Historically, the plight of the Jew has been one of political turmoil, religious persecution, and social discrimination. In Ancient Rome, their journey was not much different. The Roman Jews suffered from grave religious maltreatment from the Popes, and complete social and political exclusion. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Papal rule, Jews began to give a new meaning to the term strife. Being Jewish began to give a new definition to the word strife; the Jew’s social status, culture and religion were extremely marginalized. What little dignity they once had was almost completely taken away. With the ascension of Pope Paul IV, the Jews were exiled from the city center for nearly 300 years into a confined quarter of Rome—the Jewish Ghetto. During this time period, Jews were forced to suffer public humility, live in callous and sadistic conditions, receive immoral and inhumane treatment from the government ruled by the Catholic Church, realize usurpative taxation, and endure severe religious harassment. However, staying strong in their faith, the Jews were able to unite and rise above centuries of persecution. Their success today can only be seen as a result of their incredible human ability to survive and persevere against the most extreme living conditions.
The Jews in Rome can be dated as early as 159B.C., which makes them the oldest Jewish descendents of Jerusalem in the Western world (Augias 349). Since their initial arrival in Rome, the Jews have always found themselves in conflict and dispute with the different rulers of Rome. However, during the Roman Empire, the severity of this friction was minimal. The Jews were second-class citizens, but they were granted many basic rights and were the object of little public harassment. It was only with the arrival of Constantine in the 4th century that their reputation became a negative and tarnished one of bestial imagery.
The first recorded conflict occurred in 79A.D. with the Sack of Jerusalem. Emperor Titus invaded Jerusalem, ruined the city, and captured numerous Jews to bring back to Rome as prisoners of war (Hibbert 51). However, as can be seen in the ebbs and flows of their mistreatments, Julius Caesar greatly admired the Jews. He was awestruck by the Jew’s great devotion to their God. He also venerated them for their success in career fields such as business, medicine, and banking. However, during this time, with the rise of Constantine, the Edict of Milan in 313 and Papal Law, living conditions for the Jews took a terrible change for the worst.
Originally, the Jews inhabited most of Trestevere, where they commuted into the city to perform different trades. Some Jews had even migrated across the Tiber and lived on the outskirts of the city center. In 1215, under the Rule of Pope Innocent III, Jews could no longer cohabitate in the same areas Christians and were forced to wear a degrading badge of Jewish distinction for all to see (Gregorovius 48). Conditions only continued to worsen for the Jews, as Pope John XXII banned the Talmud and ordered all Jewish religious writings and books to be burned every year at the start of the Jewish New Year in the Campo de Fiori (Gregorovius 48). The next altercation was a removal of Jews from everyday Christian lifestyle. Pope Eugene IV Condolmieri forbade Jews and Christians from interacting, prohibited Jews from moving about or working in the city, banned Christians from seeing Jewish physicians, and prohibited the construction of any new Jewish synagogues or monuments.
Unfortunately, the worst treatment was yet to come. 1492 marked the year of the Spanish Inquisition. All of the Jews in Spain were either executed or fled from tyrant Spanish rule. Many Spanish Jews escaped to Italy where the temperament for Jews was more tolerant.
The 1500’s also saw the foundation of the Catholic-Counter Reformation. The Counter Reformation was originally aimed to suppress and eliminate the spread of Protestantism. However, when Pope Paul IV was initiated into the Papacy in May of 1555 his ideals shown were vastly different from his predecessors. Paul IV fervently believed the End of Days was about to come; he therefore, included the demonic and heretic Jews in his Counter-Reformation Movement. Paul IV greatly broadened the scope of persons targeted by the Counter-Reformation, and at the same time significantly increased the terror and punishment against these persons who adhered to non-Catholic ideals and religions.
The Formation of the Ghetto:
Just two months after his ascension to the Papal throne, Paul IV issued the Cum Nimis Absurdum bull on July 17, 1555. This decree confined all Jews in Rome into what is now known as the Jewish Ghetto. The bull also revoked all Roman civilian privileges from the Jews and forbade the Jews from owning any property. It also vastly narrowed the ‘acceptable’ professions for Jews to leather tanners, cobblers, second-hand fabric merchants, or moneylenders (Augias 352). Included in the new Jewish Rules were edicts that Jews “must not be seen outside the Ghetto without wearing a yellow hat and yellow veil” (Gregorovius 68).
The Jewish Ghetto—The Dimensions:
The Ghetto was a narrowly confined quarter of Rome stretching from the edge of the Tiber River to Via del Portico d’Ottavia, Lungotevere, and Piazza delle Cinque Scole—a total of less than three acres (Pavoncello). The Ghetto was characterized by a foul stench, which was a result of the over-crowded population of the area. In the prime of the Ghetto there were over 6,000 inhabitants. It was not unusual for two or three families to live in one room. As the population of the Ghetto continued to grow, the inhabitants were forced to live in ever-closer quarters. The Jews were not permitted to expand the boundaries of Ghetto, and therefore, were forced to build up rather than out. As a result of the increasing height of the buildings, there was little sunlight within the walls of the Ghetto. Lack of sunlight proved to be quite a problem: the Tiber River was prone to flooding, and the position of the Ghetto was a prime target for waste-infested floodwater. Without sunlight to absorb any of the moisture, the Ghetto was constantly a dark, damp and dreary area; this provided a perfect breeding ground for disease (Augias 352).
The movement of the Jews in and out of the Ghetto was controlled by eight gated entrance and exits. Ironically, security guards, paid for by taxes paid by the Jews, monitored these gates. The gates were closed and locked one hour after sunset and re-opened the next morning at dawn. The whereabouts of the Jews were closely monitored, and their ‘freedom’ to leave the Ghetto was very restricted by regulations on where they could and couldn’t go (Augias 353).
Regulations & Propaganda:
If expulsion into a confined Ghetto quarter and having all rights revoked wasn’t brutal enough for the Jews, public humiliation and disgrace were soon to follow. The Catholic Church did everything it could to encourage disdain toward the Jews. In front of many of the gated entrances, Christian churches were built in order to encourage Jewish conversions to Christianity. The San Gregorio della Pieta, which was positioned in front of the main entrance to the Ghetto, was inscribed in Hebrew with a verse from Isaiah 65:2-3. This verse reads: All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations—a people who continually provoke me to my face. This quote sent an anti-Semitic message to Catholic Church attendees, and at the same time defamed every Jew who used the main entrance of the Ghetto. It was a misquoted bible passage, twisted by the Church to encourage the anti-Semitic sentiment.
Another attempt by the Church to convert Jews to Catholicism was through mandatory attendance at Catholic sermons. The Jews were forced to attend sermons at Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, which used to be home to the Roman fish market, located inside the Portico d’Ottavia, just outside the Jewish Ghetto. The Jews were required by Papal Law to attend four to five times every year. If they were thought delinquent or uninterested, the guards in the mass would severely whip them in an attempt to force conversions (Augias 345).
Papal Law took a step further to suppress Judaism by prohibiting Jews from building new synagogues. As a result of this, the Jews created the Piazza de Cinque Scole—the Plaza of Five Schools. It was here that the Jews could attempt to find sanity and salvation from the cruel world outside of the Ghetto walls. However, unfortunately, the building was constantly being ransacked and attacked by monks and other radical Christians. The Cinque Scole housed, as the name implies, five synagogues. Each synagogue occupied its own floor. Different level of observance, sect of Judaism, and place of family origin separated each floor.
An additional form of shaming the Jews took place during the yearly Carnivale celebration held throughout Italy. The Jews became a spectacle of public humiliation. The Jews were forced to race one another, dressed in all manner of demeaning costumes, down streets lined with mocking spectators shouting slanderous phrases at them. These races completely dehumanized the Jews; sometimes, the Jews were forced to race against animals, causing even further disgrace. Originally the races took place along the street leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica, however, they were moved by Paul IV to Via del Corso, so as not to disgrace the apostles with filthy Jewish presence.
Another mechanism of exploitation that was used by the Catholic Church was usurpative taxation against the Jews. Papal Law required taxes on anything and everything. An example of this was even though the Jews were prohibited from owning property; they were still required to pay a building maintenance tax on top of the rent they paid to the Christian building owners. Fortunately for the Jews, Clement IX excused them from mandatory events such as Church Sermons and carnival racing if they handed over a hefty Jew Tax to the Church (Hibbert 205).
On April 17, 1848, the first night of Passover, Pope Pius IX ordered the Jewish Ghetto walls be demolished after almost three centuries of enclosure. However, this was a short-lived decree as one year later Pius IX revoked his order and reinstated Jewish suppression. It wasn’t until October 13, 1870 and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy that the Jews finally received full citizenship, as Roman Citizens without any Jewish distinction. In 1885, as part of an urban renewal project and beautification of the city of Rome, the Jewish Ghetto buildings and houses began to be demolished (Augias 362). In 1904, not 30 years after the unification of Italy, the Jewish community pulled together and built the New Jewish Temple Synagogue along the Tiber River, on what were the outskirts of the Ghetto. The dome on top of the temple is the only square dome in Rome. The magnitude of the church was a symbol to the Jews and to all of Rome of the success, greatness and pride they found in their religion and community. The completion of the Synagogue in such a short time period after the demolition of the Ghetto, was an amazing feat for the Jews, as their economic funds had been devastated over the past three centuries; this only further emphasized their strong character, will and triumph to overcome all hardships. Their focused determination would be useful in the 20th century, as the harshest brutality the Jews would face was yet to come.
The freedom the Jews found in Italy’s new unified kingdom changed drastically in the early 1900’s when Mussolini came into power bringing fascist ideals to the forefront of Italian politics. In 1938, Mussolini created Italian Racial Laws, which incarcerated Jewish rights once more. These Laws were the new Italian standard of citizenship and identity. In his doctrine Mussolini writes Jews are not one of us; Jews do not belong to the Italian race. Once again, Jews saw their rights and freedoms vanish from beneath them. Brutal conditions for Jews in Italy saw their demise during World War II. On September 8, 1943, Italy was announced an Open State, and was invaded by German Nazis. One month later on October 16, SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler raided the Jewish neighborhoods demanding they deliver him 50 kilos of gold in less than 36 hours, or he would have them all killed. In one of the first times in recent history, Christians teamed up with the Jews. Together they made good on the threat and delivered more than the 50 kilos of gold to Kappler and the German Nazis. However, this made no difference, and the Jewish neighborhood, surrounded by 400 Nazi soldiers, lost 1067 members to concentration camps. Of the original 1067 Jews captured that night, only 16 returned—, with only one who was female (Augias 365). There is now a Plaza in front of Portico d’Ottavia commemorating the Jew’s capture.
For many years after World War II, Jews finally found peace and tranquility in the streets of Rome, and it seemed as though the conflict might finally be over. However, on October 9, 1982, the New Jewish Temple Synagogue was attacked by a terrorist who threw a hand grenade at the temple and opened a round of machine-gun fire inside of the temple. The terrorist injured 35 people inside the temple, killing one, a 3-year-old boy named Stefano Taché. Stefano was the first victim of anti-Semitic violence and terrorism in Italy since the defeat of the Nazis after WWII and the end of Fascist Italy in 1945. We can only hope he will be the last victim as well (Augias 367).
Today there are over 15,000 Jews living in Rome, and more than 30,000 in all of Italy. These incredible numbers only demonstrate the Jews successes in Rome and their ability to persevere and prevail in the most brutal of situations. Julius Caesar had it right when he praised the Jews for their devotion, determination and persistence. The area that once was the Jewish Ghetto is still a densely populated area with Jewish influences at every corner. Ironically, all of the Jews whose economic funds were devastated after the demolition of the Ghetto and were unable to move outside of its boarders saw incredible increases in their real estate. Now, Via della Portico d’Ottavia is home to the best kosher restaurants in all of Rome, where you can find the most incredible fried artichokes in all of Italy. The Jewish Ghetto is one of the most beautiful areas in all of Rome, with an incredible history behind it; one can only be so fortunate to live there.
Augias, Corrado. The Secrets of Rome: Love and Death in the Eternal City. Rome:
Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2007.
Gregorovius, Ferdinand. THE GHETTO AND THE JEWS OF ROME. New York:
Schocken Books, 1948.
Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of a City. Boston: Penguin (Non-Classics),
Leon, Harry J., and Carolyn Osiek. The Jews of Ancient Rome: Updated Edition.
Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
Openshaw, Gene, and Rick Steves. Rick Steves' Rome 2009 (Rick Steves). Santa Fe:
Avalon Travel Publishing, 2008.
Pavoncello, Micaela. "Jewish Rome Tour (Jewish Tours of Rome)." Jewish Rome Tour
(Jewish Tours of Rome). 10 Feb. 2009
Pavoncello, Michaela. Personal Interview. 4 Feb. 2009.