Early Jewish History in Italy

By Friedenberg, Daniel M. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Early Jewish History in Italy


Friedenberg, Daniel M., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


AFTER HIS VICTORY IN THE FIRST JEWISH WAR TITUS sent back to Italy many thousands of Jewish slaves. Some went to Rome and the records also indicate a large number were shipped to the ports of Apulia (now called Puglia), the extreme southeastern region of Italy facing the Adriatic Sea. Most were soon enfranchised by previous Jewish settlers or bought their freedom, for Jewish dietary laws and their refusal to work on the Sabbath made them difficult slaves and the owners were glad to get rid of them at a reasonable price.

The records are sparse in the next two centuries though we know the great historian Josephus wrote his major works at the imperial court in Rome. In Trajan's time, 98-117 A.D., three Jews, all descendants of Herod the Great, were recorded as being Roman senators, the top echelon of Roman society. In 212 A.D. Emperor Caracalla issued the famous edict by which all free inhabitants of the Empire became Roman citizens. This was of particular importance for the Jews because it became firmly established that in legal terms the Jews of Southern Europe and those parts farther north such as Austria and South France were citizens with full rights, not "strangers" as depicted in Germanic law. Thus, in the centuries following in these areas-except Spain, where the influence of the conquering Germanic Visigoths prevailed-the Jews for the most part were conceived in less alien terms than elsewhere and were not legally considered chattel of the lords to be squeezed and then discarded at will. Most of all this was true in m edieval Italy from the fall of Rome to the thirteenth century, and to the very late fifteenth century in Sicily and parts of the extreme South before the Spanish conquerors imposed the 1492 edict in their Italian possessions. [1]

By the third century Jewish funeral inscriptions indicate definite settlements in the Southern cities of Bari, Oria, Capua, Otranto, Taranto, and above all at Venosa. These were important stops, or accessory routes, on the Via Appia, the Appian Way, the main trade route to the Eastern Mediterranean and Byzantium. The Via Appia, which linked Rome to its end in Brindisi, the main port city on the Adriatic, ran through Capua, Venosa, Taranto, and Oria, and was a catalogue of Jewish settlements. The Jews on this route formed a chain in the international trade, lived on friendly terms with the rest of the population, and suffered equally with Christians from the Saracenic and Northern invasions. Also it should be pointed out that earlier, in the first century, evidence--though more literary than epigraphic--indicates that there were extensive Jewish settlements throughout Sicily, especially at Syracuse, Palermo, Catania, Messina, and Agrigento.

Cecil Roth in his definitive study The History of the Jews of Italy points out that the Jews were fully integrated into the Italian economy. There is no evidence in these early times of moneylending. Epitaphs indicate Jewish painters, physicians, actors, poets, as well as the more lowly trades of butchers, tailors, fishermen and other crafts. There were peddlers in abundance, a Jewish trade throughout the ages. The Jews were not upper-class in Imperial Rome. Some were middle-class but the majority were poor. Women were renowned as fortune tellers; from much earlier times, going back to Babylonia, Jews were considered masters of black and white sorcery. There were also many beggars. The poet Martial complained that it was difficult to sleep in Rome because of the noise caused by Jewish peddlers and beggars. Juvenal also satirized the Jew as a beggar who lived on the streets, sleeping on a pile of hay. That they were numerous is without question because statistics indicate that Jews formed seven percent of the Roman Empire population compared, for example, with one percent of Germans when Hitler accused them of controlling Germany, or less than three percent of the present American population.

The extent of the Jewish Diaspora in those times indeed is almost unbelievable; a rather recent dig in the northern Spanish province of Aragon found Maccabbean coins. …

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