Jewish Diaspora

During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, Jews established communities in new regions, from Antioch to Alexandria.

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Asia Minor and Other Northern Settlements

The northern diaspora arose when the Seleucids took control of Judea after 200 CE. Around 210-205, the Seleucid King Antiochus III moved several thousand Jewish soldiers and their families from Babylonia to Asia Minor. Within two centuries, large Jewish communities were to be found in Antioch and Damascus, in the Phoenician ports and in the Asia Minor cities of Sardis, Halicarnassus, Pergamum, and Ephesus.

By the turn of the Common Era, Jews lived on most of the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, such as Cyprus and Crete, in mainland Greece and Macedonia, on the shores of the Black Sea, and in the Balkans. Jewish inscriptions from the early centuries CE have been found in the Crimea and in modern Romania and Hungary.

Rome and Other Western Settlements

When the Roman presence was felt in the Near East, the growth of Jewish settlement further west ensued. By the mid-first century BCE, the Roman statesman Cicero, in his speech in defense of Flaccus, insinuates the Jews were a troublesome element among the Roman masses.

Large masses of Jews were brought to Rome as slaves by Roman generals campaigning in Judea. Ransomed by other Jews and augmented by a steady stream of voluntary migrants, they swelled the Roman-Jewish community, despite occasional government efforts, on one pretext or another, to reduce their numbers. According to satirical remarks in the Roman poets, most Roman Jews were poor and some were beggars, but there were Jewish storekeepers, craftsmen, and actors in Rome and visiting Jewish diplomats, merchants, and scholars.

In the later Roman Empire, cities in southern Italy became important Jewish centers and large settlements appeared in western North Africa and in Spain. Jewish groups were found in Gaul (modern-day France) and in the Roman garrison towns on the Rhine. A remark attributed to the Greek geographer Strabo, partly true in his time (the first century BCE), was certainly characteristic of the Roman Empire at its height: "This people has already made it way into every city, and it is not easy to find any place in the habitable world which has not received the nation and in which it has not made its power felt. (Josephus, Antiquities XIV, 115)

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).