Diocletian and the fair in Tyre
360 CE to 400 CE
Hebrew and Aramaic
Title of work:
Avodah Zarah 1:4, 39d
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
This text is located in a sugya (talmudic unit) that discusses Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:4 and selections from Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5-8 which consider Greco-Roman fairs (for more on fairs and contrasting tannaitic stances on whether Jews may attend in these gatherings, see the commentary on Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:5-8). The first passage discussed here (A) shows a lack of agreement on the fair among third- and fourth-century amoraim. Section B records an inscription from the fair of Tyre that is attributed to Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE), which has attracted significant scholarly attention.
Section A presents a dialogue between two disciples of Rabbi Yoḥanan (died ca. 280): Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba (Vva), a third-generation amora who was active in the late third and early fourth and is associated with Tyre in another passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, which depicts him stepping on graves to see Emperor Diocletian when he visited that city (Berakhot 3:1, 6a; Nazir 7:1, 56a); Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Aḥa is an amora whose lifetime bridged the third and fourth-generations amoraim, who was active late in the third century and the early decades of the fourth century. The encounter between these two sages takes place after Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba sent a third party to buy sandals for him at the fair in Tyre, indicating that this sage understood purchases form such a fair to be permissible. However, Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Aḥa challenges him, asking ““Are you among those who buy at a fair?” Rabbi Ḥiyyah bar Abba responds with another question: “And haven’t you ever purchased a loaf of bread [at a fair]?” Rabbi Ya‘akov bar Aḥa then explains that buying foods required for subsistence belongs to a special category and cites their teacher Rabbi Yoḥanan, who permitted the purchase of such necessities. Whereas Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:6-7 distinguishes between shops according to whether or not they participate in the fair, and other rabbinic texts focus on whether or not the fair has an idolatrous sponsor, here it seems that Rabbi Yoḥanan allowed the procurement of any basic foods at a fair. Nonetheless, this exchange reflects a disagreement among the sages on this subject.
Section B conveys a conversation about the fair in Tyre between two otherwise unknown sages, Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Yotzdaq. They were presumably active during the late third or fourth century since one of them finds archival evidence that Diocletian dedicated this fair. Here, Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥanan asked Rabbi Shimon ben Yotzdaq to gather information about the fair in Tyre by visiting its archive (following the translation in Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary, p. 53; but compare Yehudah B. Cohn, “The Graeco-Roman Trade Fair,” p. 189, who renders this passage as “R. Simeon bar Yotzadaq had inspected the inscription, presumably at [the fair] entrance”). The Talmud does not detail the subject of this investigation; however, since this query requires assistance from an archivist rather than going to the fair itself (presumably to witness the activities taking place, especially if they include idolatry), its sponsorship and purpose may be at issue. Even if this narrative had not involved an archive, the sages base their ruling on an inscription from the dedication of this fair, not a direct account of its activities. Regardless of the method for gathering evidence, this investigation is compatible with the description in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 1:7:
ירוד שנתנה מלכות ושנתנה מדינה ושנתנו גדולי מדינה מותר אין אסור אלא ירוד של ע'ז בלבד
“A fair that the kingdom gave, the province gave or the great people of the province gave is permitted. Only a fair of idolatry (lit. foreign worship; avodah zarah) is prohibited.”
However, the Talmud does not cite this tosefta and it is unclear whether the fair in Tyre would be considered “a fair that the kingdom gave” or “a fair of idolatry.” In any case, Rabbi Shimon ben Yotzdaq gave the archivist (definition uncertain) two pounds (litra) of peppers in exchange for access to the archive. Before discussing this written document, which includes the dedication of the fair, it is noteworthy that, if Michael Sokoloff’s rendering of this tale is accurate, in this narrative, a sage relies on a local city archive for his ruling on a halakhic issue, suggesting that he considered that repository to be a trustworthy source of evidence. On archives in the provinces, Clifford Ando notes that “Rome continually asked local communities to preserve copies of all documents within their archives” and, especially, to record their relationship with Rome (Imperial Ideology, p. 84, 90, the discussion on archives p. 80-96). This source indicates that these sages are familiar with this institution and consult its records to examine the fair when ruling whether Jews are permitted to buy there.
The dedication of the fair cited in the Talmud reads as follows: “I, Diocletian the king, gave this fair of Tyre as a gift to the fortune (gad in Aramaic, referring to tuchē, numen or genius) of Heraclius my brother, [for a duration of] eight days.” This inscription states that Diocletian established the fair as a gift, which he dedicated to his brother Heraclius. Soon after becoming emperor, Diocletian elevated Maximian to the rank of co-emperor (285 CE) although, at that stage, Diocletian retained a superior status. In contrast to prior emperors, who adopted their successors, Diocletian conferred the status of brother upon Maximian (Amit, A History, p. 792). Each co-emperor was responsible for half of the empire: Diocletian in the East and Maximian in the West. In 293, they added two junior co-emperors and formed the Tetrarchy. Yet, in the dual system, Diocletian appears with the title Iovius (Jupiter) and Maximian with Herculius (Hercules) on coins and inscriptions, and in imperial propaganda (Leadbetter, Galerius, p. 55). These titles reflect the hierarchy between these two rulers and as well as their respective links to each of these gods (Stephen Williams, Diocletian, p. 58-59). By dedicating this fair to Hercules, Diocletian seems to have donated it to the tuchē or numen of his co-emperor (Lieberman, “Ten Words,” 81). Saul Lieberman argues that the fair was prohibited because it was dedicated to the gad of the king, meaning his daimōn or genius. For Lieberman, if the fair had been dedicated to the emperor, rather than his daimōn or genius, it would not be considered idolatrous; furthermore, he asserts that this fair had a tax-exempt status for eight days, and it was prohibited for Jews during that time (“Ten Words,” p. 81; Safrai “Fairs,” p. 141). In contrast, Yehudah B. Cohn posits that “Diocletian may have simply meant Hercules as the god of Tyre” (“The Graeco-Roman Trade Fair,” p. 189). While Hercules was the chief god of Tyre, the inclusion of both the brother and the god Hercules in this inscription indicates that the co-emperor is also being mentioned. Jonas C. Greenfield claims that dedications to an emperor and a god are not mutually exclusive; thus, Diocletian may plausibly have dedicated this fair “to honor his brother emperor, the city of Tyre and the god Heracles at the same time” (“An Aramaic Inscription,” p. 452).
The dedication cited in the Talmud appears in Aramaic, which raises a question regarding its original language (if indeed its transmission is accurate). Saul Lieberman even translated this inscription into Greek to examine its reliability (“Ten Words,” p. 80). Jonas C. Greenfield has also analyzed its language: “The inscription is in good Western Aramaic; however, we have no way of knowing if it is the actual copy of the inscription set up there. It may be the Aramaic version of a Greek original, or even a Latin… An additional possibility is that more than one language was used on the commemorative pillar” (“An Aramaic Inscription,” p. 451).
While scholars have proposed various suggestions regarding the location of this inscription (in the archive or in the fair) and its language, it is not clear whether this finding would prohibit Jewish participation in the fair of Tyre since the Talmud does not explicitly rule on the implications of this inscription (despite claims by Saul Lieberman and others; “Ten Words,” p. 81; Safrai “Fairs,” p. 141; Greenfield, “An Aramaic Inscription,” p. 451).
This passage (B), as well as the tradition that records Diocletian visiting Tyre (Berakhot 3:1, 6a; Nazir 7:1, 56a), may provide historical information about this emperor. However, this material from the Talmud undoubtedly records rabbinic attitudes toward Greco-Roman fairs – in this case, described as a gift from the emperor. The Talmud presents more than one opinion on Jewish engagement with such fairs. Yet, it could be inferred from these traditions that Jews in the third and fourth centuries, including some sages, attended these fairs.