Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine Eras
500 B.C.E. - 500 C.E.
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A superb resource covering this period is Paul Halsall's Internet Ancient History Sourcebook

Hebrew Bible Period dates

547 BCE  Keerash of Persia ("Cyrus the Great") defeated King Croesus and the Lydians at Sardis setting up a major clash between East and West: Persia and Athens (see below). 

539-333 BCE     The Persian Period. The Jewish exiles in Babylon were liberated by the Persians. Some Jews returned to Judah, where Cyrus the Great permitted them to rebuild their temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians and even provided funds for the project (Edict of Cyrus, 538 B.C. E. (Ezra 1: 2-4, 6: 3-5).  Jews saw God's hand in this miraculous turn of events:  in the Bible, the Prophet Isaiah (45:1) proclaimed Cyrus the "anointed" (Hebrew mashiach, "messiah," and in the Greek version, christos).  Other Jews migrated into Asia Minor, Africa, and Europe until by the time of Jesus, six times as many Jews were living outside of Palestine as within. Those who lived beyond were referred to as the diaspora ("dispersion"). 

525 - 338    27th (Persian) Dynasty in Egypt. Persian kings ruled adopting and appropriating the classical Egyptian religious system as their own. At the Hibis temple in the Saharan oasis of Kharga, there are reliefs of the goddess Mut feeding the Persian king Darius I (521-486) in order to transform him into an Egyptian.

480  In September, the Greeks defeated the Persians at the naval Battle of Salamis effectively ending the military threat from Persia. The previous spring, the Persian king Ksarsusayana ("Xerxes") had crossed the Hellespont on his way to Greece.  Herodotus says it took seven days and seven nights to get everyone across the boat bridge.  He put the Persian host at one million, but, a figure half that large is probably a better estimate.  The figures Herodotus gives for the fleet totaled 1,207 warships and 3,000 transport ships (VII: 89f.).  Herodotus goes on for ten pages describing the great number and variety of nations included in the Persian hosts, the uniforms they wore, and the weaponry they carried (VII: 61-99).  The navy included the Egyptian and Phoenician fleets.  In addition, the Carthaginian fleet had been ordered to harass Greek allies in Sicily and Italy. A local resident witnessing the Hellespont crossing was said to have run up to Xerxes afterward and, addressing him as "Zeus," flattered him further by saying that as the strongest of the gods, he could have destroyed Greece single handedly instead of leading "the whole race of mankind" onward to do the job (Herodotus VII: 56).  This was going to be a world war and Herodotus recognized it as such.  

333 Alexander the Great defeated the Persians at Issus. This marked the beginning of the Greek (or Hellentistic) Period, which lasted until 63  (more on Hellenism, the fourth century version of "globalization" ). Egypt was ruled by the Greek descendants of Alexander's general, Ptolemy, while Palestine and Syria were ruled by the family of his general, Seleucus.

331 Alexander extended Greek rule to Cyrenaica and conferred the name "Libya" on the region. .

ca. 330 B.C.E. - 350 C.E.  Greco-Roman Period in Egypt.

285-246  Reign of Ptolemy II in Egypt. In marrying his sister Arsinoe II he revived an old Pharaohnic practice.  During his rule (ca. 250 B.C.E.), Manetho, an Egyptian priest, wrote the earliest surviving history of Egypt. It is in Greek and bears the title Aigyptiaca.  He was the first to divide the kings into dynasties: thirty one of them (the division into Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, on the other hand, was a nineteenth century innovation).  More than three hundred years later, probably in the late first or early second century C.E., a controversy erupted over a story Manetho transmitted about how the Egyptians had been commanded by the gods to expel the Hyksos "lepers" from their capital in Egypt, Avaris. The Jewish historian Josephus in his Contra Apionem, identified the Jews with the seventeenth century B.C.E. Hyksos kings and accused Manetho of abetting the slander of Jews by providing fodder for an anti-Jewish polemicist named Apion.  Egyptologist Jan Assmann traces the origins of anti-Semitism to Manetho's story, which, at its center, fed primitive fears of contagion, the same fears that have animated anti-Semitic tracts down to modern times. (see Moses the Egyptian (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard, 1997), 29ff.; and The Mind of Egypt (NY: Metropolitan Books, 1996), 398ff.)

Jewish tradition dates the origins of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible named for the 72 translators who were said to have worked on the project, to the reign of Ptolemy II, although the work was not completed until at least as late as 132 B.C.E. 

ca. 200   The "Silk Road" (from a term coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 1870s:  die Seidenstrasse) denotes a collection of East-West trade routes some 5,000 miles long through Central Asia linking China with the Mediterranean world (Damascus, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Rome). The routes sprang up as a result of the Chinese (Western Han Dynasty) custom of pacifying Mongolian Xiongnu nomads by bribing them with goods.  The Xiongnu thereupon traded some of the goods with peoples west of them who in turn continued transferring them further and further west. Along the routes, splendid cities sprang up (Changan (modern Xian), Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and others).  Besides material goods, religions were also traded and spread:  Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam.  The Silk Road peaked during China's Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.).  During the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century and those of Tamerlane in the fourteenth century, cities were laid waste and trade declined.  By the end of the fifteenth century, the Silk Road was largely finished:  the result of the spread of Islam, the isolationist trade policies of China's Ming Dynasty, and displacement by sea routes which were safer, faster, and cheaper (the Silk Road was really just a series of middle men who passed goods along at ever increasing prices). (For more, see Sudip Bose, "Traveling the Silk Road," Odyssey (magazine), Sept-Oct., 2003, 23ff. See also Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (New York: Harper Collins, 2007)

168 BCE - 43 CE   The Lycian League, consisting of twenty-three member city states, had its capital at Patara on the southwestern coast of Anatolia (Turkey).  Its parliament (Bouleuterion) with its principles of republican government inspired the American "founding fathers" ( it is mentioned twice in the Federalist Papers).

164 The Revolt of the Maccabees in response to the desecration of the Jewish temple at the hands of the Greek (Seleucid) ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ("shining one" - the Jews called him "Epimanes," "madman"). Antiochus had set up a statue of Zeus in the temple, plundered its coffers to pay off his war debts, passed laws outlawing the worship of the Jewish God, prohibited the practice of circumcision, and encouraged the eating of pork. The Greek ruler was defeated by the Jewish rebels and the temple was rededicated (the festival of Hanukkah ("dedication") dates from this period). The region was ruled by descendants of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, until the arrival of the Romans in 63.

ca. 150-80 BCE     The monastic Jewish Essene community of Qumran was founded on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (more).

ca. 85 BCE    The Nabateans, whose inscriptions begin appearing in Edomite territory by the fourth century BCE, established themselves in the area between Damascus in the north and the Gulf of Aqaba in the south.  Petra, the Nabatean capital and commercial center (from the Greek petros, "rock," formerly called "Sela" (Hebrew) also meaning "rock," in the Bible) was built about this time in the Hellenistic style. The Nabateans joined Jewish Hasmoneans in an alliance against the Hellenistic Seleucids.  The language of the Nabateans is regarded as a direct ancestor of Arabic.

74 Rome conquered Libya.

63 The Roman general, Pompey, conquered Palestine.

48 Pompey was defeated by Julius Caesar at Pharsalus in the Egyptian delta.

40 - 4 B.C.E.     Reign of Herod the Great, a puppet king who governed on behalf of Rome. Herod rebuilt the Persian era temple of the Jews on a grand scale.  In the twenty-first century, the Western Wall was all that remained of the temple, which was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the first Jewish revolt in 70 C.E.

31 Octavian (Caesar Augustus) defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle at Actium on the west coast of Greece. Egypt was absorbed as a Roman province.

27 Octavian became emperor reigning until 14 C.E. under the title Caesar Augustus. This is the traditional date of the beginning of the Roman Empire which lasted until 410 A.D (anno domini) (or C.E., the common era). For a hundred years before this time (since the days of Tiberius Gracchus) civil war had threatened Roman order. But now, peace and prosperity began to reign throughout the Mediterranean world (and would continue for nearly four centuries). Augustus was credited with bringing about this miracle. He was proclaimed the savior of the world and was worshipped as a god.

Period A.D., or C.E. (the Common Era):

6 CE Rome annexed Judea. Rebellion against a census taken by the new Roman procurator, Coponius, on behalf of the governor of Syria, Quirinius (see Luke 2), broke out led by Judah the Galilean. The revolt was suppressed by the Romans. The legate of Syria, Quintilius Varus, had 2,000 of the rebels crucified on a single day in Jerusalem.

ca. 4 B.C.E. - 29 C.E. Life of Jesus of Nazareth. He was put to death, according to the Roman historian, Tacitus, in 29 by the Roman regional governor, Pontius Pilate.

ca. 30 - 100 Christianity took shape during this period, initially as a sect within Judaism founded by the followers of Jesus. But, this first sect was very quickly superseded by Gentile, (non-Jewish) Christians in Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. The New Testament was written and edited during this period, and later canonized in the fourth century (under the leadership of St. Athanasius, 367 C.E.).  (More on the origins and background of Christianity)

ca. 50 Coptic Christianity in Egypt dates from this period. Legend has it that St. Mark himself, one of Jesus' disciples and the traditional author of the earliest gospel in the Christian portion of the Bible, founded the first churches in Alexandria. The word, "Copt" derives from the Arabic qubt which in turn comes from the Greek Aegyptos. The Greek word probably comes from one of the many names the ancient Egyptians had for the city of Memphis, hwt-ka-ptah. (Misr: Arabic name for Egypt)

50 - 64 CE    The Letters of Paul were written (the earliest New Testament writings).

66 - 70 First Jewish Revolt against the Romans. The Roman general, Titus, destroyed the temple in the year 70, deliberately choosing to do so on the anniversary of its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BCE. He went on to burn the city and slaughter the inhabitants. The temple would never be rebuilt. All that survived into modern times was the Western Wall ("wailing wall"), the holiest shrine in Judaism. The Pharisee historian and turncoat, Flavius Josephus, having betrayed his own people and found refuge in the Roman emperor Vespasian's court, nevertheless described the destruction in despairing tones:

The Temple Mount enveloped in flames from top to bottom, appeared to be boiling up from its very roots; yet the sea of flame was nothing to the ocean of blood; nowhere could the ground be seen between the corpses, and the soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives.

Also during the revolt (in 68), the militant Jewish Essene community at Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1948) was destroyed by the Romans. 

73   Fall of the Jewish rebel ("Zealot") fortress of Masada along the shores of the Dead Sea. Approximately 1,000 rebels carried out a suicide pact to avoid capture (and crucifixion) by troops under the command of the Roman general Flavius Silva, who had besieged the fortress for a year. 

70 - 80 Council of Yavneh led by Yohannon ben Zakkai. The leadership of Judaism passed out of the hands of priests (Sadducees) and into the hands of rabbis (Pharisees). The tradition of oral compilation and transmission of the Jewish law (a bulwark of rabbinical Judaism) was affirmed.

70 - 100    The New Testament Gospels were written.

132-135 Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans (first revolt, 66-70). Led by Simon bar Kochba (whom Rabbi Akiba proclaimed "messiah"). The revolt was brutally put down by the emperor Hadrian who renamed Jerusalem "Aelia Capitolina" ("Aelia" is one of his family names, and "Capitolina" is one of the names of the God Jupiter). Jews would not regain control of the city until after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

200 - 300  During this period, the cursive Arabic scripts we know today evolved out of an Aramaic script of the Arabic spoken by the Nabateans.

200 Emergence of the Mishnah ("repetition"), a collection of oral law compiled by Judah the Prince stretching back two hundred years. The Mishnah is divided into six main parts called seders ("orders").

200 - 500 Formation of the Talmud ("study"), also called Gemara ("commentary"). It was produced in rabbinical academies in Babylon and Palestine and written in the local Aramaic dialects pertinent to each region (with passages in Hebrew as well). The Talmud is a multi-volume commentary on the written law, Torah ("teaching"), and the Mishnah ("repetition").

223 - 651  The dates of the Persian Sasanian Empire with its off and on capital at Ctesiphon in Iraq. The Sasanian and Roman empires were at war with one another throughout much of this period. 

After the death of Marcus Aurelius ("Severus Alexander")  in 235, the internal stability of the Roman Empire collapsed under pressures from the Sasanians in the east and from tribes along the Danube and Rhine in  the north.  Economic crisis set in:  trade and agriculture declined, inflation skyrocketed, and many farmers were reduced to serfdom prompting them to leave the land or rebel. 

296 - 373 Life of Saint Athanasius, disciple of Anthony and bishop of Alexandria from 328 until his death. He was the principal spokesman against the Arians, who denied the divine nature of Christ. Thanks in large part to his efforts, the Arian position was condemned by the Ecumenical Council of Nicea called by Constantine in 325.

312 Constantine became emperor and, about this time, converted to Christianity. Christianity was proclaimed an officially recognized and protected religion of the Roman Empire.

325  The Council of Nicea was convened by the Emperor Constantine to resolve the "Arian Controversy" and bring unity to a rapidly fragmenting Christian Church. Arianism was a Christian doctrine, attributed to the Priest Arius (a Libyan by birth, c.250-c.336), which held that Christ, whom Christians proclaimed as the "Son of God," was not actually divine, but a created and therefore changeable (not eternal) creature.  Countering Arianism, the council drew up a "creed" that described the relationship between the Father and the Son using the Greek word homoousion ("one substance").  Thus Arianism was rejected. However, ambiguities in the formula created the need for a follow up council at Chalcedon in 451

ca. 326 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by Constantine's mother, Helena, over the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Muslim Caliph al-Hakim in 1009 contributed to the onset of the Crusades in the eleventh century. Also during the fourth century, Helena erected the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the traditional birthplace of Jesus. 

330 The Christian Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople (Greek: Constantinopolis, "City of Constantine") as his capital on the site of the Greek city Byzantium.  Byzantium had been built by Greek colonists from Megara in 658 B.C.E. The name comes from the city's legendary founder, "Byzas the Megarian."  Hence came the modern term "Byzantine," as the eastern empire came to be known in modern times, to designate the remains of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome in 410. Residents of the Byzantine Empire themselves, however, continued to call themselves "Romans."  The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 (except for the period from 1204 to 1261 when, having been captured by the Crusaders, it was the capital of the Latin empire).

Rome and Constantinople vied for preeminence throughout the early Middle Ages, the struggle couched in religious terms (Latin Catholicism versus Greek Orthodoxy), until the final break in 1054. Since the sixth century, the Patriarch (bishop) of Constantinople, has been recognized as the "Ecumenical Patriarch of the East." The period from Constantine down to the Arab conquest is noted for the steady weakening of both Roman and Byzantine influence, decay of political power, and acrimonious religious strife between several chief centers of Christendom: Rome, Byzantium, Antioch, and Alexandria.

By the time the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made it their capital, the name "Istanbul" (from a Greek phrase  eis tain polin, "into the city" and not from a mispronunciation of the city's former name) was in common, if informal, usage. After the fall of the Ottomans and the establishment of modern Turkey the capital was transferred to Ankara in 1923. Istanbul in 1930 became the legal name for the city that had been known as Constantinople. 

356 Death of the Christian Saint Anthony in Egypt. Anthony established a monastery in the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea. Its practices were to become a cornerstone of monasticism and asceticism in the West.

367    Festal Letter of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, proclaiming the twenty seven writings of the New Testament canonical. This was the culmination of a process that spanned nearly three hundred years.

391 Emperor Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the sole official religion of the Roman Empire.

395 Division of the Roman Empire, with Arcadius emperor in the East, and Honorius emperor in the West.

410 Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths.  This event prompted St. Augustine, one of the major architects of thought in the European Middle Ages, to write his masterpiece, The City of God. The classical Roman Empire was over as a military power, but Rome continued to wield enormous political, religious, and intellectual influence.

451 An ecumenical council at Chalcedon was called by the bishop of Rome, "il papa" (the Pope) Leo I, in an attempt to clear up the ambiguities created by the council of Nicea in 325. Christ was affirmed to be one person with two full and complete natures, one human the other divine. However, this formula made matters even worse as Eastern Christians could not abide the dual nature creed. Theological differences aside, what they really resented was a pope in Rome telling them in the East what they ought to do and believe.  Most Eastern Christians, then, with some exceptions, affirmed that Jesus had one nature only and this nature was divine, not human. Hence, they came to be called Monophysites (Greek, "one nature"). Today, the chief examples of Monophysite Christianity are the Syrian, Armenian, and Coptic (Egyptian) Churches.

476 The western (Latin) empire "officially" ended when Odoacer compelled the emperor, Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate. Rome did not cease to be an important city, though. Throughout the Middle Ages, it remained the chief western center of religious power and influence as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church with its bishop, the Pope.

483 - 565  Life of Justinian I, Byzantine emperor who reigned from Constantinople beginning in 527. He took back North Africa (including Libya in 533) from the Vandals and Italy from the Goths. He built basilicas, championed religious orthodoxy (with less than complete success), and issued his famous Roman law, taking care to define the spheres of authority for the emperor (imperium) and the priesthood (sacerdotium). This code deeply influenced the development of Catholic canon law in the West, especially in the later Middle Ages.  The roots of the separation of the religious and secular spheres in Western political systems are to be found here.  Finally, Justinian dedicated the Hagia Sophia Church in 537.

493 At a banquet given in his honor, Odoacer was slain by Theodoric. The Eastern, Byzantine, Empire went on. But, there was now a power vacuum in Europe. Christianity was fragmenting badly, especially in the East.

520 The decimal system was invented in India.

The Coptic Architecture of Cairo

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Last Revised: September 2, 2008