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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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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 persecution.

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 Jewish community.


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