Jewish Congregations in Late Ancient Rome

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.

According to the American Classicist Harry J. Leon, the original Jewish settlers were mostly concentrated in Trastevere (ancient Transtiberim), the principal foreign quarter of Rome, on the right bank of the Tiber (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 136). Toward the end of the first century C.E., the increase in Jewish population led to their spreading into other areas of the city, such as the Campus Martius and the Subura on the other side of the river, as well as today's Piazza Giudea in Rome's historic Ghetto, and a site near the Porta Nomentana. The main route by which the left bank settlers made their way to other districts was probably by way of the Tiber Island between the left bank and Trastevere, to which it was connected by the Ponte Quattro Capi, known in ancient times as the Pons Fabricius but by the later Middle Ages popularly known as the "Pons Iudaeorum" or "Jews' Bridge". A substantial Jewish community continued to live in Trastevere into the Middle Ages, but many others resided on the left bank where, in the sixteenth century, eleven synagogues were noted.

Eleven synagogues are also documented in ancient Rome through funerary inscriptions. As Leon pointed out, the congregational names were used only in the memorials for officers of the synagogues, not for the ordinary members (For the possibility of other congregations, see Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 159-165; JIWE 2, pp. 360-361, under inscription n. 436). Several of the congregations were named after the places of origin of their members and some in honor of patrons. The ancient congregations were known as those of Agrippesians, Augustesians, Calcaresians, Campesians, Elaeans, Hebrews, Secenians, Siburesians, Tripolitans, Vernaclians, and Volumnesians. Perhaps all the congregations did not exist simultaneously; some might have disappeared and been replaced by others.

The word synagogue (= Greek “ΣΥΝΑΓΩΓΗΣ,” Latin “synagoga”), denoted a gathering or assembly, and referred to the people who formed the congregation. The Latin word proseucha, related to a Greek term meaning "place for prayer," applied to the structure that housed the congregation (E. Smallwood, p. 133, note 47, c.f. Encyclopedia Judaica, 15, cols, 579-583, under "Synagogue"). A non-Jewish Roman epitaph was found that identified its subject as a fruit vendor who conducted his business at a wall by the “proseucha,” a designation that has been taken to mean a Jewish place of worship (CIL VI n. 9821; CIJ 1.531).

It is inevitable that during the early Empire, substantial structures were eventually built in the Jewish areas according to specific religious requirements. At some point, to judge from catacomb inscriptions, there were enough people of means among the members of the Roman Jewish community who could afford to contribute to the construction and administration of houses of worship. They helped to manage the affairs of their congregations, represented them before Roman officialdom, and often bearing prestigious synagogue titles, were laid to rest in some of the more imposing tombs in the catacombs.

Within the Christian community of Rome, an ecclesiastical organization was instituted by Pope Fabian (236-250), which divided up the city into seven districts supervised by seven deacons. These parishes, with precedents in the congregations or synagogues of the already existing large Jewish community in Rome, originated on properties owned or donated by early Christians. Private dwellings called domus ecclesiae ("houses of the church"), usually denoted by the names of their owners and therefore called tituli, served as meeting places in which groups of early Christians conducted liturgical services and managed the charitable and other functions of their community as their Jewish antecedents had done. By the fourth century C.E. there were twenty-five such tituli, each of which administered certain designated urban and suburban holdings. The names of the property owners, preceded by the title "Saint," have been perpetuated in the present-day titular churches of Rome. The tituli remain known to us today through being preserved as a vital part of the faith that became the official religion of the Roman Empire; but the precarious situation of Jewish communities over 2000 years and the vicissitudes which struck the city of Rome itself explain why whatever buildings the Jews may have erected in the center of the city can no longer be identified. (The information about the organization of Christian communities in Rome is also not too clear, and has been based to a great extent on the nineteenth-century hypotheses of G. B. de Rossi, who posited associations between certain tituli and the administration of communal catacomb sites. As an example, through epigraphic evidence and other texts, De Rossi pointed to possible connections between the first ecclesiastical district, including the tituli Sabinae (Region XIII), Balbinae (Region XII) and Fasciolae (Region I) would have interred members of their congregations in the cemeteries of BSome now call this into question, for example, Noy sees "no direct correlation between the titulus to which a deceased Christian belonged and the catacomb within which she or he was buried"). In all likelihood, locations for burial were chosen also for other reasons, perhaps based on familial or professional ties, or even space availability (assuming that the catacombs were operative at around the same time); in fact, most of the Jewish sites contain epitaphs of officials of different congregations (What little data on this issue has been gleaned from the Jewish epitaphs from the catacomb of Rome has been interpreted by many to indicate that the Jewish residents of the Transtiberim (Region XIV) and Campus Martius (Region IX) were laid to rest in the Monteverde catacomb, while the Torlonia cemetery and that on the via Labicana (Casilina) were burial palces for deceased Jews of the Subura (Regions IV and VI), and the catacombs on the via Appia (Vigna Randanini and Vigna Cimarra) would have been for Jews documented in the area of the Porta Capena (Region I) and neighboring sites. This view has been challenged recently by D. Noy, who, in comparing the burial situations of Christians and Jews in Rome, cautioned that at the time the catacombs were first being created, in the third and early fourth centuries CE, the clergy were not necessarily in charge of these sites, and that the holder of a synagogue title would not necessarily have "an ex officio connection with a particular Jewish catacomb": D. Noy, "The Jewish Catacombs of Rome: A Study of the Differences Between the Monteverde and Vigna Randanini Catacombs," published online at http://www.lamp.ac.uk). 

AGRIPPESIANS

"Here lies Zosimos officer-for-life of the Synagogue of the Agrippesians. In peace his sleep. Here lies Eullis [Iulius?], archon (?), aged ..." This memorial to Zosimos, first copied by Philip De Winghe in the late 16th century in the Church of S. Salvatore in Coorte in Trastevere (Cod. Vat. Lat. 10545, 239, recto), was one of the earliest Jewish inscriptions known to have been recorded in Rome. The second part of the memorial, for Eullis, is difficult to read, so its meaning is uncertain (CIJ 1.503; JIWE 2.549, pp. 431-432; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 67-68. Like the epitaph to Beturia Paulla, this was copied in the 17th century in secondary use in the Church of S. Salvatore in Trastevere).

The Agrippesians may have taken their name in honor of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the son-in-law of the emperor Augustus, and a good friend to the Jews (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 140-141, and Noy, JIWE 2, p. 110, offer other possible namesakes for the congregation, such as Agrippa I or II, the Kings of Israel, or a public building in Agrippa's name near the area of the synagogue building). The synagogue, probably situated in the Transtiberim region, was certainly connected with the Monteverde catacomb, since that is the only cemetery where the Agrippesian congregation is mentioned. For this reason, Leon thought Zosimos's epitaph, now lost, must have come from the Monteverde catacomb, but Noy pointed out that De Winghe saw and copied the stone before the Monteverde catacomb was "discovered" in 1602 (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 140; Noy, JIWE 2, p. 432. The two members of the Agrippesians buried in the Monteverde cemetery were a gerousiarch (CIJ 1.425, JIWE 2.130, pp. 109-110), whose name is lost, and Caelius the prostates (CIJ 1.365; JIWE 2.170, pp. 135-136).

AUGUSTESIANS

The synagogue of the Augustesians could well have taken its name from the Roman ruler Augustus who, like his great-uncle Julius Caesar, was favorably disposed toward the Jews. Such a source for the name could indicate that this congregation, like that of the Agrippesians, was a very early community, probably founded during Augustus's reign (27 B.C.E.- 14 C.E.).

This congregation boasted a Mother of the Synagogue, mentioned in an epitaph inscribed on the right section of the front of a strigilated sarcophagus, which reads: "Here lies [...]ia Marcella, Mother of the Synagogue of the Augustesians. May [...] be remembered (?). In peace her sleep" (CIJ 1.496; JIWE 2.542, pp. 425-426; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 337). According to Noy, "[Mother of the Synagogue] is the only [title] attested for Jewish women at Rome."

Also honored, but less distinguished in her own right, was "...Flavia Antonina, wife of Dativus the life-officer of the synagogue of the Augustesians" (CIJ 1.416; JIWE 2.194, pp. 156-157, pl. VIII)

CALCARESIANS

"Cattia Ammias, daughter of Menophilus, Father of the Synagogue of the Calcaresians. She lived a good life in Judaism, having lived 34 years with her spouse. From her children she saw grandchildren. Here lies Cattia Ammias. An interesting sidelight, pointed out by Noy, is that in this example "the husband, who may be the commemorator, is unnamed, whereas the father, who had a title, is named" (CIJ 1.537; JIWE 2.584, pp. 464-466. In 1924, the right section of this stone in the Vatican Museums and the left section of the stone which had been at Porto were rejoined and remain in the Vatican.)

Leon and Frey attributed the name of the congregation of the Calcaresians to a street or section of the city of Rome. In the eleventh century, a region south of the Campus Martius and close to the Circus Flaminius was called Calcaria, the name perhaps derived from the guild of limekiln workers, the calcarenses or calcarienses (as theorized by Frey, CIJ 1, pp. lxxv-lxxvi; for other opinions, see Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 143-144 and notes). Another site proposed for the synagogue was close to the Villa Torlonia catacomb, near the Porta Collina (S. Collon, "Remarques sur les quartiers juifs de la Rome antique," pp. 89-90). Although both these regions were at a distance from the Monteverde catacomb, that was apparently the preferred cemetery for this congregation. Inscriptions referring to the synagogue of the Calcaresians furnish the most complete roster of officers of any congregation in Rome (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 143).

CAMPESIANS

The Campesian Synagogue is thought to have derived its name from being located in the Campus Martius. Leon speculated that it was probably not established at a very early date since the extensive Campus Martius did not become a residential area until a later period of the Empire. Collon theorized that the synagogue may have been situated near the Saepta Julia, which later became a "market center"(Collon, Remarques, p. 87). According to this idea, members of the congregation were buried at first in the Monteverde catacomb and later in the Randanini catacomb (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 145).

"Here lies Eirena (Irene), virgin wife of Clodius, brother of Quintus Claudius Synesius, Father of the Synagogue of the Campesians of Rome. Peace"(CIJ 1.319; JIWE 2.560, pp. 444-445, from the Monteverde catacomb. Only the word "peace" is in Hebrew: the rest of the text is in Greek).

Irene's epitaph with the unusual mention of her brother-in-law, who was the Father of the Synagogue of the Campesians, indicates the prestige of the office in the Jewish community. A Greek term, "partheniki symbios" ("virginal wife"), was used in the inscription to describe Irene; it probably meant that she had never been married before her union with Clodius (Frey, CIJ 1, pp. 250-251 and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 130. Noy, JIWE 2, p. 445, comments that the term "adelphos" in the original Greek of the inscription has usually been assumed to be a misspelling of "adelphou", "brother," but might just as well be a mistake for "adelphi," ("sister")," and Irene could be Synesius' sister. In that case, it would not be so surprising that Synesius, as a noted member of her family or perhaps her commemorator, should be mentioned).

ELAEANS

There have been a number of theories as to the derivation of the name of this synagogue, most of them not accepted: e.g. that it was named for the olive, an important and essential commodity, or for the prophet Elijah. The likeliest possibility seems to be that the founding congregation came from the city of Elaea, an important port of Mysia in Asia Minor (CIJ 1, p. lxxvii-lxxviii and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 145-147).

Two inscriptions have been found that refer to the Elaea synagogue; one of them was later lost in the collapse of the small catacomb of Vigna Cimarra, the other is now in the Vatican Museum and reads: "Here lies Pancharios, Father of the Synagogue of Elaea, aged 110 years, lover of his people, lover of the Commandments. He lived a good life. In peace his sleep" (CIJ 1.509; JIWE 2.576, pp. 456-457). Pancharios was a most venerable patriarch; his fourscore and thirty years were the greatest age recorded on a Roman-Jewish tombstone. Although the provenance of this stone is unknown, the epitaph was recorded as early as 1734, so Pancharios may have been buried in the Monteverde catacomb. The people of Elaea were evidently of hardy stock; Pancharios's fellow congregant, whose name is lost to us, "...of the synagogue of Elaea, lived 80 years. Sleep well with the just" (CIJ 1.281; JIWE 2.406, pp. 335-336).

HEBREWS

Leon hypothesized that the congregation of the Hebrews, which was probably situated in the Transtiberim, was most likely the oldest of the eleven synagogues known to have existed in ancient Rome, perhaps one founded by early émigrés from the Holy Land (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 148-149). A Synagogue of the Hebrews has been recorded in Corinth and another in a Lydian town in Asia Minor (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 149).

Three pieces of a rare bilingual epitaph, in Aramaic and Greek, were found in the Monteverde catacomb. Part of the left side and the lower right corner of the gray marble plaque were missing. In Aramaic only the words "...Isidora. daughter..." remained; but those words helped in filling in missing portions of the Greek text to reconstruct "... Isidora, daughter of .... archon of the Hebrews"(CIJ 1.291; JIWE 2.33, pp. 35-36). The only other bilingual epitaph retrieved from the Jewish cemeteries at Rome, is inscribed in Greek and Latin with a closing invocation in Hebrew). Curiously, the name of the deceased, this daughter of a synagogue official, means "gift of Isis." In fact, pagan theophoric names alluding to such Greek divinities as Aphrodite, Asclepios, Hermes, and Dionysos were not strange in the onomasticon of Roman Jews or Christians. These names, evidence of the hellenization of a part of the Jewish population, were not restricted to the epigraphy of the cemeteries of the Diaspora, but have been found, for example, even at Beth She'arim (For example, Beth Shearim 2, pp. 210-211). It appears that the etymology of such names was not a great concern.

An irregular marble plaque, which may have been a piece of a sarcophagus, memorializes two sisters with ties to the synagogue: "Here lies Sarra with her son. In peace." "Here lies (sic) two daughters of the Father of the Hebrews, Gadias. Cara, in peace" (CIJ 1.535 and 543; JIWE 2.579, pp. 400-401; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 72, note 4 and p. 75).

Sarra probably died before her sister, and although the second part of the plaque is dedicated to both daughters, Cara does have her own mention in the memorial, although it is brief, perhaps because of space limits at the end (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 342, and see also Leon's "The Daughters of Gadias," Transactions of the American Philological Association, 84 (1953), pp. 67-72). A menorah interrupts the opening formula of Cara's epitaph and originally could have decorated the bottom of Sarra's inscription; the quality and lettering in Carra's epitaph is a bit better than that in Sarra's (JIWE 2, p. 461).

Since a piece of the epitaph was first discovered in Cardinal Pacca's collection in Porto, the ancient port of Imperial Rome, Frey believed that Cara and Sarra had been buried there (Frey, CIJ 1, p. 397, 402, and Lifshitz, Prolegomenon, p. 40). Leon and others, however, felt that, along with a third sister, Salo, they were buried in Rome and their tombstones later carried to Porto (The epitaph to Salo is CIJ 1.510; JIWE 2.578, pp. 459-460, and reads: "Here lies Salo, daughter of Gadia[s', Father of the Synagogue of the Hebrews. She lived 41 years. In peace her sleep." Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 242, and see also his "The Jewish Community of Ancient Porto," The Harvard Theological Review, 45 (1952), pp. 165-175 and particularly pp. 168-169). The discovery of the synagogue at Ostia Antica might make Frey's hypothesis more of a possibility; yet, Frey did make the point that the congregation referred to was that of the Hebrews in Rome.

SECENIANS

Still in place in the lower Torlonia Catacomb on the Via Nomentana is a painted inscription which reads: "Here lies Aiutor, scribe of the Seceni. In peace his sleep" (CIJ 1.7; JIWE 2.436, pp. 360-361).

Because Aiutor's epitaph contains the only known reference to "Seceni", and since the word "synagogue" is not used in the inscription, there is doubt that the name is actually that of a congregation. Frey, Noy, and others have suggested that "Seceni" might refer to the origins or location of the people for whom Aiutor served as grammateus. Perhaps the name was related to the North African port of Iscina or Scina (now Medinat es-Sultan) or to an area in Rome near Santa Maria Maggiore that was called Sicininum in the fourth century. Frey speculated that Scina (or Skina) might have been a Jewish colony placed in North Africa by Augustus or the imperial family (Frey, CIJ 1, p. lxxix; JIWE 2, p. 361, and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 150-151).

SIBURESIANS

The Siburesian synagogue most likely took its name from the teeming quarter of the Subura, located between the Viminal and Esquiline hills (Frey, CIJ 1, p. 295 and JIWE 2, p. 441: Noy notes, however, on p. 284, that the spelling of the name beginning with "Sib..." occurs only in Jewish inscriptions. Leon, on his part, in "An Unpublished Jewish Inscription of Villa Torlonia in Rome," Jewish Quarterly Review, 42 (1952), p. 416, n. 7, argues against this inscription coming from Monteverde). Five inscriptions referring to the Siburesian synagogue were found in the burial ground under the Villa Torlonia, which was relatively close to the district and probably the preferred cemetery for this congregation (Including CIJ 1.18; JIWE 2.428, pp. 356-357). Fragments of a sixth plaque in which the Siburesians are mentioned were found in the Vigna Randanini catacomb. (Three pieces of the marble plaque found in Randanini (CIJ 1.140; JIWE 2.338, pp. 283-284) were removed for a time from the catacomb "by people sheltering from air-raids," according to Father Ferrua. They were later retrieved, with one part "located at a petrol station at the fork of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina." The pieces are now back in the catacomb, but reset in two different places. According to Noy, pp. 283-284, the plaque originally measured about 62 x 200 cm., the largest known from Randanini, as well as the only inscription from there which mentions the Siburesians.). It reads: "Here lies Maronius, who [was] also [called] ...etus, grandson of Alexander who [is/was] also [called] Mathius, archon of the Siburesians, aged 24 years and 3 months. In peace [your/his] sleep." A seventh epitaph, now in the Naples Museum, was described by Frey as coming from Monteverde, but Leon, among others, did not agree with him, and Noy listed it as of unknown provenance (CIJ 1.380; JIWE 2.557, a Greek inscription of unknown provenance reads, "Here lies Nicodemos, the Archon of the Siburesians and loved by all, aged 30 years, 42 days. Take courage, Ablabis the younger; no one is immortal." The exhortation to be courageous was no doubt meant to assist Nicodemus in his passage to the unknown, if, as Noy suggested, in JIWE 2, pp. 440-441, he shared the name with his father, who might have been Ablabios "the elder". For different interpretations of Ablabis, see Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 128, n. 3 and p. 322; for rebuttal, Lifshitz, Prolegomenon to CIJ 1, p. 35, n. 380, and Frey, CIJ 1, p. 295). If all the inscriptions seeming to contain a reference to the Siburesians are verified, it is the most frequently mentioned Roman synagogue to date.

TRIPOLITANS

"Here lies Proclos, Archon of the Synagogue of the Tripolitans. Let him sleep in peace"(CIJ 1.390; JIWE 2.166, p. 132, from the Monteverde catacomb, now at the National Roman Museum, Epigraphic Collection)

In Proconsular North Africa, the seaport cities of Sabratha, Leptis Magna, and Oea formed a powerful commercial confederation called Tripolis, which, Frey said, being "... very rich (and) very powerful, drained all the commerce from the interior ... and undertook an intense traffic with Rome" (Frey, CIJ 1, pp. lxxviii-lxxix). The three cities housed a substantial Jewish population, and may have been the place of origin for a number of Roman Jews. Also prominent in antiquity was the city of Tripolis (now Tarabulus es Sham) in Lebanon. Leon, for one, thought this eastern Mediterranean city might have been the homeland of the founders of the Tripolitan synagogue, but the evidence at Ostia Antica of a strong commercial presence from North Africa makes the latter area a strong possibility. The Tripolitan synagogue, mentioned on two epitaphs from the Monteverde catacomb, was probably located in the Transtiberim (for additional details about this inscription, see Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 153).

VERNACLESIANS

Also probably established in the Transtiberim region was the congregation of the Vernaclesians. The name of the congregation occurs in different forms, both in translation and in the original, and may be cited as "Vernaclians". Since the Latin word vernaculus can be translated freely as "native," the name perhaps indicated that its founders were born in Rome. Like those who comprised the synagogue of the Hebrews, these Roman Jews may have been an early resident group which took this name to distinguish themselves from the flood of new arrivals from Palestine and other areas of the Roman Diaspora. This congregation, along with that of the Hebrews, might have been the oldest in Rome (Frey, CIJ 1, p. lxxvii). Officers of this congregation included: "... Sabinus, Life Archon of the Vernaclesians" (CIJ 1.398; JIWE 2.114, p. 96) and "Poly[..]nis, Archisynagogos of the Vernaclesians" (CIJ 117; JIWE 2.383, p. 96).

VOLUMNESIANS

The Volumnesian congregation, probably also in the Transtiberim region, is thought to have been named after an individual by the name of Volumnius, whose identity remains uncertain. Although some scholars have suggested that Volumnius, a procurator of Syria and friend of Herod, was the patron and namesake of this congregation, as other influential Romans were of the Agrippesians and Augustesians, other scholars disagree (Frey, CIJ 1, pp. lxxii-lxxiii; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 157). Noy remarked that the procurator was "not known to have been a friend of the Jews or a figure of great importance at Rome," while Leon commented that "there were many Volumnii in Rome" (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 153).

There are four inscriptions referring to the Volumnesian Synagogue. The first, recorded in the 16th century before any of the Jewish catacombs had been rediscovered, is that of the venerable Beturia (or Veturia) Paulla, the mater synagogae of the Volumnesians as well as the Campesians (CIJ 1.523; JIWE 2.577, in Latin and transliterated Greek). In terms of lifespan, on the opposite end of the spectrum is an epitaph which speaks of unrealized expectations: "Here lies Siculus Sabinus, archon-to-be of the Volumnesians, aged 2 years, 10 months" (CIJ 1.402; JIWE 2, pp. 82-83). Another epitaph for an officer mentions "... Sabinus, Life Archon of the Vernaclensians" (CIJ 1.398; JIWE 2.106, p. 90).

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