A Synagogue at Ostia Antica

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

In spite of considerable epigraphic evidence brought to light concerning earlier Jewish communities in Italy, the first material evidence of an ancient Italian synagogue was uncovered only fairly recently at Ostia Antica, the Trajanic port of ancient Rome. About 1961, during construction work on a highway to the new airport at Fiumicino, the remains of a fourth century synagogue were found, built over the site of a synagogue of the first century. The opus reticulatum construction of the earlier synagogue shows it to be one of the oldest such edifices in the western Mediterranean area.

Over the centuries, modifications were made to the synagogue at Ostia Antica. A late second/early third century marble epigraph in Latin and Greek, dedicated by one Mindis Faustos "for the emperor's well-being," commemorated the donation of an ark for the Sacred Law. Dr. Maria Floriani Squarciapino, former archaeological superintendent of Ostia, who conducted the excavation, believed that this commemorative stone (which finally was used to repair the floor in the inner hall of the later synagogue) and the plan of the original building are proof that the structure at that site was always a synagogue, and that a continuous and prosperous Jewish colony must have lived at Ostia from the first century to, at least, the fourth.

The ruins of the fourth century synagogal complex include, inside the main hall and near the entrance, a four-stepped podium supporting a small tabernacle (aedicula) in the form of an apsed niche with columns, meant to hold the Torah ark. Resting on the columns were two sections of architrave which extended from the back wall and probably supported a pediment bridging the front opening of the aedicula. Featured in the decorations of the synagogue and carved on the anterior short ends of the architrave in low relief, with traces of gilding, are the ritual objects- lulav, ethrog, and shofar- flanking the representation of a bejewelled menorah (figs. ).

Since the discovery of the synagogue at Ostia Antica, other finds have been made in southern Italy. In 1985 during a highway project in Calabria, excavators discovered at Bova Marina the mosaic floor of a fourth century synagogue showing a menorah; under this floor may also be the remains of an older synagogue, as at Ostia. This was followed in 1988, by Dr. Marisa de' Spagnolis's find in Nocera of the two inscriptions of a husband and wife, grammateus and presbytera, that seem to have belonged to a synagogue (pp. ? , note ? ).

The recent finds in this area, in addition to several earlier finds noted by Frey, could lend some credence to his thesis that certain Jewish inscriptions coming from Porto might have originated in a cemetery there (pp. ). The earlier finds included a decree from nearby Castel Porziano recording the transfer of land for a family tomb as a gift from a Jewish community to one of its honored members, a Jewish epitaph, and a marble capital with four menorahs lightly incised between the volutes. This capital, found with six other capitals, might have originally been architectural embellishments for a Jewish structure which Frey presumed had been a synagogue. They were discovered among the ruins of the edifice at Porto that was considered to be the xenodocheion (a Christian hospice for pilgrims traveling to Rome) with an attached basilica. The "earliest of its kind," it was built by Pammachius in 398 and mentioned in the letters of St. Jerome.

Frey recorded other finds at Ostia indicating a Jewish presence: an amulet which bore Solomon's name on one side and a five-branched lampstand on the other, and a a terra cotta lamp impressed with a menorah. In the southern region of ancient Ostia, the inscription of Plotius Fortunatus was discovered in 1969. This epitaph is especially noteworthy since it provides evidence of the title of archisynagogos in Ostia.

It may be that those particular members of the synagogues mentioned in the Porto inscriptions worshipped in synagogues in Rome, or that, perhaps, the Roman congregations had affiliations with synagogues in the thriving port, to which there was a direct connection from the capital by way of the Via Portuense.

The cosmopolitan nature of this bustling international port and its environs is strikingly evidenced by the offices of the Piazzale delle Corporazioni at Ostia Antica (fig. ? ). During the reign of Augustus, an intense period of building was begun in Ostia, including the erection of a theatre with a large square behind it. Around this square are the ruins of seventy offices once occupied by merchants from far-flung regions of the Roman Empire. Porticos in front of the offices shaded black and white mosaic pavements that were decorated with emblems denoting the place of origin of the enterprises and sometimes suggesting the nature of the trade conducted on the premises. In one example (fig. ? ), the inlaid figuration of an elephant represented a firm from Sabratha in modern Libya. As the "bread basket" of imperial Rome, North Africa supplied grain for the annona distribution to the populace (pp. ? , fig. ? ) as well as luxury goods, including ostrich feathers, ivory (pl. ), gold dust, and animals for the Roman spectacles.

Because of the traces of one or more thriving Jewish communities in or near Ostia Antica, we might assume that a number of Jews and early Christians in Rome could have been associated with prospering commercial activities. This would account for the more elegant and costly tombstones, sarcophagi, and decorated funerary chambers encountered by excavators (although less frequently in the Jewish cemeteries of Rome than in the Christian catacombs).