In the context of defining the term Yom Genosia shel Melakhim, which is ultimately understood as the day that the rule of the Roman leader was established, the Gemara on today’s daf (=page) tells of the close relationship between Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi and the Roman emperor Antoninus. According to the opening story, Antoninus turned to Rabbi for advice on how to establish his son as his successor, something that was unusual in a political reality where the Senate chose the leader and generally refused to have a son follow his father as emperor. In the continuation of the stories of their relationship, the Gemara describes how Antoninus had a secret tunnel erected between their houses so that he could visit and serve Rabbi.
The Gemara concludes that at the time of Antonius’ death Rabbi eulogized him saying nitpardah havilah – “the pact has been broken!” Rashi explains that this refers to the close, personal relationship that existed between Rabbi and Antoninus, and Rabbi was expressing his own sense of loss at the end of that connection. Others suggest that this is a reference to Rabbi’s recognition that although he had promised Antoninus that he would receive a portion in the World to Come, nevertheless it would not be on the same spiritual level as what Rabbi would receive, so their relationship could not be continued. The Maharal takes a different approach, explaining that without Antoninus, the mutual respect between Rome and Israel no longer existed and he was predicting a period of discord, disagreement and ultimately discrimination and edicts.
The identity of the emperor Antoninus in this story is the subject of some debate. Some identify him as Caracalla, born Lucius Septimius Bassianus and later called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who ruled from 211-217 CE. His good relations with the Jewish community were well-known. Others point to his father, Septimus Severus who ruled from 193-211 CE who also had very good relations with the Jews under his rule, and who, indeed, succeeded in having his son named as emperor following his rule. Still others suggest that Antoninus was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who ruled from 161-180 CE.