In many Jewish imaginations, the Roman period — from the conquest of Judea in 64 BCE to roughly the sixth century C.E. — is remembered as a time of tragedy and catastrophe. The early years of the Common Era witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple and the devastation of the Jewish populace in Israel following the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Two hundred years later, the conversion of Constantine to Christianity brought the first specifically anti-Jewish laws, including the prohibition of synagogues within city limits, and new places of worship from being built.
Yet as is demonstrated by Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics From the Late Roman Empire, an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, Jewish life had not quite entered the Dark Ages. Mosaics discovered in 1883 in Hammam-Lif, Tunisia (once part of the Roman Empire), together form the exhibit’s centerpiece. Images of dolphins, peacocks and date trees, along with other symbols typical of the late-Roman period, adorned what was once an exquisitely decorated floor. But an incongruous design was found among the images: two menorahs. Combined with Latin inscriptions referring to positions in the synagogue, the seven-pronged candelabra left no doubt that the floor belonged to a synagogue, the first unearthed from the era.
Since then, archaeologists have excavated synagogues in Turkey, Israel and even Albania that display similar iconography. These finds have shattered the preconception that Jews did not create figurative art, which had been prohibited by the rabbis.
“When we discover Jewish mosaics, we have a snapshot into a Jewish world that may be different than what we think,” said Fred Astren, director of the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University.
In fact, many scholars now believe that all peoples of the Roman Empire were drawing from a common pool of symbols and adapting them to their own specific beliefs. “Were it not for the particular symbolism of the religion, the synagogue mosaics, domestic mosaics and church mosaics would all look pretty much the same,” said Lucille Roussin, an archaeologist and cultural property lawyer in New York. The Jews may simply have been adapting to a world in which they lived.
Eric M. Meyers, a professor of Judaic studies at Duke University, believes that “since Greco-Roman culture, in the Roman period, is the dominant form which unites the Mediterranean world, Jews, in order to succeed, became at home in it.” Rather than assimilation, it was a pattern of acculturation — immersion in the dominant culture while remaining true to Jewish identity — that would be repeated by Jews throughout history.
The tiled synagogue floor is all that remains of Jewish life in Hamman-Lif, and what we know about the community must be inferred from this limited archaeological evidence. The mosaics, or “late-antique linoleum,” as Roussin calls them, provide the first clue.
“If you were wealthy, you could afford marble and the poor had plaster floors,” Roussin said, meaning it was likely that this community was someplace in between. The inscriptions on the floor were written in Latin, the least common language for Jews of the period, trailing Greek and Aramaic. This suggests a high level of comfort with the prevailing culture. The designs also speak loudly. Some scholars believe that elaborate figurative images may indicate that the communities’ interpretation of Jewish law was less strict — much like Reform Judaism today — than in places where only the geometric mosaics condoned by the rabbis are found. It is also possible that the Jews of Hammam-Lif simply had less knowledge of Jewish law coming together in Israel and in Babylonia.
Even what we know about the reach of the anti-Jewish laws might be reassessed, since this synagogue has been dated to about 500 C.E., well after the edict against new construction had been passed. From this evidence, a picture emerges of a community that was well off, if not rich, and at ease with the Greco-Roman culture dominant at the time. It is even possible that it consisted of immigrants from Rome who had followed the empire’s armies on their conquest of North Africa. So despite the loss of the Temple, the failed revolts and the antisemitic laws, Jewish life at this time was not limited to tragedy.
“There must have been moments when people felt comfortable investing in their communities. A building like this synagogue represents Jewish confidence in the future,” explained Edward Bleiberg, curator of the exhibit. “I would like people to come away from this exhibition with an understanding that there were also good times for Jews living in the Roman period.”
Benjamin Levisohn is a freelance writer and stock trader in New York.