The place is Beirut (or Berytus as it was then) in the early 6th c. A.D. Zacharias Rhetor, the author of the Life, and Severus of Antioch, its subject, are young men – students – at the famous law school. The latter is considering becoming a Christian. The two have decided to study the church writers together.
The work, by an eye-witness, gives an interesting picture of student life at that period, which is not unrecognisable even today. Note that “philosophy” here means asceticism.
We agreed, and set to work. We began with the treatises that different ecclesiastical authors have written against the pagans. After that, we read the Hexameron of the very wise Basil, then his individual discourses and letters, then the treatise addressed to Amphilochius, the refutation he wrote Against Eunomius, as well as the oration addressed to young men, in which he teaches them how they can benefit from the works of the pagans.
Then our reading continued, and we arrived at the writings of the three divines, Gregory and the two illustrious ones, John and Cyril.
It was only Severus and I who did these profitable readings during the time agreed. But every day we went in company to the church to attend the evening service. We had with us the admirable Evagrius, whom God had sent to Berytus expressly in order to urge lots of young folk to exchange the pointlessness of the legal profession for the philosophy divine. This Evagrius was from Samosata, and had been instructed in the schools of Antioch the great. When he was young, it happened that he was caught up in the passions of youth, and he went to see a spectacle being given in that city. A riot followed, and he was injured. Straightened out by this injury, he came to abhor the shameful spectacles, and thereafter assiduously frequented the holy churches, joining with those who, at that time, were singing all night in the church of the very illustrious Stephen, the proto-martyr.
These people were devoted to practical philosophy, which, in most cases, was not inferior in any way to the monks. After applying himself to the preliminary learning, Evagrius wanted to rise up to philosophy and to embrace the monastic life completely. But his father forced him to go to Phoenicia to study law, at the time when I also was going there. At the same time the admirable Eliseus (=Elisha), originally from Lycia, also came to Berytus for the same reason. Eliseus was a man who was very sweet and very humble. He lived simply and was full of compassion for those who needed food and clothing.
The friends that we make at university are often friends for life. It seems that it was much the same for Zacharius. At any rate he clearly remembers fondly, decades later, the friends of his youth.
So do we all, even if they have grown grey and weary since. Truly “such were the Grecians of our time.”