Iranian neighbours to the west


BEFORE THE ROMAN CONQUEST Map icon: click for a map


For Judaea, there is more written source material than for most of Iran's border lands. Most important is the Jewish history preserved in the collection of texts in the holy book of the Jewish religion known to Christians as the Old Testament.

For later history, we depend on Josephus (born AD 37/8)- although a Jew, he owed his cushy life in Rome to the emperor Trajan, who was not exactly a friend to his people. His predominant attitude was that the Jews were stupid to take on the Romans, whom their god clearly currently favoured, when a much better life could be had by co-operating with them. Two important works of his, in Greek, survive: the Jewish War which deals with the confrontations with Rome of which he was an eye-witness, and Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews from the creation to his own time.

Outline history:

  • Captivity in Babylon: In 587 BC, many Judaeans were taken as captives by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II to his capital at Babylon. The ancient temple in Jerusalem, built by king Solomon in perhaps 968 BC, which had been the focus of their religion, was destroyed. The captivity had a deep effect on the religion of the Jews: previously their god had, like most other tribal gods of the region, earned his people's respect by smiting their enemies. Now the Jews had been smitten - but instead of abandoning their god as a weakling, they re-invented him as the supporter of suffering, a protector who would lead them to eventual salvation. Read full discussion here.
  • The Persians: In 539 BC The Persian king Cyrus captured Babylon, and, according to Jewish accounts, promised to restore the Jewish people to their homeland, and help rebuild the temple. The Jewish prophet Isaiah appears to see Cyrus as the one chosen by their god to save them:
    Thus says Yahweh [the Jews' name for their god], your redeemer,
    who fashioned you from birth (...)
    who says to Cyrus: "You shall be my shepherd
    to carry out all my purpose,
    so that Jerusalem may be rebuilt
    and the foundations of the temple may be laid."
    Thus says the lord to Cyrus, his anointed,
    Cyrus whom he has taken by the hand
    to subdue nations before him
    and undo the might of kings;
    before whom gates shall be opened
    and no doors closed:
    "I will go before you
    and level the mountains,
    I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut asunder the bars of iron.
    I will give you treasures from dark vaults,
    hoarded in secret places,
    that you my know I am Yahweh,
    Israel's god who calls you by name.
    For the sake of Jacob, my servant, and Israel, my chosen,
    I have called you by name
    and given you your title, though you do not know me.
    I am Yahweh, there is no other;
    There is no god beside me."

    The rebuilding of the temple is referred to in the book of Ezra:

    In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: "Concerning the house of god in Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices are offered and burnt offerings are brought; its height shall be 60 cubits and its breadth 60 cubits, with three courses of large stones and one of timber; let the cost be paid from the house of the king. And also let the gold and silver vessels of the house of god, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon be restored and brought back to the temple which is in Jerusalem." Ezra 6.2-5

    Not all wanted to return : the Jewish community in Iraq eventually grew very large. And the returnees were not universally welcomed by the "people of the land" [Nehemiah 1-7]. Judaea, according to evidence from coinage and Jewish scripture (where it's called Yehud), became an autonomous district of the satrapy of Eber-Nari. It remained under Persian rule for 200 years until …

  • Alexander the Great in 330 BC put an end to the Persian empire, and Judaea came under Greek rule. It was fought over by …

  • The Ptolemies; descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, whose power was based in Egypt. Their great rivals were …

  • The Seleucids : descendants of Alexander's general Seleucus, based in Syria. In 168 BC the Seleucid king Antiochus IV began encouraging wealthy Jews to embrace Greek culture, and especially religion. Jews who refused to worship Zeus were liable to be punished. This sparked an independence movement, which, led by Judas, nicknamed Maccabee (“The Hammer”) was eventually successful.

  • Independence. From 140 BC the Jews were ruled by Judas' descendants, the Maccabees (also called the Hasmoneans), now high priests themselves. Under them Judaea expanded, by annexing the surrounding peoples : many of whom who were forced to adopt the Jewish religion.

The Roman annexation: Pompey

The Parthians were the main power in the Middle East at this time. They had exploited the weakness of the Greek Seleucids to re-establish an empire based in Persia. Whether or not they truly threatened Roman interests, the Romans thought they did : and were very anxious to keep a “buffer” between the Parthians and themselves.

Pompey: The recent Jewish expansion under the Maccabees had brought them to the notice of the Parthians. In 63 BC, the Roman generaL Pompey, already calling himself “the Great”, arrived in the area. Roman interest had begun. Pompey scared the Parthians into making peace, and then turned his attention to the trouble in Judaea. Two Maccabee brothers each wanted to be king : but when Pompey decided to support one, the other unwisely tried to attack him, and then took refuge in Jerusalem. Pompey decided to lay siege to Jerusalem : no easy matter. The Jewish historian Josephus describes what happened:

As he approached, Pompey tried to work out how he could attack the city, seeing the impregnable solidity of the walls and the fearsome ravine in front of them.

The Roman effort would have gone on for ever, if Pompey had not exploited the seventh day, on which the Jews, because of their religion, do no manual work. He got his troops to increase the height of his earthworks: the Jews are not allowed to fight on the Sabbath except in self-defence : so that as long as his men did not attack, they had a free hand with the siege-works. Even so, his ballistae were ineffective against the massive and beautiful towers of the city.

While the Romans were putting up with all these severe hardships, Pompey was amazed at the Jews, especially because they did not let up on their religious observances, despite coming under constant fire from Roman missiles. The daily routines of worship in honour of the god continued just as in peacetime. The siege had lasted three months when the Romans finally dislodged one of the towers, and burst into the temple.

Many of the priests, seeing the enemy advancing, swords at the ready. remained unperturbed at their devotions, and were massacred as they poured libations and burned incense, putting their safety in second place to the worship of the god.

But most of the dead were killed by rival groups of their own race, while an unknown number threw themselves over the precipices; some, driven insane in their hopelessness, set fire to buildings around the walls, and were burned to death. Of the Jews, twelve thousand died, while on the Roman side there were more wounded than actually killed.

But the horror that most affected the Jews was the exposure to foreigners of the holy place, which only the high priest was allowed to enter. Pompey and his officers went inside and saw the holy objects , all made of gold: the candelabrum, lamps, table, the sacrificial vessels, the store of spices, and the sacred money : 2,000 talents of it. However Pompey did not touch these things, nor anything else in the temple. In fact the very next day he gave orders to the attendants to clean the place, and resume the sacrifices as normal.

Josephus, Jewish War 1. 146

Roman control: Herod

The continuing threat from the Parthians soon caused the Romans to appoint as king of Judaea the strong and capable Herod (although, or more likely because, he was an Idumaean, a people forced to convert by the Maccabees). Herod's support for the Romans , especially the future emperor Augustus in his campaign against Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC brought rich rewards. He also caused misery to his own people through severe taxation. Josephus explains:

The excuse he used to the Jews was that the Romans were forcing him to carry out these projects. At the same time he told the Romans that they were in their honour. Really however he was only interested in himself, and his ambition was to leave behind monuments to his reign.

His building projects included rebuilding the temple (18,000 were employed in this project), the port of Caesarea, and, for himself several amazing fortress-palaces, including Masada and Herodium, which was to be his tomb. His increasing paranoia (he executed his wife, and three of his sons , including his heir) and the chaos it caused led to direct Roman intervention after his death.


The "Herodium" - the palace is inside the hill.

Continue with the story of Judaea under Roman rule...