Judea and Israel

Judea Until 70 CE

The Varsano Family is Jewish and has its origins in the Land of Israel.

“Ancient Israelites originated roughly in the territory of modern Israel, also known as the ancient Levant or ancient Canaan, sometime before 1000 BCE. These people were united by a sense of shared ancestry, myth, ritual and history. Ancient Israelites believed that they were descendants of three people: Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Jacob himself is renamed “Israel” in the Bible, which suggests that Israelites had a shared memory of a name change as part of their history,” according to Mika Ahuvia, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Comparative Religion at the University of Washington.

The story of Exodus that is recited during the Passover Seder every year is a drought in Canaan forced the Israelites to seek greener pastures in Egypt, but the Pharoh eventually  enslaved the Israelites. God imposed the plagues on the Egyptians and they were freed from slavery. Moses led a harrowing journey through the desert but ultimately made it to the “Promised Land” of Israel. The Israelites remained in this land for many years where they enjoyed a so called “Golden Age.”

King David and King Solomon ruled from 1010 – 931 BCE. During this period, the city of Jerusalem was founded and King Solomon constructed the first great Temple in 957 BCE. Ancient Israelite society was divided between 12 tribes, but it is unknown which tribe the predecessors to the Varsano family belonged to. In 722 BCE, the 10 tribes of northern Israel were conquered by the ancient Assyrian Empire, and only the tribes of the south, in the tiny kingdom of Judea, remained as their own self-ruling political units.

In the sixth century BCE,  the Empire of Babylonia conquered the tiny kingdom of Judea. Professor Ahuvia explains “This conquest could have ended Jewish history, because when the Babylonians conquered ancient peoples, they not only destroyed buildings and plundered wealth, but they exiled the people were were most responsible for creating and maintaining the local culture. So, in 586 and 587 BCE, some (mostly elite) Jews were exiled to Babylonia. Some Jews also fled to Egypt. This time could be considered the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, a term that comes from the word “dispersion,” meaning the spreading out of Jews across the Middle East, and eventually, the world.”

After a mere 70 years of rule, in 539 BCE, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persian Empire. The Persians had a much more permissive policy regarding conquered peoples, they believed that the best way to ensure peace was to restore people to their homelands and help them to live according to their ancestral laws, even giving them money to rebuild their temples. The Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed Israelites to return to the province of Judea. From then on, we find the Israelites called Judeans , and subsequently Jews. Many still call themselves as Bnei Yisrael, or the descendants of Israel. Prior 515 BCE, the Torah was only passed down orally, through memorization and recitation, but during Cyrus the King of Kings era, the Torah was written down for the first time.

In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered most of the civilized world including the entire Middle East.  According to Professor Ahuvia “..the spread of the Hellenic (Greek) Empire throughout the region of the Middle East, accelerated Jewish habitation in other locales. Jews ended up joining Alexander the Great’s armies, serving in the armies, and traveling with him to other parts of the world…Many Jews ended up traveling as mercenaries in Alexander’s army and relocating to Alexandria in Egypt, where the famous Library of Alexandria was located. Everywhere that Alexander conquered and formed a city of Alexandria, he would give his soldiers land grants and allow them to settle down after they retired. By the first century CE, four centuries later, Jewish inhabitants of the Alexandria in Egypt were very much a part of the Hellenistic Empire.”

Philo of Alexandria, the famous Jewish philosopher of the first century CE, described the Jews of the first century this way: “For so populous are the Jews that no one country can contain them, and therefore they dwell in many of the most prosperous countries in Europe and Asia, both in the islands and on the mainland. And while they hold the holy city where stands the sacred temple of the Most High God to be their mother city [meaning Jerusalem], yet those which are theirs by inheritance from their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors even farther back, are in each case accounted by them to be their fatherland, in which they were born and reared, while to some of them, they have come at the very time of their foundation as colonists as a favor to the founders.”

By the first century CE, Jews seem to have hybrid identities as Jewish and Alexandrian, Jewish and Roman, Jewish and Asian, Jewish and Syrian, Jewish and Macedonian.

In 30 BCE Rome conquered Eqypt and treated its new territories much less inclusively then the Greek’s did.  According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the total population of Roman Egypt was 8 million, with 6.5 million native Egyptians, 1.5 million Greek immigrants and 300,000 Jews, over half of whom lived in the city of Alexandria. Professor Avuvia states that “When the Romans conquered ancient Egypt, they restructured society. At first, the Romans wanted to deprive all the Greek immigrants of the special privileges they had had before — privileges like special access to education, the ability to participate in politics and athletic competitions, and exemptions from certain taxes. The Greeks protested, because they didn’t want to lose these special privileges. The compromise that the Romans created was that the Greeks could maintain some of these privileges, and some Jews could too, if they lived in the city of Alexandria itself. But anyone who lived in rural territory was reclassified as a foreigner and lost all of their special privileges. The Alexandrian Greeks reacted by asserting that this wasn’t fair, that actually all Jews should be classified as foreigners. At the time of the Roman conquest, there was a marked increase in anti-Jewish rhetoric.”

Throughout the first century CE, there were spontaneous attacks, mobs, and riots in the Jewish Quarter of Alexandria in Egypt. In 66 CE, a report from the Jewish historian Josephus states that 50,000 Jews were slaughtered by Greeks. But in 115 CE, matters got much worse.

Professor Avuvia continues” Only the writings of the victors were preserved, and of course they blame the Jews for rebelling, but it’s also possible that Jews of the city were attacked without any justification. From the evidence, it seems like the entire Jewish population of Egypt, both within Alexandria and in the countryside, was annihilated. Surviving tax records from ancient Egypt show that the Roman Treasury confiscated Jewish property and land. And for at least a century after this genocide, Egyptians actually celebrated a day of victory against the Jews. Anti-Jewish rhetoric was very powerful, and even after the Jews were eliminated from Egypt, later Greek and Roman writers continued to invoke suspicion of Jews. There were political, economic and cultural, religious aspects to the anti-Judaism of this time.”

In 66 CE, the Jews of Judea rose in revolt against Rome, sparking the First Jewish–Roman War. The reverse seized control of Judea and named their new kingdom “Israel”  The events were described by the Jewish historian Josephus, including the desperate defense of Jotapata, the siege of Jerusalem (69–70 CE), the  last stand at Gamla, where 9,000 died, and Masada (72–73 CE).

The revolt was crushed by the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus. The Romans destroyed much of the Temple in Jerusalem and took as punitive tribute the Menorah and other Temple artefacts back to Rome. Josephus writes that 1,100,000 Jews perished during the revolt, while a further 97,000 were taken captive. The Fiscus Judaicus was instituted by the Empire as part of reparations.

It was during this period that the split of early Christianity and Judaism occurred. The Pharisee movement, led by Yochanan ben Zakai, made peace with Rome and survived. Judeans continued to live in their land in significant numbers, and were allowed to practice their religion. An estimated 2/3 of the population in the Galilee and 1/3 of the coastal region were Jewish.

Many Jews left Judea and went to Rome. The predecessors of the Varsano Family may have relocated to Rome or stayed in Israel, there are no records to confirm their whereabouts during this time period. Their presence in Rome or somewhere on the Italian Peninsula is definitely possible since the origin of the family name is believed to be from the Vars region of Provence. Provence is a short journey by land from the northern Italian Peninsula and a short journey by boat from the southern region.

Israel 20th Century to Present

There was a continuous Jewish presence in Israel, in very limited numbers, from biblical times until the 20th Century. During the Zionist Movement of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, many Jews immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, or the Land of Israel. A few members of the Varsano Family arrived back at their ancestral homeland prior to 1948, but most of the greater Varsano Family made Aliya after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.