Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.
History records the tolerant treatment of Jews in Rome by some Roman emperors. Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) accorded fundamental privileges to the Roman Jews, which facilitated religious observances, by and large, until the political dominance of Christianity in the late fourth century CE. Among other prerogatives, Caesar granted to the Jews the right to administer their own community affairs; to congregate for worship; to own property, especially for worship and burial; to collect monies for the needs of their communities; to be exempt from military service, so as not to impede their observance of dietary laws and of the Sabbath; and even to have their own courts of justice (H. J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 9-10 and notes; J. Juster, Les juifs dans l'Empire romain: leur condition juridique, économique et sociale2, Paris: P. Geuthner, 1914, pp. 110-116). Small wonder, then, that the Jews mourned the assassination of their distinguished benefactor with much weeping at his funeral pyre.
Caesar's nephew and adopted son, Augustus, emperor from 27 BCE-14 CE, extended the privileges of Jews even further (J.S.Jeffers, “Jewish and Christian Families in First-Century Rome,” in P. Donfried and P Richardson, Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 129-131; S. Grayzel, A History of the Jews, from the Babylonian Exile to the End of World War II. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947, p. 140; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 135, note 1.). Those counted among the poorer residents of Rome were included in the distribution of the annona. "Annona" was the designation for the annual produce of Rome and usually referred to grain, the Roman dietary staple. Maintaining an adequate food supply was one of the most important Roman government public support projects. When the population in the city of Rome began to expand too fast to be supported by the food sources in Italy, the shortages resulted in rioting by the populace. In response, Augustus established a system for importing and distributing grain at minimal or no cost to the poor or to public servants. Millions of bushels of grain were imported, chiefly from Egypt, Africa, and Sicily (The harbor at Ostia was built by the emperor Claudius to accommodate the growth in imports. Initially handled by a prefect in the reign of Augustus, the program was later administered by a large bureaucracy, and eventually the word annona was applied to a tax in kind decreed by later emperors for the support of the army: D. Earl, The Age of Augustus (Crown: New York, 1968), p. 99; D. van Berchem, Les distributions de blé et d'argent à la plèbe romaine sous l'empire (1939). When the distribution was scheduled to take place on the Sabbath, Augustus permitted the Jewish population of Rome to receive their government-issued allotment of money and foods on a day other than their holy day. He also approved the collection of an annual tax by the Roman Jews to be given to the Temple in Jerusalem. In a letter about the Jews of Asia, he declared those sacred funds to be inviolable, and warned that stealing the sacred books of the Jews would be considered sacrilege and the thief's property confiscated (T. Rajak, "Was there a Roman Charter for the Jews?" JRS 74 (1984), p. 113). He even arranged, with his wife the Empress Livia and their family, for gifts and daily burnt offerings of a bull plus two lambs to be presented in perpetuity to the Temple (Philo, De Legatione ad Gaium 155-158. The Empress Livia was said to have employed a Jewish maidservant, Acme). But scholars, such as Tessa Rajak and Leonard Rutgers have made the point that the decrees and admonitions regarding the rights of the Jews, were likely to originate as responses to specific Jewish complaints of ill-treatment toward them in eastern parts of the Empire rather than as general statements of policy toward all Jews under Roman rule. The Roman approach to governing was more pragmatic than principled: Augustus and many of his successors were interested in preserving law and order: as long as an activity or a group did not threaten to disrupt the smooth functioning of Roman administration, it would be tolerated (Rajak, “Charter,” p. 113; L. V. Rutgers, “Roman Policy toward the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century CE,” Classical Antuquity 13.1 (April, 1994), p. 112).
Like his father-in-law Augustus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was also well-disposed towards the Jews. When he assumed command as Augustus's viceroy and general in the East, he rewarded the enthusiastic Jews of Jerusalem with a lavish banquet and the offering of a hecatomb (the sacrifice of a hundred cattle) to the Temple. Two of the synagogues in Rome, that of the Augustesians and of the Agrippesians, might be named for these men, as a mark of the respect accorded them by the members of their congregations.
Certain Roman Jews were prominent enough to be identified by name and documented in the annals of Rome. One such Jew, possibly a proselyte, was the freedman Caecilius, who was renowned in Rome during the Augustan period as an eminent author, historian, literary critic, master of rhetoric, and expert on the style of outstanding ancient orators (Formerly Archagathus, a slave born in Calacte, Northern Sicily: Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 15). History records the entry of Jews and Judaism even into imperial circles. The historian, Flavius Josephus, a member of a priestly Jewish family, described his meeting in 64 C.E. with Nero's second wife, Poppaea Sabina. At the age of twenty-six, Josephus had been sent to Rome with a deputation from Jerusalem to seek the release of three Jewish priests who had been imprisoned without trial "on a trifling charge" made by the Roman procurator of Judea (perhaps for civic disturbances during power struggles between Jewish factions). Stranded by a shipwreck on the way to Rome, Josephus was rescued and set ashore at Puteoli where he met the Jewish actor Alityros, who was a great favorite of Nero. Through the actor's intervention, Josephus was able to meet the Empress and ask for her help in arranging for the freedom of the priests. His plea was successful, and laden with imperial gifts he returned to Palestine (E. M. Smallwood, Jews Under Roman Rule , pp. 278-281, note 84; M. Grant, Roman World , pp. 182-183. Perhaps one of the rival factions had bribed the Procurator). Josephus described Poppaea with a Greek word, theosebes, meaning "God-fearing," and applied to pagans who were sympathetic to the Jewish cause, as well as to anyone who followed particular Jewish customs but was not a full proselyte. Mary Smallwood has concluded, however, that Josephus merely meant to indicate that Poppaea was a "religious ... woman, who persuaded Nero that ... people's religious prejudices deserved respect, and ... that Jewish religious liberty was protected by Roman law. Smallwood dismissed any implication that Poppaea had personal leanings toward Judaism (Smallwood, Roman Rule , p. 278, note 79; p. 281, note 84. The family of Poppaea owned sumptuous property in and near Pompeii, where they may have been wine producers and import merchants: A. De Franciscis, The Pompeian Wall Paintings in the Roman Villa of Oplontis, transl. by R. Kunisch (Bongers: Recklinghausen, 1975), pp. 14-16).
Jewish religious observances were targets for satire and criticism during the first and early second centuries C.E. by such well-known literary figures as Juvenal, Pliny the Elder, Seneca, Tacitus, and Martial, yet, on the whole, Jews in Rome seem to have fared reasonably well, except for a few events such as the short-lived expulsions under the emperors Tiberius (14-37 C.E.), Claudius (41-54 C.E.), and Domitian (81-96 C.E.) (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome , pp. 38-41; Grant, Roman World , pp.240-241). A long-lived tale of early expulsion of Jews was based on a misunderstanding of an ambiguous reference by Valerius Maximus in the first century C.E. He was believed to have said that in 139 B.C.E., the Jews were expelled from Rome along with the Chaldeans (astrologers), for "corrupting the morals" of Romans by introducing the worship of Jupiter Sabazios. This Phrygian god was apparently mistakenly identified with the Hebrew God (Yahwe Sabaot), or his name confused with the name of the Jewish Sabbath. A recent study has shown that the original Latin text was mistranslated, with no connection made between the Jews and Sabazios; an alternative interpretation suggests that the reason for the expulsion may have been a perception of overeager proselytism by the Jews, although such activity was not in their tradition (The matter of Jewish expulsions from Rome have been well-studied recently, and a number of scholars have concluded that in some cases, the received reasons for the decrees and the actual severity of the sentences may have been misunderstood or exaggerated: Rutgers, Expulsion, pp. 98-110; 115-116; E. N. Lane, "Sabazius and the Jews in Valerius Maximus: A Re-examination," JRS 69(1979) pp. 35-38; A. T. Kraabel,"The Roman Diaspora: Six Questionable Assumptions," in Diaspora Jews and Judaism , J. A. Overman and R.S. MacLennan, eds. (1982), p. 6.; Smallwood, Roman Rule , pp. 128-130; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome , p. 3). In the reign of Tiberius, it was reported, some Jews, along with some followers of Isis, were threatened with banishment if they did not reject their "impious rites." The emperor's praetorian prefect, the malevolent Sejanus, has been blamed in some quarters for a senatorial decree inducting 4000 Egyptian and Jewish freedmen into military service in 19 C.E., ostensibly to cope with the problem of banditry in Sardinia. Again, some have speculated that this repressive measure was taken to stem Jewish and Isiac proselytizing, but an episode often cited as the reason is that the expulsion of the Jews may have been triggered by an incident involving a Jewish renegade from Palestine who, with three accomplices, swindled the wife of Saturninus, a close friend of the emperor. Promising to send gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem on her behalf, the thieves inveigled gold and lavish purple cloth from the noblewoman, who was apparently a convert to Judaism. Rutgers has pointed out, however, that apart from the conscription of Jewish males of military age from Rome, in this case the religious rights and activities of all the other Jews in Rome and in other parts of the Empire were not affected. The Romans would probably not have punished an entire community for a crime of fraud committed by a few individuals against a private person. It seems more likely that the conscription and assignment of Jewish and Egyptian males to Sardinia was a political move made in response to civic unrest probably caused by problems with the corn supply. Rome removed an easily identifiable group from the city as a signal of Rome's determination to uphold law and order (Rutgers, Expulsion, pp. 60-65); Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 201-210; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 17, 251; Grant, Roman World, pp. 93-94).
Suetonius, describing an event which had occurred two hundred years before his time, wrote that an expulsion of Jews during the reign of the Emperor Claudius resulted from turmoil within the Jewish community of Rome. He reported constant disturbances by the Jews at the instigation of "Chrestus" (impulsore [=the agitator] Chresto), a name thought by certain scholars to signify some otherwise unknown follower of Christ or the Christian movement. This reference is problematic, however, and the incident remains shrouded in mystery. Once again the cause could have been proselytizing activity but this time, perhaps, on the part of the early Christians. Still considered by the Romans to be part of the Jewish community, the Christians may now have been encountering vociferous opposition within some circles of their former co-religionists. Whatever the events that led to his action, Claudius banned meetings of the Jews in Rome, closed a Roman synagogue, and expelled certain persons alleged to be causing provocation. It is highly improbable however, that, as reported in Acts 18:2, there was expulsion of all the Jews of Rome. No such event is mentioned in the histories of Josephus, Tacitus, or Dio Cassius. Dio, in fact, declared the report of wholesale expulsion to be untrue (Suetonius, Claudius XXV, 4; Rutgers, Expulsion, p. 66; Smallwood, Roman Rule , pp. 210-215; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 23-27, and notes; Grant, Roman World, p. 146).
It is possible that Aquila, a Jewish tentmaker or leatherworker, and his wife Prisca (or Priscilla), who are mentioned by name in Acts 18:2, may have been among the more prominent agitators (J. Murphy-O'Connor, "Prisca and Aquila," Bible Review 8, no. 6 (Dec. 1992), pp. 40-51, 62; Smallwood, Roman Rule , p. 216). These Christian proselytes fled to Corinth because of Claudius's edict. There they became very active in the new movement. Paul, also a tentmaker by vocation, accepted their hospitality in Corinth and they became his devoted followers. Wherever they lived, in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome (to which they returned for a while, probably after the death of Claudius), their homes became meeting points for the celebration of Christian worship (Acts 18:1-3; I Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5. S. Prisca's Church in Rome is thought to mark the location of their house on the Aventine Hill, which would indicate a Jewish presence in this area: S. Collon, "Remarques sur les quartiers juifs de la Rome antique," Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire de l'école française de Rome 57 (1940), p. 92; R. Brandle, E. W. Stegemann, “The Formation of the First Christian Congregations in Rome,” in Donfried and Richardson, Judaism and Christianity , pp. 124-127).
After Josephus had returned to Palestine at the completion of his mission to the court of Nero, he became a reluctant participant in the Jewish Wars against Rome, and an eyewitness to the siege of Jerusalem. Eventually working his way into favor with Vespasian, Josephus returned to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life, writing assiduously on behalf of his people, perhaps to make amends for what many Jews considered to be traitorous behavior during the revolt (Grant, Roman World, pp. 222-224). The position of the Jews as a nation in Palestine was virtually ended in 70 C.E. by the war with Rome. Henceforth, in their own land, the Jews would have only the rights allowed to all Jews in the Diaspora. The Jews of Rome did not lose their special privileges, but they, like the Jews in Judea, suffered the outrage of a tax imposed on them by Vespasian. After the soldiers of Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the funds contributed by Jews from all over the world for the upkeep of their Temple were diverted to the support of the Roman Capitoline Temple of Jupiter. The tax was a small one, amounting to only about two denarii a year, a sort of poll tax, similar to a tax imposed at the same time on people from Alexandria and Asia, and the equivalent to the traditional contribution of a half-shekel in Palestine. The Jewish Temple revenues augmented the imperial treasuries which had been depleted by Nero's extravagances, but the use to which the fiscus Iudaicus was applied was meant particularly to punish all the Jews for their stubborn resistance to Hellenization and Romanization. The sacrilege of this forced support of a pagan temple made it unbearable to the Jews (Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 371-376; G. Alon, The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age (70-640 C.E.), transl. and ed. by G. Levi, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 64-70; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 31; Grant, Roman World, p. 205).
When Domitian succeeded his brother Titus as emperor, the tax, levied even on Jewish women and children, was extended to include non-practicing or secret Jews, proselytes, or anyone merely accused of Jewish sympathies. It was enforced vigorously and viciously, even against Roman citizens who may have been exempted from the tax by Vespasian. False denunciations of non-Jews began to proliferate, for personal, business, or political reasons, causing trouble for them in public life and with tax assessors. In Domitian’s last years, when his persecutions extended for political reasons even to the noblest Romans, he exiled his own niece, Flavia Domitilla, and executed her husband, his cousin and co-consul Flavius Clemens, on the charge of being Jews (Smallwood, Roman Rule , pp. 376-384 (and notes); Grant, Roman World, pp. 225-227; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 33-35). Yet, despite Domitian's official animosity, it was during his rule in the year 95 C.E. that four notable Palestinian sages, Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II and the Rabbis Eleazer ben Azariah, Akiba, and Joshua ben Hananiah, came to Rome, delivered sermons in the synagogue, and took part in discussions with learned pagans and Christians (Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 383-384; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 35-36).
The benevolent Emperor Nerva (96-98 C.E.) succeeded Domitian. During Nerva's reign, a bronze sestertius was struck, bearing on the reverse side the words, "Fisci Iudaici Calumnia Sublata [the slander relating to the tax on Jews has been eliminated]" accompanied by a palm tree, a symbol of Judaism and the Jews. This inscription referred to Nerva's prohibition of excessive and unfair application of the tax and to his determination to stop the blackmail of innocent citizens with the threat of denunciation to the tax assessors. Although the tax was not abolished until 361 C.E. when Emperor Julian burned the tax lists, Nerva's intervention protected non-Jewish Romans from false accusations of secret Jewish practices or sympathies, put an end to charges against the Jews of impiety and atheism, and allowed anyone unjustly banished from Rome to return to the city (Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 384-385; Alon, Jews in their World, pp. 124, 132; Grant, Roman World, pp. 231-232).
The Emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.) banned circumcision because he considered the rite to be a mutilation. The ban was directed not only at the Jews but at other peoples of the empire, mostly from the East, who practiced circumcision (in a way, he simply broadened an early edict of Domitian against castration, which had nothing at all to do with the Jews). Hadrian's ban interfered with a deeply significant ritual act which had been basic to the Hebrew religion since the third millennium B.C.E. Perhaps more significantly, it also effectively kept non-Jewish men from any inclination to convert to Judaism. Hadrian's successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.), would modify the ban and allow the Jews to circumcise their own sons, but the rite was still prohibited for non-Jews (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 37-38; Grant, Roman World, p. 259).
During his reign, Hadrian established a Roman colony in Jerusalem, named Aelia Capitolina in honor of his family and Jupiter Capitolinus, the greatest of the Roman gods. Jerusalem thus suffered the ultimate desecration in Jewish eyes when a temple dedicated to Jupiter was built on the holy site of their ruined Temple. Hadrian's inflammatory acts led to intensifying antagonism that precipitated the disastrous Bar Kochba Revolt (131-135 C.E.) and its eventual suppression that virtually depopulated Judea (Dio Cassius, Roman History, LXIX, 12, 1-3. Y. Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage: Volume II: Herod the Great through Bar Cochba, Dix Hills, N.Y.: Amphora Books, 1982, pp. 132-133). Yet while Hadrian is said to have been contemptuous of "foreign (i.e. oriental) cults," he may not have been particularly hostile to the Jewish religion; Gideon Alon concluded that Hadrian's Hellenic tastes led him to try to "erase the Jewish character” of their country, and, as he did in so many other parts of the Empire, turn Jerusalem into a Graeco-Roman city (Jews in their Land, pp. 582-591. Alon examined Hadrian's attitudes toward the Jews in the light of historical sources and recent scholarship and observed that, like others who tried to rule over the Jews, Hadrian was frustrated by the persistent Jewish unrest that seemed invariably to be made worse by Roman efforts to keep order). Like many newly founded Roman towns in the provinces, or established cities taken over after a conflict and Romanized, Aelia Capitolina was now largely inhabited by retired Roman soldiers who had already spent a long term of service in the Roman encampment there. They were given local property as a reward and encouraged to settle permanently. The historic city became off-limits for Jews who, from then on, could enter Jerusalem only once a year to mourn the loss of their city at the Wailing Wall (Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 459ff).
Under the Severan dynasty (193-235), which succeeded the Antonines, the founding of new cities and changes in administration brought extended gentile control over certain areas in Palestine. The Galilee, which was mostly Jewish, was one of the few districts that remained exempt from Hellenization. Yet, the overall position of the Jews improved: they could hold public office and were allowed to practice their religion freely. Also, the evidence of considerable synagogue construction and reconstruction in some areas and the apparent personal wealth of some of the Jewish population as reflected in lavish funerary appointments in the Beth She'arim catacombs, indicates that there was economic recovery from the preceding periods of conflict (Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 493; 496-498). The dissolute emperor Elagabalus (218-222 C.E.), nicknamed after the Syro-Phoenician sun-god Heliogabalus whom he worshipped and served as a high-priest, is said to have gone so far in his religious tolerance and acceptance as to submit to circumcision and abstain from pork (Lampridius, Antoninus Heliogabalus, 7.2; Dio, 79.1; Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 43). According to some accounts, his successor and the last of his line, Alexander Severus (222-235 C.E.), was scornfully referred to by the Egyptians as the "Syrian Archisynagogos" because of his observance of several Jewish laws and his strong support of the earlier privileges accorded to the Jews. His respect for the Jews and the Christians alike led him to keep representations of Abraham and Christ with images of other legendary figures in his palace shrine (Lampridius, Alexander Severus , 28.77, 22.4, 29.2; Smallwood, Roman Rule, p. 501, note 70). Smallwood, however, recommends the rejection of these and various other stories of Roman imperial benignity, as "complete fabrications," without any true historical corroboration, and with self-evident inner contradictions and unlikely scenarios (Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 501, 504-506).
There are no records of the post-Severan imperial treatment of the Roman Jews until the reign of Constantine (313-337 C.E.). Under Constantine, Christianity was officially recognized as the Roman state religion, and the capitol of the Empire was moved to Constantinople in the East.
In 212 C.E., Caracalla, the son and successor of Septimius Severus, had bestowed citizenship on all free residents of the Roman Empire, including the Jews. But except for a few short-lived remissions, after Constantine the citizenship rights of the Jews were considerably reduced. Among other prohibitions, they were forbidden to intermarry with Christians, to proselytize, or to own Christian slaves. Laws of the state, as listed later in the Theodosian Code, proclaimed and reinforced the "apartness" of the Jewish community; yet, as Leon pointed out, the Roman Jewish community "continued to flourish as long as Rome itself was the prosperous capital of a great Empire." (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 44-45).
After Christianity was established as the official state religion, the separateness decreed for the Jews was far different from the situation that had existed several hundred years earlier when Christianity was regarded as an offshoot "under the shadow of a most distinguished religion [Judaism]." (Tertullian, Apologia XXI, 1). When Paul of Tarsus debarked in Puteoli in about 60 C.E., to be with his "brethren" and carry on proselytizing activities, he found a colony of Jews there as in Rome, but whether or not Christians were also there at this early date is still not clear (Acts 28:13-14). De Rossi believed there was epigraphic evidence of an early Christian presence in Pompeii, citing a charcoal tracing of a word transcribed as "hristianos" or "christianos," found on the walls of a large room located on the street skirting the Stabian Baths (G. B. de Rossi, in BAC 2;9, pp. 70-72, cites Kiessling, Bullettino dell' instituto di corrispondenza archeologica (1862), p. 92). In modest quarters on the upper floor of the “Bicentenary House” in Herculaneum is the impression of a large cross on a plastered panel above a rough wooden cabinet that could have served as a type of altar. This discovery has led some scholars to speculate that the building was an early Christian oratory (Amadeo Maiuri, Herculaneum and the Villa of the Papyri, Novara: Istituto Geografico di Agostini, 1962, pp. 23, 25-26; J. J. Deiss, Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure, New York: Harper and Row, 1962, revised 1985, pp. 94-97. Controversy still exists, however, over such an early use (before 79 C.E.) of the symbol of the cross in a supposedly Christian context; more recent study points to the imprint on the plaster as showing where wooden brackets for a small wall cabinet or shelf were attached (E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity , 2nd edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1993), p. 554, note 11; M. Brion, Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Glory and the Grief, transl. by J. Rosenberg, New York: Crown, 1961, pp. 81-83; 86-87, pl.38; 228, note 14; M. Grant, Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978, p. 224, note 9).
When Paul left Puteoli and arrived in Rome in the early 60s of the first century, he found a group of early Christians in the midst of the well-established Jewish community, but the major development of the Christian community of Rome occurred after Paul's arrival (Acts 28:15-31. Fasola, Peter and Paul in Rome: Traces on Stone, Rome, 1980, pp. 10-11). Some Jews became converts to the new religion, but the intense proselytizing activity by the early Christians caused a major division within the Jewish community, for Paul welcomed anyone who believed in and would follow Christ, including non-Jews.
It was under Nero (54-68 C.E) that the persecutions of the early Christians began. The tribulations of the Christians, like the ordeals of the Jews, were usually brought about by their refusal to conform to Roman imperial worship; their trials continued until Christianity became the state religion under the Emperor Constantine.
Religious persecutions penetrated the ranks of the Roman imperial family as well as the aristocracy, as happened to Flavia Domitilla and Flavius Clemens, thought the exact relationship between them is unclear. Some believe they were cousins, rather than husband and wife: with Clemens the son of Vespasian's brother, thus Domitian's first cousin; and Domitilla, the daughter of Domitian's sister, Domitian's niece (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 33). Dio Cassius, in Roman History, 67.14, stated directly that the couple was persecuted for "Jewish practices." Two hundred years later, however, Eusebius wrote of a Flavia Domitilla who was Clemens's niece (rather than his wife), who was banished for "testimony to Christ" (Hist. Eccl. , 3.18). The problem is compounded by the fact that, according to De Rossi's genealogy (BAC 3.3, p. 18), there were five persons bearing the name of Flavia Domitilla in the Flavian family. Fr. Umberto Fasola acknowledged the existence of two Flavia Domitillas, the wife of Clemens and his niece, both of whom were exiled to islands off the Italian coast, one to Pandateria and one to Ponza (Fasola, The Catacomb of Domitilla, Vatican City, 1974, p. 4). Accused of "atheism" and "practicing Jewish customs," Clemens was put to death and Flavia Domitilla was banished. There is much discussion among scholars as to whether the couple were "Judaizers"-- a view which Grant and Leon supported -- or were persecuted because they were early Christians, as De Rossi and Fasola maintained (Grant, Roman World , pp. 225-226; Leon, Rome , pp. 33-35, 252, as well as de Rossi, BAC 3:3, pp. 17-22 and Fasola, Domitilla, p. 4; but see Smallwood, pp. 380-383). Whatever their beliefs really were, it may well be that the paranoid Emperor Domitian, who had earlier declared that the children of these distinguished members of the imperial family were to be his direct heirs, developed a fear of a conspiracy against himself and used his cousins' religious interests as a pretext for ordering the execution of the consul and the exile of his wife (Smallwood, pp. 378, 381). The Cemetery of Domitilla was dug on the suburban estate of a woman named Flavia Domitilla, who had ceded the property to her dependents, her freedmen and their families for burials. For this reason, some scholars have discounted the specific statement of Dio Cassius that Flavia and Clemens had gone over to "Jewish practices." Leon has speculated that after Domitian's death Flavia Domitilla may have returned from exile and later converted to Christianity (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 35).
Other eminent Romans may have had an interest in Jewish ideas. A senator and member of a Roman family of high rank, Acilius Glabrio, who was consul in 91 C.E., was allegedly persecuted and executed by Domitian for embracing Christianity, “...and in particular, of fighting as a gladiator."(Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 378-381; in relation to the state cult, Jewish and Christian practices were "atheistic."). Leon has suggested that Glabrio himself may have been a "Judaizer," but that at some later time other members of the family Acilii Glabriones became Christians, since a Christian cemetery was dug on the estate of a family by that name (Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 35, note 2. Cf. Suetonius, Domitian X.2 and Dio Cassius, Roman History LXVII, 14, 3). A certain Priscilla, who founded the cemetery, may have been a member of this illustrious family or another patrician-ranked donor to the Christian community (P. Testini, Archeologia cristiana, pp. 257-258).
There are other examples of officials from eminent Roman families who became Christian converts. The City Prefect, Iunius Bassus, is thought to have been baptized during the last moments before his death in 359 C.E., a date recorded in the rather rare chronological documentation on his sarcophagus (Testini, Catacombe cristiane, pp. 332-333). Yet his decision is unlikely to have been a last-minute affair, in view of the time required for the creation of a sumptuous sarcophagus of such exquisite workmanship (W. F. Wolbach, M. Hirmer, Early Christian Art (Abrams: New York, 1961), pp. 22, 329, figs. 41-43). The carved decoration includes scenes from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament including Adam and Eve, Job, and the sacrifice of Abraham, as well as episodes in the lives of Jesus, Peter and Paul.
There were various waves of Christian persecution from the mid-third through the early fourth centuries. The Christians endured sporadic instances of oppression in the Late Imperial period, which peaked with the first massive general persecution under Decius (249-251 C.E.). Persecution continued into the latter part of Valerian's reign (253-260 C.E.) and reached an ugly culmination under Diocletian (284-305 C.E.). The cycles of persecution of both Christians and Jews were probably motivated by the Romans' need to suppress, or at least, gain control over the disparate, nonconforming elements of a crumbling empire.
In the city of Rome, the Jews, like other émigrés of Near Eastern origin, settled in various divisions of the city, which Augustus had divided into fourteen regions in 7 B.C. There are literary clues to suggest that these areas were located primarily in Region IV, the center of Rome, in the vicinity of Vespasian’s Temple of Peace and the clamorous, crowded Subura district; northwest of there, Jews likely also settled in Region IX, the Campus Martius, bounded on the west by the left bank of the Tiber; a significant population seems also to have been housed across the river on the right bank, in Region XIV, the teeming, cramped, Transtiberim (the area "across the Tiber") (Region IX and Region XIV (now called Trastevere) were outside the early Republican wall, and were incorporated into the city precincts only in the late third century C.E. when the emperor Aurelian built a new wall surrounding a much wider area around Rome). The Transtiberim district was linked to Portus, the harbor of Rome, by the Via Portuensis which ran south along the right bank of the river. The Portuensis Gate, where the road to the port began, was just across the river from the Emporium, a large commercial dockside complex of warehouses and granaries from which Rome was fed. The intense commercial activities of this area account for the great density of Near Eastern and Jewish populations who were traditionally engaged in mercantile trade. Through their business activities, the followers of such diverse Near-Eastern religions as Judaism, Christianity, Mithraism, and the religions centered on the Magna Mater, Isis, and Serapis, came into close contact. This, plus the proximity of their cult places to one another and to the Roman temples, no doubt encouraged a great degree of interaction. The cultural and religious exchanges among these closely associated communities are reflected in the art of the catacombs.
It has been assumed that the catacombs of the Jews and Christians were probably located near the respective congregations and parishes by which they were administered but this assumption has been questioned because no epitaphic evidence has been yet uncovered to allow a secure correlation to be made between Jewish synagogues and their cemeteries, nor is it sure where most of the synagogues might have been located. Because there is more documentation regarding the connections between the Christian catacombs and their tituli, David Noy has compared the burial situations of the Christian and Jewish communities. Although there were, of course, burials in local cemeteries, some Christians were laid to rest far from their tituli, or in “suburban regions where the tituli had estates.” Noy pointed out that in the third and fourth centuries the Christian clergy were not administering all the catacombs, and assuming the circumstances to be similar, he cautioned that the holding of a synagogue title should not be taken to imply that the holder had an “ex officio connection with a particular Jewish catacomb.” (See David Noy, “The Jewish Catacombs of Rome: a Study of the Differences Between the Monteverde and Vigna Randanini Catacombs,” published at: http://~www.lamp.ac.uk/~davidnoy/cataco~1.htm, on 1/6/00).
What little has been learned from the Jewish catacomb inscriptions has been assumed by a number of scholars to indicate that Jewish residents of Transtiberim (Region XIV) and Campus Martius (Region IX) were laid to rest in the Monteverde catacomb. The Torlonia cemeteries and the cemetery on the Via Labicana (now Via Casilina) were assumed to have been burial places for the deceased Jews from the Subura (Regions IV and VI). The catacombs of Vigna Randanini and Vigna Cimarra would seem logically to have served as the cemeteries for Jews dwelling near the Porta Capena (Region I) and possibly for those located in Region II.
It is reasonable to assume that if space were not available in every catacomb at all times or if there were personal or family preferences, cemeteries in other parts of the city would have been selected as resting places for some deceased persons who might normally have been interred closer to their former habitations. Two epitaphs found in the Vigna Randanini catacomb may bear out this theory: one was for a Jew from the Campus Martius and one for a Jew from the Subura. As Prof. Noy has rightly suggested, the documentary information that has been available so far about where deceased persons had lived or what their affiliations were, is so limited as to require caution in deciding whether there was or was not a correlation between habitations, synagogues and burial places (Noy, Study of the Differences).
The information about the Christian communities of Rome is also not too clear, and has been based to a certain extent on the nineteenth century hypotheses of G. B. De Rossi, who posited associations between certain tituli and the administration of certain catacombs, but again, Noy, citing Pietri sees “no direct correlation between the titulus to which a deceased Christian belonged and the catacomb within which s/he was buried” (Noy, Study of the Differences. For de Rossi's "ecclesiastical districting", see ).