History of the Jews in the Roman Empire

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Figure of a holy man from the 3rd-century wall paintings at the synagogue of Dura-Europos

The history of the Jews in the Roman Empire traces the interaction of Jews and Romans during the period of the Roman Empire (27 BC – AD 476). Jews, primarily from Western Asia, and Ancient Romans, primarily from Latium in central Italy, are ancient ethnic groups. Their cultures began to overlap in the centuries just before the Christian Era. Jews, as part of the Jewish diaspora, migrated to Rome from Alexandria, where they formed a significant part of the population. The Roman general Pompey in his eastern campaign established the Roman province of Syria in 64 BC and conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC. Julius Caesar conquered Alexandria c. 47 BC and defeated Pompey in 45 BC. Under Julius Caesar, Judaism was officially recognised as a legal religion, a policy followed by first Roman emperor Augustus. Herod the Great was designated ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman Senate in c. 40 BC, the Roman province of Egypt was established in 30 BC, and Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea (biblical Edom) were converted to the Roman province of Iudaea in 6 AD. Jewish-Roman tensions resulted in several Jewish–Roman wars, 66-135 AD, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple and institution of the Jewish Tax in 70 and Hadrian's attempt to create a new Roman colony named Aelia Capitolina c. 130.

Around this time period, Christianity developed from Second Temple Judaism. Constantine the Great moved the Roman capital from Rome to Constantinople (‘New Rome’) c. 330, sometimes considered the start of the Byzantine Empire, and with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire.

Jews in Rome and Romans in Jerusalem[edit]

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Rome:[1]

Jews have lived in Rome for over 2,000 years, longer than in any other European city. They originally went there from Alexandria, drawn by the lively commercial intercourse between those two cities. They may even have established a community there as early as the second pre-Christian century, for in the year 139 B.C. the pretor Hispanus issued a decree expelling all Jews who were not Italian citizens. During the last decades of the second century B.C., after the war between the Hasmonean brothers [Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II] on one side and Cæsar and Pompey on the other, the Jewish community in Rome grew very rapidly. The Jews who were taken to Rome as prisoners were either ransomed by their coreligionists or set free by their Roman masters, who found their peculiar custom obnoxious. They settled as traders on the right bank of the Tiber, and thus originated the Jewish quarter in Rome.

Rome's involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean dated from 63 BC, following the end of the Third Mithridatic War, when Rome made Syria a province. After the defeat of Mithridates VI of Pontus, the proconsul Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) remained to secure the area, including a visit to the Jerusalem Temple. During the 1st century BC, the Herodian Kingdom was established as a Roman client kingdom and in 6 AD parts became a province of the Roman Empire, named Iudaea Province.[2]

Julius Caesar formulated a policy of allowing Jews to follow their traditional religious practices,a policy which was followed, and extended, by Augustus, first emperor of Rome, reigned 27 BC - 14 AD. This gave Judaism the status of a religio licita (permitted religion) throughout the Empire.[3]

The financial crisis under Caligula (37–41) has been proposed as the "first open break between Rome and the Jews", even though problems were already evident during the Census of Quirinius in 6 and under Sejanus (before 31).[4]

Jewish–Roman wars[edit]

Main article: Jewish–Roman wars
Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting a menorah and other objects looted from the Temple of Jerusalem carried in a Roman triumph

In 66 AD, the First Jewish–Roman War began. The revolt was put down by the future Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. In the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and, according to some accounts, plundered artifacts from the Temple, such as the Menorah. Jews continued to live in their land in significant numbers, the Kitos War of 115-117 nothwithstanding, until Julius Severus ravaged Judea while putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132–136. 985 villages were destroyed and most of the Jewish population of central Judaea was essentially wiped out – killed, sold into slavery, or forced to flee.[5] Banished from Jerusalem, which was renamed Aelia Capitolina, the Jewish population now centered on Galilee,[6] initially at Yavneh.

After the Jewish-Roman wars (66-135), Hadrian changed the name of Iudaea province to Syria Palaestina and Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina in an attempt to erase the historical ties of the Jewish people to the region.[7] In addition, after 70, Jews and Jewish Proselytes were only allowed to practice their religion if they paid the Jewish tax, and after 135 were barred from Jerusalem except for the day of Tisha B'Av. The Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion with the Edict of Thessalonica on 27 February 380.

The diaspora[edit]

Main article: Jewish diaspora
Jewish ritual objects depicted in gold on Roman-era glassware (2nd century)

Many of the Judaean Jews were sold into slavery while others became citizens of other parts of the Roman Empire. The book of Acts in the New Testament, as well as other Pauline texts, make frequent reference to the large populations of Hellenised Jews in the cities of the Roman world. These Hellenised Jews were only affected by the diaspora in its spiritual sense, absorbing the feeling of loss and homelessness which became a cornerstone of the Jewish creed, much supported by persecutions in various parts of the world. The policy towards proselytization and conversion to Judaism, which spread the Jewish religion throughout Hellenistic civilization, seems to have ended with the wars against the Romans and the following reconstruction of Jewish values for the post-Temple era.

Of critical importance to the reshaping of Jewish tradition from the Temple-based religion to the traditions of the Diaspora, was the development of the interpretations of the Torah found in the Mishnah and Talmud.

Late Roman period[edit]

In spite of the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews remained in the land of Israel in significant numbers. The Jews who remained there went through numerous experiences and armed conflicts against consecutive occupiers of the Land. Some of the most famous and important Jewish texts were composed in Israeli cities at this time. The Jerusalem Talmud, the completion of the Mishnah and the system of niqqud are examples.

In this period the tannaim and amoraim were active, rabbis who organized and debated the Jewish oral law. The decisions of the tannaim are contained in the Mishnah, Beraita, Tosefta, and various Midrash compilations. The Mishnah was completed shortly after 200 AD, probably by Judah haNasi. The commentaries of the amoraim upon the Mishnah are compiled in the Jerusalem Talmud, which was completed around 400 AD, probably in Tiberias.

In 351, the Jewish population in Sepphoris, under the leadership of Patricius, started a revolt against the rule of Constantius Gallus, brother-in-law of Emperor Constantius II. The revolt was eventually subdued by Gallus' general, Ursicinus.

A pair of putti bearing a menorah, on a cast of a 2nd- or 3rd-century relief (original in the National Museum of Rome)

According to tradition, in 359 Hillel II created the Hebrew calendar, which is a lunisolar calendar based on math rather than observation. Until then, the entire Jewish community outside the land of Israel depended on the observational calendar sanctioned by the Sanhedrin; this was necessary for the proper observance of the Jewish holy days. However, danger threatened the participants in that sanction and the messengers who communicated their decisions to distant communities. As the religious persecutions continued, Hillel determined to provide an authorized calendar for all time to come that was not dependent on observation at Jerusalem.

Julian, the only emperor to reject Christianity after the conversion of Constantine, allowed the Jews to return to "holy Jerusalem which you have for many years longed to see rebuilt" and to rebuild the Temple. However Julian was killed in battle on 26 June 363 in his failed campaign against the Sassanid Empire, and the Third Temple was not rebuilt at that time.

During the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 many Jews sided against the Eastern Roman Empire in the Jewish revolt against Heraclius, which successfully assisted the invading Persian Sassanids in conquering all of Roman Egypt and Syria establishing the Jewish-Sasanian commonwealth (614-619). In reaction to this further anti-Jewish measures were enacted throughout the Eastern Roman realm and as far away as Merovingian France.[8] Soon thereafter, 634, the Muslim conquests began, during which many Jews initially rose up again against their Eastern Roman rulers.[9]

Dispersion of the Jews in the Roman Empire[edit]

Expulsion of the Jews in the Reign of the Emperor Hadrian (135 CE): How Heraclius turned the Jews out of Jerusalem. (Facsimile of a miniature in the Histoire des Empereurs, 15th-century manuscript, in the Library of the Arsenal, Paris.)

Following the 1st-century Great Revolt and the 2nd-century Bar Kokhba revolt, the destruction of Judea exerted a decisive influence upon the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world, as the center of worship shifted from the Temple to Rabbinic authority.

Some Jews were sold as slaves or transported as captives after the fall of Judea, others joined the existing diaspora, while still others remained in Judea and began work on the Jerusalem Talmud. The Jews in the diaspora were generally accepted into the Roman Empire, but with the rise of Christianity, restrictions grew. Forced expulsions and persecution resulted in substantial shifts in the international centers of Jewish life to which far-flung communities often looked, although not always unified, due to the Jewish people's dispersion itself. Jewish communities were thereby largely expelled from Judea and sent to various Roman provinces in the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Rome: Early Settlement in Rome
  2. ^ Benjamin Isaac The Near East under Roman Rule: Selected Papers (Leiden: Brill 1998)
  3. ^ Smallwood, E.Mary (2001). The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian : A Study in Political Relations. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 539. ISBN 978-0-391-04155-4. 
  4. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, The Crisis Under Gaius Caligula, pages 254-256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then — if one accepts Sejanus' heyday and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment — there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East."
  5. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: BAR KOKBA AND BAR KOKBA WAR: Publius Marcellus: "...and thus about fifty strongholds and 985 undefended towns and villages fell into their hands (Dio Cassius, lxix. 14)."
  6. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Galilee: "After the fall of the Jewish state a new period of prosperity set in for Galilee; and it gradually became the center of Jewish life in Palestine."
  7. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, page 334: "In an effort to wipe out all memory of the bond between the Jews and the land, Hadrian changed the name of the province from Iudaea to Syria-Palestina, a name that became common in non-Jewish literature."
  8. ^ Abrahamson et al. The Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 compared with Islamic conquest of 638.
  9. ^ Rosenwein, Barbara H. (2004). A Short History of the Middle Ages. Ontario. pp. 71–72. ISBN 1-55111-290-6.

Further reading[edit]