This Day in Jewish History

397: Roman Emperors Ban Attacks on Jews

Honorius and Arcadius crack down on pagans and heretics, but protect the Jews as barbarians invade.

Reuters

On this day, June 17, 397 C.E., the Roman emperors Arcadius and Honorius issued an order forbidding attacks on Jews and on synagogues.

“Jews are not to be harassed or attacked,” wrote the brother emperors, who divided the Roman empire between them upon the death of their father, Theodosius I, in 395 C.E., in accordance with their father’s will. They also commanded the regional governors to maintain peace at the synagogues.

Honorius, the younger son, ruled the western part of the empire for 28 years, until 423 C.E. He was just 10 when he assumed the throne. Arcadius, who assumed the throne at 18, ruled the eastern part only until 408 C.E.

In a series of laws, Honorius and Arcadius reinforced benefits to fellow Christians and cracked down on pagans and “heretics,” meaning anyone who disagreed with the defined as anybody disagreeing with the church on even a minor point of doctrine. During their first year in power, they rescinded concessions made to heretics under their father and banned heretics from government service. Pagans were prohibited from making sacrifices and having government jobs.

In their second year in power, the brother emperors decreed that it would be a punishable offense for non-Jews to set prices for Jewish merchants. The following year, on June 17, 397 C.E., they banned attacks on Jews and synagogues. In an effort to keep Jews from converting to Christianity in order to avoid paying their debts, they also ruled that any Jews seeking to convert had to repay their debts first.

This protection of the Jews was due less to affection than to an interest in maintaining public order in the ceaselessly writhing empire. The brothers’ reign was marked by border battles with “barbarians” making inroads in Gaul, Italy and Spain.

In 402 C.E. a Visigoth force headed by King Alaric I invaded Italy. After eight years of fighting, during which the force was repelled time and again, a revitalized Alaric finally reached Rome, besieged it and sacked it. Meanwhile, an alliance of barbarian forces had crossed the frozen Rhine and invaded Gaul. The British Isles were cut off and Rome left them to their fate, advising that it could not use its military power to help repel barbarian incursions.

With their empire crumbling, the emperor brothers sought to subdue the added headache of gratuitous violence against the Jews, which picked up in the 4th century.

Anti-Jewish sentiment is not some invention of the modern age. Well before the advent of Christianity, the Jews and Romans were locked in a struggle over religious rights and political rule, leading to three major Jewish-Roman wars between 66 and 135 C.E. Constant tensions between the Jewish and Greek communities also led to much bloodshed.

The First Jewish Revolt erupted in 66 C.E., after the Romans looted the Second Temple and killed thousands of Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews rebelled, but could not hold out forever against the endless Roman force, and the war ended in 73 C.E. The second great war, known as the Rebellion of the Exile, lasted two years, from 115 C.E. to 117 C.E., and the three-year Bar Kochba Revolt began in 132 C.E.

It could be said that the Romans won. The wars left the Mediterranean region almost bereft of its once burgeoning populations of Jews. Emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., depriving Judaism of its central point of worship. With the rise of Christianity, a new kind of tension developed, driven by the Jewish rejection of the New Testament. The anti-Jewish violence was facilitated by the gradual breakdown of the Roman government during the 4th century, despite the edict to the contrary by the brother emperors Arcadius and Honorius.