Although known since 1761, this inscription was only recently rediscovered and republished in 1999 (see Lacerenza; “L’iscrizione di Claudia Aster Hierosolymitana,” p. 303-313). It is a rare and unique source that records perhaps the earliest documentation of a Jewish woman in Roman Italy, and one who may have arrived there following the mass enslavement of Jewish citizens from Judea in the period after the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE.
The inscription, which is found on a travertine limestone stele, is dedicated to Claudia Aster by Tiberius Claudius Proculus, a freedman of the emperor (Augusti libertus). She is described as a “captive from Jerusalem” (Hi̲erosolymitana / captiva), suggesting that she must have been a prisoner of war, but that she was later freed from this enslavement, as indicated by her name, which was made up of two parts as was typical of female Roman citizens (Noy and Sorek, “Claudia Aster and Curtia Euodia,” p. 2). Heikki Solin has rightly observed, merely being a “captive” from Jerusalem does not guarantee that she was indeed of the Jewish faith, however given the proposed date of the inscription of 70-95 CE, it would appear probably that she was one of the many thousands of slaves that were brought to Italy by Vespasian and Titus, and who were paraded as prisoners in their triumph of 71 CE (Solin, “Juden und Syrer in der römischen Welt,” p. 648-649; see Josephus, Jewish War, VII.119-162 for a description of the triumph).
Although the inscription does not explicitly state that she was Jewish, as well as naming her as a former slave from Jerusalem her name does offer some further insight; the cognomen “Aster” appears to be a Latinised form of the Jewish “Esther”, which David Noy has noted was a common name among the Jews of the city of Rome (Noy and Sorek, “Claudia Aster and Curtia Euodia,” citing also nos. 91, 140, 278, 552 and 596 from volume II of Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe). Her first name, Claudia, was likely taken from that of the dedicator, Tiberius Claudius Proculus; as an ex-slave of the imperial household, his praenomen and nomen will have been derived from that of the emperor who manumitted him, in this case the emperor Claudius. Given Claudia Aster’s age at death was 25 years old (vixit XXV), and the date implied by the inscription’s dedicator’s name, it must then follow that the only war in Jerusalem from which she was taken captive was that waged by the Flavians in 70 CE. The relationship between Tiberius Claudius Proculus and Claudia Aster is unclear from the text of the inscription, but given her age and the indications suggested by her name that she was likely a freed slave too, it has been proposed that she was formerly the slave of Tiberius Claudius, who manumitted her in order to marry her; this would then explain how she had achieved freedwoman status at twenty-five, when the minimum age for manumission had been set by Augustus in the Lex Aelia Sentia at thirty (Noy and Sorek, “Claudia Aster and Curtia Euodia”). The second half of the inscription includes a plea on the part of Tiberius Claudius, that future readers of the text should take care to safeguard the monument against destruction, according to “the law” (rogo vos fac/ite p̣er legem ne quis / mihi titulum deiciat cu/ram agatis). It is possible that the “law” by which the inscription – and by extension the tomb that it marked – was to be protected referred to Jewish laws about burial rites and practices, but, as Giancarlo Lacerenza has stated, this would only be possible to infer if the inscription and tomb came from a specifically Jewish burial site (Lacerenza, “L’iscrizione di Claudia Aster Hierosolymitana,” p. 303-313; for the burial practices of Jews outside of Judea, see Noy, “Where were the Jews of the Diaspora buried?” p. 75-89). Although a Jewish community is known to have been present in Puteoli, no archaeological or inscriptional evidence has yet confirmed the presence of a separate cemetery there (Noy and Sorek, “Claudia Aster and Curtia Euodia”). The inscription therefore refers to Roman law, and particularly the rule that graves were inviolable; any disturbance, including the removal or defacing of funerary monuments, of the tomb site was against the law, which sought to protect the deceased, their funerary monument and the actual burial plot (Cicero, Laws II.21; Digest XI.7.2.5).
The reference to Jerusalem in this inscription is as striking as it is unusual; although Latin epitaphs often record the place of origin of the deceased, it is far less common to note that they came from there as a captive (Noy, Foreigners at Rome, p. 5). It may have been that Tiberius Claudius Proculus was intending to record her Jewish origins, but comparison with other Jewish epitaphs suggests that this would have been more likely to have been noted by the designation of Iudaeae (“Judean”) or even, albeit with less frequency, Hebraeae (“Hebrew”; see e.g. AE 2001, 777). David Noy and Susan Sorek have questioned whether or not the inclusion of a reference to the province of Judea would have called to mind too conspicuously, and with negative connotations, the revolts that had taken place in the years leading up to 70 CE, but it hardly seems likely to me that describing Claudia Aster as a “captive from Jerusalem” made a less obvious reference (Noy and Sorek, “Claudia Aster and Curtia Euodia”). Indeed, it may be that this statement was intended by the dedicator to remind the reader exactly of the events that had brought Claudia Aster to Italy, and perhaps to elicit some sympathy for the hardship that she had endured. Although it is no longer possible to ascertain the precise rationale for the wording of the epitaph, this inscription nonetheless provides the earliest evidence for a Jewish woman in Italy, and perhaps even gives voice to the many thousands of Jewish captives who were brought there as slaves by Vespasian and Titus.