The Jews in Italy

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 (rev. ed. 2024).

Formal contact between the Jewish people and the Romans may have occurred in the second century BCE as a result of the challenge to Roman power by the ambitious descendants of Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death in 333 BCE, the territories he had conquered, stretching from Greece, Libya, and Egypt on the west and to the borders of India on the east, were taken over by three powerful leaders who established themselves and their families as Alexander's heirs. Antigonus controlled Macedon, then absorbed the rest of Greece. Seleucus ruled over the eastern regions from Asia Minor to Bactria, gradually expanding his borders as far as India. Ptolemy, holding Egypt and southern Palestine, further extended his power over the neighboring countries. Rivalry between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties gave rise to a series of wars during the third century. Around 200 BCE, the Syrian forces under the Seleucid Antiochus III finally managed to wrest control of Phoenicia, Palestine, and Transjordan from the Ptolemies.  

By this time, there was already a substantial Jewish presence all over the East and in Egypt.  The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander after his conquest of Egypt, soon had become an important commercial and cultural center.  Ptolemy, not trusting the Egyptians, kept important political offices in the hands of Greeks and limited the Egyptians to the pettiest positions.  HE recruited his armies from foreigners, whom he attracted to his service by offering plots of land to new settlers.  Perhaps because of Alexander's reputation of having treated the Jews with respect and kindness, they were among those who flocked to the new city and even became active in the Ptolemaic army.[i]

When Seleucus I founded Antioch at the beginning of the third century BCE on the river Orontes in north Syria, Jewish traders and settlers were attracted there as well.  Jewish mercenaries fought on the side of Seleucus in the battles with the Ptolemies, and in appreciation of their loyalty and support, the kind encouraged them to settle in Antioch.[ii]

His descendant Antiochus III started off on good terms with the Jews under his rule.  Toward the end of the third century, when rebellion broke out in Lydia and Phrygia in western Asia Minor, he is said to have sent 2,000 Jewish families to settle in parts of that province to ensure peace in the area, trusting in their "loyalty... secured by their 'piety to their God' (and their belief that) breaking an oath would draw heavenly punishment...”.[iii]

Repeated attempts by Antiochus III to expand his kingdom toward the west loomed as a threat to the Romans.  To insure their control over the west Mediterranean area, the Romans declared war on Antiochus, finally defeating him in 190 BCE.  The victorious Romans demanded a huge tribute from the vanquished Syrians, including many prisoners who were brought to Rome as slaves.  The Jews among those prisoners may have been the beginning of what would become the oldest continuing Jewish community in Europe. [iv]

The Seleucids retained control of Jerusalem.  As time went on, dissension began to grow there between two major Jewish factions: one group wanted their capitol to become a Hellenized polis, as had happened to so many other cities taken over by the Greeks; the other faction was made up of traditionalists who wished it to adhere strictly to Jewish Law.  Disturbances resulting from the constantly escalating conflicts between the factions led to even more punitive treatment by the Seleucid rulers and the increased repression of Jewish freedom.  A brutal massacre of the Jews in 168 BCE, the profanation of the Jerusalem Temple by the plunder of the Temple treasury and, above all, the installation of images of foreign gods within the Temple sanctuary, excited such outrage that a Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabees, rose against the ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  The Jewish rebels finally managed to regain and re-consecrate the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE.[v] In 161 BCE, recognizing the growing power of Rome, Judah Maccabees sent ambassadors to the Roman Senate to seek an alliance, and succeeded in obtaining a treaty of mutual assistance between the Romans and the Jews in case of war.  In the words of Rufus Learsi, by this treaty, "the mightiest of the empires recognized the independence of the Jewish nation".[vi] A year later, however, when Judah met his death in another battle against the Syrians, the Romans felt no obligation to intercede on the Jews' behalf.  Even so, Rome's own continuing conflicts with the common enemy may have helped the Jews in their struggle to throw off the oppressive rule of their Seleucid overlords.[vii]

Before the first half of the first century BCE, some Jews had already begun to make their way to Rome on their own.  They were probably few in number, however, including temporary residents involved either in mercantile activities or attached to trade or policy missions, such as that of Simon Maccabee, who led another delegation to Rome 139 BCE to renew his brother Judah's treaty of 161 BCE between Rome and Judaea.

In 66 BCE, the Roman general Pompey was campaigning in the East.  Aware of the weakness of the Seleucid rulers, and anticipating that their inability to keep order in their area might eventually cause problems for Rome, Pompey annexed Syria as a Roman province, and in 63 BCE abolished the Seleucid monarchy.  He then decided to put an end to the factional conflicts between the Hellenizing and traditional Jewish factions that were causing such trouble in Judaea. After carrying out a successful siege of Jerusalem, Pompey invaded and put Palestine under the rule of Rome. He returned to Rome in 62 BCE with thousands of war prisoners, including, it is said, great numbers of Jews.

With Pompey's prisoners added to the population of permanent Jewish settlers already in Rome, the community was large enough to form an established colony.  Before too long, many of the Jewish slaves became freedmen.  Some earned enough to ransom themselves, many were redeemed by their co-religionists, who felt it a sacred obligation to free their brethren from bondage, and some were freed "if their purchasers found them to be more trouble than they were worth because of their dietary and other laws and their disinclination to work one day in seven".[viii]

In 59 BCE, in a defense of Lucius Valerius Flaccus against the charge that he had embezzled funds collected for the Temple in Jerusalem, the orator Cicero alluded for dramatic effect to the size and impact of the growing Jewish community in Rome.[ix] Later, the Roman historian Strabo reported that in the reign of Augustus (27 BCE - 14 CE), Jews were present in every city of the Roman Empire.[x] Many of them had probably come to those cities to improve their economic condition through the greater opportunities there for trade and commerce.

After Syria fell to the Romans, the subjugation of the Jewish kingdom was next, for, as A. Schalit commented, "Rome did not customarily allow any country, great or small, to remain an independent state within her sphere of influence, without attempting to annex it or at least to turn it into a Roman protectorate". [xi] 

After the death in 67 BCE of Queen Salome Alexandra, a fierce struggle arose within the Hasmonean dynasty, the ruling family descended from the Maccabees, when her sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, fought over the succession.  Antipater, an astute and cunning man, trusted advisor to the royal family, quietly gained great power while remaining in the background.  Appointed by the Hasmonean king Alexander to be general over Idumea, Antipater built up his own alliances among neighboring states.  In the wake of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Antipater mobilized his allies to come to the aid of Caesar.  In gratitude, Caesar conceded territories to Judaea, gave Jews of the Diaspora special privileges, mainly the right to follow their ancestral laws, and appointed Hyrcanus, whom Antipater supported, High Priest and Ethnarch of the Jewish nation.[xii]

Antipater's son Herod, as skillful as his father in ingratiating himself with the Romans, was not content to play a secondary role.  He sought power, and when given the administration of Galilee, became more and more tyrannical.  As representatives of Rome, Antipater and Herod ignored the High Priest and Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court.  In time, to put an end to the instability in Judaea, the Roman Senate appointed Herod to be "King of the Jews."  In the eyes of many of the Jews themselves, however, he was an illegitimate ruler.  His repressive and cruel reign aroused seething resentment in the population of Judea.  The struggle for the succession after Herod's death in 4 BCE and the misrule of his heirs brought on riots and sporadic insurrections that eventually spread to other areas of Palestine.[xiii]

The Might of Rome: The victorious Emperor Vespasian, in military attire, swaggers over the sorrowing woman huddled under the palm tree, a vignette representing a tragic Judea. The Latin inscription explains: "Judea Capta"; in the exergue "Senatus Consultum " (decree of the senate). Bronze sestertius. Photo courtesy of Cornelius S. Vermeule, III (DAPICS n. 3277).

The growing severity of the Romans over the course of the first century CE as they tried to restore order culminated in a violent revolt by the Jews, that, according to the eyewitness account of a contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, threw the emperor Nero into "consternation and terror."  Nero gave the command of the Roman forces in the east to the seasoned general Vespasian and his son Titus.  After Nero's death in 68 CE, and a period of political unrest in Rome, famously termed "the Year of the Four Emperors," Vespasian was acclaimed Emperor in 69 CE.  Command of the Roman army in Palestine was passed to Titus.  After a fierce and difficult campaign, Roman power overwhelmed the Jewish rebels finally brought the conflict to a disastrous end for the Jews, culminating in the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 CE.[xiv]

Vespasian and Titus celebrated their conquest in a joint triumph in Rome.  Their victory procession, with its display of many of the holiest treasures looted from the Second Temple and the sight of many Jews, some of them well-known and greatly revered, being exhibited as captives, must have caused profound grief and despair in the Jewish community of Rome.

The Spoils of the Temple: In the left panel of the Arch of Titus which was built after the Emperor's death, a triumphal procession of youths crowned with laurel wreaths is about to pass through the gates of the city. They bear the trophies from the destruction of Herod's Temple, the table for the sacramental bread, the Temple menorah (the base of which is decorated here with fantastic marine creatures) and the silver trumpets (DAPICS n. 1837).

Roman casualties from this conflict were heavy, but the number of Jews killed in battle or by starvation and disease, or taken as prisoners or flung at once into slavery, was in the tens of thousands.[xv] Once again, as a result of war, the Jewish population of Rome was increased.

Before this event, Josephus had returned to Palestine upon the completion of his mission to the court of Nero. The nationalistic feeling that had arisen in the Jewish population under Roman rule gave rise to an active and determined resistance movement, and a futile struggle against the mightiest power of their world.   Josephus may have been reluctant to join a war against Rome, whose might and majesty he had seen with his own eyes, but when put in charge of Galilee, he built strong fortifications and trained an army in accordance with Roman practices.  His forces acquitted themselves well for a while, but Josephus' military career effectively ended at the siege of Jotapata (Yofat).

Opting out of further conflict by working his way into the favor of the victorious general and soon-to-be-emperor Vespasian, Josephus returned to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life, writing assiduously about the Jews, perhaps to make amends for what many Jews considered to be his traitorous behavior during the revolt.[xvi] 

What is perhaps the earliest epigraphic evidence to date of the Jewish presence in Italy may refer to a pawn of these wars.  On a tombstone found near Naples, an inscription reads: "[Cl]audia Aster, a captive from Jerusalem.  Ti[berius] Claudius [Pro]culus (?), freeman of Augustus, took care.  I ask that you take care that no one should cast down my inscription contrary to law.  She lived 25 years".[xvii]

David Noy has dated this epitaph to the late first century CE, because even had Claudia been taken as a baby during Titus' conquest of Jerusalem, her death would likely have occurred before 95 CE.[xviii] Tiberius Claudius Proculus, perhaps the owner or patron of Claudia Aster, may have been a freedman of the Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus, reigned 41-54 CE). Noy suggests that he may actually have been her husband since, under Roman law, unless she were married, Claudia would have been under the minimum age for manumission (Aster is the Latinized form of Esther. Proculus (or Proclus) is a fairly common name in the Greco-Roman environment at this time, and seen on several Jewish epitaphs.[xix]

Ruins of Roman-era Pozzuoli (DAPICS n. 1997).

Ties between early Imperial Rome and the region of Campania, where the epitaph to Claudia was found, had grown strong because the region possessed important harbor facilities convenient to Rome.  These included the major port and Roman naval base at Misenum and the bustling commercial port of Puteoli (Pozzuoli), a trading center where foreigners from the Greco-Oriental world mingled with one another and the native population.  Probably so much early epigraphic testimony for the presence of Jews in Italy has been found in the Campanian area because of the substantial Jewish mercantile activities in Puteoli. Hard evidence from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, however, is more difficult to trace.[xx]

A dedication of undocumented date from the Marano territory near Puteoli testifies to the existence of an organized, civic-minded Jewish community.[xxi] T. Claudius Philippus, a Life Archon who presided over a Council of Elders, was cited for activities associated with the construction of a wall, perhaps for a tomb or a synagogue in the port city where the inscription was found.[xxii]

Literary and archaeological evidence dating for the most part to the Late Ancient and Byzantine eras documents Jews in other Italian cities, including Aquileia, Ostia, Porto, Puteoli, Naples, Nocera Superiore, Bova Marina, Taranto, Brundisium, Venosa, and Otranto, as well as Catania, Syracuse, Noto and other sites in Sicily and at San Antioco in Sardinia.[xxiii] 

Inscription naming Pedoneios, Grammateus found in Nocera Superiore (DAPICS n. 2564).

 Inscription naming Myrina, Presbytera, wife of Pedoneios (DAPICS n. 2565).

[i] V. Tcherikover, The World History of the Jewish People 6: The Hellenistic Age, A. Schalit, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972), pp. 19, 23-24; M. Grant, The Jews in the Roman World (New York: Scribner, 1973), p. 26.
[ii] Josephus, Antiquities, 12:3:1.
[iii] E. J. Bickerman, The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 91-93; Tcherikover, Hellenistic Age, pp. 30-32, 77-86; E. M. Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian (Leiden: Brill, 1976), pp. 121, 356-360.
[iv] M. Smallwood, Roman Rule, p. 129, note 28.
[v] Tchericover, Hellenistic Age, pp. 115-144; Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 2-4; J. Boardman et al., Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 323-324; Grant, Roman World, pp. 28-30; Maccabees I and II.
[vi] R. Learsi, Israel: A History of the Jewish People (Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books/World Publishing Company, 1966), p. 136; Josephus, Antiquities, 12:10, 6.
[vii] Tchericover, Hellenistic Age, p. 179; Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 4-11; I Maccabees 8:1-32.
[viii] Smallwood, Roman Rule, p. 131.
[ix] H. J. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960), pp. 6-8; Smallwood, Roman Rule, p. 126.
[x] As quoted by Josephus, Antiquities,
[xi] A. Schalit, "The Fall of the Hasmonean Dynasty and the Roman Conquest," in The World History of the Jewish People: The Herodian Period, vol. 7, M. Avi-Yohah and Z. Baras, eds. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975), p. 27.
[xii] Schalit, Herodian Period, pp. 46-47.
[xiii] M. Stern, "The Reign of Herod," in The World History of the Jewish People: The Herodian Period, vol. 7, M. Avi-Yohah and Z. Baras, eds. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975), pp. 71--123; Smallwood, Roman Rule, pp. 44-104.
[xiv] Josephus, Jewish War, Books 2-6, passim.
[xv] Smallwood, Roman Rule, p. 327 and note 152.
[xvi] E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), pp. 456-460; Josephus, Jewish War, 3:8.
[xvii] CIJ 1.556/JIWE 1. 26, pp. 43-45. 
[xviii] JIWE 1. pp. 43-45.
[xix] Cf. JIWE 2.26: 110, pp. 93-94, and n. 166, p. 132, both Greek, from the Monteverde cemetery.
[xx] A study of supposed "Jewish" artifacts in Pompeii and Herculaneum is by C. Giordano and I. Kahn, The Jews in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and in the Cities of Campania Felix (Pompei: Sicignano Editore, 1971), including the so-called "House of the Hebrew", pp. 36-38, notes 21-22 and pp. 90-105.
[xxi] Noy suggests that Marano may have been the burial grounds for Puteoli, where, according to Josephus, a Jewish community was known to exist around 4 BCE: JIWE 1, p. 41.
[xxii] JIWE 1.23; CIJ 1.561. Latin, 1st century or later; also discussed in Giordano and Kahn, Campania Felix, pp. 18-19, and note 4.
[xxiii] Much of this evidence is epigraphic, and noted in the JIWE, vols. 1-2 (1993-1995).

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