Jews in the Roman Empire

Everyone now and then you see someone say that Jews made up 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. If you dig deeper, you find that this is based upon the Claudian Census – or, more exactly, upon something Bar Hebraeus said about that census, since we don’t actually have the census.  Bar Hebraeus was a bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church who lived between 1226 and 1286 AD.  He wrote “At the same time Claudius Caesar ordered the Jews to be counted, and their number was 6,944,000 men.”

On historical details that can be checked, Bar Hebraeus is highly inaccurate.  One more thing:  St. Jerome mentioned a report by Eusebius on Claudius’s census of Roman citizens: ” there were found to be of Roman citizens 6,944,000. ”  Interesting coincidence.

Romans routinely counted the number of Roman citizens, and that number is reasonably consistent with earlier numbers from census records that have survived.  It is not so obvious why the Romans would do a head count of Jews.

In other words, Bar Hebraeus screwed up.  Those who have  based their arguments upon him have screwed up as well.

So how many Jews were there in the Roman Empire?  What fraction were they of the population?  Nobody knows.  We have possibly-ok estimates for Rome at certain points in time.   Two comments  by Josephus  suggest 4-8 thousand – if you believe him – and one by Tacitus mentioned 4,000. That may mean adult males only: 8 thousand adult males would imply a total population of something like 40,000 in Rome.  Or maybe not.  There were certainly Jews in classical Rome, enough to sustain a number of synagogues, including a Samaritan synagogue.

Philo says that there were 1,000,000 Jews in Egypt.  Not hardly: they mostly seem to have lived in Alexandria,  where they maybe made up a third of the population -out of a total of perhaps half a million?  Our estimates of the population of Classical cities are also extremely uncertain.

In another but perhaps related vein, many confused puppies have written about the “demographic miracle” of  Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian  Commonwealth – they went from ~15,000 to about a million in three hundred years.  Explanations of this miracle have invoked Khazarian Jews – but all that you need is families that average three surviving kids.   Maybe we should start now on bullshit explanations of the rise of the Amish.  Suggestions are welcome.








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41 Responses to Jews in the Roman Empire

  1. j3morecharacters says:

    You seem to have left out densely settled Palestine/Southern Syria, North Africa and the Eastern Roman Empire.

    • gcochran says:

      There are no numbers. There were some Jews in Cyrene, but no evidence (at the time) of any further west in North Africa. As for Syria, sure, some – but there’s no evidence for how many. Anatolia and Greece? Some. Nobody knows how many.

      I left out the places for which there are no numbers , at all.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    There were a series of Jewish diasporas along with emigration from Israel, starting sometime after 800 BCE. I believe it’s fairly certain that by the first century CE there were thriving Jewish communities in cities scattered around the eastern Mediterranean from the Aegean to Alexandria, and in Greece & Rome as well. I would imagine the total number of Jewish adult males in the Roman Empire (outside Palestine) in the first century was substantially larger than 8,000. If you accept an estimate of about seven million as the total population of the Empire, it’s not unreasonable to estimate the Jewish slice of that population (both inside and outside Palestine) at something close to 10%.

  3. gcochran says:

    Of course I don’t accept an estimate of seven million for the Empire: that was for Roman citizens – like I said. In those days, males, mostly Italians. The Empire had a population of (maybe) fifty million. Only a good deal later (212) did Caracalla grant citizenship to all the freemen in the Empire.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      50 million: what are your error bars? what source lead to the point estimate?

      • gcochran says:

        The error bars must be huge. Beloch, and many of his successors, tended to think that the population of the Empire was around 50-60 million: a guess based on limited and unclear records from some provinces, archaeological data, and estimates of possible food production in those lands with the techniques of the time. Recently, estimates seem to be creeping up.

  4. David says:

    Prof. Cochran,

    Are there any particular sources you lean on for your judgments?

  5. j3morecharacters says:

    There are no numbers, true, but there are indications that the Jewish population of the Empire was considerable. For one, they felt strong enough to rebel against Rome and in the war that followed, they totally destroyed a number of legions. The Romans took so much gold that it was enough to finance very large public works in Rome, like the Colosseum. Only if your reference is to “the West” – Italia, Galia and Germany – then Jews were yet very few indeed.

    • gcochran says:

      One legion, that we know of, was largely destroyed in the Great Jewish Revolt in 66 AD : XII Fulminata. Although some legionaries escaped, and it was reconstituted.

      The Kitos War (115-117) shows that were enough Jews to cause serious trouble in Cyprus, Cyrene, and Egypt. Also in Mesopotamia, of course. That doesn’t have to be a majority, of course: I doubt if they made up as much as 10% of the population of Egypt.

      My impression, from the rainfall and other factors, is that Israel today isn’t exactly farmer heaven. I wonder what the carrying capacity of the land was back then, using the farming methods of the time. Of course I’m comparing it to where I grew up in Illinois – where 300 bushels of corn per acre is considered normal. I once estimated that the amount of grain produced by my home county (the second smallest in the the state) was about the same as the grain tribute from Egypt that sustained Rome..

      I’ve seen estimates that the population of what is now Israel in Classical times was no more than 1 million. In at the time of Great Revolt, the majority were Jews, but there were quite a few Samaritans, Syrians, and Greeks.

      • reiner Tor says:

        Professor Cochran, afaik the Middle East was much more arid back then. It became the desert we see only relatively recently, and mainly after the Arab conquest, although it was a gradual process, probably already underway in Roman times.

  6. highly_adequate says:

    Do genomic analyses importantly constrain where most Jews came from by ancestry? If they are closely related to Italians, as I gather has been determined by genomic analyses, does that imply, or at least suggest, that most Jews rose from those who lived in Italy, or at least a good proportion of them? If one assumes (whether it’s a fair assumption, I don’t know) that the amount of admixture with surrounding populations is roughly proportional to how many ancestors of Jews came from a given region, then wouldn’t Italy be the expected dominant locus of those ancestors?

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    We have to distinguish between being a Roman citizen and being a Roman subject, right?

    How many figures in the Acts of the Apostles were Roman citizens? Famously, St. Paul was a Roman citizen: does that mean it was common for Jews to be Roman citizens? Or was St. Paul more like “the exception that proves the rule” — i.e., the fact that he was famous for being a Roman citizen means that not many figures in Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles were Roman citizens?

    • georgesdelatour says:


      I seem to remember, in “Meet the Romans with Mary Beard”, he showing some Latin graffiti written in the city of Rome by Romanized Jews. Don’t know what that proves about total Jewish numbers in Rome, though.

      We now think of Judaism as a non-proselytising religion. But that’s just because, after Christianity and Islam took over the post-Roman world, they forbade Jewish proselytising.

      Richard Fletcher’s “The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism To Christianity” cites examples of initially successful Jewish proselytising in Europe which later had to be vigorously undone by the Church. Hence the laws forbidding it.

      Fletcher points out that when Barbarians were introduced to monotheism, the Jewish version of it was far easier to grasp than the Christian one. Judaism says, “look, there’s just one God, okay”. Christianity has this concept of the Trinity which even bishops have trouble explaining simply to simple folk.

      • Ziel says:

        Interesting. That certainly conflicts with New Testament’s contrasting Jesus’ universalism to the parochialism of the Jews.

      • gcochran says:

        Examples? Like? Because I’ve certainly never heard of any, in Europe.

      • georgesdelatour says:


        Sorry for not replying earlier. You could start with:

        Another quote from Fletcher (you really have to read his whole book):

        “Agobard, archbishop of Lyons from 816 to 840, wrote several pamphlets which leave one in no doubt concerning his anxieties about Jewish proselytizing among Christians… He was worried about Jewish proselytizing in southern Gaul, especially in the regions of Narbonne and his own Lyons… As he pointed out in a letter to Archbishop Nebridius of Narbonne, peasants were being seduced into Judaism as well as townspeople… Agobard’s successor at Lyons, Amolus, shared these apprehensions. In his Liber contra Judeos dedicated to King Charles the Bald he let slip the revealing fact that Christians in Lyons were attending synagogues instead of churches because the Jewish rabbis ‘prech better than our priests’. “

        • gcochran9 says:

          I knew about Bodo – but that is not an example of what you said. Jews seem never to have made an organized mission effort at any time. No non-Christian people in Europe first converted to Judaism. There was no missionary competition.

          Bodo converted to Judaism – as an individual, in a culture than had converted to Christianity long before.

      • georgesdelatour says:

        Maybe you read more into my original sentence than I intended. I was not suggesting two sets of equally strong, equally well-organised door-to-door salesmen visiting the various Barbarian pagan warrior kings, each trying to sell them a different religion. Rather, there’s a context of the Christian missionaries attack on pagan polytheism, and a relatively callow understanding of Christian doctrine among these converted Dark Age populations. In that context, some found the Jewish version of monotheism more compelling when they were introduced to it by Jews. That’s all.

        Jewish mass conversion of Barbarians did occur outside Europe, among Berber tribes and the Khazars. So conversion was something Jews did when circumstances permitted. But apart from the Khazar king, who was in the wrong place, there was no Jewish equivalent to the Pope or the Caliph. Jews were in no position to organise a general membership drive across Europe on the scale of Christianity. But individuals clearly did try and convert people.

        Fletcher finds evidence suggesting that the Visigothic persecution of Jews in the 7th century was partly driven by the fear of significant conversion to Judaism. Archbishop Julian of Toledo wrote a polemic “to convince the Christian reader of the falsity of the Jewish claims”. Fletcher argues that, “if Christians needed to be headed off from Judaism, it was surely because numbers of them were indeed drifting in that direction”.

      • Ralph Hitchens says:

        Bishops might learn from simple folk, on occasion. The one & only Me is, let’s see, a father, a husband, and a “beltway bandit” (government contractor) with language & demeanor appropriate to the role. Devout Christians have no trouble seeing God the Creator of the Stupendous Universe (thanks, Astronomy Picture of the Day!), Jesus the once and future human savior, and the Holy Spirit as that inexpressible something that moves us in charitable directions, from time to time. Some may grok one manifestation more than another, but that’s only to be expected.

      • syon says:

        georgesdelatour:”Jewish mass conversion of Barbarians did occur outside Europe, among Berber tribes and the Khazars. So conversion was something Jews did when circumstances permitted. ”

        The actual numbers of converted Khazars is a deeply contested issue…..

      • myth buster says:

        Indeed, there were quite a few Gentiles among John the Baptist’s followers, and there were a multitude of converts to Judaism alongside the born Jews when the Apostles preached on Pentecost.

  8. Greying Wanderer says:

    “Philo says that there were 1,000,000 Jews in Egypt. Not hardly: they mostly seem to have lived in Alexandria, where they maybe made up a third of the population -out of a total of perhaps half a million? Our estimates of the population of Classical cities are also extremely uncertain.”

    Unless someone was actually being paid to count e.g. Mongol kings paying a bounty for each head brought to them, i generally think knocking a zero off ancient numbers is a good rule of thumb.

  9. Greying Wanderer says:

    If think you can reasonably work backwards to some extent from the numbers involved in the various rebellions and where those rebellions were

    For locations where the numbers were enough to join the various rebellions you get
    – Judaea
    – Egypt (Alexandria?)
    – Mesopotamia (seems to be a list of cities on the silk route like Edessa and Seleucia)
    – Cyprus
    – Cyrene
    which i guess is sort of what you’d expect if you had a map of eastern med trade routes at the time and were starting from Judaea.

    And the casualties and army sizes involved (e.g. estimated 200,000 Jewish militia in the 3rd Judean revolt) may give a reasonable clue to total numbers.

    “they went from ~15,000 to about a million in three hundred years”

    I wonder if the much wider diaspora after the last revolt may have led to larger total numbers later?

  10. bob sykes says:

    As to the rapidly expanding Midwest Amish, the guy who made our kitchen cabinets is in his mid40s and has 15 children, some quite young and at home, others running their own businesses.

    The Columbus Dispatch did an analysis of Amish farms a number of years ago and concluded that although their yield per acre were substantially lower than that of conventional farms they were more profitable. No fuel, pesticide, fertilizer, machinery, fuel, electricity, hired labor or debt. Cash only. No education beyond the state mandated minimum (especially no money wasted on useless college degrees). Mutual aid (barn raising, etc.)

    Of course they are parasitic on the surrounding gentiles for materials, medicine, etc. But by Darwinian criterion of differential reproduction they seem to be superior in the current environment. Should our society collapse, theirs likely wouldn’t, although there would be losses.

    • rightsaidfred says:

      Surviving a collapse of your neighbors is not particularly noteworthy. I’d like to see the survival of an accomplished society, one with manned space travel and a superconducting supercollider.

  11. Lancaster says:

    1) Could Kosher laws have prevented many of the horrific infectious diseases of the medieval era? This could have boosted the correlation between IQ and population growth?
    2) Was Askinazi culture highly stratified? Many Jewish and English dynasties lasted for centuries (Rothschild). My handle is perhaps one that you know. English culture’s class barriers prevented the “bimbo effect” that hit the Vanderbilts. This allowed dynasties of upper class intellectuals/merchants/industrialists to last for centuries. Your thesis regarding Askinazi Jews suggests that elite families were interbreeding. This would also explain the particularly horrific genetic issues.

    • gcochran9 says:

      1) I sincerely doubt it. I doubt if kosher protected against anything other than trichinosis, and it had to decrease overall food availability. On the whole, following kosher, in itself, must have been bad for fitness.

      2). Wealthy Ashkenazi families tended to marry each other, but I have no info that suggests incredibly tight class barriers. Nor would this explain the characteristic Ashkenazi genetic diseases – while selection likely does.

      • David Z says:

        (1) I think it’s Ibn Ezra I read once (11th Century Spain) who refuted those who said kosher is healthier by looking at the non-Jews around them who are much stronger and healthier than the Jews. 🙂

        (2) Regardless of interbreeding among wealthy Jews, the Jewish genetic pool in Europe started from such a small number that the diseases are easily explained. The communities in the Middle Ages were truly SMALL and only started to grow in the 14th Century or so. And Judaism tended to reward scholarship, so the poor but intelligent boy would marry the wealthy man’/s daughter and he would support them. The Rothschild dynasty lasted like that most because they became more secular and their values changed. In a similar vein, I found it most convincing that the high IQ among Jews comes from the religion itself–people who could not afford to educate their children (or chose to spend their meager assets in other ways) and people who felt inferior due to lower IQ would drop out of the religion, at least post-Temple when the emphasis was completely on scholarship.

        • gcochran9 says:

          It’s hard to explain the current frequency of Tay-Sachs, a lethal recessive, by drift and bottlenecks. I ran a million sims with two tight bottlenecks: not once did I get or exceed the existing frequency. Nor would drift explain several different high-frequency recessive lethals in the same enzyme pathway [sphingolipid catabolism], but they exist.

  12. Withywindle says:

    1) As I recollect, all demographic numbers are unreliable during the Roman Empire. But you do have evidence of conversion among 1) the Idumeans (Herod et al); 2) Galilee (part of the Jewish dubiousness about the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was because he came from this newby-Jewish area; the complicated bit about being born in Bethlehem, house of David, is (if you are of a skeptical turn of mind) motivated by explaining away the odd Galilean-ness of Jesus; 3) the gentiles attracted to Judaism who formed a (the?) prime recruiting ground for early Christians; and 4) a great many North Africans and Spaniards descended from Phoenicians, culturally somewhat kin to the Jews, as things went in the Roman Empire. The thesis I read is that it is plausible–if not definite–to think there was a rising proportion of Jews during the course of the Roman Empire, in good part by conversion, and that the Empire might indeed have been 10% Jewish by, say 200 AD. (Or maybe just the cities were; who knows?) But the Christian proselytization had a faster curve–indeed, perhaps because it was better organized–and they won out.

    2) For the early middle ages, the prime evidence of Jewish conversion–perhaps a missionary impulse–is that the various kingdoms keep passing laws to prohibit such conversions. The argument (again plausible) is that you don’t pass laws to prohibit something which isn’t happening. A fair bit of this, however, is conversion of your slaves–Jews owned slaves (mostly pagans, I think), slaves were regarded in some sense of family, and everyone in the family was taught religion; i.e., converted to Judaism. Laws forbade that in particular, as I recollect. So aside from the Khazars, various Arab tribes, etc., there was some conversion to Judaism in Europe too. Not an overwhelming amount, I suspect, but not zero, or trivial, either. All this drying up by about 1100AD at the very latest, as Christian Europe got more organized and anti-Jewish. (First Crusade pogroms, etc.) (And if the thesis that the Azhkenazi are actually significantly descended from converts in the Caucasus is true, as I believe some genetic evidence ambiguously suggests, that adds a lot to the power of conversion in the Jewish historical narrative. Perhaps disorganized conversion, but still conversion.)

    3) Jews largely lived in cities and small towns in Poland. These are usually centers of disease–demographic sinks, until sanitation systems really start to kick in during the 19th century. It is astonishing that Jewish population grew at all in the cities and towns of Poland, much less that it grew so much. Ashkenazi Jewish genetic peculiarities might include increased resistance to typhus, etc.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There is zero evidence suggesting that Carthaginians converted to Judaism. Less than zero.

      There is no evidence that that Jewish fraction of the Empire’s population was increasing. Certainly not in Egypt, or Cyrene, or Cyprus, or Israel, after the Great Rebellion, the Kitos war, and the Bar-Kochba rebellion.

      Little towns in Poland were not that bad, demographically. Higher incomes easily explain higher Jewish fertility.

      There is certainly evidence of European genetic admixture among the Ashkenazi Jews, but I would guess that this was almost all A. early, probably in the Roman Empire and B. female. Jewish merchants, all men, arrive somewhere, pick up local wives, later impose endogamy. This happened multiple times, not just among the Ashkenazi.

      Circumcision without anesthesia hurts like anything.

      • David Z says:

        About the Jewish merchants, that always seemed the best explanation of Ethiopian “Jews” to me.

        Just generally I haven’t seen any evidence of proselytizing. Just being a good role model and being attractive to potential converts isn’t proselytizing. The laws that forbid proselytizing stem from early Roman times. They were not based on Christianity or Islam, but on the bad religious and political experiences with the Idumeans and the Samaritans. (Although in fairness to the Idumeans who were basically wiped out and left to assimilate with the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple, they joined in the revolt against Rome and were among the most loyal in that war).

        As a traditional Jew, I do not proselytize, but I attract questions, curiosity, and people who want to learn from our traditional wisdom. So I could easily see that.

  13. Withywindle says:

    There’s an interesting discussion of north African conversion to Judaism in Paul Wexler, The Non-Jewish Origins of Sephardic Jews, p. 36ff. (Not Carthaginian, strictly speaking, since that state was long gone; and I don’t believe a sense of Carthaginian identity survived the Roman conquest; although I’m willing to be corrected.) He indicates the varieties of evidence used to support the argument that there were significant conversions to Judaism, in north Africa and elsewhere, in late classical and medieval times. It seems judicious in weighing the strength of the arguments–and rather good on noting the limits of the evidence to make a firm conclusion, one way or the other. Also, Karen B. Stern, Inscribing Devotion and Death: Archaeological Evidence for Jewish Populations of North Africa looks interesting, from a Google-skim. In both of these, I gather a good part of the debate turns on how to interpret naming practices: e.g., X gravestone has Jewish iconography, but the name appears Punic; does this indicate conversion of a local, or a Jew using a local name? “No evidence of conversion” does, all in all, seem strong; “ambiguous evidence at best” seems more in line with these books’ arguments.

    Re rising Jewish population in the Roman empire: I can’t immediately find the source for what I read–although some Google-skimming does show books on the evidence that the Jewish population in Palestine proper recovered significantly in the two centuries after the Bar Kochba rebellion. I seem to remember an argument that this growth of Jewish population in the diaspora–including by conversion–was in the two centuries between Bar Kochba and Constantine. As I say, I can’t immediately find a source to support this thesis, but it doesn’t seem inherently implausible. (If the Jewish population in Palestine recovered, as some of these books indicate, why shouldn’t it also increase in the Roman Diaspora?)

    I don’t know of a study explicitly comparing life expectancy in small towns and in the countryside in early modern Europe; I would suspect it was worse in the small towns, if not as bad as in the bigger cities, on the grounds that even small towns have bad sanitation. As for incomes, by the nineteenth century, most Polish Jews were desperately poor–not least because of the rising population. I suppose “not quite as badly off as a serf,” but not very high. I think the same is true of mean and median Jews in early centuries of Poland–a few wealthy Jews, some well-off craftsmen, a great many poor. So I would be cautious about that argument as well.

    It seems to me that “conversion of one’s wives” is a rather important exception to “no conversion.” Even if it is temporary.

    Self-flagellation, hair shirts, and other forms of mortification of the flesh also seem painful; to speak nothing of the practices of the Skoptsy. Circumcision at puberty seems to have been customary in a variety of cultures around the world (many in Africa); I will write a novel about how it becomes a ritual among pagan slaves to Jews in Merovingian France, or some such.

  14. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda says:

    >>> As a traditional Jew, I do not proselytize

    There WAS NO traditional “Judaism” until about 300 AD.

    Before that was ethnic-Hebrew-ness, with a small group who fanatics for the YHWH cult. Virtually all of the Davidic-line Hebrew kings tolerated other worships in the entities; and even allowed shiksa wives to establish large organized movements around their “old-time religion”.

    Not all the fighters against the Romans were “Jews”. Many were hebrew-speaking allies. The phoenicians spoke hebrew. HEbrew is not a “Jewish” language. THe YHWH cult was a small-subset of the gigantic hebrew-speaking population.

    It’s not an accident nor a coincidence that Hiram of Tyre gave materiel and labors to the construction of Solomon’s Temple. They had a TIGHT alliance since before the days of David (Solomon’s father).

    David maintained a trade legation in Britain to assure continuing supplies of the tin he needed to smelt his natively-available copper (from Timna) into weapons-grade bronze.

  15. herbert deutsch says:

    It is difficult to analyze your assertions when you quote material without citation. Essentially when you do that you are simply making an asertion and asking people to trust you

  16. Pingback: A Troublesome Inheritance | West Hunter

  17. j says:

    Regarding the carrying capacity of Ancient Israel. The territory is not the same: the arid Negev (half of today’s Israel) was not part of it, but it included the well watered and fertile North. The Galilee included what today is South Lebanon, and the Golan, which today is divided among Israel, Southern Syria and Northern Jordan. From the air one can see the 2000 years old irrigation terraces and the villages. The population could have reached 2 million under Paci Augustiae.

  18. Johnson says:

    ” It is not so obvious why the Romans would do a head count of Jews.”

    Because they ruled the Jews, fought them, levied tax on them?

    Also, didn’t Quirinius take a census of Judea?

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