purchased from Jupiter, the god at that time designated by the Romans as God, and the gold therefore belonged to their God. Small wonder that temples were sacked in those days - the wealth previously given to somebody else's God could then be given in thanks to yours instead, and perhaps buy a better life - a life of less suffering - for you, your family and your people (the chosen ones with the better benefactor). Well, yours had to be the better benefactor, or you would not have triumphed over your God’s enemies - those misguided peoples that worshipped Him in the wrong way, and those who worshipped false or inferior, superceded gods. Whatever your lifestyle and religious practices were, triumph signified your God’s approval. Defeat signified the opposite. Divining your God’s view was therefore a paramount activity, all over the world.

Some of the gold in question had previously been taken from the temples in those parts of Rome that the Gauls had captured. Additional gold came from Gauls taken captive as slaves, or killed - the Gauls were in the habit of wearing gold jewellery into battle. Interestingly, Pliny mentions that there had been a previous augury (prophecy) that Jupiter would be repaid twice over. The implication is that 500 pounds of the donated gold had previously been in other Jovian temples sacked by the Gauls, and a further 500 (perhaps figurative) pounds came from the Gauls' battle ornaments and amulets. Whatever, the Romans were satisfied that their debt to their God was paid - well it must have been, or peace would not have lasted as long as it had. Of course, once they knew their God was on their side, why stop there? If 500 pounds of gold bought so much, surely 10,000 pounds would buy much more, and perhaps 100,000 might unite the whole world, given a little more effort.

1st century Romans believed that the lands they knew - from northern Norway to Persia, to North Africa and Egypt - represented a third to a half of the world's land mass (Pliny, book III:I). That meant it was entirely possible to capture all of it. They didn't know how much they didn't know. Earlier peoples knew far less, yet we take earlier historical reports of 'the world' to mean 'the planet', because we add modern meaning to the preceding understanding - precisely as each set of historical people before us has done in their turn.

Many people believed (some tribes still do) that our world was a disc, like the tiny discs in the sky, long after the invention of the telescope, because meaning is something that continues to move at vastly different speeds on this planet. The speed at which meaning moves depends on where you are living, and how much information you employ in the creation of your wisdom - and in the evolution of our enlightened understanding.