Sie sind auf Seite 1von 28

Drought, Famine and Pestilence in Amoraic Palestine

Author(s): Daniel Sperber

Source: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient , Sep., 1974, Vol. 17,
No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 272-298
Published by: Brill

Stable URL:

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide
range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and
facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

Brill is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of the
Economic and Social History of the Orient

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to
Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. XVII, Part 3





Agricultural decline was a significant element in the social, economic,

and political debacle of the Roman Empire during the later third century.
Elsewhere we have attempted to describe this decline, demonstrating
that both quality and quantity of yields were severely affected. We
suggested that no one cause can be put down simply to explain this
phenomenon, but rather that a number of different factors came to-
gether to a head during the sixties of the third century, bringing about
the great crisis of the following decades. Amongst these factors un-
doubtedly the element of climate played a significant role. Irregularity
of the seasons and successive droughts, followed by famine and pestilence,
took their toll of both the population and the land, contributing a tragic
element to the bleak and sombre drama of the third century. It is this
element that we shall try to describe in the following pages. *)

*) This should be seen as a continuation of my article on agricultural trends

in third century Palestine, in JESHO, 15/3 197z, pp. 227-5 5. See also my studies on
Patronage in JESHO, 14/3, 1971, pp. 227-5 2, and on social and economic conditions
during this period in Archiv Orientalni, 38, 1970, pp. 1-25. Here one methodolo-
gical point should be made. While it is known that there were no significant climatic
changes in Palestine over the last two thousands years, (see most recently the dendro-
archeological studies of Nili Lifshitz and Yoav Waisel of the botany department of
Tel-Aviv University, nos. 2-10, 15/5/71-20/Io/72. I should like here to express my
thanks to them for sending me the results of their investigations), undoubtedly there
were climatic ups-and-downs within this period. An examination of the fluctuations
in the level of the Dead Sea even since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century
makes this preeminently clear. (See Ciporra Klein's study of this issue, in State of
Israel, Ministry of Agriculture Hydrological Paper no. 7, Jerusalem, 1965, especially
chart at end of book. My thanks to Miss Klein for giving me a copy of her paper.)
See also M. R. Bloch's very interesting study in Palaeography, Palaeoclimatology,
Palaeoecology, I, 1965, pp. 127-42, and his additional remarks, ibid. 4, 1968,pp. 219-
26. (My thanks to Dr. Bloch for supplying me with material on his theories.) On the
Dead Sea's level, see D. Neev and K. O. Emery's joint paper, published by State of

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

It appears that already in the early second centu

there was a gradual diminution in the rainfall, an
sins of the people, seeing it as a natural consequen
of the Temple. It is taught in a beraita:
Said R. Eleazar b. Perata (floruit circa I io-13 5): From t
destroyed the rains have become irregular 1) in the world
has abundant rains, and there is a year with but little r
which the rains come down in their [proper] season
they come out of season... (Bavli Ta'anit i9b). In the
Temple the rains came on time and as a result the crops
quality. Our Rabbis taught (i.e. a Tannaitic text) ... An
that "in their season" (Leviticus 26:4) means that the rai
eves of Wednesday and Friday. For so we find that in
Shetah (floruit circa middle I century B.C.E.) the rai
Wednesday and Friday with the result that wheat [grains
dinars. And the Sages preserved samples of them for
order to demonstrate how much [loss] is caused by sin
iniquities have turned away these things and your sin
from you" (Jeremiah 5:25).

From the middle of the second century we have

echo these same sentiments. For example, R. S
famous lament in Tosefta Sota 15.2 2) = Yerushalm

Israel, Ministry of Development-Geological Survey, Bull

1967, especially pp. 24-34. On climatological theories of the
Empire, (especially those of Huntington, cited below), see m
1972. I should like to express my extreme gratitude to
(geologist) of Jerusalem for calling my attention and inter
palaeoclimatology. (The Amoraic period in Palestine cove
research was supported (in part) by the Research Committee,
i) pz~p0. See Krauss, Griechische und Lateinische Lehnwirt
und Targum (= LW), z. (Berlin, 1899) p. 41ob, s.v., for vario
which Low (in his comments ad loc.) rejects outright as inco
menta ad Aruch Completum, ed. Krauss, p. 3ozb, s.v. Jas
Dictionary of the Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrashic Literat
p. iozoa s.v. is incorrect, since this usage for xenium was
times, (see, eg. Lewis and Short, p. 20i7b, s.v. xenium). For
novicz, Variae Lectiones in Mischnam et in Talmud Babyloni
p. io8, note 9. Whatever the exact derivation of this wor
fairly clear: either diminishing, or irregular (as Jastrow su
tentatively that p~V'l'O is to be related to the Greek axe
speculation, doubt hesitation," etc. See Liddell & Scott2
Hebrew "yod" often replaces the Greek "epsilon". See my no
2) Ed. Zuckermandel, p. 321.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

Know that the dews have been

was destroyed (cf. Mishna Sot
come down on the straw and
blackens [it]. Once upon a time,
bours had more fruits [than its
Simeon b. Gamliel in the name
the Temple was destroyed there
does not descend beneficially, an
fruits ... R. Jose adds: So also ha

And from the same generat

proposition out. For exampl
that though in former tim
through fields up to the seco
would be done), "now that th
come down] one must get p
From the late second century onwards, throughout the whole of
the third and fourth centuries, we find frequent references to droughts.
Small wonder, then, if people started trading in water. Thus we read
(Tanhuma Buber, Deuteronomy, Re'e 9, p. 23):
Said R. Levi (floruit circa 25 5-300): It so happened that once a certain person,
who used to separate his tithes faithfully, had one single field, and the Holy One
Blessed be He put it in his heart to sow half of it and make the other half a
water reservoir. There came a year of drought, and he sold a se'ah of wheat for a
sela and a se'ah of water for three selabs. What brought him to it (i.e. this good
fortune)? [The fact that] he separated his tithes faithfully.

This text, disregarding the homilist's moralistic remarks, apparently

reflects current practice. Such practice, where it pays to put land
permanently out of regular use for the purpose of storing water, is only
feasible in times of recurrent drought 3).
Below we shall set forth in roughly chronological order major notices
of drought and famine in Palestine of the third an fourth centuries.
According to Talmudic law, in Palestine one begins praying for rain
either on the third, or (according to R. Gamliel) on the seventh of

3) Cf. Y. Avoda Zara 5.'II. See also, Grtinhut, Sefer ha-Likkutim, 5, Jerusalem,
I901, fol. I39b, Yelamdenu to Deut. The Tankhuma passage cited in the text is also
found in Midrasch Ha-Gaddol Deut. 14.22, ed, Fisch p. 297.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

Marheshvan (around November-time), as this is the time the rai

normally begin. If, however, by the seventeenth of Marheshvan n
rains have come, public fasts are ordered, two a week, on Mondays a
Thursdays, all through the winter until the rains finally arrive. The rules
concerning these fasts are set out in Mishna Ta'anit 1.2-7. They begin
with easy fasts for select individuals, and continue to grow in strictne
progressively encompassing more and more of the community. Record
of such public fasts constitute clear evidence of drought, the number
fasts actually ordered testifying to the seriousness and extent of the
drought. We begin, therefore, with a selection of such records:

I. Bavli Ta'anit 2ya

Levi ordered a fast, prayed [for rain], but no rain came. Said he before Him
Master of the world, Thou has ascended and sat up on high, and Thou showest
no consideration for [the sufferings of] Thy children. Rain came, but [Lev
became lame.

The continuation of the text suggests that this event took place
within the lifetime of Rabbi [Judah the Prince], i.e. before 220. Levi
himself lived on after Rabbi's death; hence, this event probably took
place about 210-220 4).

2. Bavli Bava Batra 8a

Rabbi opened his store-houses in years of drought. He said: Let those who
have studied the Scriptures enter, those who have studied Mishna, those who
have studied Gemara, those who have studied Halacha, those who have studied
Haggada; but ignorant people (literally: Amei ha-Arez, people of the land) may
not enter.

R. Jonathan b. Amram pushed [his way in] and entered. He said

Rabbi, give me sustenance. He said to him: My son, have you read [the
tures]? No, he answered. Have you learned [Mishna]? He said: No. If
what shall I give you sustenance? Give me sustenance like a dog or a ra
gave him. After he went out, Rabbi sat down and felt troubled. He sai
me, that I gave my loaf to an ignorant man. Said R. Simeon the son of
him: Perhaps Jonathan b. Amram is your disciple, but that he does
wish to gain benefit by [virtue of] the glory of the Torah (i.e. his kno
Torah). They examined the matter, and found [that this was so]. S
Let all [people] enter.

4) Compare the similar story related in Y. Ta'anit 3.8. Note also the s
in B. Bava Mezia 85a (cf. Gen. Rab. 33.3) that all the (thirteen) years t
suffered the world had no want of rain.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTCC
All use subject to

R. Jonathan b. Amram spans th

Tannaim and the Amoraim. This e
second century. (cf. above, commen

3. Bavli Ta'anit 2ya 5)

R. Hanina b. Hama ordered a fast. H
They (i.e. the local inhabitants) said
ordered a fast rain came! He replied to
(meaning, I am not as great as R. Josh
(R. Joshua b. Levi). [R. Hanina] said to
right spirit of prayer], perchance the c
and rain will come. They prayed but n
Is it your wish that the rain descend fo
said: Sky, sky, cover thy face (i.e. w
itself. [Then] he said: How impudent
thereupon] covered itself, and rain came

Yerushalmi Ta'anit 3.4 (= Midrash

There was a pestilence in Sepphoris.
market-place, for R. Hanina dwelt i
saying: What is this old man [doing] am
neighbours, while the city ['s condition
and said before them: There was only
25:1- 5) and [nonetheless] twenty-four
how many Zimris are there in our gen
One time they had to make a fast, and
[b. Levi] made a fast in the South, an
[grumblingly] said: R. Joshua b. Levi b
and R. Hanina prevented the rain from
to make [a fast yet] a second time.
Joshua b. Levi. He said to him: See,
They both went out to the fast, but
went out and said before them: [It is]
rain for the Southerners, nor [is it] R.
to] the Sepphoreans, but that the Sout
hearken to words of the Torah and are
hearts are hard and they hear words o
he went in, he raised his eyes and saw
it is so, (i.e. even after we have fasted)

5) = Midrash Ha-Gaddol, Deut. 2.16, e

viated version found in Ginzei Schechter
6) See also H. Malter, The Treatise Ta'anit (Philadelphia, 1967), pp. 380-82, n

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

he swore [to himself] that he would not do so again ,(i

mercy in this manner). He said: Why should I tell the
own debt, (i.e. why should I tell the Lord not to punish
deserve to be punished)?

These tales are from Sepphoris, where R. Hanin

served as head of the academy after Rabbi's deat
around 240. Thus, these events occurred appro
and 240. R. Joshua b. Levi lived in the South,
It appears from the Bavli: that this was a very serio
summoning R. Joshua b. Levi all the way from
fuller and more authentic version of this story i
Yerushalmi. From that version it appears that
ordered the fast in the same year, and it had bee
that the drought had originally covered both the
Palestine. In the north it continued quite a while
R. Joshua b. Levi from Judaea to the Galilee. Fu
shalmi version describes two separate occasions in
one in which there was pestilence in Sepphoris a
there was widespread drought throughout the lan

4. Bavli Ta'anit ?b
In the days of R. Samuel b. Nahmani there was [both]
They said: How are we to act? One cannot pray [at once
two [afflictions];7) rather let us pray for [the staying
will suffer the famine. [But] he said to them: Let us pr
the famine, for when the Merciful One gives plenty, he
it is written, "Thou openest Thy hand and satifiest
favour" (Psalms 145.16).

R. Samuel b. Nahmani was a Southerner, a n

pupil of R. Joanathan (b. Eleazar). He appears
many years, perhaps even right up to the end
(Yerushalmi Terumot 8 ad fin.), or even the begi
century (Bavli Moed Katan 17a). In his later life
in the Galilee in the company of R. Judah Nesiah
7) See Y. Ta'anit 4.3, Lamentations Rabba 1.5 i, on the
two things at once. See the closely parallel version of this
Deut. 28.12, ed. Fisch p. 61 I.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

ibid.). This story, however, appear

South, perhaps around the fifties
z65 famine and a very severe pesti

5. Bavli Ta'anit 24a

R. Judah Nesiah [once] ordered a fast
[What a difference] between Samuel t
the generation which is thus placed
happens. He became very upset, [wher

This story is probably from the l

century, the period when R. Ju
most active.

6. Bayli Ta'anit 24a

The house of the Patriarch [once] ordered a fast, without informing R. Johanan
and Resh Lakish. The [next] morning, [however], they did inform them. Said

8) See Marmorstein's remarks on this text in Tarbiz, 3/2, 1932, pp. 177-78. See also
J. N. Epstein's note, apud Marmorstein, ibid., p. 174, note 92; but cf. Lieberman's
interpretation in JQR, 37, I946, pp. 35-36. Both these interpretations (Epstein's and
Lieberman's) seem doubtful on chronological grounds. See also B. Ta'anit 5a, R
Johanan's description of the seven year famine referred to in 2 Kings 8: i, and his
statement cited in Pesikta Rabbati, ed. Friedmann, fol. 136b. (Cf. Lamentations
Rabba z.16, ed. Buber, p. x 17, and ibid. 4.13, ed. Buber, p. 147.)
9) See Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Bury ed., I. p. z281, (- chapter X ad fin.). Refer-
ences to this plague are numerous, appearing in both contemporary and later classi-
cal sources: Cyprian, De Mortalitate 14.16; idem, In Demetrianum 10o.1i; Pontius
Vita Cypriani 9.0o; Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., 7.z1.1; Eusebius, Chron. Iio, (Migne
27-483)--all contemporary or eye-witness accounts. (Eusebius quotes Dionysius
who gives an eye-witness account.) Later sources: Gregory of Nyssa, Vit. Greg.
Thaum. (Migne, 46.956-57); Aurelius Victor, Caes. 30, 33.5; Ps. Aurelius Victor
Epit. 30; Trebellius Pollio, Gall. 5.5; Eutropius 9.5; Orosius, Hist. 7.21.4; Zosimus
Hist. .2z6; Jordanis, Getica 19; Zonaras, Annal. 12.21. This material is very con-
veniently arranged and set out in Mary L. Hannan's Thasci Caecili Cypriani de Mortali-
tate (Washington E. C., 1933), pp. 13-19. Add the statement in Orac. Sibyl. 13.106-o08:
"Then also famines, pestilences and mightly thunderbolts, and war terrible and anar-
chies of cities shall come suddenly", which A. T. Olmstead (in Classical philology
37, 1942, P. 401) argues very plausibly refers to this period. See also A. E. R. Boak,
Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West (An Arbor, 9 5 5),
pp. z6, 136-37, note 1i. The exact nature of the epidemic cannot definitely be iden-
tified with any of the great pestilences to modern times, (Hannan, ibid., p. i9, refer-
ring to G. Sticker, Abhandlungen aus der Seuchengeschichte und Seuchenlebre, i. p, 1).

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

Resh Lakish to R. Johanan: [How can we observe this fast,

take it upon ourselves from last night? He replied to him
theless] follow them (i.e. the Patriarchal house's ordinances).

Since Resh Lakish died about 275, (and R. Johana

happened before that date. Furthermore, it happen
where R. Johanan, Resh Lakish (and the house of the
to be found.

7. Bavli Ta'anit i4a-b:

In the time of R. Judah Nesiah there was distress. He ordered thirteen fasts,
but the prayers were not answered. He thought [therefore] to order more [fasts].
Said R. Ami to him: Surely they said: One does not trouble the community
too much. Said R. Aba the son of R. Hiyya b. Aba: R. Ami was thinking of his
own convenience, (i.e. he did not want to fast). [For so] said R. Hiyya b. Aba in
the name of R. Johanan: They taught [that statement] only with regard fasts
[ordained] on account of [lack of] rain. But in the case of other kinds of calami-
ties one continues fasting until the prayer is answered.

The R. Judah Nesiah of this tale is Judah Nesiah II, of the early
fourth century. This is evident from the fact that R. Hiyya b. Aba was
apparently no longer alive, but is quoted by his son. R. Ami probably
did not live much after 315. Hence this event took place within the first
fifteen or so years of the fourth century. All the characters appearing
in the story are Galileans. Since the fasts were fixed only for Mondays
and Thursdays and there were never more than two a week, the drought
must have lasted over two months. It appears that the situation was very
serious and the community was suffering not merely from drought and
the attendant famine, but probably also from plague and pestilence 10).

8. Bavli Ta'anit 21b:

They told Ray Nahman: There is an epidemic in Palestine. He ordered a fast,

saying: If the mistress (i.e. Palestine) is striken, how much more so her maid-
servant (i.e. Babylonia).

Io) See Lieberman, Annuaire, 7, 1939-44, P. 435. Note also that according to
Lactantius, de mortibus persecutorum, 37, there was famine c. 311, though he puts this
down to the greed of Diocletian, Maximian and Daia, (see below). See also K. W.
Butzer, Quaternary Stratigraphy and Climate in the Near East, (Bonn, 195 8), p. I 23.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

Ray Nahman (b. Jacob), a

It may well be that the ep
at in the previous text.
within the first two decade

9. Bavli Ta'anit 2z5 b:

R. Judah Nesiah ordered a f
[then] thought to finish the f
R. Ami: About "forenoon" and "afternoon" we learned in our Mishna.

Once again a story from the early years of the fourth century, with
R. Ami and R. Judah Nesiah II appearing as the main characters. The
scene again is set in the Galilee. Famines are recorded in the Eastern
Empire during the years 324 and 3 3 3 9). (See also above text 7.)

i o. Bavli Ta'anit 23a:

... Like R. Jona the father of R. Mani, when the world was in nead of rain
he would go into his house and say: Give me my haversack [and] I will go buy
grain for a ZuZ. [Whereupon] he would go to some deep and hidden place, cover
himself in sackcloth, and pray and the rain would come. When he came back,
they would say to him: Sir, did you bring anything back? He would reply to
them: [No], I said [to myself], since the rain has come there will be relief every-
where, (i.e. everything will now be available).

This is part of a statement made by the Babylonian Ray Zerika to

his friend Ray Safra. Apparently the ways of R. Jona, one of the most
prominent scholars of middle fourth century Palestine and head of the
academy at Tiberias, were known by scholars in Babylonia. This tale
posits droughts around the middle of the fourth century in the Galilee.
Sozomen writes: "Jerusalem and the neighbouring country was at one
time visited with a famine, and the poor appealed in great multitudes to
Cyril, as their bishop, for necessary food. As he had no money to
purchase the requisite provisions, he sold for this purpose the veil and
sacred ornaments of the Church..." 12) As Cyril was bishop of Jeru-

I1) Theophanes, Chron. a 5824, ed. De Boor, p. 29, 13-z3 (year 324), and Jerome's
Chronicle ad An. 333, ed. Helm, p. 233. See G. Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria
(Princeton, 1961), pp. 336-37, 354.
I2) Hist. Eccles. 4.25. Translation by Hartranft, p. 321.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

salem from 350-57, this famine must have ta

years. The famine was probably the result (at
Perhaps it spread to the Galilee too.

I i. Yerushalmi Ta'anit3.Ii:
In the days of R. Judah they ordered a fast and t
night. R. Mana went to him (i.e. to R. Judah) [a
thirsty, may I drink? He replied to him: Wait a wh
decide to complete [the fast], (and in that case you to

(Compare with number 9, above.) The R. Ju

a contemporary of the R. Jona of the previo
Mani of the previous text), R. Jona's son, wa
out what we saw in the preceding text, that t
Galilee around the middle of the fourth centu

12. Bavli Ta'anit 2/a:

R. Hiyya b. Luliani overheard the clouds saying
[and] pour rain upon Ammon and Moab. He said to
blessed be He offered the Torah to every nation and
it, until Israel came and accepted it. And you [w
[your rain] upon Ammon and Moab?! Pour down [y
And they did pour down [their] rain on [this] their s

HIIiyya b. Luliani belongs to the generation f

hence, floruit circa 350-75. This tale demonst
droughts during the third quarter of the four

i 3. Leviticus Rabba 34.14 = Genesis Rabba 33.3

In the days of R. Tanhuma Israel was in need of r
said to him: Rabbi, order a fast so that rain should c
time and a second time and the rains did not come d

I3) For famine in Antioch in 363, see Julian, Miso

plague in Edessa during the third quarter of the four
Further references to famines in Antioch in Liban
Loeb ed. i, pp. 476-77, note b), Or. 27.6.14, (384, s
Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria, pp. 419-20). S
Jean-Remy Palanque. "Famines " Rome a la fin du IVe
ciennes, 33 (1931), pp. 346-56.
14) Ed. Margulies, pp. 8o6-o8 (Leviticus Rabba), ed.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

he went up and preached.

charity. One man got up, to
out to give it [as charity] in
to him: Give me charity, fo
your house, she (= I) has s
straits he was filled with
[the verse]: "And that tho
58:7). A certain person espie
to him: Why are you sitting
you see? He asked him. He
with his former wife and
would he be engaged in conv
huma sent [for him], and br
that the world is steeped in
steeped in suffering, and yo
Do you not realize that th
preach, "And that thou hide
all the congregation should
I had in my house and went
my former wife. And she s
from the day she left you
naked and in dire straits, I
account of [the verse], "And
At that hour R. Tanhuma raised his countenance towards the heavens and said:
If cruel flesh and blood who has no obligation to sustain her, as soon as he saw
her naked and in dire straits, he was filled with compassion for her and gave her,
we who are your children, the children of your tested ones, the children of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and our sustenance is your responsibility, how much
more so. At that hour, the rains came down and the world breathed relief.

This very beautiful moralistic tale has a briefer and less detailed
parallel in Genesis Rabba. The description of the drought which causes
suffering to the earth, to the people upon it, and to the beasts of the
field is truly poignant. The events took place some time during the third
quarter of the fourth century when R. Tanhuma was active 15).
The above is merely a small selection of approximately datable texts
which constitute evidence for drought, often accompanied by famine
and plague. One could add many further examples: Yerushalmi Ta'anit

15) Note that there were Famines in Antioch between the years 381-82, (cf.
Themistius, Or. 15; Zosimus, 4-32), 383 and 384 (Libanius, Or. 27.6). For the year
383 a general famine is attested in many parts of the Empire. See Downey, A History
of Antioch in Syria, p. 420 (citing note 41, G. Rauschen, Jahrbiicher der Christlichen
Kirche unter dem Kaiser Theodosius dem Grossen, Freiburg i B, 1897, pp. 484-85).

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

1.4 (R. Abbahu in Caesarea, pre-309); Yerushalmi Ta'anit

and R. Judah Nesiah II, about 3oo; R. Jose, Tiberias, ab
R. [A]ba b. Zavda, R. Tanhum b. [Han]ilai and R. Josiah
before 279; R. Berechia, thirteen fasts for drought and then
locusts, between about 320 and 350o); Yerushalmi Ta'anit
floruit circa 320-50, in the South and probably around Lyd
fasts), Leviticus Rabba 3.3 (R. Haggai, first of fourth centur
Tiberias) 16), etc.
Of course, one must bear in mind Professor S. Lieberman
lanced remark that "absence of rain at the beginning of the
not infrequent in Palestine, and prayers for it do not prove tha
a drought during the whole season." 17) Nonetheless, t
assembled above does suggest irregularity in the season
commonness of the occurence of drought, sometimes in
sometimes in less serious dimensions.

And here we may add the opinion of a leading authority on the his-
tory of climate, C.E.P. Brooks. In a searching discussion of the methodo-
logy of palaeoclimatology he writes: "It seems a reasonable argument
that if a considerable number of droughts are recorded in one century,
the rainfall of that century was abnormally low."18) Indeed, we have
found a considerable number of droughts recorded during this period.
Against the general background that these texts conjure up, and the
even tentative conclusions of a prolonged period of heat and dryness
that they suggest, many homilies, halachic discussions, descriptions and

I6) See his sermons for fast-days recorded in Y. Ta'anit z.i and ibid. 4.3. The
latter source is particularly revealing: R. Haggai, when the used to go out to [pro-
claim] a fast, used to say before them (The congregation): My brothers, even though
we have in our hearts many hardships [that we wish to pray may cease, now we shall
not pray] but that they (the rains) shall come. (See readings recorded by Ratner ad
loc., p. 99, and see above note 7.) During this same period; fasts were being pro-
claimed in the South by R. Judah [b. Simon] b. Pazi, (Y. Ta'anit 2.I = Gen. Rab.
49.12, ed. Theodor-Albeck pp. 5 13-4).
17) In his article in Annuaire, 7, 1939-44, P. 435. See Y. Ta'anit 2.I = B. Rosh
Hashana 16b.
18) C. E. P. Brooks, Climate through the Ages (London, 1949), p. 286. This is in h
discussion on methodology which covers pp. 281-94.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

recollections may be better un

such texts 19) which may add g
picture of the times.

a) Bavli Ta'anit Igb = Bavli Bava

Said R. Johanan: I remember when
people in Tiberias were bloated with

According to this text, in Tibe

or early forties of the third centu
for economic reasons there were
situation suggested by this text
but because of a lack of coin circ
not high. And nonetheless, peop
been grain in plenty, people w
wage be in kind, in grain. Or
it unemployment too?

b) Bavli Sanhedrin 9 b :
Said Resh Lakish ... It is written,
bear met him, and he went into the
serpent bit him." (Amos 5:1i9)-Wh
bailiff (santer),21) it is as though a l
and a tax-collector meets him, [then
He comes [back] into [his] house and
in hunger, [then] it is as though a snak

This very famous text is proba

(Resh Lakish died about 275.) It
19) There are many more texts in
subject. However, the ones presented
representative types, but also because o
zo) S. Krauss, Antoninus und Rabbi
Johanan's youth. Marmorstein, Tar
referring to the fifties. See commenta
of these events in chapter XIX of my
Money and Prices.
21) 11030 = saltuarius, bailiff, (con
Roma u-Byzantion, p. 68). See G. Al
Tekufat ha-Mishna re-ha-Talmud (= Told
the primary meaning rather than the
marks in Erchei, 1974.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

in the house of a man who has fields!, i.e. not a townsd

farmer. Apparently, the yield of his crops, after having bee
the tax-collector, left barely anything for him and his family
Resh Lakish, who lived in Tiberias, is probably describing c
the Galilee.

c) Bavli Ta'anit I a:
Said Resh Lakish: A man may not indulge in sexual intercourse during years
of famine (literally: hunger), as it is said, "And unto Joseph were born two sons
before the year of famine came." (Genesis 41 : 5o)

Against the background of the previous text (b), Resh Lakish's

statement here may well be understood 23).

d) Bavli Ta'anit 8a:

And R. Ami said: What is the meaning of the verse, "If the serpent bite
before it is charmed, then the charmer hath no advantage" (Ecclesiastes io: I i)-
If you see a generation over whom the heavens are rust-coloured like copper and
do not let down dew or rain, it is because there are no "whisperers" (i.e. people
who pray silently) in that generation. What is their remedy? Let them go before
him that knows to whisper, and let him whisper. [But] if he who knows to
whisper, not, what benefit will accrue to him? [Again], of he does whisper and
obtains his desire, and then becomes presumptuous, he brings wrath upon the
world, as it is said, ". . the cattle also concerning the storm that cometh up"
(Job 36:33).24)

The text is from the late third or early fourth century. The des-
cription of the burnished copper-coloured sky, dry and barren is un-
usually vivid for this kind of literature.

e) Bavli Ta'anit 7b:

Said R. Ami: Rain is witheld only as a punishment for violence, (literally:
theft) ... What is the remedy? People should pray more fervently ...

22z) See A. H. M. Jones' remarks in The later Roman Empire (Oxford 1964) (= LRE),
p. 8 I I, and below in this chapter.
23) Compare R. Abun (= Avin)'s statement in Genesis Rabba 3 1.12, ed. Theodor,
p. 286.
24) See Malter, The Treatise Ta'anit (Philadelphis, 1967), pp. oo00-03, and notes

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

Here R. Ami suggests a rea

to his audience this was a
such "justifications" for the

f) Bavli Ta'anit 8a:

And R. Ami said: The rains on
faith, as it is said, "Truth spri
hath looked down from heave

Yet another homily on the

g) Bavli Ta'anit7b:
Said R. Simon b. Pazi: Rain is
it is said, "The north wind brin
countenance" (Proverbs z5 : 23

R. Simon b. Pazi was a so

He himself was a landown
His homily would have h
experienced considerable suf

h) Bavli Ta'anit 7a:

Said R. Abbahu: The day of the
of the dead. For the resurrecti
for the wicked, while the rains

R. Abbahu spent his latter

community of Caesarea. He
forth a picture of the trem
rains finally make their ap
the dead.

25) See also ibid. 8a, and B. Sh

of Rain in Ancient Palestine",
draught', pp. 264-69.
26) On this see my article in Di
perty from Jew to non-Jew in
27) Lieberman, Annuaire de /'inst
1939-44, P. 402.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

i) Genesis Rabba 2o.o0:28)

Said R. Isaac: [The verse] "Thou shalt eat the grass ('esev) of the
sis 3: 8), refers to present day generations, when a man plucks from
eats it while it is still green and unripe ('esev).

This statement, probably from the early fourth century

the state of famine, suggesting it as common phenomenon 29).

j) Bavli Ta'anit 8b:

And R. Isaac said: Great is the day of rain, for even the pruta (s
the purse 30) is blessed thereby, as it is said, "To give the rain of T
season, and to bless all the work of Thy hand" (Deuteronomy 28: I 2

Again, a very emotive description of how the rains b

economic relief 31).
Here again we have surveyed some of the many texts wh
keen and constant awareness of and preoccupation with th
late rains, droughts and the attendant hunger, famine and
Such texts lend added weight to our suggestion that most
and early fourth centuries constituted a protracted period
low rainfall. And who suffered most during this perio
peasant farmer of course. His crops were ruined; his land

28) Ed. Theodor, p. 194.

29) See Lieberman's remarks on this text in Annuaire, 7, 1939-44, P.
30) Here, "pruta in the purse" is an idiomatic term having the gene
of trade and commerce. See Malter, The Treatise Ta'anit, p. 114,
remarks that the phrase "pruta in the purse" is a "figurative expressio
and commerce.".

3 i) Cf. the statement of R. Eleazar b. Jacob (the Tanna!) in Deuteronomy Rabba.,

ed. Lieberman, p. iio. However, probably one should read there R. Eleazar [b.
Pedat], as in Genesis Rabba 13.16, Theodor, pp. 124-25: R. Eleazar in the name of
R. Jose b. Zimra (early third century) said (concerning the verse in Gen. z:6, that
when the rain comes): Everything is blessed, business is blessed and the traders feel
relief... (This is an amplified version of the text in Deut. Rab. ibid.). In translating
"traders feal relief", I have followed the standard readings: pragmatutin---atu~.7S.
However, Theodor (Gen. Rab., p. 124-25, to line 9), on the basis of a manuscript
reading, suggests reading slightly differently, and explaining that people suffering
from a certain ailment of the legs (rxosxypEn-g). M. Sokoloff feals this suggestion is
borne out by the reading found in a Geniza fragment of this text. See his The GeniZa
Fragments of Genesis Rabba and Vat. Ebr. 60o of Genesis Rabba, (Hebrew University
doctoral thesis, 1970), I, p. 170, to line 34. (I should like to express my gratitude to
Dr. Sokoloff for giving me a copy of his thesis.)

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

his wells ran dry; he was

many such farmers relie
the years of hardship 32
to disappointment. This
Midrashic text in Ruth
which discusses why the
solution that he gravely
continues with a parable
[It is like] unto a bouleutes
thought and said of him tha
would be able to supply the
did come, his bondwoman w
grainsellers (? according to
her hand. And the people
relied that should a drough
and behold, here is his bond
basket in her hand. So also
of the leaders of the gener
[to himself]: Now all Israel
basket and this one with hi
is what the verse means by
went.. ." (Ruth i1).

No doubt there were a

community who preferr
of want, and the locals
curse Pharoah, because h
famine", according to th
is anonymous, but is pr
during these periods of
wine, oil, etc., hoarding
were denounced by the
verses in Amos 8:4-7:

32) See my article in JESH

Amoraic Palestine". See also L
(of the first half of the fourt
33) Ed. Zuckermandel, p. 466

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

[Hear this, O ye that would swallow the needy, and destroy the p
land] saying: "When will the new moon be gone, that we sell gra
Sabbath that we may set forth corn? Making the ephah small, and the
and falsifying the balance of deceit. [That we may buy the poor for si
needy for a pair of shoes, and sell the refuse of the corn!]" The Lord
by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their work
Bava Batra 9o0b).

Indeed, the Talmud here records one such hoarder, Shabta

who lived in R. Johanan's time. Hoarders can only flouri
of famine and drought. Evidence (direct and indirect) of the
and of their activities constitutes (oblique) confirmation of
famine during this period.
Our evidence appears to bear out the very interesting con
Jones 34), who writes:
"What is particularly significant in these stories is that at a time w
were reduced to eating grass, corn was available in the cities, e
government granaries or in private hands. If the harvest failed, the
and the landlord extracted his due, and the peasant had to surrender
kind or sell it to obtain the necessary cash, even if he was left with
feed himself and his family".34)

We have endeavoured to show above that the incidence of famine was

a very common phenomenon in the later third century. Indeed, this is
hardly surprising in view of the repeated droughts and general reduction
in crop-yields. Small crop-yields, coupled with heavy taxation on
produce, made it impossible for the small peasant farmer to stock away
provisions against the eventuality of further succession of "lean years".
Hence his vulnerability to sudden famine as a result of delayed rains.
"The customary rains, indeed, and showers of the then prevailing
winter season were witholding their usual downpour upon the earth,
and we were visited with an unexpected famine, and on top of this a
plague and an outburst of another kind of disease .. ." This description
from Eusebius' Historia Ecclesiastica 9.8, referring to the year 312/13,

34) LRE p. 811i. Cf. ibid., pp. Io, 1044. See also Rostovtzeff's observations in
Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford 19 57) (=SEHRE2), pp. 700-0 1,
note z 2, especially p. i70: "We may note in this connection that the emperors of the
second and third centuries A. D. were extremely active in building up large granaries
in the provinces, especially the corn-producing provinces, of the Empire."

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

would almost equally well f

depending, of course, on th
constant: drought, famine,
year famin mentioned in 2
hunger (Bavli Ta'anit 5 a):
In the first year they ate what
was in the fields; in the third t
the fourth the flesh of unclean b
the flesh of their sons and daugh
fulfill that which is stated (in
hand, and is hungry; and he eat
eat every man the flesh of his ow

This fearful description,

exegesis on a Biblical pass
taining during R. Johanan
on observations of the long
the Empire in the 25o's 35).
In view of the above it is to
to the irregularity of the ra
and famine in halachic litera
two examples of this: the firs
effect the lack of rainfall
indirect reflection of thes
phenomenon even manage
cussions as a consideration o
i. According to long est
ploughing fields a considera
tical year. In a tree-planted
four months before the beg
lavan (literally: a white fiel
six months earlier (Mishn
the "two periods" in Rab
Yerushalmi Shevi'it i.1). It
dates no longer benefitted
35) See Eusebius, Historia Ecclesi

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

who ploughed his fields after these dates was presu

benefit the crops of the seventh year, and this wa
shalmi Shevi'it I.i). The prohibition of the "two per
be in force until the early third century. However, s
second quarter of the third century, "Rabban Gam
Beit-Din (= Court of Law) abolished the prohibi
during the two periods" (Yerushalmi Shevi'it
Shabbat 1.4), or according to the version in Tos
"Rabban Gamliel and his Beit-Din enacted that it sh
to work the land up to the New Year".38) Thus, acc
shalmi version R. Gamliel merely permitted ploughi
ing to the (earlier) Tosefta version he permitted al
vation until the New Year. This probably incl
manuring (Yerushalmi Shevi'it 2.2) and the build
(Yerushalmi Shevi'it 3.6).39)
The reason for Rabban Gamliel's abolition of the p
where stated explicitly. However, various expla
offered. Most recently, Professor Y. Feliks, in a
detailed discussion of this problem 40) writes:
"The decree prohibiting ploughing in the "two perio
upon the regular cultivation of the fields in the sixth yea

36) See Lieberman, Tosefta ki-fshuxtah, 2, (New York 1955)

Rabban Gamliel the Nasi (= Prince) in Y. Shevi'it ibid., as do c
tators. See Lieberman, ibid. There is no doubt that the Rabba
here is Rabban Gamliel III, the son of Rabbi. See Lieberm
2, 1955, P. 155. This was already stated by Rash b. ha-Yato
Rash Sirilio to Y. Shevi'it ad loc., etc.
37) Ed. Lieberman, p. 165.
38) In B. Moed Katan 3b the version is: .... And R. Simeon
b. Levi in the name of Bar Kappara: Rabban Gamliel and his B
ning these "two periods" and abolished them. This is a Souther
as the names of the traditionaries demonstrate. The version
in the name of R. Kruspi in the name of R. Johanan, and this
39) The Tosefta's version is somewhat borne out by the for
the Bavli; see preceding note.
40) In Bar Ilan, 9, 1972, pp. 154-59, 217-20, xvii-xxiii. This q
p. xxii. See also J. Feliks, Agriculture in Palestine in the first
Talmud, pp. 41-47, (Hebrew).

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

from clearing the weeds that g

quantity of weeds that grew
Similar phenomena occurred in
suffered from the absence o
abolished this prohibition either
Year were meticulously obser
period of prohibition in the six
awareness of the importance of

Professor Feliks' suggestio

regards his first suggestion, a
this period there was, if an
of the Sabbatical Year 41). A
late ploughing and weeding
that this alone would have
of such long-established cus
some even regarded as of Bi
Probably there was no on
Economic pressures, heavy t
attitude with which the Sab
vated and energetically prom
all these factors contribut
radical move. However, it w
pressures that led to the
agriculture of the times. Su
difficulties to the practical
increased leniency towards
of the third century 44). An
keeping the Sabbatical Yea
rainfall increased these hard

41) See Safrai, Tarbiz, 36, 1966, p

42) See Feliks, Bar-Ilan, ibid., p
according to Mechilta de R. Simeo
R. Judah. See also Feliks, ibid., pp
43) Safrai, TarbiZ, 36, 1966, pp

44) Safrai, ibid., p. Ii. See also Feliks, Sinai 73, (1973), PP- 235-249.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

long summer, a dry autumn 45), these could ruin th

year; and what would be left for the fallow sevent
would be extorted by tax-authorities 46) and the hap
left with nothing. The prohibition against cultivat
half a year before the Sabbatical Year could but
situation, and many must have seen it as an unr
best cast aside. It would appear that with a full awar
of the situation, R. Gamliel saw fit to abolish this an

2. Yerushalmi Kiddushin 1.2:

(Concerning the Mishna in Kiddushin 1.2, which states t

see Exodus z21: z-6-may be acquired with, inter alia,) a
Said R. Abbahu: A money bond (= deed of sale) [is wh
referring to.] From which [statement of R. Abbahu] one m
a gift bond one may not [acquire a Hebrew slave. Why?] L
his mind (and back out of the deal. The argument runs as
gave no more than a document stating that he had given
ownership of the master merely as a gift, he had not total
to this contract and may therefore change his mind and
contract is not binding. However, if he sold himself to th
money in return, he totally committed himself to the co
sequently binding upon both parties.) If so, even from
back out. (The Korban ha-Edah of R. David Fraenkel ex
this particular case he had given a document stating that
for a given sum of money. However, he had not as yet
money itself. Had he done so, the sale would have been
actual transfer of the money. See Mishna Kiddushin i. i. He
money that "exist" is that which is written in the documen
this is no more than a gift. Hence, he can go back on this

45) According
seasons are not in to Y. Pe'a
order. We 5.I
take- this
Y. Shekalim 1.2, the
to mean that R. Mana
Feliks, Agriculture, pp. 40-41, on the importance of ploughin
rains. For the various types of ploughing in Talmudic lite
chapter i.
46) Safrai, TarbiZ, 36, 1966, pp. 14-15; B. Sanhedrin z26a, Y. Sanhedrin 3.5 = Y.
Shevi'it 4.2.
47) According to the Pnei Moshe (of R. Moses Margaliot) ad loc., the slave can
return the money and thus annul the deed. This explanation is, however, unsatis-
factory. For the return of the money requires a second kinyan (= conveyance); it has
to be received and accepted by the master. If he accepts it, he will, in effect, have sold
the slave back to himself, having received the money as payment therefore. The fact
that he will in the future perhaps be able to sell the slave back to himself through a
second kinyan obviously constitutes no flaw in the first kinyan.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

to him: Lest a year of famine co

We do not suspect that in the cas
but that the master may. In a year
his slave, and will prefer to diss
he will have had at the back of h
contracted. Hence, he had not to
the contract is subsequently inva
slave firmly binds him to the ag
Korban of R. David Fraenkel, ad

The text as it stands presen

comment by R. Abbahu, wh
ever, the answer, "Lest a yea
words "He said to him".48) T
other personality, who has dr
other hand, it may be that "

might answer" (b"t = t- an)

it is clear that the statement ca
-R. Abbahu died in 309-and
situation in which masters we
for them is a phenomenon
Amoraim (i.e. fourth centu
demonstrated by Professor
concerning Slavery 49).
The law of the Hebrew slave
the whole discussion purely
volved were of practical appl
consideration that can be sug
to a contract and which migh
a likely one and not somethin
argument "Lest a year of fam
valid-which it apparently is-
of the premise that such a co

48) Found in Ms. Leiden, ed. princ

49) Papers of the Institute of Jew
1964, pp. 74-76, especially p. 76.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

sense. This in turn posits the common occurrence of yea

the late third or early fourth centuries.
Hunger, famine, penury-these elements seem to be
the literature of this period. Thus Libanius, describing A
365 writes:
Everywhere is full of carpetbaggers-lands, islands, villages, cities, markets,
harbours and back-streets. Houses and slaves are put up for sale, foster-parents,
nurses, attendants, even the tombs of their ancestors. Everywhere there is
poverty, beggery and tears; farmers think it better to be beggars than farmers,
and the man to give alms today is tomorrow himself in need of alms ... but
from the seasons have come famine and plague, afflicting man and beast alike,
as though it is not right that creatures upon earth should flourish once he has
departed. 50)

Or again, for the year 384:

Famine has filled our city with beggars, some of whom had abandoned their
fields, since they had not even grass to eat, it being winter, and left their cities.51)

And an anonymous Midrash (Genesis Rabba 89.4 52), probably from the
fourth century) comments: At the time when the years are bad, crea-
tures' bodies are covered in scabies. Indeed, malnutrition took its toll of
the population 53).
This fact of poverty and hunger even made its impact upon the
Roman Codes. Thus in Codex Theodosianus 1I.27.2 (of 322) we read:
We have learned that provincials suffering from lack of sustenance and the
necessities of life are selling or pledging their own children. Therefore, if any
such person should be found who is sustained by no substance of family fortune
and who is supporting his children with suffering and difficulty, he shall be
assisted through Our fisc before he becomes a prey to calamity. The proconsuls
and governors and the fiscal representatives throughout all Africa shall thus have

50) Or. 18.289, 293, Loeb ed., i, pp. 475, 477. For the dating see note b in Loeb
ed., pp. 476-77. However, it appears this famine was the result of an earthquake.
5 i) Or. 27.6.14. See Jones, LRE, p. 8Io.
2z) Ed. Theodor, p. io9.
53) See Jones, LRE, pp. 1044-45. Much the same picture emerges from many
passages in the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus, Julius of Syracuse (334-37). R.
MacMullen, in his article "Social History in Astrology", Ancient Society, 2, 1971.
p. 115, assembles the following: "The straits of poverty, supported in wretched
beggary", "the wretched burden of beggary", "the begging poor covered in rags
and sunk in wretched calamity", "pressed down in the wretched filth of want,
vagrant and never at home", etc., (F. M., 4.8.1; 4.10.2; 4.14.3; 4.14.15).

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

the power, they shall bestow freely the n

they observe to be in dire need, and f
immediately assign adequate sustenance. F
that we should allow any person to be des
to the commission of a shameful deed.

The "shameful deed" hinted at is more clearly mentioned in Codex The-

odosianus 11.27.I (of 315, 329):
A law shall be written on bronze and on waxed tablets and on linen cloth and
posted throughout all municipalities of Italy, whereby the hands of parents may
be restrained from parricide and their hopes turned to the better. Your office
shall be constrained to administer this regulation, namely, that if any parent
should report that he has offspring which on account of poverty he is not able
to rear, there shall be no delay in issuing food and clothing, since the rearing of
a newborn infant will allow no delay...54)

Of course, not all hunger and famine necessarily resulted from

drought. Excessive taxation played its part in driving people off the
land, creating large areas of uncultivated land, which over the years
became barren and even sterile 55). So Lactantius describes the situation
about 311:
For if aught chanced to have been left untouched by Diocles and Maximian,
that did Daia greedily and shamelessly carry off. And now the granaries of each
individual were shut, and all warehouses sealed up, and taxes, not yet due, were
levied by anticipation. Hence famine, from neglect of cultivation, and the
prices of things enhanced beyond all measure .. .56)

Nonetheless, there was apparently a general feeling in the fourth

century and afterwards that the elements were taking their revenge upon

54) Translation Pharr., p. 318. See Jones' remarks in LRE, pp. 853-54, 1044. Cf.
Nov. Val. 33.I, of 451 . May we not find an allusion to this practise in a number of
Midrashim. Eg. Pesikta de R. Kahana, ed. Buber, p. 95b, ed. Mandelbaum, p. i61:
... like those procurators who go out to the villages, rob the tenants of the land,
come to the city and say: Gather the poor, for we want to distribute charity to
them ... (Lieberman's translation, in JQR, 36, 1946, p. 358; see his rather different
interpretation, ibid., pp. 358-59, and cf. parallels, referred to ibid., p. 357 note 204).
See also C. Dupont's remarks in RIDA 3/19, 1972, pp. z85-87.
5 5) See the excellent discussion of this problem in A. Bernardi's essay included in
C. M. Cipolla's The Economic Decline of Empires (London, 1970), pp. 56-57, P. 70 note

56) De mortibus persecutorum, 37, translation W. Fletcher, (Edinburgh, 187

p. 198.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

mankind. Thus Symmachus, writing in Rome ab

lationes 21.3):
Each nation has its own gods and peculiar rites. The Great Mystery cannot be
approached by one avenue alone. But use and wont count for much in giving
authority to a religion. Leave us the symbol on which our oaths of allegiance
have been sworn for so many generations. Leave us the system which has so long
given prosperity to the State. A religion should be judged by its utility to
the men who held it. Years of famine have been the punishment of sacrilege ...

Thus, Symmachus argues that the terrible famines which wasted the
provinces which were the granaries of Italy were a judgment of the
(pagan) gods on their (Christian) enemies 57).
Christians, when legislating against Jews, Samaritans, heretics and
pagans, reversed the argument. Thus in Novellae Theodosiani 3.1.8
(43 8, Constantinople) we read:
Shall we endure longer that the succession of the seasons be changed, and the
temper of the heavens be stirred to anger, since the embittered perfidy of the
pagans does not know how to preserve these balances of nature? For why has
the spring renounced its accustomed charm? Why has the summer, barren of
its harvest, deprived the labouring farmer of his hope of a grain harvest? Why
has the intemperate ferocity and the winter with its piercing cold doomed the
fertility of the lands with the disaster of sterility? Why all these things, unless
nature has transgressed the decree of its own law to avenge such impiety?58)

However, the picture should not be seen as altogether bleak. There

were, in fact, some improvements during the fourth century; at least
certain types of agricultural activity (eg. viticulture) apparently boomed.
"There were many prosperous peasants and craftsmen, and many more

57) See S. Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, Meridian ed.
(New York, 196o), pp. 30-31. For the great famine, see Symmachus, Rel. 3, 15-17.
(Dill, ibid., p. 30 note 2). See also St. Ambrose reply, (Epist. 18.12-2i, P1. 16.977),
from which Palanque, in Revue des 1ttudes Anciennes, 33, 1931, p. 347, deduces that this
famine affected most of the Mediterranean and transalpine countries.
58) Translation Pharr., p. 490. See C. Dickerman Williams introductory remarks,
pp. xix-xx. See also J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, (New York,
1969), pp. 238-39, on the character of this novella, and Baron, SRHJ2, 2, p. 398 note
12, (citing inter alia, F., Nau's study in REJ, 83, 1927, pp. 184-206; cf. idem Revue de
l'Orient chretien, 1913, p. 244). On the coldness of the winters during this period, see
K. W. Butzer, Quaternary Stratigraphy and Climate in the Near East (Bonn, 9 5 8), p.
I23. (This evidence of "colder" years is probably also evidence of "wetter" years,
since the two normally go together.)

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to

who led a tolerable life 65)",. And although this was a period of religiou
persecutions for the Jews of Palestine so), economically the fourth
century was far better and easier than the third had been 61).
In the above pages we have tried to indicate the factor that climate
played in the social and economic development of Palestine in the third
and fourth centuries. It appears furthermore that this factor played a
significant r61e in the period under discussion. However, the full exten
of its significance in relation to other major factors, political, military
monetary, cultural and so forth, this is a problem that requires separat

59) Jones, LRE, p. 1045. See also Peter Brown's description of Syrian village
life in the fourth century in his article, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man",
JRS, 61, 1971, pp. 85-87.
60o) See J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, pp. 177-82, 234-39
Avi-Yonah, Bimei Roma u-Byzantion, pp. 152-58; but see Lieberman's comments in
JQR, 36, 1946, pp. 342-44. See also S. W. Baron, The Jewish Community (Philadelphia,
1942), I, pp. 1ii-i6, 3, PP. zo-21; S. Krauss, Synagogale Alterti"mer (Berlin, & Wien,
1922), pp. 419-20; J. Juster, LesJuifs dans l'Empire Romain, (Paris, 1914)., I, PP-
45 6-72, etc.
61) The description posited by the material contained in this chapter of a hot dry
period from c. 220-350, compared to cooler moister periods before and after corres-
ponds to the description contained in K. W. Butzer's Quaternary Stratigraphy and
Climate in the Near East (Bonn, 195 8), pp. 121-23. Furthermore, it corresponds in all
essentials to the conclusions of C. E. P. Brooks, in his Climate through the Ages
(London, 1949), p. 3i9 (rainy periods in Asia 0-2oo, and 400-5oo), decline in the
Kharga oasis and poor Nile floods in the third and fourth centuries which are
indications of dry weather (pp. 336-37, cf. p. 359 fig. 38). These conclusions of Brooks
are very close to those of Huntington in his Palestine and its Transformation, (Boston
and New York, 1911), pp. 3 17-29, who states that between c. 250 and 333 there was
a dry era, both preceded and followed by a wetter one. I shall deal with the improve-
ment in the later fourth century in my article in Aufstieg und Niedergang der rimischen
Welt, 2/2.

This content downloaded from on Fri, 24 Jul 2020 17:23:26 UTC
All use subject to