Rome, Oct. 29 – Of the colonies of foreign residents for which Rome
in ancient times was celebrated all have been altered and
modernized, with one single exception—the Jewish colony, which has
practically remained unchanged since the year 160 B.C. And yet the
Jews of Rome have been persecuted through the centuries, they have
been trampled under foot and made to pay heavy taxes, they have been
forbidden to have intercourse with Christians, prohibited from
walking the streets and subjected to every possible humiliation.
The centre of the Jewish settlement
in Rome was the Porticus of Octavia, where Vespasian and Titus
celebrated their triumph after the fall of Jerusalem. Among the
spectators of this celebration stood the historian Flavius Josephus,
“the base Jewish courtier,” to whom we owe a description of the
In the early days of the city the
region between the river and the Janiculum was marshy and so
unhealthful that it was chosen by the Senate as a place of residence
for prisoners of war whom they wished to destroy. Here the Jews were
The first Jewish slaves are said to
have been brought to Rome by Pompey the Great after he had entered
Jerusalem and taken the Holy of Holies, but the Jewish colony on the
banks of the Tiber was already flourishing before the time of
Pompey, other Jews having previously been driven from their native
land by poverty, besides the many brought as slaves behind the
chariots of their Roman conquerors. Here they all took refuge. Many
of them perished, but many lived to form in course of time a poor
and unhealthful but populous quarter of their own.
Some of them became wealthy, and
leaving the home of their co-religionaries settled in fashionable
quarters in the city. St. Peter is said to have been the guest of
Aquila and Priscilla, who lived on the slopes of the Aventine. The
Jewish Princes Herod and Agrippa lived in Rome in wealth and honor
and found a home in the palace of the early Caesars. Bernice, the
daughter of Agrippa, was on the point of marrying Titus and becoming
Empress of Rome.
Julius Caesar was the first and one
of the few of the Roman benefactors of the Jews. He loosed their
bonds of slavery and allowed them to form a separate caste, that of
the Libertini. His murder was therefore mourned by them as nothing
less than a national calamity.
Augustus, the founder of the
empire, was merciful to the Jews, but Tiberius and Caligula ill
treated the colony and determined to exterminate it. Titus employed
thousands of Jews in building the Coliseum, and Vespasian obliged
them to pay a tax of two drachmae, formerly paid to the temple
treasury, to Jupiter Capitolinus, a custom which survived until the
seventeenth century, when the Jews of Rome were made to pay a
tribute of 1,200 gold florins to the Camera Capitolina, to which
were added thirty denari in memory of the betrayal of Judas.
Under Domitian the Jews were
banished from the city to the Valley of Egeria, where they lived in
a state of outlawry, occupying themselves with soothsaying, love
charms and mysterious cures, their furniture being restricted to a
basket suspended from a tree and a bundle of straw. Juvenal says
that every tree of the sacred grove rendered a tax to the Roman
During the reigns of the early
Popes the Jews enjoyed considerable liberty. The Transtiberine
quarter still continued to be inhabited by the Jews, but after the
pillage of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084 they migrated to the
opposite bank of the Tiber and settled among the remains of the
Porticus of Octavia, close by the Fabian bridge, which then acquired
the name of Pons Judeorum.
A reason for the peaceful life and
the liberty they enjoyed is found in the fact that they were then
the bankers of the Holy See. They often lent money to the Popes at a
high rate of interest, sometimes as much as 20 per cent, and
generally they borrowed the money from the Christian bankers at a
very low rate of interest.
They were skilled in medicine, so
much so that the Pope’s physician or Pentifical archiater was for a
considerable time a Jew. Martin V, Eugene IV, Innocent VII, and Pius
II were all attended by Hebrew doctors, and it is said that Innocent
VIII at the point of death, was advised by a Jewish physician to
have his blood rejuvenated with the blood of three boys. The
operation proved far from successful, as the Pope as well as the
three boys died, but the doctor saved his life by flight.
Some Jews held important offices in
the Papal court. One, a certain B. Abraham, was intendent of the
household of Alexander III. Several wealthy Jewish families abjured
the faith of their fathers and acquired considerable power and
influence under the Papal Government, such, for instance, as the
Brancas and the Pierleonis whose descendant was the anti-Pope
There is a tradition that two
members of the Pierleoni family, which was considered one of the
patrician houses of Rome, migrated to Germany in 1450 and became the
heads of the Hapsburg family. Lucrezia, the last representative of
the family, who died in the year 1582 and is buried in the Church of
Santa Maria della Conzolazione at Rome, is proclaimed in an
inscription on her tomb to be “the only surviving daughter of the
most noble Roman and Austrian race.”
Paul IV (1555-59) was the first
real enemy of the Jews. He ordered that they should live apart from
the Christians in a quarter of their own, surrounded by a wall with
but one entrance and one exit, and on July 15, 1555, the Jews were
shut up in the place which has since been called Ghetto, an
abbreviation of Borghetto (little town) in contradistinction to
Borgo (town), and which at the time was known as Vicus Judeorum.
Four Christian churches which were
within the enclosure were pulled down, while the piazza close by the
prison of the Jews was called Piazza del Pianto, or Place of
Weeping, to testify to the grief of the people. It is said, however,
and perhaps with greater probability of truth, that the place was so
called after the close by Church of Santa Maria del Pianto, where an
image of the Virgin shed tears on beholding a murder committed at
The humiliations and vexations
suffered by the Roman Jews have in many cases been exaggerated.
Martin V (1417-31) caused the Jews to wear a sign by which they
could be distinguished from the Christians. This sign varied.
Originally it consisted in red overcoats for men and women alike.
Later the letter O in yellow was worn sewed on the breast. Under
Paul IV the men wore yellow conical caps and the women veils of the
The difference in the color or cut
of the clothes worn by various classes of people was a matter of
custom in the Middle Ages and certainly it did not originate nor was
it intended as a special humiliation for the Jews.
The races which the Jews were
compelled to run during the Carnival have been qualified as a cruel
custom and an increase of the many humiliations to which they were
subjected, and yet, together with the Jews, Christian old men and
boys used to run as well, and when Pope Clement IX abolished the
races for the Jews the customer of having Christian boys run races
with the asses still continued.
It must be admitted, however, that
as a rule common law penalties were applied with more severity in
the case of Jews than of Christians, especially in crimes against
morality, for which Christians were punished merely with fustigation
while Jews were burned at the stake.
Sixtus V treated the Jews better
than his predecessors owing to the fact that they belonged to “the
family from whom Christ came,” and he granted them the privilege to
practice several kinds of trades. Clement VIII and Innocent XIII
restricted their liberty to only two trades, namein, those in old
clothes and rags and iron, “stracci ferracci,” which they are still
playing at the present day.
Gregory XIII forced the Jews to
hear a sermon once a week in the Church of Saint Angelo in Pescheria,
and this custom was renewed in 1832 by Leo XII and only abolished in
1848 by Pius IX, who opened the gates of the Ghetto and revoked all
the oppressive laws against the Jews.
Near the Ghetto, in memory of this
custom, stands to this day a church called the Divine Pity, erected
by a converted Jew, which bears on the outside a picture of the
Crucifixion with the following inscription in Latin and Hebrew: “All
day long have I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and
The Jews had their synagogues and
schools near the Ghetto. Originally these temples stood on the banks
of the river. Later temples rose in various parts of the city, but
the new synagogue has been built, following the ancient custom
again, near the river and not far from the Ghetto, where the
majority of modern Jews in the city still reside.
Thus the Jewish colony, or at least
the greater part of it, has kept the habits of 2,200 years ago and
retained to a great extent its old characteristics.
The poor classes still cling to
their religion and habits, keep the Sabbath, when either they do not
light any fire or have it kindled by a Christian servant, refrain
from passing under the arch of Titus, erected in the year 81 A.D. to
commemorate the fall of Jerusalem, and regularly walk out of the
Porta Portese, by which the expected Messiah is supposed to enter
Rome. The well to do Jews are less careful to observe old customs
and it has been remarked they seem to have given up the profitable
trade of lending money at usury probably on account of the
successful competition of their Christian rivals.