Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

The Division of the Roman Empire.


But a brief check was made on Christian advance and its pitiless attempt to suppress Judaism in the coming to the throne of Julian in 361. For this emperor did not endorse the new religion, but accepted the old Roman cult of the Pantheon, though in its most idealized form, preferring to purify instead of abolishing it. But it was too late; it had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Julian, whom the Church styled "the Apostate," was both tolerant and philanthropic, and a man who fostered learning. As between Christianity and Judaism, though bred in the former, to which he continued to grant perfect freedom of observance, his inclination turned rather toward the latter, and he held it in high esteem. He removed the restrictive laws and special taxes against Judaism, imposed by his predecessors. He even took steps for the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem. The Jews were transported with delight and began at once sending contributions toward its erection with greater zeal than was even shown, according to Scripture, by that generation in the wilderness in their gifts toward the Tabernacle. The Christians looked on with consternation, and regarded every unfavorable interruption as the miraculous intervention of heaven. Not a supposed miracle however, but a real event, brought the project to nought. Julian died on the battlefield.

Two Roman Empires.

In the meantime Rome was failing fast. The conflict for the throne on the death of each new emperor, showed that the Empire was crumbling from within. Long before the days of Constantine armies were electing their generals to the imperial dignity all over the empire. The throne was propped up a little longer by gaudy trappings, but this meant heavier taxation and further slavery. Finally the overgrown and undermined body split in twain, each half maintaining a separate existence. Byzantium, afterwards called Constantinople, was the capital of the Roman Empire of the East, while the city of Rome remained the centre of the Western half. The division was finally completed in the year 395. Although both were Christian, the duel empires were menaced by too many enemies from without to have the leisure to renew the anti-Jewish laws—for a time.

Huns, Goths and Vandals.

The influx of "barbarians," as all people outside of Rome were called, now came thick and fast. While some were absorbed in a friendly way, impressed with Rome's grandeur, and even served in its army, younger and healthier peoples looked contemptuously upon the decaying Empire and sought to absorb it rather than be absorbed. Even before the division, Julian had to keep off the incursions of the Franks and Alemanni (Germans). Theodosius, called the Great, bravely resisted the inflowing races, but he fought against destiny and therefore fought in vain. Driven by the Huns, a Scythian people from Tartary, under the leadership of Attila, the Goths crossed the Danube into the Roman territory as refugees; but cruelly treated, became enemies and began devastating the Western division of the empire. Alaric in 410 had sacked the imperial city itself. The Goths, to whom after much fighting, Rome granted important concessions, also—like Rome—fell into two divisions—the Ostragoths (Eastern), who settled on the Black Sea, and the Visigoths (Western), who occupied Dacia from the Dnieper to the Danube.

These details make dry reading; but the break-up of the Roman Empire after occupying the centre of the world's stage for four hundred years, marks the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages. This change of his environment was in a measure to change the Jew.

Let us complete this general survey. Already hordes of Suevi, Burgundians, Alemanni and Vandals had invaded Gaul and set up a Vandal Empire in Spain, where they contended with the Visigoths for control. Genseric, called the scourge of God, invaded Africa in 429 and devastated the coast from Gibraltar to Carthage. It was he, by the way, who seized the Temple vessels that Titus had taken from Jerusalem. They had passed, like their first owners, through many vicissitudes. Next, the Huns began laying waste the Western Empire, though finally defeated by the Gothic king, Theodoric. At last Odoacer, in 476, at the head of barbarian mercenaries, dethroned the last emperor, and the Roman Empire of the West came to an end in that year.

Persecution of the Jews.

In the meantime Christianity held the reins of power in the surviving eastern half of the Roman Empire. Its Church Fathers began to regard it as a part of their function to preach against Judaism. The people at large followed by burning synagogues or turning them into churches. But the Emperor Theodosius I. protected the Jews. Later, Bishop Cyril cruelly drove them out of Alexandria where they had had such an illustrious career since the days of Alexander the Great. No redress was made to them for loss of home and property. His disciples, following this barbarous precedent, seized the cultured Hypatia, a teacher of Platonic philosophy, whose rare learning had made her home a gathering place for students and scholars,—and the fanatic crowd rent her limb from limb.

But it was a bigoted and savage age. In mentioning the cruelly fanatic bishops, let us not forget the kind ones—Bishop Hilary of Poictiers in Gaul, at whose funeral the sympathetic Jews expressed their sorrow in the recital of Hebrew Psalms.

With Theodosius II, emperor of the eastern division of the Roman Empire, who came to this Byzantine throne in 408, began the systematic restraint of Judaism—the harsh discrimination against Jews before the law. They were prohibited from building new synagogues, from exercising jurisdiction between Christian and Jew, and from owning Christian slaves. The bishops and clergy began fomenting attacks in different localities, forcing baptism on some by threat. Ultimately the Patriarchate of Judea, the office of Nasi, was abolished in 425, after the Hillel family had enjoyed this dignity for three and a half centuries.

Israel suffered, too, at the hands of Christian ascetics who went to grotesque extremes and imposed absurd privations upon themselves to express religious zeal. Some condemned themselves to stand on pillars—hence called "pillar saints"; some to live as hermits in the desert. But with them all Jewish persecution was deemed a kind of piety, the logic being that Jewish beliefs were opposed to the truth and the Jews were the enemies of God. The most famous of these pillar saints was Simeon, surnamed Stylites, meaning pillar. As long as the Roman Empire of the West lasted, Jews were excluded from most public offices. The monies hitherto voluntarily contributed to maintain the Patriarchate were, now that this Palestinian official was deposed, demanded perforce to continue as a Jewish tax to aid a hostile State. Thus did Christian Rome follow the precedent of pagan Rome. This was the kind of treatment that they were now to meet in all Christian lands, marking the beginning of the Jewish Middle Ages.

Still Christian divines were glad enough to sit at the feet of Jewish scholars and learn from them the Hebrew tongue. In this way Jerome was enabled to make from the Hebrew a new translation of the Bible into Latin. It was called the Vulgate (Latin Vulgata, for public use). It has remained the authorized translation of the Catholic Church to this day.


The Holy Roman Empire, Bryce; chapter ii and iii. (Burt, New York.)

Hypatia, Kingsley.

On the Emperor Julian's relations with the Jews, especially with regard to his proposition of rebuilding the Temple, see two articles in the Jewish Quarterly Review vols. v. and x.

Theme for discussion:—What right had the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire to the title "Roman?"