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

[see The Roman Jews (1)]

A millenary presence

There’s evidence of the millenary presence of the Jews in the city. Of the over 40 imperial Rome catacombs unveiled 6 are Jewish. At the end of the catacomb period a Jewish cemetery rose around Porta Portese. We also know of at least one synagogue in Ostia antica and of several in Trastevere.

The arch of Titus is also an indirect sign of presence. The Roman generals in triumph were usually followed by the captives in fetters, although on one arch panel we see only the head of the procession – but someone says it shows also prisoners – with the riches looted in Jerusalem, among which the seven-branched menorah.

The Menorah carved on the Arch of Titus. Detail from a copy of the original arch panel. Click for larger picture and credits

By the way, where is the splendid gold menorah gone? Oh so many speculations and legends flourished! [see Lanciani at the foot of the page]

From both Josephus and the panel we guess it was brought to Rome, then possibly kept in the Temple of Peace until the Vandals stole it in 455 AD.

One legend is told by Giggi Zanazzo (1860 -1911), our source on Roman culture written in the Roman dialect (full text):

“The candelabrum we see carved under the arch of Titus was all in gold and was brought by the ancient Romans to Rome from Jerusalem, when this city was sacked and burned by them. It is said some turmoil occurred and they came to blows when someone tried to steal it. Since they happened to pass over the Quattro Capi bridge [pons Fabricius – see below – the most ancient bridge surviving, built in 62 BC] it was thrown into the river so nobody had it and the water now is enjoying it.”

Pons Fabricius, also called Quattro Capi, is the most ancient bridge in Rome (62 BC.) It connects the Tiber Island with the Jewish ghetto. Click for credits

It was said that under Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) the Jews asked permission to drain the river at their own expense, but the Pope refused fearing that stirring up the mud would generate the plague [Lanciani.]

Did the Jews live so long with the Romans that some paganism brushed on them? Zanazzo writes that the Holy Mary was evoked in ways that remind me of Juno Lucina, the Roman goddess of childbirth:

“When the Jewish women are about to give birth, during the hardest labour pains, in order for their childbirth to be successful, they ask our Madonna for help. When all is finished quickly and well they get a broom and sweep the floor saying: “Fora, Maria de li Cristiani (out, Mary of the Christians).”

4th century AD. The Tiber Island with pons Fabricius leading to the left bank and the D-shaped theatre of Marcellus. Behind, Porticus Octaviae big rectangle

From the right to the left bank

Since they had arrived to Rome the Jews had mainly lived on the right bank of the Tiber, in the Transtiberine district, where the harbour was.

After Christianity split into Protestants and Catholics (from the 16th century on) and an epoch of religious fanaticism began, the Jews were forced to settle down on the left river side, in a district called rione S. Angelo [see above the area at the times of emperor Constantine; see below as it is today.]

On the 14th of July 1555 Pope Paul IV issued a Bull that cancelled all the rights of the Jews and segregated them in a walled area, il Serraglio delli Hebrei, as it was called (i.e. the ghetto,) an unhealthy place subject to floods and too small for its inhabitants.

The Fabricius bridge leading from the Tiber island to left bank and the ghetto (rione S. Angelo) with its synagogue. Click for credits and larger pict

The ghetto: ‘Condemned for their fault’

Heavy gates were kept open only from sunrise till sunset.

The Bull Cum nimis absurdum took its name from its first words. It decreed that the Jews had to be separated from the rest ‘through their own fault’ [Latin, propria culpa]:

“Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault [e.g. having caused the death of Christ] were condemned by God to eternal slavery, have access to our society and even may live among us […] we ordain that for the rest of time […] all Jews are to live in only one [quarter] to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit.”

The Bull encouraged the creation of walled ghettos in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

More than 3 centuries later part of the Roman ghetto was demolished after Italy’s unity in 1870. Among the disappeared places was via Rua, where the most prominent Jewish families lived.

Well, if this was a sort of main street, one has an idea of the poverty of the entire place! Look at this watercolour by Ettore Roesler Franz (ca 1880 .)

Tormented cohabitation

The Jewish obstinacy in keeping their own traditions increased the mistrust of the Christians. Constrained since centuries to be second rate traders, they were additionally impoverished by segregation, which added to the idea that God had punished them. All this favoured humiliation and violence.

“The men had to wear a yellow cloth (the “sciamanno”)- we read in the Wiki – and the women a yellow veil (the same colour worn by prostitutes). During the feasts they had to amuse the Christians, competing in humiliating games. They had to run naked, with a rope around the neck, or with their legs closed into sacks. […] Every Saturday, the Jewish community was forced to hear compulsory sermons in front of the small church of San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi, just outside the wall.”

We have to say that strictness in Rome was always tempered by the laxity and good-nature of its inhabitants. The yellow colour often became indistinguishable, some covert movements were possible, hate or mistrust were not seldom replaced by warm solidarity. Moreover the Roman people, popes included, needed the arts of the Jews – the astrology & medicine they had learned from the Arabs, and their trade skills.

There were never pogroms in the city, like elsewhere in Europe. And never the Jews from here were tempted by another diaspora.

In short, they were tolerated. So they remained in Rome.

The Roman Jewish ghetto in October 2004. Click to enlarge and for credits

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Note. For an in-depth analysis of the Jews’ presence in ancient Rome see the 6th chapter from the splendid Rodolfo Lanciani’s New Tales Of Old Rome (1901) [full text].

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See the previous installment:

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

See also:

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

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?