The Jews in the Roman and Persian Empires
The first century AD can be described as the period of ‘tranquility.’ Jewish communities thrived in many parts of the Roman and Parthian Empires. The Jews were protected under Roman law and allowed to practice their religion without much constraint. Indeed, Jewish communities can be found in Syria, Iberia, Egypt, Armenia, and Parthia. In Rome, the Jews were allowed to establish synagogues and centers of religious learning. The Jewish community paid a yearly maintenance tax to the Roman government.
In Judea, however, the Jews were in constant conflict with Roman authorities. Rising tax demands, famine, and political discontent led to a major rebellion in 69 A.D. The Roman emperor commanded a large army to subdue the rebels. The historian Josephus wrote that the purpose of the rebellion was to ‘regain Jewish independence.’ For months, the Roman army paid siege on Jerusalem.
Finally, the Romans captured the city and burned the temple to the ground. The Jews were dispersed in many parts of the empire. In Persia, the Jewish communities were regularly harassed by Parthian officials. The Jews were suspected of spying for the Romans. This was not the only issue. The Jews did not recognize the nominal authority of the Parthian monarch in the areas of religion and learning.
The spread of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire and its subsequent adoption as the state religion proved detrimental to the Jewish religion. Emperor Constantine the Great ordered the destruction of Jewish synagogues in Judea and Syria in an attempt to strengthen Christianity. Constantine also banned the practice of the Jewish religion in Rome and other major cities. Constantine’s mother, Theodora, removed Jewish scholars in major centers of learning.
The contempt of the Roman emperors to the Jewish faith was based on the notion that the Jewish religion was the antithesis of Christianity. In many parts of the empire, Christians harassed Jewish communities. In major cities, Roman authorities instigated civil unrests to dislodge the Jews from their established communities.
In Persia, the Babylonian Jews lived in relative harmony. At the onset of the Roman invasion of Judea, the Babylonian Jews wanted to fight the Romans. The Parthian monarch threatened to use force if they insisted on waging war against the Romans. In the Parthian court, several Jewish scholars translated an ancient copy of the works of Zoroaster into Greek and Aramaic. The Parthian monarch even allowed the establishment of a small Jewish state in Babylonia. Indeed, while the Jews were persecuted in the Roman Empire, they were respected and protected in the Parthian Empire.
With the rise of the Sassanians, the Jews were suspected of spying for the Romans. The Sassanian ruler instigated major massacres of Jewish communities in an attempt to purify Sassanian society. This, however, eased at the end of the 6th century AD. In the West, the fall of the Roman Empire led to a short revival of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean. However, this was short-lived as the Christian Church began to impose its political and religious authority in some parts of the empire.