Rome, Jewish Quarter on the Via Appia

Jewish Quarter on the Via Appia: partly Jewish, partly Christian neighborhood in ancient Rome in front of the Porta Capena.

Via Appia, Tombstone of three Jewish freedmen

The last mile of the Via Appia went through a Jewish neighborhood. Jews were only permitted to walk a short distance on the Sabbath, and they therefore preferred to settle near their synagogues, so that there were various Jewish neighborhoods in Rome, each one with its own house of worship and catacomb. The synagogue on the Via Appia was named after Eleas or Elaias, but it is unknown who or what that might have been. We do know, however, that the residents of this neighborhood were quite Romanized. We can gather this from the inscriptions in the catacomb a short distance beyond the second mile marker on the Via Appia.

The Jewish quarter was situated near the so-called Sacred Grove, where at night the legendary King Numa Pompilius would speak with the forest nymph Egeria, who gave him advice about the Roman religion. The Jews who lived there during the imperial period were not exactly rich. The poet Juvenal tells of running into a friend who was moving house, and in passing he gives a description of the poor living conditions:

…While his belongings were crammed
into a cart, he stood one more time
under the row of arches at the gate of Capena,
a place which constantly dripped. A little further on,
where King Numa would meet his nymph in the night,
the forest, together with the temple and fountain,
was bargained away to the Jews, who potter about the place
with their basket and pallet – for every branch of every tree
should be used for nation and country
and this whole forest is in a beggarly state,
since the nymphs were driven away.note

A Jewish proverb says that when two Jews come together they build three synagogues. The community in Rome was as varied as those elsewhere, and one of the points debated in the first century CE was the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the descendant of the legendary King David who, according to the biblical exegetes, would give the true interpretation of the Law of Moses and restore Israel. Around the year 49 this debate escalated into a conflict, because the sect that believed in him, the Christians, began admitting non-Jews and did not expect them to follow dietary laws or maintain ritual purity.

There is some evidence pointing to the neighborhood in front of the Porta Capena as one of the neighborhoods where this was a point of debate.note The heads of the synagogue must on occasion have refused to allow the pagan Christians in because they were unclean. This would lead to rioting, and at that point the emperor intervened. Suetonius writes laconically that Claudius,

expelled the Jews who, instigated by the agitator Chrestus, were continually causing public disturbances.note

However such actions had little effect, since the Roman state, like all pre-industrial societies, lacked the means to enforce, or even monitor compliance with such edicts.

A century later Judaism and Christianity had grown apart, and even though the Christians had their own houses of worship by this time, they still lived among the Jews. Tensions could run high on the Via Appia, as can be seen from the following incident, which is described by Hippolytus, who was deposed in 217 as bishop and replaced by Callixtus (for whom a complex of Christian catacombs was named). Hippolytus revealed all sorts of dirty secrets about his successor’s past, alleging that he had been a slave to a Christian courtier, Carpophorus, whose bank he had managed. However Callixtus was embezzling money from both his master and his fellow Christians. He was discovered and then fled, but in the end he was caught. Carpophorus took Callixtus back and forced him to labor on a treadmill.

After some time a few monks came to Carpophorus and urged him to release the runaway slave from his punishment. They claimed he had admitted to depositing the money with certain people. Carpophorus, pious as he was, said he that cared nothing about his own money but was concerned about the deposits, because people were constantly complaining to him that they had entrusted their money to Callixtus because he had done the same. In any case Carpophorus let himself be persuaded into releasing him from his punishment.

Callixtus, who had nothing to give back and could not even run away again because he was being guarded, dreamed up a cunning way to die. On the Sabbath he pretended he was going to his creditors, but in fact he stormed into a packed synagogue, positioned himself among the worshippers and disturbed the service. The angry Jews cursed at him, beat him and dragged him to the city prefect Fuscianus. When he asked what the matter was, they answered: “The Romans have given us permission to study the Law of our ancestors in public, but this fellow forced his way into the synagogue and prevented us from doing that by disturbing us, and he said he was a Christian.”

While Fuscianus sat on the magistrate’s bench and grew angry at what the Jews were saying, somebody went off to tell Carpophoruswhat was going on. He rushed to the magistrate’s bench and cried out, “I beg you, your honor, don’t believe him! He isn’t a Christian at all, but a man who is trying to end his life because he has embezzled a great deal of money from me, as I shall prove.”

Because the Jews thought that this was an excuse and Carpophorus was trying to get his slave freed under a pretext, they protested even more vehemently to the prefect. And under their influence he had Callixtus whipped and sent him to the ore mines in Sardinia.note

We see here how Callixtus tried to exploit the tense situation in the neighborhood on the Via Appia. This time the authorities intervened before things got out of hand, but there must have been similar incidents that did escalate to the point that people were hurt or died the coveted death of a martyr.