[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.
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]
“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.”
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).”
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 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 .)
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.
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].
See the previous installment: