The Roman Jews (1). Are They the Most Ancient Romans Surviving?

An image of the Roman Ghetto. Giggetto restaurant and Augustus' Porticus Octaviae behind
An image of the Roman Ghetto. The famous Giggetto restaurant on the left with Augustus’ Porticus Octaviae in the background

“Who’s more Roman than the Roman Jews? Some of us date back from the times of Emperor Titus [39-81 AD]” – Davide Limentani told me in the early 80s.

Limentani was (and perhaps still is) at the head of a big wholesale and retail glass and silver company in Rome. I had phoned him three days earlier for an interview that had to be published on the Roman daily La Repubblica.

Ditta LimentaniI remember a lovely spring day in the old alleys of the Roman Ghetto, with swallows crying over a glorious blue sky. He was sitting at his desk in the aisle of an impressively ramified, catacomb-like store in via Portico d’Ottavia 47 (look at its stripped-down sign above,) crammed with an immense variety of crystal, pottery, silver, china, pewter, anything one can think of – his swift and bright eyes looking in every direction.

The firm had / has among its clients popes, cardinals, celebrities and governments, including the White House. Davide is descendant of Leone, who in 1820 started the most ancient wholesale glassware store in Rome which still bears his name: Leone Limentani – 1820 Roma.

“Leone er cocciaro” [coccio = fragment]: that’s how they called him” Davide said smiling. “He had in fact started with glass junk and had accumulated a big credit with the S. Paolo Glass-works, whose effigy was on every glass – the old Roman bibitari [sellers of drinks] remember it well. The S. Paolo Glass-works were having difficulties because of some faulty articles, and, since a 1514 papal edict allowed the Jews to trade only in commodities “of secondary importance” Leone exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!” so he bought out the second rate articles from the S. Paolo thus laying the foundation of his new activity.”

An image of the Ghetto. Courtesy of Hidesideofrome. Click for source

“The Roman Jews are almost 20,000” Davide continued “and only at the Portico of Octavia they live in a community. A love-hate relationship with the ghetto, they have” he confessed handing some pictures of his family to me. When the Piedmontese [who unified Italy 150 years ago] opened the Ghetto’s doors in 1870 many Jews left with the desire of forgetting all they had suffered here. But they soon came back because the rione Sant’Angelo represents all their roots. In the summer evenings the elderly sit in the open air and speak a vernacular almost dantesco, dantesque, in its character: ‘Guarda che vituperio!’ [ = ‘watch all this vituperation!’.]”

The Arch of Titus. Click for credits and larger picture
The Arch of Titus, with the panel depicting the spoils from the temple of Jerusalem. Click for credits and larger pict

They Never Passed Under the Arch of Titus

Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally the Roman Jews never passed under the arch of Titus. There’s a reason. This ‘delight of the human kind’, as the historian Suetonius called him, didn’t turn such a delight to the Jews, who saw Jerusalem sacked and its temple destroyed by Titus’ armies in 70 AD. Domitian, Titus’ younger brother, built the arch to commemorate the victory and on one side panel of it [see the image above,] carved in Pentelic marble, we see the spoils of the temple during the triumphal procession in Rome.

The first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 AD), this is how historians call it, saw many Jews die (Josephus claims 1,100,000 during the siege) which greatly intensified the Jewish diaspora all over the Mediterranean.

From that war we know that a group of Jews ended their lives as gladiators in the circus at Caesarea, the Roman stronghold in Palestine. Others died in the Sardinian or Spanish mines. A large number though were brought to Rome.

Menorah

Now it turns the Romans needed labour to build the Colosseum. So the stones of the most famous Roman monument were wetted by the sweat of many slaves among which were the Jews captured by Titus. This group had been though greeted by an already flourishing Jewish community – merchants, freedmen and slaves – who had come to Rome 130 years earlier together with Pompey the Great at the end of his wars in the East.

Today’s Roman Jews seem to be the descendants of these two Jewish settlements in Rome – and of others arriving I don’t know when and where from.

Therefore what Davide Limentani said is probably true: the Roman Jews are the most ancient Romans surviving. The origin of their roman-ness appears to be prior to the Flavian era. Actually “Jews have lived in Rome for over 2,000 years, longer than any other European city” (!) [Jewish Encyclopedia.]

Triumph of Titus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885). Click for larger picture
Triumph of Titus by Sir  Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885), a Dutch painter active in Victorian Britain. Wikimedia. Click for a larger picture

Not the place here to discuss the reasons of the clash between the Romans and the Jews, which gave birth to many wars and ended up with the Jews leaving Palestine. As for the Roman Jews, we know that they had been treated benevolently by Julius Caesar who had also exonerated them from any tax during their sabbatical year. From Suetonius we know that at Caesar’s death the Jews in Rome flocked to his funeral with big lamentations, and it is even possible that some of them identified Caesar with the Messiah” (read livius.org on this, note 6.)

During the Middle Ages the life of the Roman Hebrews had its ups and downs but basically was not too bad. When though in 1517 Luther nailed the 95 theses that will split Western Christianity into Protestants and Catholics, a dark epoch of religious wars and fanaticism began.

On the 14th of July 1555 Pope Paul IV promulgated a Bull where all the rights of the Jewish community were cancelled and the Jewish Ghetto was walled and provided with gates.

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See part 2:

The Roman Jews (2). ‘Segregated In The Ghetto Because Of Their Own Guilt’

Related posts:

A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (1) The Roman Jews
A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving?

Krishnamurti on Love and Hate

I like the gentle touch of many Indian thinkers. I also like their profundity. We need both nowadays and we need more than ever different paths to love.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian philosopher and writer (1895–1986)
Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian philosopher and writer (1895–1986)

“It is easy to hate, and hate brings people together after a fashion; it creates all kinds of fantasies, it brings about various types of co-operation, as in war. But love is much more difficult. You cannot learn how to love, but what you can do is to observe hate and put it gently aside. Don’t battle against hate, don’t say how terrible it is to hate people, but see hate for what it is and let it drop away; brush it aside, it is not important. What is important is not to let hate take root in your mind. Do you understand? Your mind is like rich soil, and if given sufficient time any problem that comes along takes root like a weed, and then you have the trouble of pulling it out; but if you do not give the problem sufficient time to take root, then it has no place to grow and it will wither away. If you encourage hate, give it time to take root, to grow, to mature, it becomes an enormous problem. But if each time hate arises you let it go by, then you will find that your mind becomes very sensitive without being sentimental; therefore it will know love.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

[I met J. Krishnamurti at Café Philos, a good Internet café where Paul Sunstone – living “along the Front Range of the Rockies, near Cheyenne Mountain” – stirs discussions on philosophy and other thought-provoking stuff]

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PS
As a digression, I wonder why media today pander so much to the basest emotions of the public, thus favouring them to ‘take root’. Panem et circenses? An intrinsic flaw of capitalism?  – the list could be long. A cui bono serious analysis here would be needed, though it could lead nowhere, societies being complex. For a discussion around this see the links below.

Related posts:

Keep Violence in the Mind
Western Values, Again (1)

I also found a very interesting [Australian] post on the subject of how we accustom our children to virtual murder and crime via media and computer games:

Crime: Who’s to Blame?

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)

Al Pacino as Mike Corleone in Godfather part II
Al Pacino as Mike Corleone in Godfather part II. Click for credits

The theme of the Mafia has come out in many discussions. While reading up on it I was surprised how well the Mafia seems to fit into the topics of this blog.

Here just a few notes freely based 1) on the book Padrini, by Roberto Olla, Mondadori 2003, Milano [translated into English with the title Godfathers], and 2) on the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Men of Respect, Intelligent and Cynical

The word “Don” is used in Italian when referring to a priest or to an aristocrat. A godfather is in fact a man of respect. He is an aristocrat of crime, a prince of evil, no matter his appearance or his clothes – this may be one reason why Hollywood movie-goers have found the Mafiosi so attractive.

One common mistake – argues Roberto Olla – is in fact that of considering the Mafiosi as simple gunmen to defeat. Don Vito Cascio Ferro had no guns. He was one of the first godfathers who operated both in Sicily and in the United States. His force lay in his cynicism and intelligence and in the network he was able to create thanks to well ingrained traditions. He distributed favori, favours, to everybody, but something was asked in return.

In short, mafia had/has history. How a Mafia network was / is built is well expressed by Mario Puzo in The Godfather:

“Don Vito Corleone [Puzo’s fictitious character] was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promise (…) Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man’s troubles to his heart (…) His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of “Don” (…) some humble gift – a gallon of home-made wine etc.
It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”

This network implied protection, various forms of exchange but also ruthless exploitation (for example the pizzo or protection money one could not escape).

Sicily, a photograph from the Nasa Multimedia Gallery
Sicily, a photograph from the Nasa Multimedia Gallery

Long centuries of oppression or absence of the state had favoured in Sicily a kind of anti-state or alternative organization. The American police officers and the ‘nordic’ Italian state found themselves unprepared – Olla continues.

Focusing on America, “the US policemen were searching in the underworld. But it was in the upper world that they should have searched. They should have searched among the ‘similar’ and not the ‘unlike’, since those men came from an ancient culture.”

How to Face Aliens From an Ancient World?

Let us try to better understand. America at that time – Olla observes – distinguished between the good guys and the bad guys, and reacted severely to the latter. When though meeting the ‘men of respect’ the US found themselves facing unheard-of souls. They were unprepared when fighting these mafiosi who were too similar to the people from the upper world. It was not a matter of jacket and tie or of wearing a social mask.

“It was a blend of morality and immorality which produced people able to commit the most ferocious crimes and, at the same time, to show respect for religion. People capable to plan a massacre while in everyday life they defended the good principles and healthy traditions.”

An unheard-of humanity? Well, my readers know well what I mean: we are dealing here in my opinion with alien moral codes stemming from pre-Christian, Greco-Roman antiquity, something more or less unknown to [more truly Christian] northern Europe where the American culture mostly came from.

The mafioso had to be seen – as  Giovanni Falcone, a famous Sicilian magistrate killed by the mafia in 1992, once said – like the old sage who administered justice sitting under the big oak tree in the name of a non-existent state.

The Irish had no Chance

“Morality and immorality, respect and abuse, honour and violence.” When the Italian and the Irish organized crime faced each other in the American ports [Olla, again], the latter didn’t have any chance, regardless of the many advantages the Irish had had – they had migrated earlier, they spoke the language, and some of them were perfectly integrated: Irish crime had to face a more ancient and mysterious culture.

Surprise attacks, great speed and extreme determination in their raids – behind the big godfathers I remember Mario Puzo flashing the shadow of the Roman emperors [imperatores], with their ruthlessness and organization. It is exaggerated, but certainly the Mafia the Americans had to fight had already in its genes some formidable military qualities, among the rest.

Different from the Irish is the case of the Jewish criminals, some of which (like Meyer Lansky associated with Lucky Luciano) well integrated themselves into the Italian Mafia (due to their common Mediterranean origins? It is tempting to think so.)

Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police officer and pioneer in the fight against Mafia
Joseph Petrosino, a New York City police officer, pioneer in the fight against the Mafia (1860 – 1909)

It is not by chance that the first serious blows to the Mafia were given by Italians, like the police officer Joe Petrosino and many others, who were able to understand the intricacies of the Italian mind.

Related posts and blog themes:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)
A Cultural Battle
The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

October 3. Demonstration Held in Rome to Defend Media Freedom

Freedom of Press in danger in Italy

Tomorrow “October 3rd a demonstration will be held in Rome [3:30 pm, piazza del Popolo] to defend media freedom—not in a remote dictatorship, but in Italy itself. Journalists who have called the protest have good reason to worry. In Freedom House’s 2009 survey of media independence, Italy was downgraded to ‘partly free’ and placed 73rd in a list of 195 countries (only just above Bulgaria.) In this respect, at least, Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy is distancing itself from western Europe and becoming more like weaker democracies farther east.” [The Economist, Muzzling the messengers, Oct 1st 2009, Rome]

The British weekly paper thus concludes:

“Not since Mussolini’s time has an Italian government’s interference with the media been more blatant or alarming. Journalists, and other Italians, have every reason to protest.”

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Additional Info

An article on this demonstration written by Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, is published concurrently by The (London) Times, Die Zeit, El Pais and Le Figaro.

Here some basic information about Berlusconi’s power over the Italian media, plus a recent collection of international articles regarding Silvio Berlusconi.

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You can also read from our blog:

Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline?

Silvestri, Berlusconi and the Emperor Tiberius