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

Arch of Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus

Arch of Titus Flavius Vespasianus at the Roman Forum. Click for credits and a larger picture

Lichanos
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!

MoR
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, Jew 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 and archaic to our ears.

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

An irony? 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.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

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. Being Roman today. As for Romanness today, I clearly feel 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, blasphemous, braggart, with a couldn’t-care-less attitude towards anything.

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

The Roman actor Aldo Frabrizi

The Roman actor Aldo Fabrizi, a modern Roman icon

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 and abrupt. The true Roman – a species dying out – doesn’t speak that much, he is ironic, full of humour, and can knock you out with very few words, as the Calcagnis, my grandmother’s family, 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 modern Roman verve is well depicted in *Carlo Calcagni’s memoirs*.

And, when Leone Limentani the Jew exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!”- it was a typically Roman (more than Jewish) scene [see the previous post for it.]

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?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers