When Roman Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity in the early 4th century CE and moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople (then the sleepy fishing village of Byzantium) it marked a seismic shift in world geopolitics. Although the provinces under Roman control may have remained the same, the change would prove paramount as Christianity spread throughout the ancient world to become the dominant religion of the West.
Constantine built the first original Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City and his mother, Empress Helena, was said to have been the first to make a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
But what was life like for the Jews of one of history’s greatest empires?
Although Jewish historical sources from this period are scarce, there are Christian and pagan sources that can be used to determine what life may have been like on a day-to-day basis, during this relatively little-known period of Jewish history.
After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, “Constantine’s bringing physical Jerusalem back to life, and the historical reality of Jesus’s life there established that city as the center of the [Christian] world, which is when we encounter the beginning of Christian pilgrimage to Judea,” explained Professor Oded Irshai of the Hebrew University’s Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry.
“From then on Judea and Jerusalem become the center of attention for the Christians. So how did the Jews respond to this? To that we have no real answer. There were very few Jews left in Judea. Most of the Jewry in Roman Palestine is concentrated along the coastline, in the Galilee and the Golan Heights. There is a divide in Roman Palestine from the point of settlement – Galilee was mainly Jewish. Judea was mainly Christian.” AS one of the world’s first Christian empires, in the very formative years of the new religion, the Byzantine authorities and population had a complex relationship with the Jews. Although legally citizens and legally allowed to practice their religion, after Constantine anti-Jewish legislation was brought in by Emperor Theodosius, which was later reaffirmed by the Emperor Justinian, excluding Jews from certain positions in the government and military posts.
In 553 CE the Emperor Justinian forbade the use and study of the Mishna, known as the Oral Torah, leading to Jewish scholars to compose piyutim, the liturgical poems used in religious services and a major part of the High Holy Days’ services. As the focus of Byzantine Palestine moved toward Christianity from Judaism, the center of world Jewry gradually switched from Judea to Babylon, which had the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora and it was there the Babylonian Talmud was composed. The land of Israel would not return as Judaism’s major religious center (although it would always remain a central tenant in prayer) until the 20th century.
Jerusalem and the Holy Land also fell to the Persian Sassanians and then to the Muslims in the early 7th century, marking the end of Byzantine Palestine, leaving only a diaspora of communities dotted throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
And what about Jews in the wider empire? Irshai shares an anecdote of one situation when the Jews felt confident enough to protect themselves.
“In Alexandria there was a very established Jewish community, established in the days of Alexander the Great. In the 5th century CE there was an incident where the Jews, rather than being under the thumb of Christian power, they lashed out against the local Christians. They burned down the church and killed many Christians. The retaliation was swift and harsh and the community was exiled from Alexandria.
“Jewish steadfastness against Christian aggression existed, but in the end the Jews suffer the consequences. There was a lot of tension in the air. If you read Christian texts, you see a lot of writings against Judaism and the Jews. The Jews were targeted in literature, no question, but on the whole, people did live comfortably amidst these Christians,” stated Irshai.
Despite the degree of antisemitism which was commonly found throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jewish life seems to have been relatively normal in a way modern Jews might find familiar.
“The Jews are part and parcel of society,” Irshai told the Magazine.
“They do fit in. They served as merchants, as traders, and you can see many spots in the empire where you encounter them in these traditional roles. They were involved in the economy of the Roman Empire. There is a story in which one Synesius, who became a bishop, travels with his brother on a ship that is owned by a Jew, who is also the captain. On board is also a contingent of Roman soldiers, a few merchants, Synesius and his brother, maybe 80 people in all. They sail along the coast and run into a storm and Shabbat sets in. What do they do? Instead of trying to get to the shore in time for Shabbat, the captain lets down the anchor, stops the ship from moving, prostrates on the floor of the cabin and prays, because Shabbat has come in. So you have someone who is shomer Shabbat (observant) who owns a vessel and is also the captain. And he is surrounded with desperate people who are prepared to kill him because he’s not doing what they think he ought to do, because Shabbat has set it.” Stories such as these indicate the relatively normality with the Jews could live on a day-to-day to basis. Although there were many flare-ups of antisemitism throughout the 1,000 years that the empire was in existence, the Eastern Mediterranean seems to have been a relatively stable base for its Jewish communities for many generations.
AND WHAT about the Jews’ social time? Was it all pray and no play?
Again, Irshai provides examples from external sources that show what Jews did their spare time.
“We have a fair amount of snippets that highlight Jewish life, which is fascinating because it is a highly formative period,” Irshai said. “The incident in Alexandria described before has another little tale to it. The Jews were accused that on a certain Saturday a group of them gathered in the theater of Alexandria, and the author says the Jews didn’t go to the synagogue to listen to the portion of the Torah, but they preferred to go the theater. There’s nothing new there. They preferred to go the theater. This is an amazing discovery. That Jews went to the theater – and the theater back then was full of obscenities and full of cases of blood sports, gladiators, etc.” Sports seem to have been as important to some Jews of the era, as they were to their Byzantine compatriots. Irshai explains how the Jews backed their favorite charioteers in games with specific colors, much like today’s sports.
“They operated along the colors red green blue and white, and the Jews usually sided with the blues. The sports were the heart of the activities and leisurely time at the center of the world. With Christianity the sports did not die out; they developed into something more extreme.” How do we know about the Jewish fans?
“Stadiums were divided into sections, along fan lines,” Irshai explained. “Fans don’t mix. Some seats were found I believe in Antioch, seats with the names of the Jews on these stone seats in the stadium. Good seats where Jews paid money, among the gentiles, so they were part of this whole time. At times, antisemitic tensions flared up and Jews were caught up in this, but they were overall accepted as genuine fans. They were not kicked out of these [sporting] clubs; they were a part of them.” Some say modern world Jewry has never been more split along religious, political and social lines, but perhaps if we glance back 1,500 years to the daily lives of the Jews of the Byzantine Empire, we may see that we haven’t really changed that much.