History of The Jews in The Roman Empire
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). Their cultures began to overlap in the centuries just before the Christian Era. Jews, as part of the Jewish diaspora, migrated to Rome and Roman Europe from the Land of Israel, Asia Minor, Babylon and Alexandria in response to economic hardship and incessant warfare over the land of Israel between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. In Rome, Jewish communities enjoyed privileges and thrived economically, becoming a significant part of the Empire’s population (perhaps as much as ten percent).
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 the 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, Christianity developed from Second Temple Judaism. In 313, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan giving official recognition to Christianity as a legal religion. 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. The Christian emperors persecuted their Jewish subjects and restricted their rights.
Jews in Rome
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.
The Jewish Encyclopedia connects the two civil wars raging during the last decades of the first century BC: one in Judea between the two Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II and one in the Roman republic between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and describes the evolution of the Jewish population in Rome:
… 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.
Even before Rome annexed Judea as a province, the Romans had interacted with Jews from their diasporas settled in Rome for a century and a half. Many cities of the Roman provinces in the eastern Mediterranean contained very large Jewish communities, dispersed from the time of the sixth century BCE.
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.
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.
Jews retained their traditions and customs, including kosher dietary customs. During the late Hellenistic and Roman era, pork, a meat forbidden by Jewish law, became a common and frequent cuisine for Romans. Since Jews had the status of a religio licita, allowing them to continue their practices, they refused to eat pork. Jordan Rosenblum has argued that by refusing pork, Jews symbolically separated themselves from Romans and created a cultural identity for themselves.
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).
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. 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.
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 faith, 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
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. A major catalyst in Palestinian Judaism is haNasi, who was a wealthy rabbi and one of the last tannaim, oral interpreters of the Law. He was in good standing with Roman authority figures, which aided in his ascent to being the Patriarch of the Jewish community in Palestine. 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.
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. In reaction to this further anti-Jewish measures were enacted throughout the Eastern Roman realm and as far away as Merovingian France. Soon thereafter, 634, the Muslim conquests began, during which many Jews initially rose up again against their Eastern Roman rulers.
Dispersion of the Jews in the Roman Empire
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. The Roman Jewry came to develop a character associated with the urban middle class in the modern age.