Jewish Congregations in Late Ancient Rome

According to 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. 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. The largest concentration was located in the region around the Piazza Giudea, which later became the Ghetto, while others settled near the Porta Nomentana. The main route by which the left bank settlers made their way to the older community 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 and also called the "Pons Iudaeorum." A substantial Jewish community apparently continued living in Trastevere into the Middle Ages, when many of the Jews on the right bank of the Tiber moved across the river to districts on the left bank where, in the sixteenth century, eleven synagogues were noted.

Eleven synagogues have been 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. 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 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 Perhaps all the congregations did not exist simultaneously; some might have disappeared and been replaced by others.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 word proseucha, related to a Greek term meaning "place for prayer," applied to the structure that housed the congregation. 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.

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 there were enough people of means among the members of the Roman Jewish community who, according to catacomb inscriptions, 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 of the city was instituted by Pope Fabian (236250), who first established 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 twentyfive 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.

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 16th century, 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.

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. 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.

AUGUSTESIANS

The synagogue of the Augustesians probably took its name from the Roman ruler Augustus who, like his greatuncle Julius Caesar, was favorably disposed toward the Jews. Such a source for the name would probably 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. Inscribed on the right section of the front of a strigilated sarcophagus is the epitaph, "Here lies [...]ia Marcella, Mother of the Synagogue of the Augustesians. May [...] be remembered (?). In peace her sleep." 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."

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 "the husband, who may be the commemorator, is unnamed, whereas the father, who had a title, is named."

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, calcarenses or calcarienses. Another site proposed for the synagogue was close to the Torlonia catacomb, near the Porta Collina. 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.

CAMPESIANS

The Campesian Synagogue has already been mentioned above (p. ??) in connection with Beturia (Veturia) Paulla's inscription. The name of the congregation was derived from its location 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 (see map), which later became a "market center." Apparently the members of this congregation were buried at first in the Monteverde catacomb and later in the Randanini catacomb.

"Here lies Eirena (Irene), virgin wife of Clodius, brother of Quintus Claudius Synesius, Father of the Synagogue of the Campesians of Rome. Peace."

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.

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.

Two inscriptions were found that referred 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.
"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."

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."

HEBREWS

Leon hypothesized that the congregation of the Hebrews, which was probably situated in the Monteverde section in Transtiberim, was most likely the oldest of the eleven synagogues that are thought to have existed in Rome up to this time, since a number of scholars believed that its members were early émigrés from the Holy Land. A Synagogue of the Hebrews has been recorded in Corinth and another in a Lydian town in Asia Minor.

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." 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. 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."

Sarra probably died before her sister, and although the second part of the plaque is dedicated to both daughters, Cara does have her own memorial mention, although it is brief, perhaps because of space limits at the end. A menorah interrupts the opening formula of Cara's epitaph and must originally have decorated the bottom of Sarra's inscription.

Since the stone 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. Leon and others felt that, along with a third sister, Salo, they were buried in Rome and their tombstones later carried to Porto. The recent discovery of the synagogue at Ostia Antica might make Frey's hypothesis 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."

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 now 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.

SIBURESIANS

The Siburesian synagogue most likely took its name from the teeming quarter of the Subura, located between the Viminal and Esquiline hills. Five inscriptions referring to the Siburesian synagogue were found in the burial ground under Villa Torlonia, which was relatively close to the district and probably the preferred cemetery for this congregation. Fragments of a sixth plaque in which the Siburesians are mentioned were found in the Randanini catacomb. 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, while Noy listed it as of unknown provenance. If all the inscriptions seeming to contain a reference to the Siburesians are verified, it is the most frequently mentioned Roman synagogue to date.
In situ in Torlonia, painted on a loculus closure is the epitaph, "Here lies Diophatus, the scribe of the Siburesians. In peace his sleep."

Three pieces of a marble plaque found in Randanini, 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, 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.

"Here lies Maronius, who [was] also [called] ....etus, grandson of Alexander who [was] also [called] Mathius, archon of the Siburesians, aged 24 years and three months. In peace [your/his] sleep.

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, Ablabios 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, he shared the name with his father, who might have been Ablabios "the elder."

TRIPOLITANS

"Here lies Proclos, Archon of the Synagogue of the Tripolitans. Let him sleep in peace."

In Proconsular North Africa, the seaport cities of Sabratha, Leptis Magna, and Oea formed a powerful commercial confederation called Tripolis, which, Frey said, "... very rich, very powerful, drained all the commerce from the interior ... and undertook an intense traffic with Rome." 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 more likely choice. The Tripolitan synagogue, mentioned on two epitaphs from the Monteverde catacomb, was probably located in the Transtiberim.

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. Their congregation and that of the Hebrews might have been the oldest in Rome.

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. 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."
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 Paulla, the proselyte later known as Sara, and also associated with the Campesians (p. , note ).
Another epitaph spoke of unrealized expectations: "Here lies Siculus Sabinus, archon-to-be of the Volumnesians, aged 2 years, 10 months."