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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


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:

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?

About manofroma

Nato a Roma il 1-11-1948

37 responses »

  1. I have always wondered how and why people keep up their faith and practices even in the face of adversaries. Have to admire the Jews for that! Initially, I thought Jews were a sub-sect of Christians!

    Destination Infinity

    • The Jews consider themselves as ‘chosen’ by God, which discouraged any assimilation. Whether it was advantageous to them remains to be seen.

      I thought Jews were a sub-sect of Christians

      It is Christianity – and Islam – that in various ways stem from Judaism, not viceversa

  2. Hey there. I’m back from my blogging vacation. I hope you had a great week and weekend. I enjoyed myself this Thanksgiving holiday. I did miss your blog. Take care. Have a fantastic week ahead. Cheers!

  3. Over here, the Hasidic or Haredi Jews segregate themselves without any exterior help. Even outside Montreal they have vacation compounds and they do not mix with the general population. In Montreal they have their very own and owned neighbourhood where the “others” are not excluded, but not welcome…even other Jews of more liberal leanings. They keep to their own schools and currriculum despite de department of education rules and injunctions.
    From what your picture shows, the women on the bench would be seen as too liberal by our Hasidims.

    • No ultra-orthodoxy here, Paul, as far as I can tell. The Roman Jews never looked to me the inflexible type, they seem pretty free, although they say they stick quite a lot to their traditions which are partly prior to the great diaspora. They might have taken the flexibility from here, hard for me to say. For example, one seldom sees them in any traditional attire (although you see something if you enlarge the last picture.)
      If the Canadian Jews arrived mainly from Europe, which I doubt, our Jews are much more ancient in their traditions thence different. Their name could be Romanim, but I might be wrong.

  4. Most jewish immigration to Canada comes from Central Europe, Poland and Russia. Many came after the liberation from the German camps.

    • I see, so the Jewish culture here should be more ancient. For ex. no Sephardic and Ashkenaz division here (those who went to Moorish Spain and those who went to northern or eastern Europe.)

      In fact they speak neither Landino nor Yiddish. They speak Italian and a Roman dialect with Jewish words in it.

  5. OK, ours speak Yiddish. They are Maimonides, Ashkenazi, Sephardim and Hassidim or Haredim. Some are disciples of Rabbi Lubovich.

  6. And they make bagels and smoked meat. Smoked meat in particular; you can’t get more Montreal-Jew than that! Dee-lish. Did the Jews leave a culinary mark on Rome?

    My father’s long-time lawyer is Jewish. Not so long ago he talked to us about his reverence for Italians and his trip to Rome to visit the Jewish ghetto. He had some interesting things to say.

    As for the pogroms, it’s interesting that Italy was largely spared the ugliness seen in Northern Europe including France. No wonder they wished for a homeland – always persecuted and on the run kinda wears you down as a society and people. Remarkably, even after the Holocaust, its religion and history persists and thrive.

    Last, yes MOR, Islam and Christianity are children of Judaism.

    • Did the Jews leave a culinary mark on Rome

      Oh they did, a dee-lish mark, as you say – a blend of oriental, Roman and imperial Rome cuisine, but evolved in poverty. For example they fried a lot because it was the cheapest way of cooking food. I’ll talk about it in my last chapter on the Roman Jews.

      As for the pogroms, Italians have never been particularly anti-Semite, like the German or the Polish were. Mussolini had to follow Hitler and issued racial laws without much enthusiasm. Terrible things happened only when Italy fell directly under the hands of Hitler.

  7. Great post, MoR! Ciao.

    Ciao Rob, thanks for visiting!

  8. Thanks, fascinating! So, how many self-identified Jews are there in Rome these days? Do they go to services, or are the synagogues defunct?

    All the Hasids that some have commented on trace their roots to a religious reviival in eastern Europe in the 18th century, waaaay after the Roman Jews settled down. They have no more claim to represent the “true Jews,” whatever that may be, than I do.

    • Davide Limentani said the Roman Jews are 20,000, but they might be a bit less, between 15,000 and 20,000.
      Of these, one thousand of the oldest breed were sent to Auschwitz during the massive ‘Judenoperation’ occurred on October 16, 1943, when Rome was under Nazi occupation.

      The Synagogue in the ghetto is very frequented but I have no idea about the percentage of those going to services.

  9. MOR, completely off-topic, but was wondering what you think of American media’s and then subsequently Italian Media’s reaction on Amanda Knox’s case. Assuming that you are following that case.
    While I was reading news on this, I just thought of asking you what you think of this case and how other Italians are reacting on these developments. Sorry again for bringing up a completely unrelated topic 🙂
    Btw, enjoyed reading the post above and also readers’ comments.

  10. @Dev

    I didn’t follow the case much. I’ll talk generally.

    I heard the girl murdered was from the UK, and that the Britons mostly agree with the verdict, while, Amanda Knox being American (but Sollecito is Italian), most Americans think she is innocent.

    It seems to me Italians first thought Amanda was guilty, now they seem divided.

    The reaction of Italians to the US outrage? They don’t flinch much. It is understandable. When they largely protested for people sentenced to death in the US, the Americans didn’t flinch either, as it is just.

    In any democracy a judicial system is both independent internally and part of the state sovereignty externally.
    It remains to be seen whether Lady Clinton will risk a diplomatic incident on this – which couldn’t change much in any case, our Judiciary having flaws but being extremely tough – as our Prime Minister Berlusconi knows well. We will see.

    There is an extra factor. Amanda is beautiful. Which excites the media and the public much more world-wide.

    (my reply was impassionate, but the whole thing is terrible and sad)

    • @Knox case:

      Yes, who knows what really happened? Here in the US, the NYTimes reports that many legal experts feel she got a fair trial, while of course, some feel it’s a bad verdict. On the other hand, many say she would have been convicted in a US court. On the other hand…so it goes. Human justice is imperfect. Since she is convicted, I hope she did do it!

  11. MOR, thanks for sharing your views. Yes, diplomatic channels will be at work here! And your remark about Amanda being young and beautiful American girl, and hence all this attention, says it all.

  12. Fascinating post, full of depth and thought. I hear the voice behind the writer here. Bravo, Signore.

    I have eaten at a restaurant in the Jewish section of Roma, cannot remember the name. I had Jerusalem artichokes..yummmmy. Some of the best food in the world can be enjoyed in Roma.

    My deepest sorrows awakened in the Jewish ghetto of Venezia when I read the little brass sign telling visitors how many Venetian Jews were sent to concentration camps.

    I bought a little refrigerator magnet in the ghetto made with that beautiful glass.

    • Thank you Cherie,

      you are too kind. Yes, artichokes ‘a la giudia'(jewish-style, fried in fact): soo good!

      I jumped to your blog and added you to my reader. I also saw you live in Northern California. What a wonderful place! I was there at the end of last year, where my blog picture was taken, at a dinner in the Franciscan crab restaurant in SF, Pier 43 1/2. Oh I loved everything out there. I could live there (in SF, not at the restaurant … or maybe also 🙂 ).

      It’s been fun meeting you at Andreas’. Ciao

      I’ll be delighted to learn where your interest about the Ancients comes from.

  13. “Oh I loved everything out there. I could live there (in SF, not at the restaurant … or maybe also 🙂 ).”

    @MOR: Your glowing comment above regarding living in California makes me very happy, because I will be myself moving there next year. I wonder what makes most people love California so much. Although, for me, the move is also a practical one because Hollywood is in LA. Even though LA is sometimes not seen in a similar positive light as many other parts of California are seen, especially Northern California, I’m still looking forward to and also preparing my move there. Perhaps we will meet there when you next visit California. 🙂

    • Oh, so you’re getting really serious about your jump into the movie industry! Glad to hear that.
      Yes, I prefer SF to LA but the climate in LA is better and as for films the city of angels is La Mecca, no doubt.
      I am about to make a post out of the conversation we both had with Lichanos (around 2001), so stay tuned, ok?
      Ciao Dev, thanks for visiting!

  14. I especially enjoyed the story about the Jewish women in childbirth! You can’t top stuff like that. So human.

    I appreciate the link to these posts. I’m temporarily laid off, not for long, I hope. So I have time to read. How lovely that you have taken the time to write on this topic!

    I have a very good friend (a Jewish woman and a poet) who speaks beautiful Italian, loves Italy and writes frequently about it (though her roots are in Eastern Europe). I will send you a couple of her poems. I think you’ll like them.

    • Update: I didn’t first understand ‘laid-off’ (you have so many words in English!). Sad to hear that dear Jenny. Let us hope for the better. There is a lot of ‘night’ everywhere in the world.

      I will adore her poems. I have dedicated a lot of posts to the Roman Jews because I love the Jews – did you meet Lichanos? Dafna btw is coming to my home next June I hope, I have plenty of space – and because the Roman Jews – read Alessandro Piperno – are special, being not only the most Roman of the Romans, but also the most Jewish of the Jews! (I’m quoting Lichanos, A Jewish engineer from NYC).

      I love all the world sweet Jenny, this is why I’m blogging (also the Russians btw). I love the Jews and the Arabs (to me it’s not a problem, they are Semitic after all), I love women and men (the latter not sexually), I love you and Dafna, and Cheri and Geraldine, two gentle fairies, and tough amazing grumpy Sled, Ana Teran, Mexicooo, and Richardus and Philippus, and Paulus and Zeus that is watching us all the time, Paulus of course is the Greek-French man who got lost in Canada I wonder why – what the hell are people doing in Canada said Woody Allen, a great myth of mine, and a lot Andreas (the only German here!) Douglas (the boomer), CiberQwil (the only Viennese here!), GOD, too many to mention and so many Indians from the subcontinent you cannot imagine!

      I am drinking red wine Jenny. Please be gentle to Geraldine. She is the only echt Irish here. She is a wonderful pixie and I cannot forget I was to Irland when I was 17 and 18.

      • 🙂 🙂 🙂


      • My father got lost in Canada and he left little me, and two others, while looking for his way.

        • Some men do like that. They generate kids and they leave. It is life. It is more and more clear to me that without women taking care of families humankind would go to the john.

          • I am laughing now because “go to the john” would be taken by most English speakers to mean simply, going to relieve yourself.

            I will spare you the speech here about men and women and families because I have known some very, very horrible women so far as their families are concerned, and some men who rate the name of hombres con pechos. But don’t get me started.

            That aside, we all love you of course. Very soon, you will start inspiring me to make little sound clips of things like my awful settings of Kipling poems and my Mabinogion opera, and then everyone will have to run for their lives.

          • @Sled

            “go to the john” would be taken by most English speakers to mean simply …

            So my English is going to the john too I guess.

            Hombres con pechos, ie with breasts, maternal?

            everyone will have to run for their lives.
            Ah ah ah, your English knows no john instead.

            Listen, I’m waiting for your musics, and I’m sure I’ll not run like hell but be glued to the screen, my protruding ears wide open.

      • Thanks, guys, but it’s really OK. It’s very temporary, and I offered to take the leave to alleviate some financial problems my firm is facing. Thanks for your concern.

  15. Roma,

    i owe you an email. it will come tomorrow. thanks for the link to these topics on the roman jews. i have not had a moment to read them yet.

    i was aware of the long history of jews in rome, just need a memory jog. there is “the great synagogue” in rome. it would be a site to behold.

    today was an overwhelming day – will write to you soon.

    yours truly,


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