Greek-speaking Jews have lived in the Hellenistic kingdoms of antiquity, later throughout the (Eastern) Roman/Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the subsequent nation states that emerged in those territories.

The conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE ushered in the Hellenistic period, marked by the spread of Greek culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Like many other inhabitants of this vast area, Jews also adopted Greek culture and language, while at the same time maintaining their distinct Jewish identity. The largest diaspora community at the time was the Jewish community in Egypt, mainly living in Alexandria, a major centre of Hellenism. The Alexandrine community soon spoke primarily Greek, and it was therefore in this community that the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek. It was also in Hellenized diaspora communities that the synagogue first emerged, then called proseuche. While synagogues were also places of worship, their main functions were those of community centres.

In the wake of the Roman conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean a series Jewish revolts in Judea was suppressed by the Roman Empire. As a result, the religious centre of Judaism, the Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed. Jewish life in other centres in the Roman province Judea and in the Diaspora thrived, however, and in the early 3rd century CE Jews received Roman citizenship, which gave them certain legal and religious rights. These rights were later limited under Byzantine rule. For example, Jews were excluded from public office, had to pay a special tax and occasionally faced legal persecution and some attempts at forced conversion.

Overall, Jewish life under the Byzantines was fairly secure compared to the aftermath of the conquest of Constantinople by Western crusaders in 1204. In the so-called Latin Empire and other crusader states established in former Byzantine territory, Jews faced persecution, expropriations and forced conversions. The reestablishment of Byzantine rule in some of its former territory ended these policies. Since the 4th Crusade, however, the Byzantine Empire was severely weakened and was eventually conquered by the Ottomans.

When Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II allowed Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to take refuge in his realm after 1492, the Romaniote Jews were eventually relegated to the periphery or were completely absorbed into the larger communities of the incoming Sephardim who established their own community structures. The unique customs and traditions of the Romaniote Jews remained in smaller communities, but they were considerably influenced by the Sephardim.

During the Holocaust several smaller communities were completely destroyed, and today small Romaniote communities remain in places like Ioannina, Chalkida and Volos.

Photo 1: © The Jewish Museum of Greece

Photo 2
Source: public domain

Photo 3
Source: public domain

Photo 4
Source: public domain

Chrysoula Treveza with her sister Anna in carnival costumes

Section from a manuscript of the Septuagint/Targum haShivim

Detail of Roman Arch of Titus showing the spoils of the Jerusalem Temple

Byzantine depiction of a meeting between Rabbis and Alexander the Great, 14th century

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