Entrepreneur Micaela Pavoncello is an art historian and a local licensed tour guide from Europe's oldest Jewish community in Rome.
She is a Roman Jew who can trace her heritage to the period when Titus conquered Judea and brought Jewish slaves to Rome.
Twenty years later, Pavoncello continues to take tourists on an incredible, spiritual and passionate 'storytelling' journey about her ancestors – the Jews of Rome.
In this brief interview, Micaela Pavoncello shares with me some of the most important highlights about her Ancient Jewish Rome tour.
Pavoncello narrates the saga of Ancient Rome in relation to the Jewish people and history, in a viable comparison between the fate of the Jewish people during the Greco-Roman Empire – at that time, strongly linked.
In ancient Rome, some of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora had already begun to reassemble. The word “diaspora”, of course, means “dispersion” or “scattering” and refers to the departure of the Jews to destinations far from their country of origin, explains Pavoncello.
The dispersion of the Israelites from their land first took place in the eighth century BCE during the Assyrian conquest, and then again during the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE. It wasn’t until the Greek era, fourth century BCE, that Jews migrated west and settled around the Mediterranean peninsula. The Jews from the Diaspora formed trade communities in Puteoli (today Puzzouli), southern Italy, and also established communities in North Africa and Asia Minor.
Scholars do not know how long the Jewish community had existed. However, we do know that the Torah (Five Books of Moses) was translated from Hebrew into Greek by the third century BCE and again in 586 BCE for the Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt, and Antioch. In addition, there were Jews who had returned from exile much earlier to their ancestral homeland, to what was known as Roman Palestine.
This would explain why these Jews spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic – the language of their Assyrian captors of centuries earlier, while the Jews of the western exile spoke the languages of Hellenism. Moreover, this is why the epigraphical inscriptions found in the Jewish catacombs in Rome, are primarily inscribed in ancient Greek. Culturally, those Jews would be considered Greco-Roman Hellenists.
The father of Hellenism, Alexander the Great, was born c. 350 BCE. His empire ended at the fall of the Roman Empire, around 150 BCE when the Romans eventually conquered Greece. From this point onwards, it is important to understand that, while Rome ruled through military might, the varied cultures and education throughout the Empire, for the most part, remained Hellenistic, what we call Greco-Roman.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the bass-reliefs of the Arch of Titus narrate, the Romans brought slaves and the treasures of the destroyed Temple, such as the gold Menorah from Judea Capta. In addition, the Roman empire was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem. The spoils from the Temple financed the greatest stone amphitheater in architectural history, the Colosseum. What can you share with us about the Jews in Ancient Rome?
According to the Book of Maccabee (1,8), Eupolemus, son of John, and Jason, son of Eleazar appeared before the Roman Senate. They were sent by the military leader who revolted against the pagan Greek rule of Israel, Judah Maccabee in 161 BCE.
It is interesting that these two ambassadors were the guests of Jews already living in the city who were businessmen and freed slaves.
Moreover, according to Philo’s Legatio 23.155, the nucleus of the Jews in Rome was made up of prisoners of war. It is from Philo’s statement that we know about the Jewish presence in Rome in the last generation of the Republic: it consisted mostly of prisoners of war who were ransomed by fellow Jews or freed by their owners, who found them to be intractable as slaves because of their insistence on following the kashrut laws and abstaining from work on the Sabbath. In addition, we have clear contemporary evidence from a famous speech delivered by Cicero in the year 59 BCE, just two years after Pompey’s triumphant return, proving that there were Jews in ancient Rome who were already a formidable element in Roman politics – demonstrating, therefore, that there was undoubtedly a solid community of Jews in Rome for some years prior who were already part of the economic and social fabric of the city.
When Pompey and Caesar were at war in 49 BCE, the Jews – not only those in Rome but also those throughout the entire Roman Empire – showed wholehearted support for Julius Caesar.
Let us recall that General Pompey was responsible for slaughtering many Jews in his assault on Jerusalem and had violated the sanctity of the Temple by entering its Holy of Holies. In addition, he enslaved many Jews and had forced Jewish nobles to march in chains behind the triumphal chariot. Pompey represented the aristocrats of the Optimates, while Julius Caesar, leader of the Populares, championed the rights of all the common people in the empire. In return for the support which he received from the Jews, Caesar returned the favor by granting many special privileges in the form of “decrees” to Jews throughout the Roman Empire. What's amazing is that the decrees were recorded by Josephus (AJ 14.10. I-8. 185-216). Julius Caesar’s edicts were called the “Magna Carta of the Jews”, and for more than three centuries, until the rule of the Christian emperors, the Jews of ancient Rome and throughout the entire Roman Empire were granted full freedom of worship.
The strict rules governing private associations called collegia were relaxed in the case of all Jews, who were allowed free assembly to worship their religion. The Jews were also granted permission to raise money for communal purposes and to send Temple tax to Jerusalem. Due to their refusal to bear arms or march on the Sabbath and their insistence on special foods in respect to their dietary laws, Julius Caesar exempted the Jews from compulsory military service. What is also very important to share is that there were special courts throughout the Roman empire, so that cases involving only Jews could be tried by a Jewish tribunal instead of the regular Roman courts.
Roman historian Suetonius tells us that masses of Roman Jews attended the funeral of Julius Caesar, who protected them.
Yes, the Roman historian Suetonius (Jul. 84.5) records how Jews from all over the Roman Empire gathered in the Roman Forum at the spot where the Altar of the Defied Julius Caesar was erected, and where the cremation of Caesar’s body had taken place.
After Caesar’s death, his edicts in favor of the Jews were renewed by senatorial decree and reaffirmed by the commanders of the Roman army in various parts of the Roman Empire (AJ 14.10. 9-26. 217-267). Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, Octavian, later became Roman ruler under the title of Emperor Augustus. Jews were granted many special privileges, which were retained and even extended under the following pagan emperors of Rome. It is known that, during the early Roman Empire, the Jewish community became a strong element in the population of ancient Rome.
Looking at the Roman Forums from the Capitoline Hill the first arch we see is dedicated to Emperor Septimus Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta in 203 CE to celebrate their victory over the Parthians, the Arabs, and the Assyrians. It is also known that, in the year 202, Emperor Septimus Severus suppressed a revolt in Judea for which the Senate of Rome accorded him a “Jewish Triumph.” However, from a closer look at the Arch, we can see that the Arch carries no depictions or embellishments that remind us of Jerusalem. Why might this be?
Its erection was intended to commemorate the Emperor’s entire life and his deeds, between the years 193-235 (Wagenaar, 246). The attitude toward the Jews was favorable. Jews were expressly made eligible to hold public office and were also exempt from any official duties if they interfered with any of their religion’s practices. The only known negative act towards the Jews by Emperor Severus was a decree forbidding conversion to either Judaism or Christianity – but it seems not to have been rigorously enforced (Spartanius, Severus 17.1).
The famous Jewish historian Philo points out that the Jews lived in a large section of the city just across the Tiber river, Transtiberinum Trastevere, and that Augustus in no way interfered with Jewish communal activities or with the collection and sending of funds for the Temple in Jerusalem (Legat. 155-7).
Emperor Augustus is deeply linked to Jewish history. Augustus granted additional privileges to the Jews. For instance, when the free distribution of grain and largesse of money to the poorer citizens fell on the Jewish Sabbath, the portion allotted to the Jews throughout the empire was reserved for them so that they could claim it the following day (Philo, Legat. 158).
In addition, the emperor Augustus is said to have further demonstrated his respect toward the Jews by adorning the Temple of Jerusalem with costly gifts and commanding that a burnt offering be made daily at the expense and personal token of his homage to the supreme God of the Jews (Legat. 157).
The focus of your tour occurs at the Arch of Titus with this topic of discussion: How are we to continue serving God and being Jewish without the Beit Hamikdash and its service? What would you like to share with us?
In the pre-70 era, when the Temple still stood, there were three different sects of Judaism. A 'sect' is a small, organized group that separates itself from a larger religious body and asserts that it alone embodies the ideals of the larger group because it alone understands God’s will.
In the Jewish Antiquities 13.5.9, 171-173, Josephus explains the three different schools of thought among the Jews, which held different opinions concerning human affairs; the first being that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes. Following the destruction of the Temple, certain priestly groups might have continued to hold some influence over some parts of the Jewish population. It was the Pharisees, according to Josephus, who maintained their loyalty to the people. They promoted allegiance to the teachings their ancestors passed down to them, and to the laws that were written in the Torah. Contemporary scholarship agrees that the Pharisees were the forebears of the rabbinic movement. In addition, “The Pharisees alone, of all the sects active before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, took over leadership, and instituted what we now call Rabbinic Judaism”.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, Jews were not easily distinguished from their pagan neighbors. The Jews did the same kind of work, built similar homes, and in many ways lived similar lives. Yet there was one important difference, Jews worshipped the one God---invisible and indivisible—at a time when most people worshipped a wide array of gods whose representations resembled animals or humans. In antiquity, the Jews’ devotion to one God was seen as strange. Monotheism was still a new idea.
On the day on which King Solomon married Pharoah Neco’s daughter, Michael (the archangel), the great prince, descended from the heaven and stuck a large reed into the sea, which gathered moisture around it, and they made it a place like a wood; and that became Rome. On the day on which Jeroboam, son of Nebat, set up two golden calves, they build two huts in Rome. As soon as they built them, they collapsed; they rebuilt them and they collapsed again. An old man there, named Abba Qolon, said to them: “If you do not bring water from the Euphrates, mix it with clay, and build (the huts) with it, they will not endure! Said they: “Who will do it?” Said he: “I will” …When he got there, he went and took water from the Euphrates. They mixed it with the clay, built the (huts), and endured. From then on it became customary to say: ‘A town without Abba Qolon is not a proper town.’ And they called (the place) ‘Rome-Babylon’.
(Shlomo Simonsohn: R. Levi, The founding of Rome, ab urbe condita, 753 BCE)