There was the Year One. In the sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus presented a calculation of the “first year of our Lord”; it was slightly inaccurate, given the scant and conflicting evidence in the Gospels, and on neither of those accounts is the year 1A.D. for Christ’s birth possible. But the scheme spread slowly at first, then it became canonized, becoming a great year for many, and for some the greatest year in all history. But what were the times like in Jesus’s era? ….
The monotheism of the Jews was particularly perplexing. To the Romans, it was distasteful and unintelligible. This one god, an exclusive and jealous god, was not so much a religious issue, after all, what was one more god to a Roman, but the unique aspect of this deity was considered a political offense and effectively, civil disobedience. Augustus and Tiberius were shrewd enough not to force matters with the jews and under their immediate successors official policy was inconsistent. But Roman officials in boondocks like Palestine were far less tolerant and pragmatic, provoking the jews and stirring up what were considered “extremists” who effectively played on the legitimate fears of the community and the social unrest which led to the great revolt put down by Vespasian and Titus in 70 A.D.
Religious exclusiveness in a world which otherwise found room for all varieties of cult and belief bred much mutual violence. Even though the destruction of Jerusalem was a popular measure on the whole, it only delayed the issue, as the same dynamic would appear under a new name, Christianity, equally monotheistic and exclusive plus a more aggressive proselytizing zeal. But, of course there were no Christians in the Year One.
Not even a hundred or two hundred years later could anyone have foreseen how radically the balance was going to shift, that the invincible Roman Empire would turn out to be transitory while the still negligible Christian sect would one day bid for universality. To emperors and ordinary non-Christians alike, Christianity was a nuisance and no more. Early in the second century, Pliny the Younger, governor of the province of Bithynia, wrote to the Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with men and women denounced to him for being Christians. Trajan in reply agreed that Christians must be punished , but “they should not be hunted out.” Roman emperors never took so casual a view of problems they regarded as really serious.
An Trajan was the last Roman expansionist. All in al, the frontiers of the Year One were as good as it got, not far from the absolute limits of the Roman world, except for adjustments, a few conquests, and the final elimination of client-kingdoms as in Judaea. All in all, despite a few exceptions which should not be exaggerated, the great matrix of religious innovation was within the Empire, in its eastern regions: Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Asia Minor. And, of course, in the end the triumphant contribution from that area in this period was Christianity.
All this outruns the Year One by centuries, and it must be confessed that it was a decisive year only by convention, thanks to the slight error committed by Dionysius Exiguus. Nevertheless, the victory of Augustus and the birth of Christ between them marked out paths for the future, the impact of which cannot possibly be overstated. The Romanization of western Europe , for which the Augustan imperial settlement was essential, was one factor that eventually made the idea of Europe possible.
The eastern half of the Empire was fundamentally not Romanized, and in the end it broke away, from Rome and from Europe; but it produand exported to Europe a second binding factor, a common and exclusive religion. …