Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Romans and the Jews

View of the Colosseum (left) and Arch of Titus (right)

One major advantage of being a CERN Wife is travel, because CERN physicists, who come from over 80 countries, have international meetings to discuss their work, and some fortunate spouses tag along as tourists, which I did last week when the ALICE collaboration held a meeting in Frascati, Italy – a half-hour train ride from Rome.  

The Arch of Titus

When I toured Rome years ago, the Arch of Titus had impressed me, and I wanted to examine it once more.  I was discussing the remarkable bas-reliefs on the inside of the arch with my friend Susan, who was with me in Rome last week.  Both of us remembered bas-relief figures of the triumphant Roman soldiers and of enchained Jewish slaves carrying the Temple’s gold Menorah, which the Romans took while sacking Jerusalem in 70 CE.  But before heading to see the arch, which is in the Roman Forum, we spent several hours in the Colosseum, and were most surprised by one placard where it was written that the Colosseum was financed by “booty” from the “Jewish Revolt” against Rome.  WHAT?  Don’t the Colosseum historians know that the Jewish Revolt, led by Simon Bar Kochba, started in 132 CE, whereas construction of the Colosseum began in 72 CE and was completed in 80 CE?  Susan and I were puzzled: why such a blatant anachronism?

Bas-reliefs on one side of the Arch of Titus

Then we walked through the Roman Forum, passing majestic columns, stone paths, remnants of buildings, and current archeological digs and headed straight to the Arch of Titus.  But instead of bas-reliefs of enchained Jewish slaves holding the Menorah, we saw laurel-bedecked proud Roman soldiers parading with the Temple’s treasures.  How could our memories have been so wrong?

Roman soldiers carrying Menorah and other treasures

Victorious Roman soldiers with their horses

The following day we strolled through the old Jewish ghetto, where we sat outside at a kosher restaurant and consumed one of Rome’s most famous dishes – carciofi alla giudia – Jewish style artichokes, which are deep fried in olive oil and transformed into a golden-green crispy flower.  We also visited the outstanding Jewish Museum and took a guided tour of Rome’s Great Synagogue, which was built between 1901 and 1904.  The synagogue tour turned out to be a history lesson about Italian Jews.  Although Jews were brought to Rome as slaves after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, they had actually been in Rome since the second century BCE, a time when the Maccabees sought the help of Rome to fight the Assyrian Greek Seleucid Empire, which controlled ancient Judea.  Thus, Jews lived in Rome almost 500 years before the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  

Rome's Great Synagogue

During the Counter-Reformation of the mid-16th century, which was a Catholic revival in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Jews of Rome were forced to live in the ghetto (starting in 1555).  By 1882, twelve years after the unification of Italy, Jews were permitted to reside outside the ghetto.  Although its walls were demolished in 1888, the ghetto remains a center of Rome’s Jewish identity, with the Great Synagogue, Jewish school, bakeries and restaurants, and plaques commemorating the round-up of Jews during the Holocaust.

Medieval house in the ghetto

Lining up in front of a Jewish bakery

Police guarding Jewish school (right); restaurant (left)

Ghetto building with Holocaust memorial plaque

So what’s with the story about the booty from the Jewish Revolt financing the construction of the Colosseum?  Since our memories about the bas-reliefs on the Arch of Titus were inaccurate, perhaps Susan and I harbored flawed memories about history.  That, indeed, was the case.  There were two Jewish revolts against the Romans, and we remembered the latter one.  We forgot about the first Jewish revolt against Rome between 66-70 CE, which had triggered a major civil war between Jews, resulted in the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, and culminated in the construction of the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus.  These two tourist attractions are reminders not only of ancient Rome’s power and ingenuity, but also of the intertwining history of the Romans and the Jews.


  1. Fascinating subject. And great pictures.

    1. Thanks, Jill. I need to read some history about Rome in ancient Palestine and the Jewish revolt of 66-70 BCE. Jesus, also, was also a Jewish rebel against Rome at an earlier time, and he was also a rebel against the Jewish orthodoxy of that period. I also need to read more about the Jewish community of Italy. First to come to ancient Rome were traders and diplomats (or so the guide at the synagogue said) from around 165 BCE. Then there were the Jewish slaves brought to Rome after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. In 1492, Spanish Jews arrived who were fleeing from the Inquisition. Very interesting old communities, and I need to read more. As usual.