Europe/Near East/North Africa
72 to 732 CE
When the Roman Empire reached its greatest size in 117 CE it stretched
from northern Britain to the coasts of the Red Sea and the Persian
Gulf. The failed Judaean revolt of 66-70 had left strained relations
between Jews and Roman rulers, and, in 115-117, Jews revolted
against Roman authorities in Alexandria, Egypt, and in Cyrene,
on the coast of North Africa. The unrest spread to communities
as far away as Cyprus and Mesopotamia, inspiring even non-Jews
to rebel against Rome.
Rome suppressed the revolt in 117, and obliterated the Jewish
community of Cyprus. Another Jewish revolt broke out in 132 in
Palestine. Roman forces crushed it in 135 and turned Jerusalem
into a pagan city.
Responding in part to the danger posed by these devastating defeats
and the loss of a political homeland, Jewish scholars intensified
their efforts to codify Jewish law and set up academies to pass
on Jewish teachings.
In the second and third centuries, the economy and government
of the Roman Empire began to fail. Meanwhile, Christianity, which
had begun as a splinter sect of Judaism, gained adherents throughout
an increasingly demoralized Roman world. In the late 4th century,
though it was still the religion of a minority, Christianity was
adopted by Roman rulers as the official religion of the empire.
Shortly thereafter, in 395, the empire split into a western and
an eastern half, and, within fifteen years, the western half was
rocked by a series of invasions by Germanic peoples. Increasingly
unable to defend itself, the west was overrun, and, in 476, the
western empire came to an end when its last emperor was deposed
by a German chieftain.
Western Europe fragmented into territorial enclaves, most of which
were governed by Germanic rulers who converted to Christianity.
Some rulers restricted contact between Christians and Jews or
tried to force Jews to convert by placing economic and social
restrictions upon them. There were also occasions of outright
To the east, in the relative stability of the Sassanid Persian
Empire, the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia preserved and extended
Jewish learning, and their scholars and academies gradually gained
recognition from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean
as the ultimate source of Jewish legal and religious authority.
Despite increasing religious intolerance by Sassanid rulers, by
the 6th century Jewish scholars in Mesopotamia were well on their
way to completing the great Babylonian Talmud, a vast compilation
of commentaries on Jewish scriptures and Jewish law.
Elsewhere in the Near East, in the early 7th century, a dramatic
new religious movement arose. In Arabia, in about 622, the Prophet
Muhammad founded Islam. He and his followers soon embarked on
a campaign of conquest that brought Arabia, Mesopotamia, North
Africa, and Spain under the sway of Islam. Many Jews and heterodox
Christians welcomed the new political order and the protected
status that Islam granted them.
In the next centuries, Islam revitalized the economic and cultural
life of many Mediterranean lands. It advanced the science of mathematics
and astronomy, extended the philosophical work of the ancient
Greeks, and set up an international code of commercial law that
facilitated trade in the Mediterranean, across southern Asia,
and throughout the lands of the Indian Ocean.
Jews became minor partners in this new enterprise, and, despite
occasional vicissitudes, Muslim rule helped revitalize the international