The Year One. Of all the great years in history, it is the oddest because no one alive at the time, or for centuries thereafter, had any idea that this was the Year One at all. If they ever used such a date, they would have meant by it the year in which the world was created, not what we mean by A.D. 1. Back then, no system was official: every scholar and historian was free to choose which ever he preferred, singly or in combination, from the founding of Romulus to the Olympic games.
It was not surprising that it took the Christians a long time to think up and introduce a system of their own. The honor finally went to eastern Greek speaking monk , Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in Rome in the first half of the sixth century. He calculated that Christ was born in 754 A.U.C. called that “the first year of our lord” and counted everything that preceded it as “before Christ.” His calculation was slightly inaccurate, either 4B.C or 6 A.D. depending on Matthew or Luke making A.D. 1 no t possible. But Dionysus’s scheme spread gradually, and it soon achieved near universality. The Year One, whatever it was really, became a great year, for many the greatest year in all of history.
We don’t know much about those times, except for Josephus, and his Jewish War, a turncoat who wrote a pro-Roman eyewtiness account of the Roman capture of rebel Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Josephus was a Pharisee, sort of the equivalent of today’s secular ruling class in Israel, and the villains among his own people were the Zealots, who stirred up and led the revolt against Rome. Nothing much has changed in almost two millenia. His favorite word for the rebels is “bandits” , so that bandits, Zealots, and the lower classes are virtually synonymous in his books, which on the whole, translation issues aside, are a bit long winded and boring. Obvious shilling for the paymaster.
The mighty Romans needed four years to quell the Jewish uprising; precisely because social revolt, the desire for independence, and sectarian religious conflict were closely intertwined. Then as now, this was an age of lavish living among relatively few men at one end of the scale, and extreme poverty among the many at the other end.
The Gargantuan banquet given by the freedman Trimalchio in the Satyricon of Petronius is funny in the way it exaggerates; the account caricatures, but it does not invent out of whole cloth. The wealth of Herod the Great was a subject for never-ending comment by Josephus. But the linen weavers of Tarsus, skilled free craftsmen whose products were sought after throughout the Empire, could never afford the small fees charged for the acquisition of local citizenship in their own city.
Outside Judea, serious revolt was rare and the Romans in Year One were able to contemplate their position with much satisfaction. Not only were they rulers of what they chose to believe was the civilized world, but they had emerged successfully from a long,desperately violent, and dangerous period of civil war, culminating in a replacing of the old system by a monarchy with a republican facade under Augustus in 27 B.C. By the Year One, Augustus was firmly in control of an empire which he had considerably enlarged. E.M. Forster termed Augustus ” one of the most odious of the world’s successful men,” and what we know of their behavior seemed rotten enough, even allowing for differences between ancient and modern values.