Samuele Rocca, Ph.D. is a Historian of Jews and Judaism. He serves as a Senior lecturer at Ariel University and as a lecturer at the Bloomfield Academy of Design and Education in Haifa, Israel. I recently had the honor of meeting Professor Rocca during his visit to view the current exhibition 1849-1871. Jews of Rome between Segregation and Emancipation. Rocca also serves on the scientific committee of the Foundation to the Jewish Museum of Rome and his scholarly contributions about the history of the Jews in Italy and Rome is paramount.
For two brief periods 1798-1799 and 1808-1814, the French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) soldiers opened the ghetto for the Jews of Rome. Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy gave Jews freedom and equality that they had not experienced in centuries. In Marina Caffiero’s essay Valadier at the Arch of Titus: Papal Reconstruction and Archaeological Restoration under Pius VII, she tells us that the Arch of Titus was built in its present form under the sponsorship of Pope Pius VII (Luigi Barnaba Gregorio Chiaramonti (1742-1823) and entrusted to the architects Raffaelo Stern (1774-1820) and Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839). She goes on to explain in great detail how Architect Valadier defined the Arch of Titus as a glorious representation of Christendom and of Christianized Rome: it became the symbol of the Roman victory over the Jewish people and a symbol of the victory of the Christian religion over the “stubborn Jewish nation.” The latter was “unworthy,” he asserted, to keep these “holy objects” consecrated by God, like the Menorah.
The architect of the New Wing was Raffael Stern (1774–1820). After Stern's death in 1820, the work was continued by Pasquale Belli (1752-1833) until the new wing opened in 1822. At the end of the New Wing there is an important historical event depicting the triumphal procession held in 71 CE where we see the Roman soldiers carrying the famous menorah.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Samuele Rocca why the Arch of Titus relief in the New Wing in the Vatican Museums is associated with the current exhibition on Jewish emancipation and how Valadier’s restoration of the Arch of Titus celebrate the return of the Jews to the Ghetto.
Pope Pius VII, who reigned from 1800 to 1823, known because he crowned Napoleon I as emperor, once he was restored to the throne in 1814 began a conservative policy. According to the historian David Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, the pope for a while was open to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet, when it come to the Jews, he did not abide by the suggestions of his secretary of state Cardinal Consalvi, who wanted to proceed towards the path of Jewish emancipation, but once more he ruled that the Jews had to be once more closed behind the gates of the Ghetto. More than that, they were subject to humiliating homilies, where friars invited them to convert to Catholicism. Pius VII's successor, Leon XII not only continued this policy but harshened it. Even Metternich, the Austrian statesman and diplomat, that dominated European politics from 1815 to 1848, interceded, in vain, in favor of the Jews living in the Papal States. Abductions of Jewish children from their families and their forced conversion to Christianity increased.
Thus, as well argued by Marina Caffieri, while Napoleon wished to be depicted as a new Augustus, who as the Roman emperor, was friendly to the Jews, the pope in the wake of Napoleon's defeat, wished to associate his rule with that of the first two Flavians, especially Titus, who destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Let's explain. In fact, Augustus continued the policy of Julius Caesar in granting to the Jews living in Rome and scattered in the Roman Empire various privileges, such as the right to associate in semi-autonomous communities, to meet in the synagogue on Shabbath and on Holy Days, to enjoy internal juridical autonomy, and the right to send money, the Half-Shekel, a voluntary contribution to the Temple in Jerusalem. Besides Augustus enjoyed a friendly relationship with King Herod the Great, the ruler of Judaea. It was in this period, relatively peaceful, that at Rome Augustus dedicated the Ara Pacis, or the Altar of Peace, while King Herod rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Sages of the Talmud celebrated, stating that 'Whoever has not seen Herod's building has not seen a beautiful building in his life'. Thus, Augustus was positively perceived and in the Enlightenment period, he symbolized the ruler benign towards Jews, who forwarded a politic of Emancipation. The emperor Joseph II of Austria as well as Napoleon saw Augustus as a source of inspiration.
On the other hand, the Flavians, were associated not with the liberation, but to the enslavement of Jews. In fact, the Roman victory over the Jews was key to the rise of the Flavians from obscure Italic origins to only Rome’s second ruling dynasty. At the root of the Flavian narrative was the brutal repression of the rebellion of Judaea. Through the transformation of a relatively small intervention into a full-fledged war with a highly symbolic and extremely valuable amount of booty, the Jewish war was presented as the triumph over a powerful foreign enemy.
The celebration of a victorious war over the “other,” served imperial propaganda by magnifying the heroic service to Rome of the triumphators while blurring the reality behind their rise to power—victory in a ferocious civil war which resulted in the annihilation of Vespasian’s political enemies and the establishment of a new autocratic dynasty. From the celebration of their triumph over the Jews, onwards, the Jewish war was celebrated by the Flavians visually everywhere, mainly during the rule of Vespasian and Titus. The ideology of the new ruling family was promoted, first and foremost, through the minting of a series of coins known as Iudaea Capta that commemorated their victory. By the assassination of Domitian’s reign in 96, the Flavians had remade the urban landscape of Rome through a series of public buildings directly associated with their name.
Some of the buildings, such as the triumphal arches, explicitly celebrated the Flavian victory over the Jews; others, such as the Forum Pacis, commemorated the peace that resulted from the Flavian victory; still other buildings that celebrated the Flavian dynasty, such as the Colosseum, were financed from the plunder (spolia) taken during the Jewish war. Many of these public buildings emphasized the successful conclusion of the Jewish War as a means of bestowing legitimacy on the new dynasty. Fergus Millar, in Last Year in Jerusalem: Monuments of the Jewish War in Rome, in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, rightly argues that the Arch of Titus, together with the Flavian Amphitheatre and the Temple of Peace, all emphasized the successful outcome of the Jewish war and the benefits it brought to Rome, thereby, granting legitimacy to the Flavian Dynasty. Besides, one of the first measures taken by the Flavians in the wake of the war was the institution of the fiscus Iudaicus, a distinctive tax imposed on the Jews living in the Roman empire. This was an annual tribute dedicated to rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. The levy replaced the Temple Tax, a half-shekel annual contribution that Jews of earlier generations had donated for the maintenance of the Jerusalem Temple, which had been destroyed in the Jewish war. In contrast to the Temple Tax, which was a voluntary contribution donated only by males over the age of twenty, the fiscus Iudaicus was an obligatory tax paid universally, by all Jews, male and female, until the age of sixty-two.
Thus, it is now clear why Pius VII looked to the Flavians as an example. He closed the Jews back in the Ghetto. It is interesting that in the XVIII century Titus was celebrated for his clemency. For example, the opera of Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito, on an Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio. This perception was based on the opening lines of Suetonius Life of Titus, stating that Titus was "amor ac deliciae generis humani", the delight and darling of the human race; such surpassing ability had he, by nature, art, or good fortune, to win the affections of all men, and that, too, which is no easy task, while he was emperor". Yet, a close look at Suetonius show a different darker image of the Roman ruler, For example, during the rule of his father, Titus " He also assumed the command of the praetorian guard, which before that time had never been held except by a Roman knight, and in this office conducted himself in a somewhat arrogant and tyrannical fashion. For whenever he himself regarded anyone with suspicion, he would secretly send some of the Guard to the various theatres and camps, to demand their punishment as if by consent of all who were present; and then he would put them out of the way without delay…Although by such conduct he provided for his safety in the future, he incurred such odium at the time that hardly anyone ever came to the throne with so evil a reputation or so much against the desires of all.
Besides cruelty, he was also suspected of riotous living, since he protracted his revels until the middle of the night with the most prodigal of his friends; likewise of unchastity because of his troops of catamites and eunuchs, and his notorious passion for queen Berenice, to whom it was even said that he promised marriage." It is difficult to paint a more negative image of a ruler. Yet, the pope restored the Arch of Titus because he wanted to convey a clear message, as Napoleon, who followed in the footstep of Augustus, emancipated the Jews, the pope in the wake of Titus, shall bring back them to the Ghetto.
There it was. The Jews would live in the squalors and misery of the Ghetto for a long time. No surprise that many Jews from Rome took part in the Risorgimento, that brought to the creation of a united independent Italy under King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy in 1861. Many Jews fought in the defense of the short lived Repubblica Romana, which in 1849, under the rule of a triumvirate headed by Mazzini, granted full civil rights to the Jews. Among the Jewish soldiers under the command of Garibaldi were the young Giacomo Venezian and Davide Lolli, a student of medicine from far away Gorizia, who joined the Student's Battalion. Then, the 20 September of 1870 the Italian army after breeching Porta Pia, one of the gates of Rome, liberated the city. The new Italian liberal nation brought full emancipation to the Jews of Rome. The officer that commanded one of the batteries of the artillery of the Italian Regio Esercito was a Jewish career officer, Giacomo Segre. Among the Bersaglieri's officers was the younger brother of Edgardo Mortara, Riccardo, the last Jewish child taken from the bosom of his parents in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, in 1858.
The Journey of the Jews of Rome is overwhelmingly intertwined with the destiny of Italy and the Italians and the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Rome 1849-1871. Jews of Rome between Segregation and Emancipation makes this clear. In addition, a visit to the New Wing in the Vatican Museums testifies to the long history and presence of the Jews in Rome with the representation from the arch of Titus and a must-see for a slightly different sculpture relief of it.