The Jews of Ostia Antica

When I sauntered last year around the almost 2,000-year-old synagogue of Ostia Antica, I tried to imagine its long-vanished ancient residents who once populated its streets, houses and apartments, taverns and baths, warehouses, shops, and temples. These astonishing ruins, today part of the archaeological park “Old Ostia,” reveal the presence of a Jewish community in a Roman settlement originally located at the mouth of the river Tiber, on the west coast of Italy, the Tyrrhenian Sea. Once, it was the principal port of Rome with great commercial importance in the Mediterranean Sea but due to changes in the river channel and the coastline, it lays now about 4 km from the sea.

Until the 1960s there was no archaeological proof that Jews lived in Ostia. Today we know that Ostia was filled with temples, churches, and a synagogue. Christians, Jews, and Rome’s traditional religions lived here simultaneously. The first systematic excavation of Ostia Antica took place in the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was conducted by Giuseppe Petrini on behalf of pope Pius VII. Sadly, classical antiquity became ultimately the fuel for fascist values and was used in racist context in Mussolini’s oratory. Ostia Antica also became part of the fascist ideology of the 1920s and 1930s with selective use of Roman antiquity.

It was in May 1961 that excavations started under the supervision of Prof. Maria Floriani Squarciapino, and in June 1961 she discovered architraves with Jewish symbols by which the building was positively identified as a synagogue. The archaeologists also found a lovely series of ceramic lamps with menorot at the site. The oldest parts of the building date to the first century CE. Being established in the second half of the first century CE, it is one of the earliest synagogues of the Diaspora.

The synagogue was placed outside the official city limits but there is no archaeological evidence to prove a Jewish Quarter existed. The synagogue stood proudly along a seaside road, the Via Severiana, across the street from a bath complex and an imperial villa, which were in use during the third century CE. With the main entrance of the synagogue noticeable from the Via Severiana. What’s most interesting is that the view of the synagogue from the land-approach would have been so completely different from the sea-approach. The building, surrounded by Umbrella pine trees, rises near the ancient seashore, giving it a highly visible presence in the urban landscape of Ostia. The synagogue was a visible part of the seaside by the early third century CE. For everyone to see.

The features that strike me most when I explore the site are the carved corbels with a menorah almost floating above my head. When you look up you will see a seven-branched menorah, a shofar, a lulav, and an etrog, which originally decorated the shrine of Ostia’s Synagogue holding the ark in which the scrolls of the Law were kept. The pillars with the menorahs that flank the Torah Shrine at the site are copies of the original pillars, while the original corbels are at the Ostia Museum.

The Torah shrine, which was reached by four steps, was constructed in the fourth century CE when the synagogue was rebuilt. When you approach the Torah shrine you will access it by facing east, towards the Temple in Jerusalem. A third century CE inscription commemorates the donation of a sacred ark on behalf of the emperor (pro salute Augusti) by Mindius Faustus. The slab, cut in two pieces, was found in the floor of the synagogue’s vestibule and in the room with the oven. This ark itself has not been found. Perhaps it was made of wood or another temporary structure, but we know it got replaced in the fourth century CE to build the current visible ark. Because of this inscription we know there was an ark before the fourth century CE.

The synagogue as we see it today is for a large part the result of fourth-century renovations. The floor became covered with mosaics and one severely damaged mosaic in the north-east corner seems to depict a chalice and a circular object which may be a loaf or a stylized crown. Scholars assume a Jewish presence in Ostia long before the synagogue was built. There might even have been more than one Jewish community at Ostia.

Apart from a group of tomb inscriptions in Greek found at Portus, there is no mention of Jews in Ostia in any Latin, Greek or Hebrew ancient literary texts. An early second century CE Latin funerary inscription, found south of Ostia, speaks of a leading member Gaius Julius Justus, receiving a piece of land  and permission from a Jewish community at Ostia to build a monument for himself and his family. Also, a fourth-century CE funerary inscription was found, naming Plotius Fortunatus, as archisynagogus (head of the congregation). Did we not know of his status we wouldn’t have identified him as a Jew because of his distinctly Roman name.

Apparently, there is a need in the fourth century CE to establish a distinctive Jewish monumental identity which continued into the fifth century CE. It was in this period that also a bima was installed at the west end of the main hall. This is precisely why archaeology matters. This building contributes to our understanding of a complex period when Jews were expelled from Rome and at the same time the Jews of Ostia participated in trade and were Romanized in many aspects. Jewish life was thriving, and the Jews participated in civic life and public benefaction.

Look around Ostia antica and you will see a typical Roman society but when you look deeper, you’ll discover this magnificent ancient synagogue built by people with extraordinary stories. These stories reveal the struggles of the Jews in the Diaspora but who managed somehow to live Jewish life to the fullest and keep Shabbat despite any perceived difficulties. The placing of the ancient menorah is a public statement of their shared Jewish identity, and it emphasized the connection with the Jewish motherland.

This community cherished their own religion by depicting traditional Jewish symbols on the corbel of the Torah shrine. The lulav and ethrog symbolize the festival of Sukkot and the shofar the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. They attached such significant importance to their community that they left us this marvelous building we can still encounter today. Sites like this give you a greater sense of Jewish community and a reminder that we are each part of something so much larger than ourselves. Especially how important it is living a Jewish life in full and the open.

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Boin, Douglas. Ostia in Late Antiquity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Nongbri, Brent. “Archival Research on the Excavation of the Synagogue at Ostia: A Preliminary Report.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 46 (2015): 366-402.

White, L. Michael. “Synagogue and Society in Imperial Ostia: Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence.” In Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome, edited by Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.

“Ostia, Harbour City of Ancient Rome” Jan Theo Bakker, director.

Runesson, Anders. “The Synagogue at Ancient Ostia: The Building and Its History from the First to the Fifth Century.” In The Synagogue of Ancient Ostia and the Jews of Rome: Interdisciplinary Studies, edited by Birger Olsson, Dieter Mitternachty, and Olof Brandt. Stockholm: Paul Astroms Forlag, 2001.

About the Author
I have had the privilege to work as a professional archaeologist on a vast number of archaeological sites in the Middle East, Sahel and North Africa. I write about Jewish history, culture and heritage, from ancient texts to modern politics.
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