The Jews of Aquileia
Fact Paper 28
The Judaic community of Aquileia is among the many Judaic communities of substantial size and importance whose history has escaped the attention of historians.4 There are two noteworthy exceptions. Yves-Marie Duval recognized that the evident obliteration of a history is in itself proof that it existed. "There can be no doubt," she wrote after studying the voluminous writings and correspondence of St. Jerome and others, that one can abstract the existence of thousands of Jews in Aquileia and the region."5 Luila Gracco-Ruggini likewise proved to be a rare exception to the historians who have relegated the Jews to a faceless presence among the Orientali by taking note of the many oblique references to the notable Judaic influence on Christian affairs in Aquileia, and to the record of the immigration of Jews into Aquileia.6
Italian scholars of the region refer to a large proportion of the Aquileian population as Orientali, or "Easterners" and in some cases to Siriani, or "Syrians," blanket terms that include Jews. A few of these scholars did take cursory note of references to the Judaic presence in Aquileia and nearby towns in Christian literature, but none delved further into the subject.6 A considerable Judaic population is manifested by the iconographic appearance of numerous hellenized and latinized names of Levantine immigrants, but the Italian archaeologists termed the immigrants Syriani, that is from "Syro-Palestina," as the former Israel and Judah had been renamed by the Romans.7
The fact that a significant and sizable Judaic community did exist is attested, as we shall see, by the certainty that at least one, and probably several, sizeable synagogues existed. The Aquileian Judaic community appears, indeed, to have been one of the largest and most economically influential of the Diaspora, exceeded only by those of Rome and Alexandria.
There are also indications that eastern merchants were active in the area long before the Romans arrived. Aerial surveys show the existence of a pre-Roman city of which nothing is known.8 Who were the pre-Roman settlers who constructed this port and other such ports along the northern littoral of the Adriatic? The indigenous tribes were not seafaring people. The logical candidates for the establishment of a port facility are either the Greeks or the Canaanites (the so-called Phoenicians). No evidence of Greek culture has been found in the area. But there is one type of evidence found that points further east. It consists of pre-Roman, distinctly Levantine glass artifacts. They were found not only at Aquileia, but also in the graves of peoples across the Alps.
Neither the people of the region nor the Greeks were privy to the secrets of making glass or glassware at this early time.
There are two reasonable routes for the arrival of glass artifacts in that region from the Levant, across southern Russia into the Danube basin or through the Adriatic. During the Roman period evidence of the actual production of glass and glassware suddenly appeared at Aquileia and at other centers at the head of the Adriatic: Altino, Spina and Adria of the western flank and around to the east at Pola and the Istrian peninsula. The art began to spread through the Po Valley and up into central Europe when its advance was terminated by the invasion of the "barbarians" who swept in from Asia over the Dolomites and effectively brought the advance of civilization to a halt in the area.
But we are getting ahead of our story. The disastrous circumstances brought about by Attila the Hun were but the last of the traumatic experiences suffered by both the glassmaking industry of the region and the people who performed the art. The introduction and development of the art of glassmaking are peculiarly parallel to the introduction and growth of a Judaic community [see The Judaic Origins of Venetian Glass]. The decline of the industry is parallel to the decimation of the Jewish presence by Christian persecution. The disappearance of the art from the region coincides with the disappearance of the Jews from the region’s records.
It may be that the upper
Adriatic littoral was the first area of the European continent to which the art
of primary glassmaking arrived from the Levant, where it had been practiced for
two thousand years. Primary glass making is the production of glass and
glassware from raw materials rather than from previously manufactured glass in
the form of ingots or cullet (broken glass). It appears that the art may have
arrived in the region earlier or at least no later than it appeared around Rome
itself. At least, the earliest evidence extant of primary glassmaking on the
European continent comes from Aquileia. Imported glass
artifacts were also a conspicuous part of the Levantine cargos unloaded
along the five kilometers of canals that led in from the Adriatic to service
the city. Glassmakers soon followed. There is no doubt as to where these
artisans came from. The technology employed by them, and the physical characteristics
of the locally produced goods are identical to those made in and imported
from the Galilee and from Alexandria.
Imported glass artifacts were also a conspicuous part of the Levantine cargos unloaded along the five kilometers of canals that led in from the Adriatic to service the city. Glassmakers soon followed. There is no doubt as to where these artisans came from. The technology employed by them, and the physical characteristics of the locally produced goods are identical to those made in and imported from the Galilee and from Alexandria.
There do exist inscriptions that indicate a significant Judaic presence in the great Roman port from the earliest period of Roman influence, several centuries before the Christians made themselves felt in the region. Many inscriptions identify the deceased by vocation, and often specify that the deceased was either a slave or a freeman (but a foreigner). A number of the industries thus documented are those in which the Jews were dominant. The textile industry is well represented among these inscriptions, and the complexity and sophistication of the industry is delineated by the fine distinctions among the categories of the arts involved in the industry. This is true of textile materials (wool, linen and silk), and in the quality of the textiles produced. Thus, the vestiarii, the practicers of the art of garment manufacture, were composed of tenuarii (the producers of fine quality garments) and the centonarii (the producers of crude fabrics used for slave’s’s clothing and for putting out fires!). Women were part of the labor force, as exemplified by an inscription that identifies the deceased as lanifica Trosia Hilara, a weaver-tailoress of woolen clothing.
The art of dyeing textiles is represented in inscriptions about an infector (dyer) and about several purpurii (specialists in the colors ranging from purple and blue to crimson).9 The art of dyeing at the stage of development at which it was practiced in Aquileia was largely a Judaic art throughout Europe into the modern age. The capabilities of the less-developed pre-Roman indigenous population of the region were far short of the sophisticated textile operations being performed in the great Adriatic port. The large proportion of eastern immigrants in the Aquileian population leaves little doubt that the weaving and dyeing industries were conducted principally by the Jews among them.
The metal-working industry of Aquileia was likewise complex. It was separated into lead-, iron-, gold-, and silver-smithing, performed at first by imported eastern slaves. Lead was used largely for conduits; One slave left a leaden tube to be used for his headstone, on which was inscribed: Aq(uileiae) Iuvinalus f(acit) which translates to "Iuvinalus of Aquileia made this". By the Roman period, bronze and ferric metallurgy had long since spread across Europe, and therefore the fact that it was being performed in the Aquileian area does not of itself indication the ethnicity of the smiths. However, as in the case of weaving and dyeing industries, the sophisticated state of Aquileian metallurgy together with the largely hellenized or latinized names of its practicers weighs in favor of its being performed by Easterners who formed the bulk of the Aquileian industrial work force. The names of slaves are common among these industrial workers.
Two of the most intriguing of these individuals are those of glassware producers. These names are remarkable for three reasons: First of all because their vessels are among the earliest produced on the European continent. Second, because of their rarity. They are among the first few names of glassware producers appearing anywhere on earth. Third, because one of these glassmaking slaves was a woman.
Glassmaking was a mysterious art in Europe at the turn of the Common Era.10 The production of glassware was just being introduced into Rome at this early period.11 The introduction of the art into Aquileia is evidenced by the signatures molded into the vessels. Two glass vessels were found in Linz, an Austrian city of the Danube River that lies along the Roman route across the Dolomites. The vessels bear the molded name Sentia Secunda facit Aquileiae vitra, which informs us not only that the vessels was made in Aquileia but the feminine form of the producer, Sentia Secunda, marks it as being that of a woman. She was also a slave, as was another such glassmaker who proudly molded both his name and slave status into his vessels: C. Salvius Gratus. Salvius was a name which identified its owner as a slave, and which later carried on to become the proud name of many Venetian families of high status and repute.
The shards of glassware bearing the name Ennion, that of a glassware producer of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, have also turned up in the ruins of Aquileia. The hellenized name Ennion appears on some thirty extant samples of its bearer’s work. It a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Ananiah, and is the best known of the few ancient glassmakers whose names we know.12
Documentary evidence of a substantial Judaic presence comes from Christian sources. The Judaic community, and the industries in which they were dominant, both of which had flourished during the first few centuries of the Christian Era, suffered through a particularly virulent persecution in Aquileia.
Christianity was implanted into the Aquileian region early on in apostolic times before the end of the third century. St. Peter dispatched St. Mark to Aquileia from Rome, where it is presumed he wrote or translated his Gospel into Greek. St. Hermagoras was born in Aquileia and was consecrated the first bishop of Italy over a diocese that ranks next only to Rome in antiquity. By the end of the fourth century, Valerian presided in Aquileia over the bishoprics of Venetia, Istria, Nordicum, Pannonia and Como.13
The destiny of the Jews awaited the resolution of the initial struggle of the church against the pagans and the Arians, Christians who regarded Jesus as human. Chromazio, the episcopal head of the church in Aquileia, after crushing these "heretical" groups, turned his attention to the Jews. A most malevolent repression ensued, and Judaic institutions were demolished. From this period forward the presence of the Jews in Aquileia and the contribution they had made to the development of the port was methodically eradicated.
No Judaic structure survived into the fifth century, and physical traces of the Jewish presence are relegated to a few literary, inscriptural, morphological, and indirect references. The existence of at least one great synagogue is attested by a funerary inscription of the third to early-fourth-century, significantly dedicated to the daughter of the head of the elders of the synagogue. "There cannot be any doubt that in Aquileia... at least until 388, a synagogue existed,"14 unequivocally states Luila Cracco Reggini, a historian who who delved into Chromazio’s campaign against the Jews and their influence. The fact that such a synagogue existed cannot be denied, however, specifically because of a reference to it by St. Ambrose after its destruction. Christian arsonists had been accused of deliberately bringing about its destruction. Denying the allegation, Ambrose penned a letter to Emperor Theodric in December 388, characterizing the event as "an act of providence."15
Ambrose resided in Aquileia, as did St. Jerome. It is very likely that St. Jerome’s Aquileian experience led him to pen a treatise, Romano Occupato, in which he complained bitterly and resentfully that the Semitic artisans, mosaicists, and sculptors were everywhere, and that not only was retail trade in their hands, but that they also controlled the production and export of industrial products such as those made of glass, silk and leather. He cited glassmaking as one of the trades "by which the Semites had captured the Roman world."16
At Monastero, a suburb of Aquileia within sight of the Roman ruins of the city, stands a simple but substantial modern structure whose facade bears a bold inscription that proclaims it to be a "Paleo-Christian Museum." The museum is essentially a large hall housing a magnificent mosaic floor composed of a complex of geometric patterns. Some fifty of these inserts distributed throughout the mosaic floor encompass the names of its donors. Intruding upon the integral design of the floor is the stubble of the walls of a subsequent building. The crude ashlar blocks rip through the masterfully wrought mosaic patterns and through the names of the donors. It is clear that those responsible for the walls were not merely indifferent to but contemptuous of the mosaic remnants of a building that had stood on that very spot.
The mosaic floor was, despite the museum’s name, clearly that of a synagogue. The floor was complete with a dedication to the Sabbath and replete with a recurrent interwoven motif known in Italy as the Nodo di Salomone and elsewhere as "Solomon’s knot" or as "Solomon’s seal." This symbol of Solomon appears in many Judaic structures of the period, as, for example, in the Sicilian remnants of Judaic architecture to which "Jewish elements, such as the ‘Seal of Solomon’ were added."17 The sole remaining mosaic fragment of a floor of a synagogue of another vital Roman port at Ostia, is of the Solomon’s seal. Likewise, the symbol appears prominently as part of a mosaic synagogue floor found under the ruins of an eleventh century church at Vercelli, a town south of Milan.
Some fifty donors are acknowledged in separate panels as financiers of a section of the mosaic floor. The names are in Latin and Greek, but most of the names are of distinctly Hebraic character or origin. The archaeologists and historians who first viewed the names were astounded at the Hebraic origin of the names, and wrote frankly about their observations. In 1949, Giovanni Brusin noted in The Grand edifice discovered at Monastero in Aquileia, that "Both the Latin and the Greek epitaphs here in evidence make manifest their Semitic origins." Francesco Vattoni upon re-examining them in 1972, was more specific in The Judaic names in the epigraphy of the Monastero of Aquileia. F, Cassola followed a few years later in Aquileia and the Eastern Mediterranean by writing that the names are "partly composed of classic names, Greek and Latin, but are predominantly of semitic origin."18
One of these donors is registered as dedicating fifty square meters of the floor to the Sabbath. An altar table of the original structure survived. It stands in the museum bearing a label that identifies it as being "of eastern design."
Adjoining the mosaic floor in the museum is a platform on which are presented mosaic floors of small private dwellings unearthed in the immediate vicinity of the erstwhile synagogue. The mosaics of these floors are imaginatively arranged in different patterns, but each is even more densely spotted with the "Solomon’s knot" than is the floor of the synagogue. The distinctive design is a feature they all display in common. Notwithstanding the unmistakable evidence housed in the museum presented by these dwellings and the mosaic synagogue floor, the museum still insists on identifying itself and its contents as "Paleo-Christian"!
Nearby Monastero, in a separate sector of Aquileia, the elaborate floors and stumps of the walls of the sumptuous villas of the former Roman overlords lie exposed. Many of these Roman houses have been brought to light. Their floors are composed of magnificent mosaics, obviously wrought by the same skilled artisans who laid the floors of the synagogue and adjoining houses. Remarkably, they show no signs of the "Solomon’s knot" so ubiquitous to the floors of the synagogue and small houses around it.19
It is the opinion of the author that not only is the floor preserved in the so-named "Paleo-Christian Museum" of Monastero the remnant of an ancient synagogue, but that the floor of an even greater synagogue, perhaps the main synagogue of Aquileia, lies beneath the grand basilica of Aquileia. It is more likely to have been the one for whose destruction by Christian arsonists was stated by Ambrogion to have been nought but "an act of Providence."
The basilica rises above a vast and magnificent mosaic floor which had lain more than a meter below the actual floor of the basilica before its accidental discovery. It extends the entire length of the great basilica and passes below its presbytery out to an undetermined end. As in the case of the Monastero superstructure, the base of the interior columns of the basilica were implanted indiscriminately into and across the mosaic panels.20 The major feature of the design of the mosaic is a grand tripartite depiction of the story of Jonah being first swallowed by a sea monster, then being regurgitated, and finally resting thankfully and prayerfully upon terra firma.21
A campanile, or bell tower, rises majestically at a short distance from the basilica. Its base likewise thrusts crassly through another set of mosaic floors of a complex of buildings connected to that under the basilica. The mosaics of the basilica, of the bell-tower, and of the connecting structures lay buried, unchronicled and unremembered, until accidently discovered in 1962 as a consequence of repairing the floor of the basilica. The base of the bell-tower cuts across the designs of the magnificent panels with the same contemptuous disregard as do the walls at Monastero., and as do the columns of the basilica in their march across the underlying mosaics.
The design of all the floors, as at Monastero, is a configuration of multiple panels. Many contain exquisite faunal figures, others the portraits of donors, and all are interspersed with the Nodo di Salomone, "Solomon's knot."22 An imaginative floral tracery combines the vast floor into a dynamic, integral whole. Brilliant glass tiles are included in the tesserae that compose the mosaics. Glass tesserae was known to be used in mosaics only in the Near East up to this time. The brilliant renderings attest dramatically to the artistic and technical competence of the mosaicists.
The floors under the bell-tower conjoined with that of the basilica The complex of buildings thus delineated by the layout of the ancient floors is reminiscent of other such synagogue complexes, as for example, that of Duro-Europus, in which the layout of the floors and the function of the synagogue are remarkable similar to those at Aquileia.23 The additional buildings, in addition to serving as administration quarters, provided accommodation for passing Judaic pilgrims and merchants.
The area of the floor under the basilica rivals, and may prove to exceed, that of the hitherto largest synagogue of ancient time at Sardis in Anatolia. The exposed area alone measures some eight hundred square meters!
Implanted into the mosaic floor under the basilica is a dedication to Theodric, the fifth bishop of Aquileia (308- 320 CE), which evidently refers to the construction of a structure about to be built on the site. It is so crudely imposed upon the overall design that no one doubts that it was a later insertion, not even those who vehemently deny any association the mosaic floor may have had with a synagogue. It is undeniable, moreover, that the basilica was a later construction. The implant does, however, attest that the building with the mosaic floor had to have been in existence before the year 320 CE. One writer assumes that the implant was inserted by the Christian faithful well after Theodric’s death.24 The proposition that a structure of such scale and magnificence,. erected no later than the end of the third century, could have been accomplished by a Christian institution that had just been formed, an organization that was still in the throes of divorcing itself from Arianism, strains one’s credulity.
Neither the scores of panels in the floor at Monastero, nor those under the basilica, nor those under the bell-tower, nor those in the floors connecting the bell-tower to the basilica contain a single clearly identifiable Christian symbol!
A number of labored attempts have been made to relate a few of the subjects of the various mosaic panels to Christian hierology. The scene of an encounter between a rooster and a turtle is cited. Such roosters, however, are also found in both Pagan and Judaic contexts.25 An imposing figure of Victory is likewise said to indicate a Christian reference. The Victory figure, however, appears in the Judaic catacombs of Rome.26
A small mosaic panel simple figure of a young shepherd boy would appear at first to be the most credible evidence of Christian orientation, shepherding being a common metaphoric reference to Jesus. The panel, however, is placed behind a column in an inconspicuous far corner of the floor. The boy appears to be no more than 12 years old! Such an obscure location and such an inconsequential representation would hardly be relegated to the central figure of Christianity! Many other activities and occupations, rural and urban, are likewise presented in small panels. When taken in context it is clear that shepherding was merely one of such references.
The absence of Christian symbols carries over to the imported and locally produced glassware, in which only "Old Testament" religious themes are to be found. Biblical subjects are molded into a number of glassware relics. A glass plate is decorated with an incised design of "Daniel in the Lion’s Den."27 One plate features Abraham and Isaac in the foreground, and a facade of the Temple of Jerusalem appears above their heads. The depiction of the Temple is precisely the same as those in the context of Judaic iconography of the times.28 Yet it is likewise referred to as an example of "Paleo-Christian" art!28
The themes appearing in all these glass artifacts are unlikely to have been employed by a Christian. Certainly the depiction of the Jerusalem Temple facade cannot be construed as part of the roster of Christian art.
Between the buildings that once stood under the bell-tower and the basilica, lie the ruins of what was apparently a sizable, marble-lined, eight-foot diameter, octagonal bathing facility. It is clearly a mikvah, constructed, as Judaic law requires, with six steps leading down into it and fed by a conduit that led fresh, spring-flowing water into it. Archaeologists have determined that it replaced an even more ancient bath, one that undoubtedly preceded Christian presence.
Yet, both these baths are represented to have been baptismal founts!30
It should also be noted that both the Monastero and basilica mosaic floors are oriented eastward toward Jerusalem.
The baptistry, rising close to the basilica on the opposite side of the bell-tower, is likewise constructed on the ruins of a pre-existing building that the authorities agree was a "heathen" temple. It would seem that it is politically correct to recognize pagan ruins, but not Judaic ones!
All the evidence lends credence to the proposition that here in Aquileia stood the cultural and administrative center of a Judaic community of impressive size and importance.
That is not all! Underneath still another basilica at nearby Beligna di Aquileia, referred to as the "Basilica del Fondo Tullio," another mosaic floor was found that, again, is devoid of Christian identification.31 A beautiful apsoidal mosaic section was removed largely intact and is also featured in the "Paleo-Christian" museum at Monastero, Its shape, design, and execution are remarkably similar to the semi-circular section of floor laid at the foot of the seats of the elders in the synagogue at Sardis in Anatolia. They are so much alike that it seems almost possible to substitute one for the other.
No accounting of the excavation at Beligna di Aquileia is extant. It probably took place soon after 1900. It leaves us with a complete lack of information but much ground for speculation as to whether this magnificent mosaic section of a floor could be yet another of the hundreds of missing pre-Christian meeting-places of Judaic communities - that is to say - synagogues.
The barbarian invasion under Attila the Hun was no less destructive of the suffering remnant of the Judaic community of Aquileia than it was of the Christians who had suppressed them. The devastation of the area obliterated whatever traces of Judaic presence was left by the Christians. The city was destroyed in 452, and again in 552, when the citizens who had returned were driven away and the area ravished.
We are left to extrapolate the size and importance of the Judaic community of Aquileia from the remaining physical traces of Judaic presence, and from the economic and social parameters of the period. In addition, we are confronted with prejudice that persists into the present day.