Jews in the Western Roman Empire in Late Antiquity

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “Jews in the Western Roman Empire in Late Antiquity: Migration, integration, separation“, by David Noy.


“There are two principal categories of evidence for the Jews of Western Europe in Late Antiquity: inscriptions with recognisably Jewish content, and literary references in Christian sources. These can be supplemented to a limited extent by archaeological remains and legal texts. The main problem of interpretation is the nearly total disjuncture between the categories: places which have produced inscriptions are rarely mentioned in literature as having Jewish communities, and outside Rome places which appear from literature to have had substantial communities have rarely produced inscriptions. Such evidence, by its nature, provides no continuous history of the Jewish population of any particular city, and says nothing about when or how such a population began.

Benjamin of Tudela, describing the Jewish communities he encountered in Western Europe in the 12th century, avoided any speculation about their origins, but some internal traditions did exist.

For example, in the 10th-century Sefer Yosefon the first Jews in Southern Italy are identified with the prisoners brought to Rome for Titus’ Judaean triumph of 71 CE, and there were similar ideas in Spain (Rabello 1996, 160-1). It was evidently true in at least one case, the freedwoman Claudia Aster Hierosolymitana (i.e. from Jerusalem) who was commemorated at the age of 25 by her imperial freedman husband (JIWE i 26; new edition in Lacerenza 1999).

However, Philo (Legatio 156-7), writing soon after 40 CE about the Jews of Rome in the time of Augustus, explained their origins through earlier capture and enslavement: “They had been brought as prisoners to Italy and were liberated by their owners.” The Jewish population in the city of Rome, and perhaps elsewhere in the West (García Moreno 2005, 40-41), was already established in the 1st century BCE, although claims made by some Spanish Jews that their ancestors arrived there before the common era have been attributed to the wish to avoid being labelled Christ-killers (Bradbury 2006, 508). Warfare caused large-scale movements of Jewish populations up to the defeat of the Bar-Kochba Revolt in 135 CE, and Bowers (1975, 400), after surveying all the available evidence, argues that the Jewish community in Spain “had its roots in the transmigrations during and following the upheavals of AD 70-135”. Economic motivation may have influenced people to leave a region badly affected by the revolts even if they were under no compulsion, and it is also likely that Diaspora Jews from Egypt and Cyrenaica moved westwards.

Although the Judaean revolts are usually cited as the cause (García Moreno 2005, 43), the revolt under Trajan was perhaps more significant for migration since it affected a wider and more heavily populated area. Evidence for Jews in Egypt nearly disappears for several centuries afterwards.

Jews may have had their own reasons for migration, but were also subject to the same ‘push’ and ‘pull’ influences as everyone else: the disadvantages of remaining at home and the perceived advantages (particularly in economic terms) of the destination (Noy 2000, 85-127). They might move to find work, for education or to get married, just like everyone else. When Justus, son of Amachius of Catania, aged 22, was commemorated in the Villa Torlonia catacomb at Rome (JIWE ii 525), his family may have come to Rome from Sicily for reasons no different from those which would have brought a Christian or pagan family there. Gaudiosus from Mauretania was buried at Naples in the 5th century (JIWE i 31), showing that Jewish migration did not necessarily flow only from east to west.

After the 2nd century CE (if not earlier), Jews are unlikely to have migrated directly from the Land of Israel to towns in Western Europe. Those who did make the move from east to west are more likely to have followed the usual migration pattern of going to a large urban centre such as Rome first (Noy 2000, 55). This may have happened earlier too, when the Jews were expelled from Rome (García Iglesias 1978, 46). Movement over shorter distances would have been commoner. Rutgers (2006, 493) argues that migration of Jews to rural places such as Bova Marina in Calabria, where a 4th-6th century synagogue has been found, began only in Late Antiquity.

Some of the earliest epitaphs from Venosa use formulae which are mainly found in the catacombs of Rome, particularly the Greek “in peace his/her sleep”, and that could indicate that people had moved there from Rome (if it is not a matter simply of imitation) (JIWE i p.337). Such movement may have served to increase the amount of archaeological evidence simply because Jews were living in more places (Rutgers 2006, 494, 502).

Jews certainly travelled in Late Antiquity for reasons connected with their religion, such as the duo apostuli who spoke the dirge at a funeral in Venosa in the early 6th century and may have been sent to Italy from Tiberias (JIWE i 86, with other sources listed there). Rabbinic sources show some awareness of Spain as a far-distant province (Bradbury 2006, 509). Augusta, who was buried at Venosa in 521, had a father from Saranda and a grandfather from Lecce, and had probably come to Venosa to get married (JIWE i 107), a clear example of the marriage exchange between communities considerable distances apart which must have been practised if Jews were to marry other Jews.

Inscriptions provide evidence of individual Jews, and only occasionally of larger communities. Literature is more likely to mention a whole community or a synagogue building than an individual. If the Jews of a particular city interacted with a saint in the 6th century, the implication is that the community must have been there at least from before the end of the Western Roman Empire, since its formation later seems very unlikely. Toch (2005, 554) takes a minimalist approach, regarding many of the references to the conversion of Jews and the appearance of Jews at bishops’ funerals in Gaul as literary devices. He believes that a continuous Jewish presence from Roman times into the Middle Ages can only be assumed in Italy from Rome southwards and at a few places on the coasts of Gaul and Spain, i.e. those where inscriptions have been found. Handley (2011, 30 n.52) rejects this approach as “unhelpful”, and the Minorca episode discussed below shows that it is perfectly plausible for relatively small urban settlements to have a substantial Jewish community without any inscriptions.


The Jews of Minorca

The only evidence for a Jewish community on Minorca is the letter by Bishop Severus about the forcible conversion of 540 of them in 418 CE. As the result of the arrival of the remains of St Stephen on the island, the bishop led a violent movement against the Jews, despite the influential connections of the community’s leaders. Bachrach (1998) casts doubt on the historicity of the account, regarding it as more of a handbook on how to carry out a mass conversion: stage a provocation, stage a mock debate, burn and loot the synagogue, terrify the Jews with threats of violence (after accusations of arms-hoarding), force them to accept baptism. He accepts that there was a rich and powerful Jewish community on the island, but regards the story as implausible for precisely that reason. Bradbury, in his edition of the letter, argues that Severus’ account was written soon after the (alleged) events it describes, relying principally on the confirmation provided by Augustine, Ep.12*, and this view has been generally accepted, most recently by Ginzburg (2012, 28).2 Sudden outbreaks of hostility to Jews are well attested in many places in the same period. It is therefore unlikely that the background is fictitious, even if some degree of exaggeration about the numbers3 and influence of the Jews and their previously harmonious relations with the Christians can be suspected, just as Severus exaggerates the island’s poverty and isolation.

The Jews lived at Mahon (ancient Magona), while the island’s other town, Iamona, was a Christian stronghold where no Jews lived. According to Severus they were long-established on the island. Bradbury estimates that the town’s population was 1,000-3,000, making the Jews a substantial part of the population and possibly as much as half.4 The head of the Jewish community was Theodorus, a former defensor civitatis of Mahon (an office held in 418 by another Jew, Caecilianus) and now the town’s patronus, with exemption from curial obligations. He had an estate on Majorca too. Within the Jewish community he was pater pateron. If the term used by Severus is correct, it would indicate that the Jews of Minorca used Greek titles for their leaders, as inscriptions show was generally the case in the Western Roman Empire; this is another detail suggesting accuracy. Theodorus was one of the most influential people on the island, and this extended to his family. His brother Meletius was married to Artemisia, daughter of Litorius, a prominent political figure who was comes rei militaris in Gaul in 435-7 (Severus of Minorca, p. 35; PLRE ii, s.v. Litorius). If Litorius was not a Jew himself (which legally he could not be to hold high office at the time) this is evidence of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, and female conversion on marriage since Artemisia is said by Severus to have been one of the most tenacious adherents of Judaism. Other evidence suggests that intermarriage between Jews and Christians was familiar in both early 4th century and Visigothic Spain (Council of Elvira, canon 16; Roth 1994, 12). It is not something which would be apparent in epitaphs. Another member of the Jewish community was Innocentius, a wealthy man who had fled from the barbarian invasions of mainland Spain.

Jews were explicitly excluded from the office of defensor civitatis in 438 (Novellae Theodosianae 3.2). From 409 the defensores were expected to be men of orthodox religion chosen by leading residents including the clergy to defend the interests of the poor (Codex Justinianus 1.55.8). Evidently that regulation against the Jews was no more enforced on Minorca than the laws protecting them and their synagogues from violent assault. The collapse of Roman authority in Spain no doubt had a knock-on effect on the Balearic Islands, but militant Christians were able to ignore Roman law in other places where Roman control was much more secure. On the other hand, Jews were still treated as full citizens in the Later Western Empire and the successor states, at least in emergencies. During the siege of Gothic Arles by Franks and Burgundians in 508, a Jew allegedly tried to betray the city, but it was assumed that the Jews would play their part by defending a section of the city wall (Toch 2005, 551; Life of St Caesarius i 31).


Tortosa (ancient Dertosa)

Tortosa (ancient Dertosa) near the mouth of the River Ebro in Tarraconensis was the seat of a bishop from at least the 6th century until the Muslim conquest in 714, and it had a substantial Jewish community in the Muslim period (García Moreno 2005, 51). It has produced a small quantity of Latin epitaphs, mainly from the 2nd century CE, one of which shows an immigrant or visitor: it commemorates L. Numisius Liberalis who had served 13 years in the fleet at Ravenna, and was nat(ione) Cursican(us), i.e. a Corsican (CIL ii 798, late 2nd/early 3rd century CE). That is the only evidence for the city being at all cosmopolitan, but in common with the rest of the Spanish coast Tortosa is likely to have been affected by the strong trade links with Rome, North Africa and other provinces.

A trilingual Jewish epitaph was found in the 18th century and is now in the cathedral (JIWE i 183; Hispania Epigraphica 12 (2002), 420). It cannot be dated with any precision but is probably from the 5th or 6th century. It begins with Hebrew followed by Latin and then Greek, all within an inscribed frame.

According to Handley (2011, 106 n.16), “One of the greatest mysteries of Early Mediaeval
Jewish history is how and why a community largely speaking and writing Greek and Latin became one largely speaking and writing Hebrew”. He points out that there is almost no clear evidence of the linguistic change being caused by migration. The only epigraphic evidence of such migration is the Hebrew epitaph from Taranto of a man who seems to have originated from Melos (JIWE i 125), and there is no reason to think that Hebrew was used more around the Aegean than in Italy. The adoption of Hebrew may have been influenced by contact with the East producing what Toch (2005, 550) calls the “vocabulary and mindset of the Mesopotamian houses of Talmudic learning”, but it is very unlikely that such influence came from large numbers of migrants. Jews in the western provinces might have used Greek when they arrived, and Latin as their descendants became more integrated into local society, but turning to Hebrew was a sign of their separation, caused by or in reaction to the way they were treated with generally increasing hostility by the authorities.



It is likely that the greatest period of Jewish population movement was in the 1st and early 2nd centuries CE, caused mainly by the defeat of the three Jewish revolts and especially the Trajanic one. Some people were forced to move because of capture and enslavement, others kept their freedom but moved for economic reasons to regions which they expected to be more prosperous. Some may have joined existing Jewish settlements, in Rome and perhaps other western cities. The origin of most major western Jewish communities can probably be placed in this period, even though evidence for their existence only emerges several centuries later. Through shortdistance migration, the major communities gradually spawned smaller ones. In many respects Jews were integrated into Roman society: governed by the same laws until the 4th century, taking part in civic government, using the same languages (Latin and Greek). They were differentiated legally by paying the Jewish Tax and socially by belonging to synagogues.

Klaassen (2010-11) looks at integration under two headings: structural and identificational. The former involves socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural structures: how far migrants are integrated into the host society in, for example, employment, civic rights and language. The latter, which is usually slower, relates to migrants’ own attitudes to the host society. Using these categories, the Jews who first migrated to the western provinces appear to have experienced considerable integration of both types, which is why they are rarely visible in the evidence—although it could be argued that those who integrated least would also be invisible because they would not follow the Roman practice of leaving inscriptions. The Latin epitaph of the freedman Alucius Roscius is only identifiable as Jewish because he is labelled Iudeus (JIWE i 188, from Villamesías). Integration was limited by the institution of the synagogue and the religious and social structures which went with it. In Late Antiquity, the use of the menorah and of other Jewish symbols and of words and phrases in Hebrew marked a desire to express some non-integration by people who were not usually migrants themselves. Later still, Jews were either integrated totally into the host society through forced conversion or forcibly excluded from it through discriminatory legislation, and separated themselves by the use of Hebrew.

Integration took an extreme form with forced baptisms like those on Minorca. Where Jewish communities were not fully integrated by violence, they seem to have separated instead. The process of separation worked in two directions. The law began to impose specific disadvantages on Jews as Jews, sometimes amounting to deliberate persecution as at some points in the history of Visigothic Spain. Even when the law should have protected them, that protection might not materialise, as the Jews of Minorca discovered. At the same time the Jews seem to have separated themselves by the increasing use of Hebrew. The language change is unlikely to be due to renewed large-scale population movement (Western Europe was hardly an attractive destination to Jews in the 5th century and later), and more likely to derive from a Jewish desire to express a separate identity on their own terms. The beginnings of this can be seen in the 5th or 6th century at Tortosa with the use of Hebrew for the first time as much more than a tag attached to a Greek or Latin epitaph.”

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus


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