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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.

ψ

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?

About Man of Roma

I am a man from Rome, Italy. I’m 60 and a Roman since many generations. In my blog, manofroma.wordpress.com, I’m writing down my meditations. The idea behind it all is that something 'ancient' is still alive in the true Romans of today, of which few are left.

28 responses »

  1. Interesting. But the picture at the top reminded me of my few fabulous days in Rome this summer and our meal at Giggetto’s. Wonderful memories with such a dear, dear friend.

    Thanks MoR.

    Reply
  2. This is such an incredible post. Two of the things I’m most interested in are the history of Rome and the history of the Jewish people.

    Reply
  3. Thanks – this is very interesting! Another reason to return to your city! But I don’t understand why you say the Jews are the most ancient Romans. What about non-Jews whose families have been in Rome just as long? Or are there none, what with migration, free movement, and the currents of history? Are you saying that the ghetto and the social restrictions on Jews kept their community intact all that time while others dissolved? THAT would be quite an irony!

    I spent a week or two in Cochin, in Kerala India (I don’t know its new name) and there was a Jewish community there that dates from about the time of the Diaspora. (Doing my duty to visit monuments to ‘my people,’ I visited an old cemetery where I was very badly bitten by a dog! No rabies, thanks be to the gods.) I wonder if the Jews there are more Keralan than the Indians!

    An amusing story from my visit: I wanted to visit a Hindu temple with my friend. The Brahmin at the entrance stopped us and asked our caste so to write it in his visitors log book. We said, “We have no caste.”
    “Everyone has caste. Where are you from?”
    “America”
    “America is not caste.
    “We’re Jews, Jewish caste!”
    “Jews? What is Jewish caste?”
    I was nonplussed, but my friend blurted out, “We follow the prophet Moses!”
    “Ah, Jewish caste – you may enter,” he said as he recorded the information.

    Reply
  4. @Lichanos

    I liked your Indian anecdote.

    I wonder if the Jews there are more Keralan than the Indians!

    That I really cannot tell!

    Now, to your question. It helped my reflection a lot. Thank you, man (and pls pardon this long reply)

    ===

    But I don’t understand why you say the Jews are the most ancient Romans. What about non-Jews whose families have been in Rome just as long? Or are there none, what with migration, free movement, and the currents of history? Are you saying that the ghetto and the social restrictions on Jews kept their community intact all that time while others dissolved? THAT would be quite an irony!

    Yes, the ghetto, the social restrictions and the tenacious interrelation ethnicity / religion / nationality – typical of the Jews – helped them to remain sort of intact compared to other Romans, I believe [see below the ethnicity thing.]

    Are they Roman, Jewish or both?

    Both in my view. And their Roman side is very ancient, there’s a lot of evidence: their cooking, their behaviours, their vernacular sooo Roman to our ears [apart from a few Jewish-related terms].

    I mean, why shouldn’t they be Roman? After living in Rome and beholding the Tiber for 2,000 years …

    Ironic? Roman-ness has nothing to do with an ethnic group. It’s cultural transmission, like at the (multi-ethnic) times of the Empire.

    I’ll try to explain this roman-ness concept the way I see it.

    a) Being Roman in antiquity meant an ethnic thing only in early Republican times. With the late Republic and the Empire “Rome” and its territories became a huge melting pot, more or less like America today – Pompey had Celtic blood and Cato the younger had a slave among his ancestors.

    Very strong cultural traits [one can check 'Romanitas' in any history manual] were transmitted to Berbers, Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Gauls, Spaniards, South and West Germans, Romanians etc. Even the class of the emperors was multi-ethnic, and polytheism made every creed and religion accepted. Focusing on Rome only, it was additionally populated by so many slaves coming from anywhere that it is foolish to think in terms of a Roman “race” surviving today.

    b) As for Romanness today, I clearly sense connections between an ancient Roman and a Roman of today.

    The ancient Roman populace progressively lost its simplicity, temperance and character. Even the poor were proud of living in Rome (the Jews were among the poor) and had ‘panem et circenses’ without any merit.

    Privileged and spoiled compared to other folks they became bit by bit crass, indolent, cynical, braggart, blasphemous, with a couldn’t-care-less attitude towards everything.

    They nonetheless retained bits of magnanimity, of a sense of universalism, and a good nature and compassion that came from the ancient Romans (yes, the Romans were compassionate and had a good nature).

    Their vulgar Latin turned little by little into this loose modern dialect that is either loved unconditionally or hated in this country, and which can be terribly concise, ironic, abrupt. The true Roman – a species dying out – doesn’t speak so much, he is ironic, full of humour, and can knock you out with very few words, like my grandmother Calcagni could do (and did).

    We are all sons of the base empire a bit! But in our decadence there’s vitality and toughness – some old Romans look like lions and jump off the Tiber bridges even in their 70s.

    The Roman verve is well depicted in *Carlo Calcagni’s memoirs*.

    And, when Leone Limentani the Jew exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!”- it is a typically Roman (more than Jewish) scene.

    Reply
  5. Ironic? Roman-ness has nothing to do with an ethnic group.

    Touché! The stereotype inverted! I was thinking it was ironic because Jews are usually thought of as the “other – not us” group, so it seemed ironic that they would be the most Roman. But your sensible reply makes it an irony squared, and so NOT ironic! Of course the Jews are the most Roman, stands to reason given their history there…

    Your description of the typical Roman dialect was interesting and amusing. Similar to the NYer cliche in some ways, but New Yorkers are also seen as being overly talkative. (More like New York Jews!)

    Oh, these cultural categories and stereotypes, they all end up going nowhere and to the same place. They only make sense in places that are boring, where things haven’t changed much and there’s little mixing.

    Reply
    • Jews … usually thought of as the “other – not us” group

      A bit being due to elements of the Jewish culture, people who see the Jews as aliens are either racist, stupid or narrow-minded (I’ll bypass the religious fanatics). Variety is what makes life interesting! Plus they are usually very intelligent, which is not bad these days.

      but New Yorkers are also seen as being overly talkative.

      Also many Romans of today are overly talkative, a stolid syrup without any taste.

      I never quite understood your use of the term ‘stereotype’. We need generalizations, and, without giving them too much importance, in every stereotype there is some truth.

      Reply
      • Yes, in every cliche, there is a bit of truth. I like to think of them as shining pebbles that are worn almost to nothing through too much handling.

        Cliche is a fairly benign, dismissive term in English. Stereotype has more negative connotations, associated with racial bigotry, at least in the USA. The word is always pejorative in its associations. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read it used in a neutral way – that’s just how it is here. The notion is of a false generalization, unfairly applied. A typical example from the US would be:

        All African-Americans can dance, or are good basketball players…What’s the truth? There are many famous dancers and players who are black. (The role of dance and basketball in African-American culture is interesting too…) Obviously, the first statement is false. I know plenty of klutzy black people who can’t dance.

        Of course, your point is correct. Without generalizations, we can’t make sense of anything.

        Reply
        • Of course a statement such as “ALL African-Americans …” is false. But if you say MANY African-Americans … it is not false, and it is useful in my view.

          Didn’t know in English the word stereotype had mainly negative connotations. Here it can be positive, neutral and negative.

          “Stereotypes or clichés are like shining pebbles.” Good metaphor. In fact they are ideas worn-out by the continuous repetition by the men of the street. But they are however derived from the experiences of large numbers of folks world-wide which result in judgements regarding big social groups – the Blacks, the Italians, the Jews etc.

          I mean, sometimes we look down upon the experience of the common person. In my opinion one should consider all levels of culture (low, medium and high brow, so to say) to have a more complete picture. Knowledge is not only elitist.

          Tell me in fact what’s wrong in thinking that the French cuisine is refined.

          (or that the Brazilian women have a beautiful body)
          :-)

          Reply
          • I can report with all confidence that it is true what you say about many Brazilian women.

          • Welcome back Louis! Ah, I knew there was truth in this generalization, you being an excellent testimony.
            (one stereotype I shamelessly like, I’ll confess) :-)

          • Yes, well, it just depends on how much you insist on being precise and rigorous at all times. I tend to be very careful about the propositions I formulate, or at least, I like to think so.

            Brazilian women have beautfiful bodies..?

            If you meet a plain woman from Brazil, would you deny her Brazilian-ness? And then, how about women have beautiful bodies?!

            Clearly, this can get silly. As you say, there is no point on looking down one’s nose at the “wisdom” of the man on the street – I have argued this point with Troutsky at his Marxist blog often – but I am often exasperated by the rigidity of stereotypes here. Again, usually in the context of racial and ethnic bigotry. Just my American-ness, I guess.

          • Strict & rigorous reasoning. Interesting but generally not my cup of tea. I think that vagueness is also philosophically important – even though it must not become an excuse for sloppy thinking & writing.
            And, as you said, we also have the common sense of the man on the street.

  6. @Lichanos

    As for the Jewishness of these people, I did a bit of a research and it seems the ancient Jewish community of Rome sort of hibernated elements of a faith prior to rabbinical Judaism. Today, although they have bypassed such archaic traits, they are nonetheless proud to be neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic Jews.

    Reply
  7. Today … they are nonetheless proud to be neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic Jews.

    HA! Not only are they the most Roman of the Romans, they are the most Jewish of the Jews!! They never went through the Diaspora – they were always right at home!

    Reply
  8. Pingback: A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving? « Man of Roma

  9. Pingback: The Roman Jews (2). ‘Segregated In The Ghetto Because Of Their Terrible Sin’ « Man of Roma

  10. Roman restaurants offer a stuffed artichoke with meat which is called the Jewish dish, even when totally not kosher.
    Actually it means the Jews retained the ancient Roman recipes.
    One can see the menorah, the candelabra of the Temple, carved in tombs in the catacombs.
    The Hasmoneans-Maccabees, about two centuries before the destruction of the Temple, were negotiating with the Romans, before 140 BCE, long before Titus as mentioned in the blog; and apparently some Jews already moved then.

    Reply
    • Hi Barnea,
      welcome to my blog!

      Yes, they kept something of the Roman recipes. I know that during the Talmudic era pickled fish was called *garum* by the Jews, as among the Greeks and Romans. As for the the Roman Jews, I mention something of what you said in a *second chapter* already posted. A third will soon follow partly on their cuisine. Any info is welcome.

      The Hasmoneans-Maccabees, about two centuries before the destruction of the Temple, were negotiating with the Romans, before 140 BCE, long before Titus

      True, their connection with Rome was prior to Titus, the Jews being a power in the Mediterranean when the Romans were but barbarians. If I’m not wrong something about this is mentioned also in the 6th chapter of the splendid Rodolfo Lanciani’s *New Tales Of Old Rome* – dedicated to the Jewish memorials in Rome.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Fighting with Grandpa’s tomes. My Parents’ Marriage. The Roman Laughter « Man of Roma

  12. “The edict doesn’t forbid me!”

    Love it.

    Remember the story of the old Jewish man who is accosted by the police for trespassing by taking a dip on a private beach?

    –Sir, didn’t you see the sign: “PRIVATE PROPERTY NO SWIMMING ALLOWED”

    –Sure, officer, I saw it. I read it differently:
    “PRIVATE PROPERTY? NO! SWIMMING ALLOWED!”

    Reply
    • Ah ah ah ah, you made me laugh! I like your mind Jenny, and, of course, I know only your mind, and a small picture of yours. I think I’ve been lucky with my slice of blogosphere.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: Alla faccia della Grande Bellezza (e in onore del Depardieu de Torpignattara), un pezzo di pianoforte romano-tosto (e per niente decadente) | Man of Roma

  14. Reblogged this on Man of Roma and commented:

    No thoughts to add. Only to remind Lichanos that Romans don’t make prisoners ;-)
    On a side note, the one-post-a-day discipline has ended so we’ll now post once every three days.

    More time for living? For writing?

    Flavia: “Sei un universo introverso”
    The Old Man: “Sei un universo estroverso”

    Why on earth 2 opposite universes (not to mentioin one being a matriarch the other a patriarch, one a man the other a woman) ever got together?

    GOSH

    Exeunt … *quarelling*

    Reply
  15. Le sujet est passionnant, je reviendrai pour lire en détail car il est si riche.
    Bon dimanche, Giovanni

    Reply

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