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Trajans' war and the Exilarch's rise to power under the Parthians

The Parthian empire was large, tolerant and weak. How free a hand the Parthians permitted the Jews is perhaps best illustrated by the rise of a small Jewish outlaw state in Nehardea.[1] Still more remarkable is the conversion of the vassal kingdom of Adiabene to Judaism also in the 1st century C.E.[2] Yet the vastness of the Parthian empire was one of its strengths. Rome would be hard-pressed to hold such a large area, and would lay itself open to revolts in its own territories due to Roman troops being removed to the front lines.

During the first Jewish revolt which led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Babylonian Jews gave support, but few soldiers to fight together with their Israeli brethren against Vespasian.

Thirty years later, when Trajan was declared Emporer, it was a troubled time for Rome. Trajan spent two years settling affairs on the German frontier, delaying his first arrival in Rome after his appointment. Next he fought his first campaign against Dacia (Rumania), and returned victorious. Then Trajan conquered the Nabataean sandstone capital of Petra in the South Jordan, and made Nabataea a part of the new Roman province of Arabia; the Nabataean kingdom ceases to exist, although Petra is still a trading center, and the Aramaic-speaking Nabataeans later develop the Arabic script.

Revolt Against Trajan.jpg
Having secured his position, and after a stunning set of victories, Trajan began to dream of greater conquests. Since Alexander the Great, no Emperor had been able to conquer the Parthian Empire. In 114 CE, Roman troops moved towards Armenia, turning It into a Roman province. The Parthian government was terrified and began to make plans to retreat beyond the Tigris river. The Babylonian Exilarch Shlomo ben Hunya (r 90-120CE) realizing that he had no ability to retreat and understanding the threat to the Jewish nation, and its sympathizers, of Roman rule in this region. First, he raised a Jewish militia to harass the Roman troops, boosting moral and rallying the Pathian forces. Second, he called for revolt in Jewish areas already under Roman rule.

From 115-117 CE, the Jews revolted. A revolt which was mainly led by Jews broke out in Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrene on the north coast of Africa. In Cyrene it was led by a Jewish "king" called Lukuas, and in Cyprus by Artemion. After almost a year of fighting, Trajan's General, Marcius Turbo, succeeded in putting down the rebellion. In all of the cities there was widespread slaughter including the capital of Cyprus, Salamis, much of Alexandria and most of the Island of Cyrene. In Alexandria, the great synagogue and library were destroyed as well. As a result, Jews were forbidden to live in Cyprus. This revolt was known to many historians as the second rebellion against Rome. Rome countered the revolt by destroying Jewish Alexandria over three years.

In 115 CE Trajan occupied Adiabene and southern Mesopotamia. Trajan was the first Roman emperor to dare (after 167 years) to cross the Euphrates with a Roman army, and in the winter of 115-116 CE Rome conquered the capital of Parthia, Ctesiphon. Kitos War raged in Jerusalem, provoked by Roman procurator Lucius Quietus who set an idol up on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Abgar VII, ruler of Edessa with its large Jewish population switched from the Roman to the Parthian side. Trajan then sent Lucius Quietus, who captured Edessa, sacked it, and killed Abgar VII. Rome annexed Mesopotamia and Assyria and briefly made the Tigris river the eastern boundary of Roman Empire. At this point the Roman Empire reached maximum territorial expansion. In 117 CE, Trajan was struck with a serious illness. The emporer had to abandon the battlefield. He attempted to reach Rome, but died on the way in Selinius, a town in Asia Minor.

Hadrian, cousin of Trajan, was appointed Roman emperor. He was met with chaos and attempted to pacify the Empire. First he abandoned all the recent conquests beyond the Euphrates. He put ruthless Quietus to death and promised policies of peace and compromise to the regions. He even promised the Jews they could rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. It was in a great measure owing to the revolt of the Babylonian Jews that the Romans did not become masters of Parthia.[3] In recognition of services thus rendered by the Jews of Babylonia, and by the Davidic house especially, the Parthian kings elevated the "princes of the Exile", who till then had been little more than mere collectors of revenue, to the dignity of real princes.[4]


  1. Anilai and Asinai were two outlaws of Nehardea in Babylonia. They were apprenticed by their widowed mother to a weaver. Having been punished for laziness by their master, they ran away and became freebooters in the marshlands of the Euphrates. There they gathered about them a large number of discontented Jews, organizing troops, and levying forced contributions on the shepherds, and finally established a little robber-state at the forks of the Euphrates. One Sabbath they were surprised by the Parthian ruler of Babylonia, but they determined to fight regardless of the day of rest, and defeated their assailant so completely that the Parthian king Artaban III. (about 10-40), who was just then engaged in putting down a rebellion, resolved to make use of such brave Jews to keep the satraps in check. He concluded an alliance with them, entrusting them with the control of that portion of Babylonia which they already occupied. They then built fortifications, and the little state lasted for fifteen years (about 18-33). Its downfall was brought about by the marriage of Anilai with the widow of a Parthian general, whom he had attacked and killed in battle. He tolerated the idolatry of his foreign wife, and met the religious objections of his people with violence, thus estranging his followers and sowing dissension among them. After Asinai had been poisoned by his brother's wife for his too frank utterances, Anilai assumed the leadership of his troops. He sought to divert them with wars, and succeeded in capturing Mithridates, governor of Parthyene, and son-in-law of the king. He soon, however, released Mithridates, fearing that Artaban might take vengeance on the Babylonian Jews for his death. Being signally defeated by Mithridates in a subsequent engagement, he was forced to withdraw to the forests, where he lived by plundering the Babylonian villages about Nehardea, until his resources were exhausted and the little robber-state disappeared. Babylonian hatred of the Jews, long restrained from fear of Anilai, now broke forth afresh, and the Jews fled from the persecutions to Seleucia without finding there the desired peace. (Jewish Encyclopedia: Anilai and Asinai)
  2. Under the Persian kings Adiabene seems for a time to have been a vassal state of the Persian empire. Ardashir III. (361-338 B.C.), before he came to the throne, had the title "King of ?adyab" (Nצldeke, "Geschichte der Perser," p. 70). The little kingdom attained a certain prominence on account of its kings during the first century. Izates became a Jew. His conversion took place before he ascended the throne and while he lived in Charax Spasinu. At about the same time his mother, Helena, was also converted. The times were troublous ones; for Parthian kings and counter-kings followed each other in quick succession. Artaban III. was king of Atropatene. He had succeeded Vonones, who, having been educated entirely at Rome, was unsympathetic toward the Parthians. Artaban soon had to flee to Hyrcania to escape from the rival king, Tiridates III. He returned, however, in 36, and, being afraid of a conspiracy, took refuge at the court of Izates, who was powerful enough to induce the Parthians to reinstate Artaban. For this service certain kingly honors were granted Izates, and the city of Nisibis was added to his dominions. However, in 45, Gotarzes, an adopted son of Artaban, was raised to the throne by the nobles, in preference to Vardanes, his half-brother. In 49 Meherdates (Mithridates V.), a son of Vonones, was sent from Rome by Claudius to take possession of the throne of Parthia. Izates played a double game, though he secretly sided with Gotarzes. A few years later, Vologeses I. set out with the intention of invading Adiabene and of punishing Izates; but a force of Dacians and Scythians had just entered Parthia, and Vologeses had to return home.
    It is impossible to tell how far the inhabitants of Adiabene had followed the example of their king and become Judaized. Josephus ("B. J." preface, § 2) refers to the "Adiabenoi" as Jews. Both Queen Helena and Izates showered presents upon Jerusalem, and the queen took the king's sons there to be educated. The remains of Helena and Izates were sent by Monobaz II. to Jerusalem for burial. There seems to be no doubt that there were a number of Adiabene Jews in Jerusalem, who probably belonged to the princely household. Josephus knew several, and in"B. J." ii. 19, § 2 mentions a Kenedeus and a Monobaz as aiding bravely in the defense of Jerusalem against the Romans, and "the sons and brethren of Izates the king . . . were bound . . . and led to Rome, in order to make them hostages for their country's fidelity to the Romans" ("B. J." vi. 6, § 4). A certain Jacob ?adyaba is mentioned in B. B. 26b; and also Zuga of ?adyab, or Zawa (Heilprin, "Seder ha-Dorot," ed. 1882, ii. 115). The Talmud mentions a certain kind of scorpion in Adiabene (Bab. Shab. 121b; in Yer. Shab. xiv. 14b, the reading is incorrect) that might be killed on the Sabbath day because of its venomous character. It also states (Bab. Men. 32b) that the followers of Monobaz (Yer. Meg. iv., end, !) were accustomed to fix the mezuzah upon a staff, and to set the staff upright in any inn in which they happened to pass the night (Tosef., Meg. iv. [iii.] 30; Yer. Meg. iv. 75c). (Jewish Encyclopedia: Adiabene)
  3. Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl." iv. 2; Philo "Legatio ad Cajum," para 36
  4. F. Lazarus, in Brüll's "Jahrbücher," x. 62