539 BCE to 632 CE: The Story

Print this page Print this page

In 539 BCE, Cyrus, the Persian emperor, arrived in Babylon, effectively inheriting the vast Babylonian empire including Palestine. Rather than employing the policies of conquest and exile like their Babylonian and Assyrian predecessors, the Persian emperors viewed themselves as liberators and restorers, and encouraged exiled peoples to return to their native lands and rebuild their religious and cultural institutions.

Many of the exiled Jews in Babylon took advantage of this new policy.  Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, several waves of Jews headed towards their ancestral homeland, in the former territory of the Kingdom of Judah. They gained autonomy and were eventually permitted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

The biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah attest to conflicts with fellow Jews who had not been exiled, as well as with neighboring peoples, obstructing and delaying the rebuilding process. Moreover, Judah was a Persian province; the Jews had only achieved token autonomy.  A longing for true independence figures prominently in the literature of the Second Temple period (539 BCE-70 CE).

Persian rule was nonetheless more amicable than the rule of the Greek and Roman empires that followed.  In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great extended his empire into Judea (the Greek and Latin term for Judah), but within a decade, Alexander was dead, and his empire dissolved into competing factions.

For the Jews, this instability was especially traumatic; their land served as a constant battleground between the rivaling Seleucids (in Syria) and Ptolemies (of Egypt).  The Greeks caused additional tensions by interfering in religious matters, levying heavy taxes, and encouraging the Jews to adopt Greek culture.  These factors, combined with Jewish infighting and the continued desire for autonomy, eventually led to the Maccabean revolt, an effort that achieved a brief period of independence in the middle of the second century BCE.  The situation changed little with the arrival of the Romans in the first-century BCE.

Roman emperors tended to rule from afar. Local leaders handled day-to-day affairs; perhaps the most famous was Herod, known for his great building achievements, his efforts to appease both the Romans and Jews, his quest for stature, and his paranoia.

ancient history quizLike their Greek predecessors, the rulers of Judea during the Roman period extracted heavy taxes and often offended monotheistic sensibilities.  Tensions came to a head with a full-fledged revolt beginning in 66 CE.  The Romans responded with a series of assaults culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The war between the Romans and the Jews continued until the defeat of the Jews with the fall of the desert fortress of Masada in 73 CE. According to the first century historian Josephus, 960 men, women, and children committed suicide there rather than surrender to the Romans.

During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Jews had established communities in new regions, including Egypt, Asia Minor and the Roman Empire. In 115 CE, Jews in the diaspora communities rose up in revolt against the Romans, but again the Romans armies emerged victorious.

The last armed revolt--called the Bar Kokhba Revolt after its leader--occurred between 132 and 135 CE, attempting to liberate the Jews from their Roman oppressors who had outlawed circumcision and replaced Jerusalem with a pagan city.  This rebellion was crushed after three and a half years of battle, during which hundred of thousands of Jews died, changing the ethnic make-up of the land. Though still a majority overall, Jews existed as a minority or not at all some regions. Around this time, the Roman Emperor Hadrian changed the name of the province from Judea to Palestina in an effort to de-emphasize the Jewish connection to the land. 

The Roman Empire became Christian in 315 CE, placing Palestine under dual law: Roman and Christian. The legal and social status of the Jews was redefined; new laws regulated Jewish marriage, commerce, synagogue construction and Jewish-Christian social relations.  For example, Jews were not permitted to own Christian slaves.

Roman/Byzantine rule of Palestine continued through the beginning of the seventh century, when the Persians, then the Arabs won the land. From 638, Jerusalem was under Muslim control. Muslim leaders recognized the Jews as monotheists, and this gave them a degree of protection during the early years of Islam.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.