When something big was up. That was the Year One. No one could have foreseen such consequences. Often, great historical processes begin invisibly and only later is it possible to pin down the critical date. The strangest thing is that for centuries after, no one had any idea this was the Year One at all. Back then, it was merely 754 to the Romans and 3761 to the Jews. The initial calculation in the sixth century for the “year of our Lord” was inaccurate, slightly; it was either 4 B.C. or 6 or 7 A.D. , but like many phenomena, it assumed a life of its own, and it became a great year, the greatest in history for many. But what were times actually like? Outside Judea, serious revolt was rare and though there was much grumbling and unhappiness, Romans in the Year One were able to contemplate their position with much satisfaction…
It was not the brutality that disturbed anyone. This was a brutal world at all levels. The list of Augustus’s massive philanthropies which he himself compiled for posthumous publication , included the sponsorship of eight monster exhibitions in which about ten thousand gladiators fought, the largest number on record. These were mow the most popular type of public show in the Empire: men and women of every class came by the tens of thousands to relish the slaughter of men by men, and of men by wild beasts. If the theatre was the characteristic secular building of classical Greek civilization, the amphitheatre was its Roman counterpart. What critics of the imperial system, the few whose voices we hear, attacked not the brutality, but the arbitrariness and the sycophancy it bred, the inevitable conspirational atmosphere.
Yet there was a great cultural renaissance under Augustus. And there was peace throughout the Empire most of the time, peace without political freedom as the Greeks had once understood it, even without freedom in the more limited sense men had experienced in republican Rome, but more continuous peace than the Mediterranean world had perhaps ever known.
The Roman and Italian response is well documented in literature and sculptured monuments, and is not hard to understand. But what of the “provincials,” the subjects, and particularly what of the great mass of them who were not local magnates supporting Rome in return for benefits received? Part of the answer, for the East in particular, is that they began to worship Augustus as Saviour, Benefactor and God Manifest. The Epiphanes. Similar to how they had deified a succession of Ptolemies, Seleucids, and other rulers in the preceding centuries. Among the Romans themselves divinity had to wait until his death; in the meantime only his genius or daemon, the immortal spirit within him, could have an altar. But the East, with a different tradition, built temples to Augustus the god.
This ruler-cult should never be underestimated nor misunderstood. It was cult in the strict sense, difficult as that may be to grasp today. At the same time it did not prove the existence of widespread popular enthusiasm for the ruler as a person, or of anything more positive than a recognition of the facts of life. Power had to be worshiped, that was self-evident: the power of natural forces, Fate or Fortune, the many gods and goddesses in their multiple attributes, and the great power on earth. To do otherwise was stupid and brought certain punishment, even though rewards for proper veneration were unfortunately far from guaranteed, at least not in this life. In so one-sided a relationship, in a world i which there was little hope of material success for the majority of the free population, let alone the slaves, and in which the earthly power was now pretty close to despotism, fear rather than love was often the dominating emotion behind worship.