The history of the Jews in Basilicata is at least 2000 years old. This area, which is a mix of mountains and rich fertile plains, is south of Rome but north of Calabria and Apulia. Most of the Jewish communities in this area were settled in the Roman Era by Jewish merchants or by Jewish captives after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70. However, the region was mostly abandoned by the Jews by middle of the 16th century.
The most important Jewish Community was in Venosa. A group of Jews probably settled in this ancient and flourishing Roman colony long before the third century C.E., the date of the earliest Jewish inscriptions discovered there. Fifty-four epitaphs originating from a Jewish catacomb have been brought to light; they date from the third to the sixth centuries and are composed in Greek or Latin, with a few containing some Hebrew words.
In the 1970s, more inscriptions were discovered there. Another 23 epitaphs – all in Hebrew and dating to the ninth century – were found in a local cemetery. These two series of inscriptions constitute valuable source material. Apart from giving data on various individuals, the first series of epitaphs indicates that there was a well-organized community with religious office holders; there were also rabbis and apostuli (delegates of the Palestinian patriarchate or the Babylonian exilarchate). Moreover, some Jews figure as maiores and partes civitatis, i.e., as elected administrators of the town.
The later series of epitaphs belongs to a period when Venosa had greatly declined as a result of frequent devastations, particularly by the Saracens. However, the prevalence of Hebrew is proof of the revival of Hebrew learning in southern Italy. The 11th-century chronicle of Ahimaaz b. Paltiel tells of an emissary of the academy of Jerusalem who came to Venosa presumably to collect funds. He stayed there for a considerable time and used to read the Midrash and to interpret it every Sabbath while the local scholar Silano, talmudist and liturgical poet, rendered it into the vernacular.
After the conquest of the town by the Normans (1041), Venosa no longer afforded favorable ground for the cultivation of Hebrew studies.