Toleration In The Ancient World
Cyrus the Great of Persia (r. c. 558–529 B.C.E.) is a key figure at the foundation of two traditions of toleration. He is praised in the Hebrew Bible for allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem after Babylonian captivity. And Xenophon (c. 431–c. 352 B.C.E.) lauded him in The Education of Cyrus (after 394 B.C.E.) for his policy of religious toleration, placing him in the Greek tradition. Scholars have speculated that his toleration of Medes, Hyrcanians, and other religious and ethnic groups was largely an imperial political strategy. He needed to draw on the manpower of conquered kingdoms and knew it would be easier to defeat kings whose peoples believed they could thrive under his rule.
Aspects of Buddhist religious thought, which originated in India, also justified peacefulness and toleration. Ashoka (r. c. 273–232 B.C.E.), the last emperor of the Mauryan dynasty in India, renounced war and promoted Buddhism while remaining tolerant of other religions.
Throughout much of history, the ancient Chinese were tolerant of a variety of religions ranging from Confucianism to Buddhism and Taoism to animism. Manichaeans and Jews thrived at times. Scholars have speculated that it was precisely because they were tolerated and not persecuted that Jews in ancient China seem to have shed their identity and blended into the rest of the population.
The Koran contains passages about living in peace with peoples of other religions, especially "peoples of the book" (Jews and Christians). Therefore, Islamic cultures such as medieval Spain tolerated flourishing Christian and Jewish communities in what was known as convivencia, or living together in peace. The Ottoman Empire developed regimes of toleration of those religions that included the "millet" system, in which each religion had its own legal system and paid its own tax rate, even though only Muslims could hold higher offices.
The ancient Romans were generally tolerant of the existence of many cults because of polytheism, which implied that every hearth, city, and people could have its own gods. When they became an imperial power, they tolerated any religion that would also show signs of respect for Roman deities. They conceived of the Jewish War not as wars against that religion but against a rebellious subject people. Christians were persecuted for their refusal to take part in the imperial cult and for their disrespect for Roman rule, not merely for their religion.