The Jews in Ancient Rome

The first relationships between Rome and Judaism date back to 161 BCE, when, according to the Book of Maccabees (1:8), Eupolemus, son of John, and Jason son of Eleaza,r appeared before the Senate: sent to seek an alliance with Judas Maccabeus, the leader of a nationalist revolt against the Hellenistic rule of King Antiochus Epiphanes over the Land of Israel. Tradition tells that the two ambassadors were hosted by Jews who were already living in the city: merchants and freed slaves.

The Jewish presence in Rome increased with the arrival of prisoners from Pompey’s campaign in Judea (63-31 BCE), and, above all, with the victory of Vespasian and Titus (70 BCE) which took away the residual independence and destroyed the center of religious life, the Temple of Jerusalem. As the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius and the reliefs of the Arch of Titus recall, the Romans brought slaves from the Judaea Capta, and the treasures of the destroyed Temple, including the menorah, the seven-branched golden candelabrum. Vespasian imposed the fiscus judaicus, a tax of half a shekel that every Jew paid to the treasury, in replacement of the tithe no longer due to the now destroyed Temple.

In the imperial age the Jewish community of Rome became very important. Jews were grouped into communities, with social and institutional positions as teachers and rabbis. There were artisans and merchants, but also men of culture, such as Matthias ben Kheresh who was the head of a famous yeshiva or rabbinical academy in the second century. At least twelve synagogues are remembered.

Ovid, Tibullus, Tacitus and Juvenal describe, without fully understanding them, some of the Jewish customs such as the Sabbath, while Suetonius recalls that the Jews of Rome attended numerous the funerals of Julius Caesar, who had protected them. The Jews were generally accepted like other religious groups, provided they did not create confusion and problems: so in 49 Claudius ordered the expulsion of some of them, following riots that broke out Impulsore Chresto, i.e. perhaps “originating from Christ”, in a time in which the Jews were still indistinguishable from the first Christians. In 132 the Emperor Hadrian stifled the last attempts at Jewish resistance in the Land of Israel, and forbade circumcision and the study of sacred texts to Jews: rights later restored by his successors.

From Judaei to Jews: the Jews of Rome in the Middle Ages

With the Emperor Constantine, in 312, the Christianization of the Roman Empire began, which in the West came to an end in 476. Power in Rome gradually passed into the hands of the local bishop, the Pope: the papal government would last in the city until 1870.

Roman Jews began to be discriminated against. Sometimes, however, they found illustrious defenders, such as Pope Gregory I the Great (590-604), who in the bull Sicut Judaeis, stated that they should not be disturbed, because they had to be converted by persuasion and not by force. Of probable Jewish origins were the Pierleonis, who built their palace (today Palazzo Orsini-Savelli) above the Theater of Marcellus, in a strategic position to control the election of the pope: and in 1130 a Pierleoni, Anacleto II, became pope, or better antipope.

Around 1165 Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew, described the Jewish community of Rome thus:

About two hundred Jews live there, who are treated with respect and who pay no tribute; some of them serve Pope Alexander, the head of all Christendom. Among the most notable scholars are rabbi Daniel, chief rabbi, and rabbi Lekhiel, servant of the pope, a handsome, intelligent and cultured young man. He is admitted to the papal residence, of which he is the intendant; he is the nephew of Rabbi Nathan, the author of the Sefer Aruk and the Commentaries on it. We must also remember Ioav Ben Shelomò, rabbi Menachem, who presides over the rabbinic academy, rabbi Biniamin, son of rabbi Shabetai of blessed memory.
During the Middle Ages the Jewish presence in Rome also concentrated on the opposite bank of the Tiber, in front of the Tiber Island: the Quattro Capi bridge, which connected it to the mainland, was also called “Pons Judeorum” or “Bridge of the Jews”.

Many trades were forbidden to Jews, with the exception of interest-bearing loans, which were forbidden to Christians. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council established a ban on Jews from holding public office and the obligation to wear a sign of discrimination. The death of Innocent III suspended this rule until 1257, when Jewish men had to sew a circle of yellow cloth on their clothes, and women two blue stripes on the shawl. In 1239 the Talmud, one of Judaism’s holiest texts, was deemed offensive to Christianity, and all copies were confiscated. In 1280 the famous kabbalist Avraham ben Shemuel Abulafia arrived in Rome to plead the cause of the Jews, but was sentenced to death and was saved only by the death of the pope. However, the Roman Senate in 1310 forbade threatening Jews, while the Church adopted several elements of Judaism: for example, it was inspired by the jubilee prescribed in the Bible by organizing the first Christian Jubilee Year in 1300.

In the fourteenth century the popes moved to Avignon, and the city declined. Many Jews, especially money lenders, also left Rome for various centers in northern Italy, but their position was continually threatened by the orders of mendicant friars, Dominicans and Franciscans, who traveled the peninsula preaching against the Jewish presence.

At the end of the fifteenth century the Jewish community of Rome expanded with the arrival of refugees from Spain, Portugal and southern Italy. This fusion was laborious, and was regulated only in 1524 through the Chapters of Daniel da Pisa, which redesigned the government of the Community so as to include Romans and foreigners. In 1525, on the eve of the sack of Rome, there were 1772 Roman Jews, about one-thirtieth of the population.

With Pope Paul III Farnese, and with the Council of Trent (1546-1563) which he opened against the Reformation, the climate which until then was quite tolerant changed. The Holy Office began its activity in favor of conversions, and houses and convents were built for the converts which the Jewish community was obliged to maintain. The copies of the Talmud were confiscated and burned in 1553 in a stake in Campo de’ Fiori.

The Ghetto of Rome

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, cities were divided into zones generally inhabited by uniform groups by origin or profession. Even the Jews managed to live close to each other, in streets or neighborhoods called “giudee” or “giudecche”. The proximity was motivated by relationships of kinship and acquaintance, and by proximity to common services such as, in the case of the Jews, the synagogue, the kosher butchers and the ritual bath. These neighborhoods were a living and integrated part of the cities. In the sixteenth century, on the other hand, the rulers decided in many places to close the Jews inside a ghetto, i.e. a prison district, an enclosure closed by walls and gates, preventing them from freely establishing their residence, and limiting their freedom with prohibitions of all sorts, such as doing certain jobs. This phenomenon is linked to the expansion of Islam, the advance of the Protestant Reformation and the countermeasures taken by Catholic states, with the Counter-Reformation, in the name of a more rigorous faith, which imposed the separation from heretics and all those who lived in error and in sin.

On 14th July 1555 Pope Paul IV Carafa promulgated the bull Cum Nimis Absurdum. “Being truly absurd” that Jews lived together with Christians, rules were listed that separated them for centuries. A ghetto was therefore established on the bank of the Tiber where the river often overflowed, a fenced area with two gates, and inside it only one building for the synagogue. All Jews were to be gathered there, even those who lived in the countryside around Rome. Jews had to sell their houses, even those inside the Ghetto, and pay rent. This resulted in real estate speculation by religious institutes and noble families, which was then barely mitigated by the introduction of the jus gazagà, a sort of fair rent. Jews were required to wear a yellow badge to distinguish themselves, and could not have Christian servants. Jewish doctors could not treat Christians, merchants could only sell used items, and lenders were restricted to favor Christian pawnshops.

the following popes modified these provisions, positively as Sixtus V or negatively as Pius VI, but in any case the ghetto lasted from 1555 to 1870, with brief interruptions due to the arrival of Napoleon’s armies (1798-1799; 1808-1814) and during the Roman Republic (1848-1850).

From the time of Gregory XIII papacy (1577) Jews were forced to attend forced sermons, preferably on Saturdays. The sad practice of forced baptisms also lasted until the nineteenth century. Baptism was sometimes administered to children, even against the wishes of the parents; after the conversion, all contact with the family was forbidden forever, and the return to the Jewish faith was considered heresy and punished with death.

From 1466, running competitions reserved for Jews were organized during carnival celebrations. Soon these performances became dishonorable, with Jews forced to run around naked and pelted with mud, and in 1668 they were abolished.

Source: The treasures of the Jewish Museum of Rome, Daniela di Castro, Araldo De Luca Editore

The Jews of Rome from the emancipation to today

Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Jewish life in the city was characterized by substantial prosperity and relative freedom, guaranteed by the tolerance of the Popes of Renaissance Rome.

However, this favorable situation changed within a few years due to the establishment in Rome of the Tribunal of the Inquisition (1542), and the beginning of the Counter-Reformation (1545).

Apart from the brief periods of freedom during the French domination between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews obtained equal rights only with the dissolution of the Papal State (1870).

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the chances of entering civil and political life increased considerably.
With the process of centralization of the community institutions, which occurred after the emancipation, the brotherhoods that took care of the neediest during the period of the ghetto disappeared, giving way to the Assistance Deputation, which brought together all the functions of the Companies, assisting those who were in financial difficulty. During the twentieth century, this institution evolved into a listening and support center for the most diverse forms of hardship and marginalization, thanks to the support of social workers and psychologists.

In 1904 the Great Synagogue was inaugurated and it replaced the Cinque Scole (synagogues) of the ghetto period.
Jewish participation, as a percentage, both in the Risorgimento and in the First World War was considerable: when the homeland, to whose constitution the Jewish component had responded with enthusiasm, needed to be defended, the Jews responded numerous, reporting a number notable honors.

The First World War and the subsequent economic crisis worsened the already difficult conditions of the Roman Community.

In the Lateran Treaty of 11 February 1929, the Concordat between the Italian State and the Holy See, the inequality of cults was established, and the Catholic religion was defined as the “Religion of the State”. Subsequently, on the basis of the powers conferred on the King by the Concordat of 1929, the Royal Decree of 30th October 1930 and the Regulation of 19th November 1931 were issued, which provided for the first regulation of the Jewish communities on a national level.

In those years, those anti-Jewish sentiments reawakened, never completely dormant, which led, in 1938, to the infamous Racial Laws.
In the period between October 1943 and June 1944, the Nazi invasion and the deportations profoundly marked the Jewish community (during the roundup of October 16th, 1943, 1022 Jews were deported, of whom 15 men and 1 woman survived. Out of 40,000 more than 7,000 Italian Jews were deported, about 20%, about 800 returned).

With the proclamation of the Republic, the process of normalization and reconfiguration of the Community began, which slowly assumed its current structure.

In 1982 the Community of Rome was marked by a Palestinian terrorist attack carried out at the exit of the Temple, in which a child died and about 40 people were injured.

On 27 February 1987, an agreement was stipulated between the Italian State and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, which on the occasion changed its name to “Union of Italian Jewish Communities”, while the Jewish Community of Rome assumed the name of “Jewish Community of Rome”.

In 1986 John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the main Synagogue, in 2010 Benedict XVI was the second, in 2016 Francis I was the third.

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