The Caesar Who Saved Judaism

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s parasha, Toldot, begins with the births of the twins Jacob and Esau. Their mother, Rebecca, felt trouble brewing in her womb, and received prophecy that “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your innards” (Genesis 25:23). Jacob, of course, is the forefather of the Jewish people, while Esau would become the spiritual progenitor of the Roman Empire, and then the entire Christian world as a whole (see ‘How Esau Became Rome’).

The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on the above verse that the words shnei goyim b’vitnekh (שני גוים בבטנך), “two nations are in your womb”, has the same gematria as “this is Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus” (זה רבי יהודה ואנטונינוס). Recall that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was the president of Israel in the 2nd century CE, and is credited with composing the Mishnah, the first complete corpus of Jewish law, while Antoninus was a Roman official who was his close friend. The Ba’al haTurim is telling us that there is a profound connection between these two sets of people that are separated by nearly two millennia. What is the connection between the pair of Jacob and Esau, and the pair of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi and Antoninus?

A Roman Emperor in Olam HaBa

The Talmud states that the prophecy Rebecca received regarding the “two nations” was fulfilled in Rabbi Yehuda (also known simply as “Rebbi”) and Antoninus, who was the Caesar at the time. In these pages (Avodah Zarah 10a-11a), the Talmud describes their close friendship, and how Antoninus learned a great deal from Rabbi Yehuda:

Antoninus said to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: I wish for Severus my son to rule after me, and that the city Tiberias be released from paying taxes. If I tell [the Senate] one of my wishes, they will do it, but if I ask for two of them, they will not do as I wish. [Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi answered by] bringing a man, placing him on the shoulders of another man, and putting a dove in the hands of the one on top. And he said to the one on the bottom: “Tell the one on top that he should cause the dove to fly from his hands.” [Antoninus understood:] You should ask the Senate: Let Severus my son rule in my place, and say to Severus that he should release Tiberias from paying taxes!

… Antoninus would send to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi crushed gold in large sacks, covered in wheat. He would say to his servants: “Bring this wheat to Rebbi.” Rebbi said to Antoninus: “I do not need gold, as I have plenty.” He replied: “The gold should be for those who will come after you, who will give it to the last ones who come after you. And those who descend from them will bring forth this gold [to pay taxes to the Roman authorities]…

How did Antoninus grow so close to Rabbi Yehuda? It all began with their births. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was born around 135 CE, precisely as Rabbi Akiva was being executed by the Romans during the Bar Kochva Revolt (Beresheet Rabbah 58:2). At the time, Emperor Hadrian had decreed that circumcision was forbidden. Rabbi Yehuda’s father, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II, had him circumcised anyway, of course. Rabban Shimon was president of the Sanhedrin, and a very wealthy and well-connected man. The emperor, or perhaps more likely the local Roman governor, summoned Rabban Shimon and his newborn son to make sure the baby had not been circumcised against the decree.

The parents of Antoninus were there at the time, and were good friends of Rabban Shimon. They, too, just had a baby boy. To help their friends, they agreed to exchanged babies, allowing Rabban Shimon to present Antoninus as his own. In the meantime, Antoninus was breastfed by Rabban Shimon’s wife. When Tosfot cites this Midrash (in Avodah Zarah 10b) it begins with the statement that “milk makes impure, and milk makes pure”. Because Antoninus was breastfed by a righteous Jewish woman, he was infused with pure spiritual energy, and was therefore drawn to Judaism his whole life. The Talmud states that Antoninus merited to enter the World to Come, while the Yerushalmi (Megillah 15a) adds that Antoninus even ended up circumcising himself and dying as a Jew!

Who is Antoninus?

Scholars have attempted to identify exactly which Roman emperor is referred to by “Antoninus”. Three main candidates have been suggested: Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius (full name: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus), and Caracalla (full name: Marcus Aurelius Antonius). The first, Antoninus Pius (86-161 CE), ruled right after Hadrian, from 138 to 161 CE. Since Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was only born around 135, it is unlikely that the two could strike up a friendship. They were born much too far apart, and Antoninus Pius would have died when Rabbi Yehuda was around 26 years old. We saw above how Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus were babies around the same time. The age gap is too wide to identify Antoninus Pius with the Antoninus of the Talmud.

On the other hand, Caracalla was born in 188 CE, more than 50 years after Rabbi Yehuda, so he cannot be the right Antoninus either. Caracalla was the son of the previous emperor, Septimius Severus. In the Talmud above, we are told that Antoninus was the father of the emperor Severus. That means that the best candidate for Antoninus is Marcus Aurelius, who has the closest birth year to Rabbi Yehuda. They would have been children around the same time, and could grow up to be friends.

Although the historical record shows that Severus was not the son of Marcus Aurelius, he was nonetheless raised by Marcus Aurelius. The actual son and successor of Marcus Aurelius, named Commodus, was a wild and unpopular despot. He was soon killed and replaced by the slave-turned-soldier Pertinax, who was himself quickly replaced by Severus. When the Talmud says that Antoninus wanted Severus to rule, we can now better understand why! (The power struggle following the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and the tyranny of Commodus, was highlighted, in a fictional way, in the Oscar-winning classic film, Gladiator.)

A bust of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius succeeded Antoninus Pius as emperor in 161 CE. He was not just an emperor, but a noted Stoic philosopher, and wrote a famous philosophical treatise called Meditations. It is important to remember that when the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37-100 CE) was trying to describe the rabbis to his Roman audience, he referred to the rabbis as Jewish Stoics! So, Marcus Aurelius would have undoubtedly had a philosophical and moral affinity with our Sages.

Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was a true philosopher king and scholar, with a deep love for learning. Philostratus reports a story of how a certain philosopher once met an elderly Marcus Aurelius and asked where he was going. The old emperor replied: “It is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” This description is very much fitting the Antoninus of the Talmud, who had an equally great thirst for knowledge. It isn’t hard to imagine Marcus Aurelius seeking out the greatest Jewish “philosopher” at the time—Rabbi Yehuda haNasi—to learn from him as well. Better yet, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 10b) calls him “Antoninus ben Severus”, and Marcus Aurelius’ birth name was Marcus Annius Catilius Severus. Finally, we know that Marcus Aurelius was no fan of his predecessor Hadrian, the tyrant who had suppressed the Bar Kochva Revolt and slaughtered so many rabbis, and said nothing positive of him in his Meditations.

The only glaring problem is that Marcus Aurelius makes no mention of Rebbi in his Meditations, either. The text starts with a list of all the people Marcus Aurelius learned from, with names like Apollonius and Maximus. (The latter was used as the name of the fictional hero in Gladiator, which begins with a dying Marcus Aurelius asking Maximus to restore the Roman Republic.) It’s possible that Marcus Aurelius could not mention Rabbi Yehuda haNasi because this would be far too controversial at the time, the Jews being great enemies of the Romans. In fact, the Talmud states that Antoninus made sure to keep the meetings between him and Rebbi a total secret (Avodah Zarah 10a).

Marcus Aurelius (played by Richard Harris) speaks with Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) in the aftermath of the battle against the Germanic tribes, in the 2000 film ‘Gladiator’. In his ‘Meditations’, Marcus Aurelius says: “From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining… He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved.”

Or, it is possible that the mention of a Jewish sage was censored out of Meditations by future Roman or Christian copyists and publishers. The later writer Marcellinus has Marcus Aurelius apparently saying that he hated Jews more than any other people, and that he even persecuted them. This, again, was most likely a lie that was deliberately inserted to disparage Jews. Although, it is possible that Marcus Aurelius initially despised Jews, as most Romans did, but came to love them as he learned more about this mysterious nation living in his empire.


Marcus Aurelius spent much of his reign battling the Germanic tribes in the north of the Empire (also famously depicted cinematically in Gladiator). These great wars are actually mentioned in the Talmud (Megillah 6b), which says how “Germamia” and Rome were constantly at war, with 300 Germanic chieftains facing off against 365 Roman generals constantly, killing each other back and forth. Interestingly, the Talmud states that if “Germamia” was let loose, it would destroy the whole world! (Meanwhile, the Midrash in Beresheet Rabbah 75:9 states that God specifically made the Germanic tribes to restrain the Romans!) Marcus Aurelius was the one who defeated the Germanic tribes, at least temporarily, quelling that great menace. It is possible that this information entered the Talmud by way of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, directly from Marcus Aurelius.

Though some have argued that “Germamia” is not Germany and the alliteration is coincidental, the Talmud in Yoma 10a does say that Germamia is the same as Gomer, a son of Yefet and father of Ashkenaz, suggesting strongly that “Germamia” really is Germany. Amazingly, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 6:9) tells us that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi had a servant or bodyguard named Germanicus! He may have been a German soldier captured in battle and enslaved by Marcus Aurelius, then presented to Rabbi Yehuda as an “exotic gift”—something common in those days. We do know that Antoninus gave many such interesting gifts to Rabbi Yehuda.

It seems that one can make a strong case that the Antoninus of the Talmud really is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Having said that, Marcus Aurelius would have lived in Rome, and Rabbi Yehuda haNasi did not. We have no record of Marcus Aurelius ever visiting Israel, though Rabbi Yehuda certainly travelled to Rome on official business—being the president and representative of the Jewish people. So, the meetings between them would have been quite rare, and most of their correspondence was probably in written form. (For this reason, some have proposed that the Antoninus of the Talmud was not a Caesar but a local high-ranking Roman official, or perhaps a local governor.) Whatever the case, the colourful and profound discussions of Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus in the Talmud and Midrash continue to be a wealth of information and wisdom for us, nearly two millennia later.

More significantly, Rashi (on Bava Metzia 33b) credits Antoninus with helping to bring about the Mishnah. If it wasn’t for his tolerance and support, Rabbi Yehuda would not have been able to gather the Sages together to compose the Mishnah. And without that, there would be no Talmud to follow. Without the lull in persecutions under Antoninus, there wouldn’t be a great revival of Jewish life following the devastating Bar Kochva Revolt. Judaism, as we know it, may have been extinguished. And this brings us right back to Jacob and Esau in this week’s parasha:

Jacob was blessed with a sharp mind and spent his time learning, “sitting in tents”. Esau was blessed with physical strength and became a “man of the field”. The twins were supposed to complement each other and work together to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, this did not materialize. In Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus, however, the twins finally found their tikkun. The scholarly Rabbi Yehuda was able to forge a warm friendship and fraternity with the warrior king Marcus Aurelius. The former helped the latter learn and grow wiser, while the latter protected the former and helped him materially, too. This is why our Sages say that the prophecy of Jacob and Esau was fulfilled in Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus, and why the Ba’al haTurim was able to discover that incredible numerical equivalence suggesting that the two pairs are, spiritually, one and the same!

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