The Year One
"2,000 years ago, life under Roman rule was bleak and brutal, setting the stage
for Christianity." Thus read the message on the cover of the January 8, 2001
issue of U.S. News & World Report. The cover article was entitled The Year One
A.D. and had a photograph of a sculpted bust of Emperor Augustus. The article
within is found on pages 38 through 45.
Of course, the people alive in 1 A.D. did not know it as that. They thought in
terms of the founding of the Rome. To them, the calendar read that it was year
745 A.U.C. which was Latin for "founding of the city."
A sixth century monk, Dionysius Exiguus figured out centuries later the year of
Jesus' birth and devised a calendar based on his reckoning. Unfortunately, he
miscalculated. Jesus was probably already 5 to 7 years old.
It would be big time culture shock if you or I were suddenly dumped into the
Roman Empire in "year one." One historian suggested we might find it easier to
deal with aliens from the stars than deal with Romans on their own terms.
Augustus was 63 years old in year one. He was 5 foot 5 inches tall and had
gallstones, dirty teeth and "a knack for climbing to the top and staying there."
He was in the 27th year of his 41 year reign. He brought a good road system and
order to the increasingly morally decadent empire. It is these three things;
good roads, order (Pax Romana) and the moral decadence that made this era the
right time for the coming of the Messiah. The gospel would speedily make its way
throughout the Empire.
The people of the empire were overwhelmingly poor. About one tenth of one
percent of the people belonged to the elite rich that we see so often in the
movies. Below that you had the "upper middle class" which were barely better off
than the extreme poor. The upper middle class slept on straw, went barefoot, and
ate pork, vegetables and bread.
Bribery was rampant. Chariot races were popular. A day in the forum would
typically begin with wild beast matches where packs of dogs would win over herds
of deer; bears could defeat bulls and lions usually finished off tigers. In the
afternoon, it would become human versus animals. At times, the humans would be
given spears; at others, no training or weapons whatsoever. This was usually
justified by saying that the human victims were condemned criminals anyway, but
later in the century some of these criminals would be men and women who were
simply the "wrong" religion... they were Christians. The crowd preferred smaller
beasts to larger ones. They never wanted it to be over too quickly. The more
gore. The better. That's entertainment!
Family life was disintegrating. Augustus had his own "family values" program,
not for any kind of moral reasons but rather to keep Rome's population from
shrinking. Married men who had three or more children were more likely to
advance. Women who become mothers of three gained more say in property rights.
The unmarried were penalized. In divorce, fathers always got the children. The
age limit for getting married was ten years old. Affection was rarely an
ingredient of engagements, but if things worked out it was thought that such
could eventually develop. There are other things that they found quite natural
which we would find repugnant. Feeding people to wild animals to the cheers of
delight of the masses was not thought of as strange or questionable by most. To
take a conquered city's residents; killing all the women and children and taking
the males into slavery; was no cause of outrage, but "as natural as water
running downhill." A father's tossing an unwanted infant onto a dung heap was
completely inoffensive. Children were not considered humans until they walked
and talked. (Of course, our modern decision that a baby is not human until he or
she is born is just as arbitrary).
Questioning such behavior was not a art of a typical Roman's thought processes.
But a new and strange way of looking at the world and others was being born. It
would bring justice, honor and love to the forefront. It would speak of human
dignity as a characteristic that belonged to everyone; rich or poor; slave or
free; male or female. Compassion would no longer be thought of as a foolish
weakness. As people heard of it for the first time, there would be different
reactions. Some would scoff; but a light would go on for others as they came to
realize that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).
By Jon W. Quinn
The Final Page
From Expository Files 8.5; May 2001