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Near East
586 BCE to 72 CE


In 586 BCE many Judaeans, including the country's leading citizens, were sent into exile in Babylonia. In this foreign land they retained, and even strengthened, their identity as a people.

In 539, Babylon was conquered by the armies of Media under the leadership of Cyrus, the Persian. The Persian Empire that Cyrus founded was extraordinary in many ways. It reached unprecedented size, eventually conquering Egypt and Asia Minor. It invented a system of government by which subject nations were reduced to provinces, ruled by governors. It instituted a large administrative network, building roads and using couriers to speed communications. At the outset, Persia was also careful to respect local cultures. The Judaean exiles in Babylon, for example, were given permission to return to Judah, and many did.

Communities of Judaeans also appeared in other districts of the Persian Empire. The largest outside Judah were in Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. The unity of the Persian Empire, a vast territory with minimal unrest and where Aramaic (a language akin to Hebrew) was the language of international exchange, encouraged Judaeans to travel and allowed their scattered communities to remain in contact.

In 334, Alexander the Great, the young king of Macedon, invaded Persia and quickly conquered the whole of its empire. After his sudden death in 323, his generals fought for control of the occupied territory. Two large empires emerged, each ruled by one of Alexander's generals. Ptolemy became king of Egypt, and Seleucus became king of Syria and Mesopotamia.

The effect on Near Eastern culture of this Greek conquest was profound. New Greek cities were established everywhere, and many existing cities were reshaped and renamed to reflect Greek cultural norms. Greek became the language of the elite everywhere.

In Palestine, Judaea (the territory of Judah by its Greco-Roman name) at first came under the tolerant rule of the Ptolemies. In about 200, however, the Seleucid Empire conquered Judaea. Occasional intolerance by Seleucid rulers led to revolts in Judaea and its final breaking away to form a largely independent kingdom under the Hasmonean family.

From the end of the 2nd century, Roman influence spread in the region as Rome co-opted or conquered many Near Eastern lands. Rome invested heavily in the infrastructure of the lands it ruled, building roads, water supplies, and public buildings, and further encouraging Greek (Hellenistic) culture.

Mesopotamia and the lands beyond, however, remained outside the Roman reach, and were ruled by a dynasty of Persian leaders. Despite various attempts over the years, Rome was never able to gain control of Mesopotamia. Although little evidence survives of their life in this period, the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia apparently enjoyed tolerant treatment by their Parthian Persian overlords.

In the late 1st century BCE, the Romans established a client kingdom in Judaea, ruled by Herod the Great. After Herod's death, however, Rome reduced the region to a province ruled by Roman procurators who had little understanding of or interest in the needs of the Judaean people.

In the year 66, Judaea rose in revolt and was crushed by Roman forces by 70 CE.