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?

Permanences. India and China

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Civilizations Are Not Mortal.
India and China

I have received my first comments from Indian people. I’m so glad this happened. India intrigues me and, as I said in the introduction, I was looking for a wider communication. As far as India I had a special interest for this country since I was a kid. As I told this Indian blogger Ishmeet “I remember how my father, now no more, used to tell us stories about your country, about princes and wonderful palaces, and we all kids listened in wonder. I have been to India many times since, and my sisters and brothers too.”

So this blog is now starting to be real fun. Only, I had prepared a post on Rome and Carthage and on the idea that civilizations never die. Since this is true also for India and China (put together for their ancientness, huge size and great success) I wanted to please my Indian readers but I had no post ready for them. This is why I am copying this exchange of comments with Ashish, another incredible Indian guy (I changed only 2-3 words of my text). I do promise to face these topics in a more structured way and with lots of posts. Welcome India!

Emblem of India

Ashish sent this:
“I’m not familiar with the Roman names of the pre-christian Gods and Goddesses but I think Venus is Aphrodite. I’m more familiar with their Greek names ….Legend says Rome was founded by two brothers – Romulus and Remus who were nursed by a wolf. I think thats the first picture you’ve got there right? If we sit to write down all the events and people that have sprouted from Italy, a thousand page book would not suffice! Something folks say about my country too… lol!”

ManofRoma replied:
Dear Ashish, first of all my compliments for your blog. Witty and such fun! The older generation needs fresh spirit from youth or we get like mummies (I loved that post on “Interestin’ thing’s goin’ on!” and some links, like that about USA needing help: really funny indeed).

Yes, Venus corresponds more or less to Aphrodite, and we usually talk about Greek-Roman civilization, although the Romans were at first barbarians compared to the Greeks, their Italian neighbours (Greeks actually had founded towns in Italy too, like Cumae and beloved Naples – Napoli -, so close to Rome). (…)

As far as the book thickness, well, who knows, maybe a thousand page book would not suffice for Italy lol, but what about India? A 2 or even 2.5 thousand page book, would it suffice? Vedic civilization started in 1700 BC, right? The Indus Valley civilization(s) even earlier? I have to brush up all this, having been too busy with IT networking. But I know that Rome was founded in 753 BC according to legend, and archeology more or less confirms this. Ok, Greeks and Etruscans being our close relatives were older, but still this age difference remains. So probably we were barbarians also compared to you ….

Nonetheless it is not incorrect to say that we (Indians and Italians) are ancient peoples vis-à-vis UK, for example, which I though admire because they have been very successful and they seem to have some of the Roman qualities we used to have (either by chance or by Roman rule on them for 400 years).

In the West people are so silly (…) and ignorant about other civilizations (…) what strikes me most is how so many people in Europe and America are surprised about this sudden success of India and China.

Bombay Stock Exchange

You peoples in the Far East, after all, were at the top of the world in science, philosophy, technology and richness for….1000 years? 2000 years? More? I have to check that better. Ok, you went down for 200 (250?) years due to British industrial revolution, who helped Anglo-Saxons (and the nations they created) to take the lead. But what are even 250 years? Only 10 generations, if we consider 1 generation = 25 years. Very little indeed.

The sad truth is that people in here are busier checking how fat Britney Spears is getting. We ALL in here, Europeans and Americans, need help. A LOT of help.

PS

I am afraid Europe is even in worse shape than America, which has made this big mistake of the Iraqi war but won’t decline so easily.

Italian version

Permanences. Rome and Carthage

Kastell Welzheim, near the Limes, Porta Praetoria

Civilisations are not Mortal.
Rome and Carthage

The French historian Fernand Braudel argues in “La Mediterranée” (see note below):

“That Rome has deeply marked Europe it is evident, but nevertheless there is room for some amazing continuities. Is it by chance that, when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century, the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?

And is it also by chance that the astonishing conquest of Islam was easily accepted by both the Near East and the two areas formerly dominated by Carthage, i.e. Northern Africa and a portion of Spain? [see map below]

We have said it before: the Phoenician world was more inclined, deep inside, to welcome the Islamic civilization than it was to assimilate the Roman law, for the reason that the Islamic civilization didn’t only represent a contribution, it represented a continuity as well.”

[Extensive note to text]

Carthage’s zone of influence in the III B.C.

Italian version

ψ

See also the above note later become a post:

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

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