In the ancient Greek and Roman world, Jews were an ethnic group whose religion and practices set them apart from others. They lived in Judaea, a region of the eastern Mediterranean. There, Jews settled in and around the city of Jerusalem and its Temple, the most important structure in the Jewish religion.

The Jews traced their history back to Abraham, a shepherd from Mesopotamia who settled in Canaan (later called Palestine) about 1900 B.C. Abraham was the father of a people known as the Hebrews. Unlike most of their neighbors, the Hebrews worshiped one god instead of many. Their religious teachings were eventually written down in the Torah, a book that comprises the first five books of the Bible. The Torah formed the religious basis of Judaism.

Organized into tribes (known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel, or the Israelites), the Jews were ruled by many powerful groups throughout their history. These included the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Ptolemaic dynasty* of Egypt, the Seleucid dynasty of Syria, and the Romans. The Chaldean king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, was responsible for the Diaspora, or first dispersion of Jews from their homeland, forcing them into captivity in Babylonia in 587 B.C. Some Jews eventually returned to their homeland, while others remained in Persia or migrated to the eastern Mediterranean. Some Jews settled in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt and adopted the language (primarily Greek) and customs of their new countries. By the first century A.D., there were sizable Jewish communities in most of the cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Jews remained faithful to their religion in their new homes and kept alive their traditions, such as dietary restrictions and observance of the Sabbath, or holy day.

Jews in Judaea came under the direct rule of Rome in A.D. 6, when the region became a province* of the Roman Empire. At this time, many Jews migrated to the Italian peninsula, either as slaves or voluntarily. There they enjoyed the favor of such important Romans as Caesar, Mark Antony, and the emperor Augustus. Roman decrees allowed Jewish communities to observe their religious practices and gather taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem. However, anti-Semitism* and friction between Jews and their neighbors were not unusual. In A.D. 38, the first pogrom* in Jewish history occurred when Rome acquired Egypt and took away the privileges of Jews living in Alexandria. Synagogues* were burned, shops were looted, and Jews were herded into ghettoes*. Jewish uprisings eventually erupted against Roman rule, some of which were chronicled by the historians Josephus and Philo. A Jewish revolt from A.D. 66-70 drove the Romans from Judaea for a time, but in A.D. 70, the Romans burned the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and took many Jewish captives to Rome. Three years later, the Romans laid siege to the mountain fortress of Masada, which was built on a huge rock. There, some 900 Jews took their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans. When revolts against Rome again erupted in A.D. 132-135, they were crushed by the emperor Hadrian, who ordered that Jews be prohibited from living in or even visiting Jerusalem.

* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* anti-Semitism prejudice against Jews

* pogrom organized massacre of an ethnic minority, often with official approval

After their expulsion from Jerusalem by the Romans, many Jews settled in northern Palestine and in Babylonia. By A.D. 200, these areas became thriving centers of Jewish learning. Academies called yeshivas were founded, and Jewish scholars compiled the religious and social laws of their people. Over the next 300 years, interpretations of the laws were written and collected to form the Talmud, the most sacred Jewish book next to the Bible. (See also Antonius, Marcus; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman; Judaism; Ptolemaic dynasty; Seleucid dynasty.)

* synagogue building of worship for Jews

* ghetto part of a city in which Jews were required to live

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