In the middle of the 5th century CE, the Persian empire, which until then had been benevolent toward its large Jewish population, began to persecute Judaism and Christianity alike. The empire then entered a period of instability, brought about by internal fighting and external attack. In response to both the chaos and the persecution, the exilarch—the temporal leader of Mesopotamian Jewry—established a short-lived independent Jewish kingdom. Eli Kavon tells the story:
Together, [the exilarch] Mar Zutra II and [his grandfather] Rabbi Ḥanina, [a leading rabbinic authority], took advantage of the disorder that broke out throughout the Persian empire. Mar Zutra raised a small army and founded a kingdom with its capital in Maḥoza, [now part of the city of al-Mada’in, Iraq].
He proceeded to levy taxes and wage wars with his Jewish army. From 495 to 502 Mar Zutra II ruled with the complete support of his grandfather. . . . But the Persian king Kavadh I, who had been deposed during the disorder, regained his throne and destroyed Mar Zutra II’s Jewish state.
Both Mar Zutra II and Ḥanina were crucified by the Persian authorities.
The defeat was devastating. The rabbis had to establish academies out of the reach of the central Persian government. Eventually, however, life returned to normal for a short period under the Persian king and Jews were even drafted to serve as soldiers in the Persian army. A surviving son of Mar Zutra II, Mar Zutra III, escaped death by making his way to the land of Israel as a young man and gained prominence there.