Jewish presence in ancient Rome is believed to date from the 2nd or 1st century BC. Jews living in Rome were citizens by the end of that century, and it’s thought that by then there was a Jewish community in the city. This would have been one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world and was likely one of the first stable, diaspora communities. It’s also important to note that Jews were influential in the wider society of Rome, a position they maintained up until the late Roman period.
It’s thought that the first Jewish settlers in Rome originally came from Jewish communities in the wider Roman provinces of Judea and Syria. One likely source of the original settlers was the group of Jews that were exiled by the Babylonians around 70 BCE. This group was led by the scholar Eleazar of Modein and is often associated with the development of the synagogue in Rome.
By the 1st century BC, Jews were beginning to play an increasingly important role in wider Roman society. The richly decorated Synagogue of the Libertines, in what is now the Jewish Ghetto, dates from this period and is thought to have been built by the sect of Jews known as the Libertines. Jews were also significant in finance. The bankers Aulus Vitellius and Marcus Aemilius, both primary financiers of the Roman Republic, are known to have been willing to lend money to Jews.
Jews living in Rome at the time had some limited freedom. For example, they could run shops and businesses, own slaves, and hold funerals in public. This was in contrast to some other places within the empire, where Jews were not allowed to engage in certain public activities. This was particularly true in the more Orthodox parts of some Eastern provinces, where restrictions on public worship could be very tight.
Jews had success in Roman society in various professions, and were increasingly influential as the years went by. Jeremiah the Tarsian and his son, Jonathan-Simon, were two of the most famous Jewish scholars of the imperial age. Other Jews, such as Saul of Tarsus and Apollos of Alexandria, were influential in philosophy, science, and medicine.
At the same time, Jews were facing considerable persecution from the Roman authorities, especially during the reign of the emperor Claudius. Claudius is reported to have temporarily expelled the Jews from Rome because of their supposed “hostility toward the gods of Rome.” This was one of a number of expulsions of Jews throughout the history of the Roman Empire, as Jews were often accused of “spreading superstition” and other forms of sedition.
The Jewish community in Rome was never large until the late Roman period, when Jewish refugees from other parts of the empire started to come to Rome in large numbers. This was the first major influx of Jews into the city and the influx continued until 200 CE, when the emperor Septimius Severus declared that no more Jews were to be admitted into the city. This marked the peak of the Jewish population in Rome. By the Byzantine period, the Jewish community was less prominent, though still maintained a presence in the city.
Germanic invasions and exiled Jews
During the late Roman period, the increasingly frequent attacks of the Germanic tribes on Roman provinces meant that Rome was no longer safe for Jews. Consequently, many Jews fled to the borders of the empire, with Italy offering some refuge. It is believed that these Jews brought their own religious customs with them, which left an influence on Christian worship rituals in the region. Many of these Jews also eventually settled in North Africa and in Rome, where they continued to practice their religion.
The Jewish population in Rome continued to grow throughout the 5th and 6th centuries, as Jews from other parts of the empire continued to come to the city seeking refuge. However, the increasing hostility toward Jews within the Roman Church meant that Rome lacked the religious freedom that Jews had experienced in other parts of the empire. This was particularly so during the pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great, who instituted a number of measures to harass Jews and limit their economic activities.
The 7th century saw a renewal of the hostile attitude toward Jews in Rome, which was exacerbated by the conflict between the pope and the Byzantines. Jews were once again persecuted and suffered from extreme poverty, forcing many of them to seek refuge elsewhere in Europe. By the 11th century, the Jewish population in Rome had dwindled considerably, and almost all of the Jews had left the city by the 12th century.
The Jewish population in Rome began to regain some impetus during the 14th and 15th centuries during the period known as the Renaissance. Jews were once again allowed to settle in the city, though they were still subject to a number of restrictive laws. The religious freedom of Jews in Rome was also limited during this period, but many of the restrictions were relaxed in the 16th century during the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
The Jews of Rome began to experience increased tolerance during the 17th century under the papacy of Urban VIII. Urban VIII lifted most of the restrictions on the Jews, allowing them to practice their religion and integrate into the wider society. It was during this period that the Jews of Rome began to play a more significant role in the city’s economy, particularly in the areas of finance and banking.
Jews continued to be accepted in Rome until the end of the 18th century, when Napoleon Bonaparte issued the Decrees of Toleration. These decrees effectively ended Jewish life in Rome and many Jews were forced to flee the city. This expulsion was followed by renewed restrictions on Jewish life in the city, as the popes of the 19th century continued to restrict Jewish religious practice. It was only in the late 19th century that the Jews of Rome began to gain full rights of citizenship.
Twentieth century and beyond
The early 20th century saw a resurgence of the Jewish population in Rome, as the fascist regime of Mussolini worked to reverse the anti-Semitic policies of the previous century. The Italian Jewish population swelled during this period, as Jews living in other parts of the world sought refuge in the city. The Jewish presence in Rome also underwent a wider cultural renewal, as Jewish migrants from other parts of the world brought with them their own customs and traditions.
In recent times, the Jewish community in Rome has continued to grow. The city is currently home to over 11,000 Jews, many of whom are of Hasidic or Sephardic origin. There are several Jewish community centers, rabbinical schools, and places of worship in the city. Additionally, Jews in Rome are able to take part in a range of cultural and educational activities.
In conclusion, Jews in ancient Rome were influential in Roman society, were a major source of finance and had been present in the city since around the 2nd century BC. Jews living in Rome had some limited freedom although they faced oppression from Roman authorities. Over the centuries there were a number of Jewish expulsions from the city and restrictions on religious freedom, though in recent times the Jewish population has been allowed to grow and flourish.