A Roman convert to Judaism
What survives in the archaeological record never ceases to be a marvel. There are a few unique references to Roman women converting to Judaism—inasmuch as one can term that religion as a singular entity in antiquity—in the first century C.E. As various religions filtered throughout the Mediterranean, people began following different gods, ranging from the worship of Isis to the that of the Jewish God.
In 1592, a Flemish tourist trekking through Italy copied the unusual inscriptions he came across in the Jewish catacombs of Rome. He jotted down what he saw on the sarcophagus of one Beturia Paulina (alternatively recorded as Veturia or Beturia Paulla).1
Based on her moniker, the tomb’s inhabitant likely grew up worshiping the gods of the Roman Empire. Her epitaph was written in Greek transliterated into Latin.2 Eventually, Beturia converted before her death at the age of 86 years and six months, eventually buried in the Jewish catacombs in Rome. Thus, we can presume she lived near or around Rome and its environs during her life.
In the inscription, she’s described as having been a “proselita,” usually translated as “convert,” for 16 years. She’d been a practicing Jew for 16 years—since the age of seventy. One wonders what might have prompted the conversion. As many converts to Judaism do today, Beturia Paulina adopted a name from the Jewish tradition. The epitaph mentions her as “nominae Sara,” or “(going) by the name of Sara.” So she presumably occupied two identities: Beturia Paulina, Roman-born woman, and Sara, Jewess after adopting a new faith. How she might have navigated her daily life and negotiated with these separate selves would be an interesting discussion.
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Beturia Paulina received the title of “mater synagogarum Campi et Volumni,” or “mother of the synagogues at Campus and V/[B]olumn[i]us.” This terminology is multi-faceted. For one, it implies that the idea of the synagogue—perhaps not as evolved by this point as the Talmud might have one believe—as a gathering place for people of the Jewish faith existed throughout Italy. And networks of synagogues existed throughout Rome, creating links between communities of the faithful. “Campus,” or “field,” probably refers to the geographic location of that one center of worship, perhaps the synagogue near the Field of Mars.
Alternatively, the synagogue of Volumnius was named for an individual or family called Volumnius. What role did Volumnius play in these synagogues? Was he an active Jew, or did he just offer up places for Jews to worship? Perhaps Jews named their synagogues after Roman patrons who allowed the Jews freedom to worship and/or promoted their rights, as suggested by religious studies scholar Peter Richardson.3 Richardson cites a “synagogue of the Agrippans,” suggesting it was named after the Roman official Agrippa, who allowed Jewish rights in Asia Minor. By doing this, perhaps the Jews hoped for continued freedom of worship.
So Beturia Paulina was clearly closely associated with multiple synagogues in Rome. But what does her title, “mother of the synagogue(s),” refer to? The late historian Louis Feldman suggested that such monikers were given to women—independently of men—who gave generously to the synagogues in question.4 Influential scholar Bernadette Brooten posited that their contributions very well might have gone beyond the monetary.5 Perhaps these women worked actively in these communities as leaders. Brooten argues that these women occupied roles—whether or not they were religious—that were not merely honorific. Instead, they served important functions for worshippers and laypeople alike. The exact nature of said function is hard to know, given the paucity of surviving records by Jews from this period.
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There is ample precedence for a leader bearing the title of “mater” (mother) or “pater” (father) in ancient cults and civic organizations alike. In the second century, according to ancient historian Emily Hemelrijk of the University of Amsterdam, Empress Faustina the Younger was dubbed “mother of the army,” or “mater castrorum.”6 Across the empire, women, likely wives of prominent citizens, were called “mother(s) of the city,” an official title given to them by their towns.
Since one can only have one biological mother, Hemelrijk suggested, the woman given the title of “mater” assumes a hierarchical position, “with the ‘mother’ as the superior partner and the citizens looking up to [her].” She added, “Yet, the term also suggests proximity: the social distance between the ‘mother’ and the people of her town should not be too great for a personal, emotional relationship to be at least imaginable.” In her article “Iudeae benemerenti,” historian Serena Zabin of Carleton College posits synagogues might have offered more autonomy or leadership roles for women than some religious organizations in the Western Empire.7
In the case of Beturia Paulina, she would likely have been a woman who worked closely with religious and lay leaders in her synagogues, who not only contributed money but her time and resources to improve the lot of her fellow Jews. Perhaps she occupied a higher social status in the Roman world than other synagogue-goers—as suggested by the fact other “matres” of Roman organizations were sometimes wealthy patronesses. But she remained at the top of her synagogue hierarchy, while also caring for its affairs and its constituents.
The cultural context in which Beturia Paulina lived did allow conversion, though it was frowned upon. In Antiquities, Josephus recounts the story of a man banished from Judea for legal transgression moving to Rome, where he taught Jewish law. In that time, he and his cohorts converted several Roman women who followed the faith of the empire to Judaism. One of their converts, Fulvia—whom Josephus dubs “a woman of great dignity”—began to send tribute to the Temple in Jerusalem. But these dishonest men took the “purple and gold”—i.e., cloth and coin—for their own use. Once Fulvia’s husband, Saturninus, learned of this deception, he turned to Emperor Tiberius, who then banished Jews from Rome.
The exact nature of Tiberius’s expulsion varies from source to source. Perceived danger to imperial authority came with prominent individuals—including women, rearers of the next generation of Roman citizens—subverting the imperial faith and the subsequent fealty to the emperor and his armies. As orthopedist-cum-historian Andrew Schoenfeld notes, some Jewish men refused to serve in the army because of inability to obey the Sabbath and obey kosher law, putting them under the microscope even further.8 Despite Tiberius’s efforts, not every Jew left Rome, nor did people stop converting.
Carly Silver is a public historian, writer, and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. The former ancient and classical history expert for About.com, she has contributed to publications including Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura, History Today, Narratively, and The Atlantic, among many others. Find more of her work at CarlySilver.com.
1. Adia Konikoff, Sarcophagi from the Jewish Catacombs of Ancient Rome: A Catalogue Raisonné (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1986).
2. Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and Their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, and Jessica Dello Russo (Boston: International Catacomb Society, 2017).
3. Peter Richardson, Building Jewish in the Roman East (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press), 2004.
4. Louis H. Feldman, Studies in Hellenistic Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1996).
5. Bernadette J. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues. Brown Judaic Studies, 36.(Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982).
6. Emily Hemelrijk, “Fictive Kinship as a Metaphor for Women’s Civic Roles,” Hermes 138.4 (2010), pp. 455–469.
7. Serena Zabin, “‘Iudeae Benemerenti’: Towards a Study of Jewish Women in the Western Roman Empire,” Phoenix 50 (1996), pp. 262–282.
8. Andrew Schoenfeld, “Sons of Israel in Caesar’s Service: Jewish Soldiers in the Roman Military,” Shofar 24.3 (2006), pp. 115–126.
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