Jewish Rome

The Jewish community in the Roman Diaspora dates back to the second century BCE and was comparatively large. Several synagogues and catacombs are known. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the community remained at some distance from the new, rabbinical Judaism of Judaeae, maintaining several archaic traits.

A Menorah in Ostia

The history of the Jewish community of ancient Rome is known from several classical, Latin and Greek sources. Some additional information on cult practices can be found in the Talmud. The inscriptions found in the catacombs are valuable sources of information on the synagogues.

Classical authors

One of the key texts is written by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who visited Rome as a member of an embassy to the emperor Caligula (40 CE). In his report, he gives an overview of the life of the Jews in Rome, mentioning that their position had been guaranteed by the emperor Augustus. He had permitted them to send their tax (the "first fruits") to Jerusalem, to receive the Roman citizenship, and to study Jewish (instead of Roman) laws. He also had decreed that if a Jew were scheduled to receive his monthly grain ratio on a Saturday, he were allowed to return later.note

This is a highly idealized picture. Rome was not the Jewish paradise that Philo wants to show. For example, the water of the Aqua Alsietina was unhealthy and could only be used for irrigation purposes. However, the Jews were forced to use this aqueduct, because it led to their quarter.

The attitudes of the non-Jewish Romans are described by the poet Juvenal. who makes fun of the strange habits of Jews in generalnote and the poverty of the Jews near the Porta Capena in particular.note The accusation of poverty is typical for Greek and Roman anti-Semitism; among the strange habits are the abstinence from pork, the study of the Law of Moses (regarded as a refusal to obey the Roman law), circumcision, anti-social behavior, and the maintenance of the Sabbath (considered to be laziness).

The Roman government was not really interested in the Jews, as can be shown from the fact that even a well-meaning emperor like Augustus did not know that the Jews were permitted to eat on the Sabbath.note

It is possible to estimate the number of Roman Jews during the reign of Augustus. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions a lawsuit in which 8,000 Jews from Rome sided with one of the parties.note They must have been adult men, because women and children were not permitted to take part in a lawsuit. Since a nuclear family consisted of at least four or five members, there must have been some 40,000 Jews. It is likely that this number rose after the mass deportation of prisoners of war after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This is mirrored by the enormous size of the Monteverde catacomb.

Talmudic texts

The Babylonian Talmud is a large collection of rabbinical wisdom, the result of four centuries of discussion on religious subjects within rabbinical Judaism. This branch of the Jewish religion originated in the last quarter of the first century CE, when the ancient center of Judaism, the temple at Jerusalem, was destroyed (more). The new center was the academy of Javneh, where rabbis received their formal education.

In principle, Javneh was also responsible for the Jews in the Diaspora, and sometimes teachers were sent abroad to educate the Jews in other parts of the Mediterranean world. From the Talmud, we know that about 120, a rabbi Matthia arrived at Rome. At the same moment, his relative Joshua ben Hananiah explained to the Romans on which scriptural authorities the idea of the resurrection was founded.

However, the Romans did not always accept the authority of the man from Javneh. The Talmud mentions how a Theudas, the leader of the Roman community, refused to change the way the paschal lamb was butchered. We do not understand the exact details, but it is clear that in Judaea, the ritual had changed after the destruction of the Temple. Theudas refused to follow the new rules. Instead, the paschal lamb was prepared as it had always been done. Ultimately, Javneh accepted the difference because they respected Theudas, who is otherwise called "great" and "powerful".

Another piece of information is really remarkable. It describes how rabbi Joshuah ben Levi saw (in a dream) the Messiah as a leper sitting and waiting in front of one of the city gates of Rome.note There are no parallels for this statement, and we do not whether there was a deeper significance to it. It may be noted, however, that Joshua ben Levi visited Rome during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, and may refer to the Porta Capena, which was next to a Jewish quarter. Maybe there were Jewish lepers sitting near the gate.

A final story is that of the embassy of rabbi Eleazar the Great, rabbi Joshua en rabbi Gamaliel to the emperor Domitian. A strange legend in a rabbinical treatisenote implies that they converted an important senator, who later committed suicide in order to protect the Jews. This story is remarkable, because we know from the Greek historian Cassius Dio that under Domitian, a senator named Flavius Clemens was executed and his wife Domitilla exiled because of their Jewish sympathies.note

There may be more to this than meets the eye. During the reign of Domitian, the Roman members of the Christian sect (at that time still a branch of Judaism), had a leader named Clemens, who was married to a Domitilla. This Clemens' house has been excavated under the modern church of San Clemente, and it is certainly a rich man's estate. Before we conclude that the author of Deuteronomium Rabbah and Cassius Dio both refer to an early pope, it should be pointed out that the Christian tradition says that the Christian Clemens was not executed by Domitian, but exiled to the Crimea (and killed by Trajan). Another difference is that the converted senator was, according to Deuteronomy Rabbah, not executed, but committed suicide. Nonetheless, it would seem that an important senator did indeed convert to (the Christian branch of) Judaism.

The catacomb inscriptions

Jewish Rome

Until now, we have discussed the evidence in literary sources, classical and rabbinical. However, there is a third category of evidence: 534 brief tomb inscriptions from the Jewish catacombs, the large underground burial places outside Rome. (The catacombs are not open to the public. Copies of some of the inscriptions can be seen in the stairhouse of the modern synagogue at the Lungotevere dei Cenci; a few originals in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.) The following Jewish catacombs have been identified.

  1. on the Via Nomentana near the Villa Torlonia,
  2. on the Via Labicana outside the Porta Maggiore,
  3. on the Via Appia Pignatelli (beyond the second milestone, closer to the city than the Christian catacombs),
  4. on the Via Appia (Via Cimarra),
  5. on the Via Ostiensis, at Monteverde.

The last one was not only the largest catacomb, but also the oldest. It was probably used from the late first century BCE (until the fourth century CE) and its early date confirms the words of Philo that many Jews were settled in Rome after the war against Pompey in 63 BCE. The oldest inscriptions mention freed slaves, who must have been Pompey's prisoners of war.

Three factors seem to have influenced the idea to bury people underground. In the first place, the Jews believed in resurrection, a belief that made it impossible to cremate bodies. Secondly, the use of catacombs was a lot cheaper than the purchase of ground for individual burials (which, by the way, are not unknown). In the last place, in Judaea, people were sometimes buried in artificial caves (e.g., at Qumran).

The Jewish catacombs closely resemble the better known Christian ones, but there are two differences. The corridors in the Christian sepulchers are very narrow, whereas the corridors in the Jewish catacombs are broad. Another difference is that in the latter, Kokim-tombs can be found, which closely resemble the chamber tombs in Judaea. (They are described in the Mishnah.)

The tombstones offer us a map of the Jewish community in Rome. For example, the inscriptions mention the names of the Roman synagogues, and it is possible to establish where they were, because people would bury their dead in the nearest catacomb.

Via Nomentana Synagogue of the "Agger"
Synagogue of the Subura
Via Labicana Unknown synagogue
Via Appia Pignatelli Synagogue of the Field of Mars
Via Appia Synagogue of Elaias
Via Ostiensis Synagogue of the Agrippaeans
Synagogue of the Augustiales
Synagogue of the Hebrews
Vernacular synagogue
Synagogue of Volumnius
Synagogue of the Tripolitans
Synagogue of the Calcaresians
The synagogue of Ostia

Most of the 534 names on the inscription are Greek: 405 (76%). 123 people (23%) had a Latin name, whereas the remaining 5 inscriptions show Hebrew, Aramaic and hybrid names. This confirms that most Roman Jews were culturally Greek, not Latins. Another argument for the Greek orientation of Roman Judaism can be found in the letter that the Christian teacher Paul wrote to the Roman Christians: he gives his regards to 18 people with a Greek name, 4 Latins and 2 Hebrews (Epistle to the Romans 16.5-16).

Actually, we would have expected less Latin names, because the Roman populace overwhelmingly spoke Greek. However, it turns out that almost all Jews with a Latin name were members of the Synagogue of Elaias. This suggests that most Roman Jews were "ordinary" people, speaking Greek, and that the Latin-speaking minority had a synagogue of their own. We do not know what led to this arrangement.

The use of the Greek language is interesting too. It is grammatically correct, but contains remarkable spelling mistakes. For example, kai ("and") is sometimes written as ke, and Ebraios ("Hebrew") becomes Aibreos. In other words, -ai- and -e- are interchangable. This is a normal linguistic phenomenon in the first centuries CE, but an educated Roman or Greek would never make these mistakes. This suggests that most literate Jews were unable to pay for further education; it more or less corroborates the statement of Juvenal (above) that the Jews were poor.

The catacomb inscription inform us also about the officials in the Jewish community. Every synagogue had a gerousiarch, "president", and a board of archontes, "governors". The possessions of the community were guarded by a phronistes. We also learn about grammateis ("scribes") and presbyteres ("elders"). A benefactor would be called "father of the synagogue". (One inscription mentions a benefactor who married his sister-in-law after his brother had died, a practice that had become obsolete in mainstream Judaism.) The archisynagogos was responsible for the maintenance of the synagogue; his assistant was the hyperetes. Finally, there was the archigerousiarch: he represented the Roman community as a whole. We may imagine that the above-mentioned Theudas was an archigerousiarch.

Tombstone of three Jewish freedmen

Although one inscription mentions a "teacher of the Law" the "new" title of rabbi or Greek/Latin equivalents are not attested in the catacomb inscriptions (nor is Theudas called "rabbi" in the Talmud).

In conclusion, we may probably state that in the first centuries CE, the Jewish community of Rome still retained several traits from a Jewish faith that antedated rabbinical Judaism: no rabbis (at least not in the age of the catacombs) and no female presbyters; the custom to marry a sister-in-law still existed; and the paschal lamb was prepared as it had always been done.

The archaic character of this Jewish community has, of course, disappeared. However, even today, the Roman Jews are still proud to be neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic Jews - the main branches of Judaism that originated long after the Roman community.


The first general work on the Roman Jews was H.J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (1960 Philadelphia). More recent is J.G. Westenholz, The Jewish Presence in Ancient Rome (1994). An overview of recent publications can be found in M. Williams (ed.), The Jews among the Greeks and Romans. A Diasporan Sourcebook (1998 Baltimore), which contains - next to the bibliography - many translated texts on the Jews in the Diaspora. On the fourth century, one may consult L.V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome. Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora (1995 Leiden).