At the beginning of the first century of the Christian era the Jewish colony in Rome had attained large dimensions. As early as B.C. 162 we hear of agreements—we can scarcely call them treaties—concluded between the Jews under the Maccabean dynasty and the Republic. After the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey, B.C. 63, a number more of Jewish exiles swelled the number of the chosen people who had settled in the capital. Cicero when pleading for Flaccus, who was their enemy, publicly alludes to their numbers and influence. Their ranks were still further recruited in B.C. 51, when a lieutenant of Crassus brought some thousands of Jewish prisoners to Rome. During the civil wars, Julius Cæsar showed marked favour to the chosen people. After his murder they were prominent among those who mourned him.
Augustus continued the policy of Julius Cæsar, and showed them much favour; their influence in Roman society during the earlier years of the Empire seems to have been considerable. They are mentioned by the great poets who flourished in the Augustan age. The Jewish Sabbath is especially alluded to by Roman writers as positively becoming a fashionable observance in the capital.
A few distinguished families, who really possessed little of the Hebrew character and nationality beyond the name, such as the Herods, adopted the manners and ways of life of the Roman patrician families; but as a rule the Jews in foreign lands preferred the obscurity to which the reputation of poverty condemned them. Some of them were doubtless possessors of wealth, but they carefully concealed it; the majority, however, were poor, and they even gloried in their poverty; they haunted the lowest and poorest quarters of the great city. Restlessly industrious, they made their livelihood, many of them, out of the most worthless objects of merchandise; but they obtained in the famous capital a curious celebrity. There was something peculiar in this strange people at once attractive and repellent. The French writer Allard, in the exhaustive and striking volumes in which he tells the story of the persecutions in his own novel and brilliant way, epigrammatically writes of the Jew in the golden age of Augustus as “one who was known to pray and to pore over his holy national literature in Rome which never prayed and which possessed no religious books” (“Il prie et il étudie ses livres saintes, dans Rome qui n’a pas de théologie et qui ne prie pas”).
They lived their solitary life alone in the midst of the crowded city—by themselves in life, by themselves, too, in death; for they possessed their own cemeteries in the suburbs,—catacombs we now term them,—strange God’s acres where they buried, for they never burned, their dead, carefully avoiding the practice of cremation, a practice then generally in vogue in pagan Rome. Upon these Jewish cemeteries the Christians, as they increased in numbers, largely modelled those vast cities of the dead of which we shall speak presently.
They watched over and tenderly succoured their own poor and needy, the widow and the orphan; on the whole living pure self-denying lives, chiefly disfigured by the restless spirit, which ever dwelt in the Jewish race, of greed and avarice. They were happy, however, in their own way, living on the sacred memories of a glorious past, believing with an intense belief that they were still, as in the glorious days of David and Solomon, the people beloved of God—and that ever beneath them, in spite of their many confessed backslidings, were the Everlasting Arms; trusting, with a faith which never paled or faltered, that the day would surely come when out of their own people a mighty Deliverer would arise, who would restore them to their loved sacred city and country; would invest His own, His chosen nation, with a glory and power grander, greater than the world had ever seen.