“New Light on Women's Roles in the Ancient Synagogues of the Roman Empire”
Lecture by Marisa de Spagnolis, Director of the Office of Excavations of Nocera and Sarno, Italy
Inaugural Lecture of the International Catacomb Society's Commemorative Founders' Lecture Series in Memory of Dr. Mark D. Altschule, Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin, Louise LaGorce Hickey, and Robert M. Morrison, Esq. (Co-sponsored with Hebrew College)
Delivered at Hebrew College, Brookline, on April 25, 1990
Introduction: "In September, 1988, during work undertaken to construct a second track of the Naples-Salerno railroad in Upper Nocera, an ancient structure was discovered.
According to standard Italian policy, the Archaeology Superintendent of Salerno, Benevento, and Avellino called upon the eminent archaeologist, Dr. Marisa de' Spagnolis Conticello, Director of the Office of Excavations of the surrounding area of Campania. She uncovered part of a Late Roman necropolis. Especially exciting for us is that Dr. de' Spagnolis Conticello is the wife of Dr Baldassare Conticello, Archaeological Superintendent of Pompeii and the International Catacomb Society's own Vice-President of European affairs. What a small world!"
Tomb n. 17 of this necropolis (a chest type, a cassa), presented a new feature, the presence of two marble slabs inserted into the walls of the tomb, evidently transferred from another site. Each slab bears and incised menorah along with a Greek inscription. The first inscription makes reference to a woman named Myrina, designated as a presbytera. The other mentions a man, named Pedoneius, designated as a grammateus. Described, without a doubt, are a husband and wife, one a grammateus and the other a presbytera.
The office of grammateus corresponds to the Secretary of a Council, in our case, perhaps of the Jewish community of the place, while the title of presbytera may be a personal honorific title.
Indeed, referring to a husband and wife, it the title of the woman derived from the office of her husband, he would be titled presbyter on the stone and not grammateus. Thus, in our case, the presbytera is Myrina herself. Here, possibly for the first time, we have mention of a woman official of a Jewish community in the time of the Late Roman Empire.
If the title merely reflected the position of the husband in the community, as several historians have claimed, the husband would have functioned as a presbyter. In other instances when the deceased is a woman, described a a presbytera, the interpretation has been that the woman was either the wife of a presbyter or an elderly woman. But, since in this inscription, the husband's office is mentioned, and the stone appears to be descriptive, naming two different officials.
De' Spagnolis Conticello's impressive find offers strong evidence for women holding offices in the Jewish congregations of the Late Roman Empire. This is indeed a timely revelation for contemporary women's studies, and we are most pleased that Dr. de' Spagnolis Conticello was able to make use of material from International Catacomb Society research for Vaults of Memory in arriving at her conclusions.
This discovery is of major importance also because it gives evidence that there was one or more synagogues in the well-organized and rather complex community of Nocera Superiore. The presence of Jews in Antiquity was not previously known in this site.
It is most appropriate that the International Catacomb Society has invited Dr. de' Spagnolis Conticello to give the inaugural lecture of our series to be initiated in memory of those totally dedicated founders of our society: Mark D. Altschule M.D., Louise LaGorce Hickey, and Robert Morrison, Esq., all "of blessed memory".
Italian text of Conticello lecture "Iscrizioni Ebraiche da Nocera Superiore (Salerno)"
Nel settembre 1988, conducendosi lavori per le Provincie di Salerno, Benevento, ed Avellino, interveniva la dott.ssa Maria de' Spagnolis Conticello, direttore dell'Ufficio Scavi dell' agro Nocerino-Sarnese, che metteva in luce una parte di una grande necropoli tardo-romana.
La tomba n. 17 di detta necropoli, del tipo a cassa, ha presentato, come elemento di novita', la presenza di due lastre marmoree inserite nelle pareti della tomba, evidentemente elementi di risulta, trasferiti da altro sito, che recavano incise ciascuna un'iscrizione in lingua greca e ciascuna un candelabro ebraico eptalynchne (Menorah).
La prima delle due iscrizioni fa diretto riferimento ad una donna, di nome Myrina, definita come presbytera.
La seconda iscrizione fa diretto riferimento ad un uomo, di nome Pedoneius, definito come grammateus.
Si tratta, senza alcun dubbio, di una coppia di marito e moglie, l'uno grammateus e l'altra presbytera.
La carica di grammateus potrebbe corrispondere a quella di segretario di un consiglio, nel nostro caso forse della communita' ebraica del luogo, mentre la carica di presbytera non puo' che essere una carica onorifica personale.
Infatti, trattandosi di marito e moglie ed essendo la donna presbytera, se il titolo le derivasse dalla carica del marito, questi sarebbe definito nell'iscrizione presbyter e non grammateus. Quindi, nel nostro caso, presbytera e' la stessa Myrina. Con il che' si verebbe a dimostrare, forse per la prima volta, che, all'interno della communita' ebraica di epoca tardo antica, le donne avevano esse stesse accesso alle cariche pubbliche, almeno all'interno della communita' stessa.
Si trattava, allora, per la communita' di Nocera Superiore, di una communita' organizzata e piuttosto complessa, talche' si deve ritenere che vi fossero una o piu' sinagoghe operanti. Un tale circostanza, come anche la stessa presenza di ebrei a Nocera Superiore, non e' finora mai stata attestata, per cui la scoperta e' dalle massima importanza
Le due iscrizioni sono state pubblicamente presentate, alla presenza di rappresentanti della communita' ebraica di Napoli, al Convegno per il 250 anniversario dei primi scavi in territorio vesuviano, ad ottobre 1988 a Pompei, e saranno pubblicate negli Atti del Convegno, in corso di stampa.(1)
- Marisa de' Spagnolis Conticello (2 maggio1989)
(1) Conticello De' Spagnolis, M., Una testimonianza ebraica a Nuceria Alfaterna, in Ercolano 1738-1988. 250 anni di ricerca archeologica. Atti del Convegno Internazionale (Ravello-Ercolano-Napoli-Pompei, 30 ottobre -5 novembre 1988), a cura di F. Dell'Orto, Roma 1993.
To the Editor of the Jewish Advocate:
I am delighted that Judith S. Antonelli's excellent May 3, 1990 Advocate coverage of the International Catacomb Society's Inaugural Lecture for its Commemorative Founders'' Lecture Series, given at Hebrew College by Dr. Marisa de Spagnolis Conticello, Director of the Excavations Office at Nocera-Sarno in Italy, sparked the interest of an indomitable Ellen Feingold to visit Norcera Superiore in the region of Campania, Southern Italy - the site for Dr. de Spagnolis Conticello's significant find. Indeed, such persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges is often rewarded in Italy by unexpected bonuses, and the enthusiastic cooperation and response of the Italians who are so pleased when stranieri or foreigners manifest interest in and knowledge of their historical and cultural treasures. Going to extreme lengths to resolve any language barriers, the Italians will assist in any way possible. Their precipitous mountain roads are so well-constructed that the adventurous, off-the-beaten path traveller is usually rewarded with insights into comparatively tranquil small-town life and the nostalgic, pastoral, harvesting and fishing scenes as of yore, far from the frenetic pace of heavily-frequented tourist haunts. I have been fortunate in experiencing this serendipity for many years, either during the course of my own investigations or in conducting tours.
Perhaps Ms. Feingold and her readers would be interested in knowing that the two Jewish inscriptions from Dr. De Spangolis Conticello's excavation point to a date of the fourth to fifth centuries CE for the synagogue and congregation supported by this hitherto unknown organized Jewish community in ancient Norcera. Also, to emend her chronology further, the visible remains of the fourth-century synagogue at Ancient Ostia, near the airport of Rome, which may have undergone even earlier stages of remodeling, rest on the vestiges of a first-century building, perhaps the earliest synagogue in Europe known to date. Another major revelation, inferred by the Norcera inscriptions, brings more corroborative evidence to the the notion that women could have held religious offices within some Jewish congregations of the Roman Empire. As Ms. Feingold concludes, we can only hope that such valuable sites which illuminate our past will continue to be explored and preserved. The mission of the International Catacomb Society is to assist in this endeavor by creating an awareness of the existence of these sites and their importance.
Transcripts of Dr. De Spagnolis Conticello's lecture are available from the International Catacomb Society, 61 Beacon Street, Boston, MA, 02108.
- Estelle S. Brettman, Executive Director, International Catacomb Society