Roman Emperors

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It is impossible to make generalizations about the attitude of the Roman emperors toward the Jews. Different attitudes were adopted by different emperors and even the same emperor would change his views, sometimes dependent upon whether it was directed to the Jews in Ereẓ Israel or in other parts of the empire. On the other hand, it is possible to make a sufficiently clear distinction between the attitude of the pagan emperors on the one hand and the Christian on the other.

In general, the pagan emperors were tolerant toward the various foreign religions and even Cicero stated: "Sua cuique civitati religio est, nostra nobis" (Pro Flacco, 28). Augustus (27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.) continued the favorable policy toward the Jews initiated by *Julius Caesar. Under Tiberius (14–37), as a result of the influence of the powerful Sejanus, the young Jews of Rome were deported to Sardinia to fight brigandage, and a large number of them died there. The Senate decreed that all Jews who would not abjure their faith be banished from Italy and that their articles of religious worship be confiscated. The decree, however, was not put into effect, and in 31, after the death of Sejanus, the protective edicts of Caesar and *Augustus were reconfirmed. Under *Caligula (37–41), Jewish insurrections took place in Ereẓ Israel and Egypt, after the emperor, who desired to be worshiped as a god, had his statue erected in the Temple. The danger was averted due to the efforts of the delegation from the Jews of Alexandria, headed by Philo, and more by the sympathetic legate to Syria, Petronius *Publius. *Claudius (41–54), who did not claim divinity, restored the edict of tolerance to the Jews and extended it to the whole Roman Empire. In 49–50, he decided to expel from Rome the Jews who, perhaps because of conflicts with the Christians, had disturbed the public order (Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit; Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, Claudius, 25); the expulsion, however, was applied to a few individuals only. In 66, during the reign of *Nero (54–68), the disturbances in Palestine became a full-scale war which ended with the destruction of the Temple (70). Nevertheless, according to Josephus, when *Titus became emperor (79–81), he wished to show a benevolent attitude toward the Jews; in Jewish tradition, however, he remains "Titus the Wicked." Vespasian instituted the *fiscus judaicus. It was collected with particular harshness by Domitian (81–96), under whose reign the Jews suffered both in life and property. The meek *Nerva (96–98) started to protect the Jews again, and abolished the stringency of the collection of the fiscus. *Trajan (98–117) harshly repressed the Jewish revolt in Palestine, Egypt and Cyrenaica.

The attitude of *Hadrian (117–138) has been the subject of much controversy. Under his reign the *Bar Kokhba Revolt broke out. According to *Dio Cassius, the immediate cause of the revolt was the decision of Hadrian to transform Jerusalem into a Greek city and the Temple into a temple of Jupiter, but, according to Spartianus, it was caused by the prohibition against circumcision. The Midrash (Gen. R. 64:10) attributes it to the breach of promise to reconstruct the Temple, as a result of Samaritan pressure. According to Eusebius, however, the Jews were regarded as responsible for the outbreak of the war, and in consequence anti-Jewish measures were taken. The agitation of the Jews continued also under *Antoninus Pius (138–161), despite his conciliatory attitude which included the repeal of the prohibition against circumcision; as non-Jews were severely punished for circumcision, this signified, in practice, the prohibition of conversion. In fact, conversions were looked upon with disfavor by the emperors and punished with different penalties (for example, the edict of Septimius *Severus in 204). In 212, with the Constitutio Antoniniana of Caracalla (211–217), the Jews of the empire also became Roman citizens. Alexander *Severus (222–235) was so favorable in his attitude toward the Jews that a synagogue in Rome was named after him and he was nicknamed the archisynagogus. *Diocletian (284–305), the harsh adversary of Christians, Manicheans, and Samaritans, was in contrast friendly toward the Jews, as is affirmed by the Talmud.

With the triumph of Christianity in 313, the empire became ever more intolerant; religious liberty declined. A period of persecutions and juridical and political restrictions began toward the Jews, who were regarded as of a lower degree than pagans and heretics. Theoretically, for example, the destruction of a synagogue was still considered a crime, but in practice the penalties laid down were only partially observed and numerous offenses were perpetrated by the Church. There was an interval of tranquility and a restoration of religious liberty with *Julian the Apostate (361–363), who entertained the idea of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple, but with his death there was a religious reaction. In 399 *Honorius tried in vain to sever the bond between the Jews of the Roman Empire in the West and their brethren in Palestine. In vain did *Theodosius i (379–395) declare that it "could not be ascertained that the sect of the Jews was prohibited by any law"; the Church Fathers rebelled against him and the emperor was forced to retract his declaration. As a result of Theodosius' Novella, 3 (Jan. 31, 438), ascribed to the emperors Theodosius ii and Valentinian, the juridical capacity of the Jews in the public sector was completely exhausted. In their codices, Theodosius ii (in 438) and Justinian (between 529 and 533) assembled the decrees of the various Christian emperors with regard to the Jews: Justinian even attempted to intervene in the very internal life of the Jewish community. To a greater or lesser degree, every Christian emperor followed, henceforth, the program of an empire become confessionist, endeavoring to impose the Christian faith on its subjects and repressing all which did not conform to it.

See also individual entries on the emperors and their bibliographies.

[Alfredo Mordechai Rabello]