Roman Emperors After Vespasian

Vespasian died several years after the churban, and was succeeded by his son Titus, whose rule was marked by great benevolence. When the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and other disasters occurred during his reign, Titus emptied the imperial coffers to aid the populace. How did his unspeakable cruelty give way to such kindness? Although scholars differ on the subject,How did his unspeakable cruelty give way to such kindness? Titus’ change in personality was likely due to a degenerative condition caused by a gnat eating away at his brain. According to the Talmud, Titus was punished in such an unnatural manner because he blasphemed the Almighty when he destroyed the Beit Hamikdash.

In 81 CE, after a two-year reign, Titus died and was succeeded by his brother Domitian, a vicious anti-Semite. Troubled by the Jewish success at Yavneh, the new emperor’s constant harassment forced the assembly to disband. Also plotting to exterminate the Jews throughout the empire, Domitian’s decree was forestalled due to the intervention of a sympathetic Roman senator, who gave his life to annul the edict. In 96 CE, after Domitian's assassination, Nerva, an emperor more favorable to the Jews, ascended to the throne. Relaxing many of the discriminatory decrees against the Jews, Nerva also repealed the annual tax that Jews had to pay to the temple of Jupiter.


The emperor Trajan, who succeeded Nerva from 98-117 CE, was a vicious anti-Semite, and the Jews suffered terribly through his long reign. Dreaming of extending the Roman Empire beyond the countries Alexander the Great had conquered, even to fabled India, Trajan knew that Babylon, heavily populated by Jews, lay in his path. The Babylonian Jews found themselves in a terrible dilemma: Should they resist the Romans, thereby endangering all the Jews in the Roman Empire, or should they not fight alongside their Babylonian countrymen to repulse Trajan, and thereby being accused of treason? Alarmed at the prospect of all the world's Jews falling under Roman domination, the Jews of Babylon chose the former. As such, the Romans conquered Babylon, but held it only a short time.

Infuriated by the Jewish role in Trajan's defeat, the anti-Semitic Greeks of Alexandria, Egypt, assisted by Roman troops, instigated pogroms against the Alexandrian Jews, the largest Jewish population of any city in the Roman Empire. Many Jews had assembled for prayer at the Great Synagogue, which was so vast that sextons standing with flags indicated the time to respond Amen to the blessings. At prayer, the Jews were massacred to the last person.

When the Jews of Cyprus and Libya discovered what had happened to the empire’s largest and wealthiest Jewish community, they readied themselves to resist the inevitable attacks. Taking their preparations as a sign of incipient revolt, Trajan sent Roman legions to assist the Greeks in wiping out the Jews. To this day, church historians, full of malice toward Jews, have distorted these events, stating that the Jews both attempted a general uprising against Rome and engaged in wholesale massacres of Greeks and Romans. However, papyrus writings of that period indicate that the Greeks were the instigators.

DuringThe sages had to leave Yavneh and met secretly Trajan's rule, the sages had to leave Yavneh and met secretly. Convening surreptitiously in the town of Lod, in the attic of the Nitzah family, their meetings are recorded in the Talmud as B'Aliyas Beit Nitzah B'Lud. At this time, Trajan appointed a special governor for Eretz Israel,Quietus, who caused so much anguish that to commemorate the intense suffering the sages forbade brides to wear crowns. He was so hated that the date of Quietus' removal from office was celebrated annually.


If Trajan was horrible, he was benign compared to his successor Hadrian, who of all the Roman emperors was the single worst ruler of the Jewish people. Remarkably, though, Hadrian began his reign favorably inclined to the Jews. Roman oppression of Jews throughout the empire ceased, and the Sanhedrin was permitted to reconvene openly, this time in the town of Usha in the Galilee. Hadrian even gave permission to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash.

Understandably, excitement in the Jewish world reached a fever pitch. Vast sums of money were gathered, and multitudes of Jews streamed toward Eretz Israel. However, the Samaritan inhabitants of the land, long-time foes of the Jews, were terrified by the possibility of a Jewish rejuvenation. Convincing Hadrian that a Jewish rejuvenation would spark a revolt, the Samaritans advised Hadrian to retract his magnanimous gesture. Not willing to change his mind openly, Hadrian allowed the Jews to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash, but stipulated that it could not be in its original place. Since Jewish law precisely fixes the site of the Temple, this decree was tantamount to a revocation of the promise.

Greatly dismayed at having their hopes so cruelly dashed, many Jews began talking openly of revolt, and it took the valiant efforts of the great sage Rabbi Joshua to ameliorate the people’s anger. The turning point was his parable of a bird that removes a bone stuck in a lion's throat, then demands a reward. The lion replies that the ability to boast of sticking one's neck into a lion's mouth and escaping unscathed is itself the greatest reward. Likewise, Rabbi Joshua continued, Jews should be grateful that they are not being persecuted, and therefore not demand too much from the Romans. Mollified, the people accepted Rabbi Joshua's logic, and calm was temporarily restored.

OverCalm was temporarily restored time, however, Hadrian realized that the mitzvahs of the Torah, rather than national independence, were the backbone of the Jewish people – and he set out to break it. Indeed, Hadrian took several steps that convinced the Jewish people that there was no alternative to rising up against an oppressor bent on destroying them spiritually. First, Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Beit Hamikdash, and then began constructing a new Roman city, naming it Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem. To accomplish his aims, Hadrian completely ploughed over the remnants of Jerusalem, thereby removing all traces of the former Jewish presence. As the destruction of the Holy Temple itself, this tragedy also occurred on Tisha B'Av, and is one of the reasons for the fast. In a departure from previous Roman policy, Hadrian also decreed against the observance of key mitzvahs: bris milah, the Sabbath, and taharas mishpacha, family purity. As in the times of Antiochus, this blow against the Torah sparked the second great Jewish revolt against Rome.