The jews of southern italy during ancient times

According to ancient Jewish sources, southern Italy was referred to as Italyah sˇel-Yawan, literally Grecian Italy.

The patriarch Isaac had promised this prosperous land to his second born Esau-Edom (Bere’sˇit R. LXVII, 6). For centuries, since the time of the first king of Israel Jeroboam, God had prearranged Italyah sˇel-Yawan as a shelter hut for the children of Israel (bSˇabbat 56b).

The earliest settlements are found in Rome and Pozzuoli and date back to the 1st century BCE in the 1st-2nd centuries CE settlements were founded in Ostia and Porto and in the 4th-6th centuries in many sea towns and along consular roads.

Jewish presence in Apulia was so prominent and rich that most local senates (curiae) were costituted by Jews. So much so that, when in 398 the Jews attempted to escape the curial duties because of a law decreed in the eastern part of the Empire, Honorius, emperor of the western part, obliged them for the carrying out of civic duties to avoid the cities economic collapse.

Amongst the activities carried out by Jews agricoltural and commercial activities were the most important.

Most probably, who furnished the basic materials for the imperial weaving factories of Taranto and Venosa, were Jews.

As a matter of fact, the Aramaic translation ( Targum) of Ezekiel 27, 6-7, carried out in Palestine in that era, renders “textile from Apulia” and “ hyacinth and purple from the land of Italy” the original biblical text “cloths from the Kittim isles” and “blu and purple from the isles of Elisˇah”.

The largest community is that of Venosa, birthplace of the Latin poet Horace, with continuous documentation from the 4th century to the 9th century. It appears that in latter ancient times the city was largely Jewish.

The catacombs, dug in the southern side of the Maddalena hill, about a mile from the city, conveyed Greek, Latin and Hebrew epigraphs.

Next to the Jewish area there where the Christian burial-grounds.

In regards to origins of Jewish presence in Apulia and in the near Lucania medieval sources tell of thousands prisoners which Titus settled from Jerusalem at Taranto, Otranto and other towns in Apulia in 70 CE Apulia’s geographical position, facing east on the Mediterranean attracted right from the beginning of imperial times a considerable amount of Jewish merchants and craftsman.

In addition slaves from the Judaen-Roman wars were deported from the land of Israel to Apulia.

Some clues lead us to believe that a number of proselytes may have come as well from local heathens.

Photo: Acrosolium frescoed with menorah and other Jewis symbols and in the intrados, festoons and rosebuds. The paint is unique in the history of the Jews in the South Italy (Venosa, Jewisch catacombs, end of 5th century).

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