Honors Rome - Summer 2008
The history of the Jews in Rome is a story of marginalization, persecution, and struggle for survival. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the formation of Italy as a modern state, the Jews were treated as second-class citizens, deprived of basic rights and freedoms. For three hundred years under papal rule, the entire Jewish community of Rome was imprisoned within the walls of a ghetto. The degrading and isolating conditions of the ghetto segregated the Jews from the rest of Rome. This paper will evaluate Pope Paul IV’s motives for forcing the Jews to move into the ghetto, the conditions of the ghetto itself, and the ghetto’s long-term effects on the Jewish community of Rome. After thousands of years of persecution, it is a testament to the Jews’ ability to endure hardships that a Jewish community in Rome still exists today.
Historical records estimate that Jews first appeared in Rome in year 80 AD; however some scholars believe that there have been Jews living in Rome since the time of Antiochus (roughly 161 BCE). Under the Roman Empire, the Jews were treated relatively well. The Romans did not particularly mind deviances from their own religious practices; they merely required that all citizens regularly paid taxes to the Roman God Jupiter. The Jews adhered to this provision, and for the most part they were left alone.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and spread of Christianity in year 476 AD, the Jews experienced a harsh decline in their status as citizens. Under Christian rule they were not granted full citizenship rights, and as a result they received no protection under common law (Chazan). Instead, each emperor established protection charters for the Jews at his own discretion. The charters aimed to preserve Jewish rights regarding property ownership, business transactions, and legal disputes. The content of the charters changed frequently depending on the ruling emperor, creating an unstable environment for the Jews with regards to their legal rights. However, until the mid sixteenth century the Jews of Rome generally accepted the provisions of the charters (Bachrach). They recognized their inferior legal standing, but appreciated that they were granted more rights in Rome than they would have received from other areas in Europe during the same time period.
In the early 1550’s Pope Paul IV came into power. The leader of the counter-reformation movement, Paul IV was different from his predecessors because he fervently believed that the End of Days was about to occur (Stowe). As such, Paul IV aimed to convert as many people to Catholicism as possible. His primary choice of converts was the Jewish people. Paul IV decreed that all Jews in Rome move from their homes into a ghetto where they were treated mercilessly unless they converted. Before the time of the ghetto, the Jews of Rome lived in thirteen separate communities throughout the city and each community practiced its own form of Judaism. Under Paul IV’s rule, the thirteen communities were forced to consolidate into one. Paul IV chose the poorest and dirtiest community as the location for the ghetto, on the bank of the Tiber River which overflowed constantly and polluted the entire area ghetto (Grayzel).
Reasons for the Ghetto
Pope Paul IV acted on both internal and external motivations when he decreed that all Jews be imprisoned within the ghetto walls. These motivations included Spanish and Portuguese political influences, the rise of Protestantism, the perceived economic threat that Jews posed to their Christian neighbors, and most importantly, Paul IV’s desire to convert all Jews to Catholicism.
Shortly before Paul IV came into power, Spain and Portugal expelled all Jews living within their borders. Spain and Portugal were regarded as the most advanced European states of their time, and their treatment toward Jews set a standard for other European countries (Grayzel). The Jewish expulsions from these nations influenced the Roman-Catholic church and spread the notion that Jews ought to be separated from their Christian neighbors. To that end, Paul IV decreed that all Jews be imprisoned within the ghetto, excluded from the rest of Roman Catholic society.
The rise of Protestantism in the mid sixteenth century posed a threat to the prominence of the Catholic Church. Amidst a backdrop of anti-Semitic overtones, Luther attempted to gain popularity by expressing anti-Jewish sentiments and encouraging Jewish extermination. The Catholic Church responded by fervently propagating their own anti-Semitic beliefs. In a perverse race to gain social influence, both the Protestants and the Catholics began to measure religious zeal by their hatred towards Jews (Grayzel). Under Paul IV, the Roman Catholic Church expressed their hatred towards Jews by demanding that all Jews be imprisoned within the ghetto walls in July of 1555.
Pope Paul IV’s decree was also motivated by his increasing fear that Jewish professional successes posed an economic threat to Catholics. By forcing all Jews to move into the ghetto, Paul IV denied them many job opportunities. Jews were reduced from successful bankers, merchants, and politicians to workers at the lowest economic level Inside the ghetto, they were allowed to enter only two professions: pawn-broking or trade in secondhand goods (Grayzel). In 1668, the Catholic Church started a movement to prohibit all Jews from banking because “true Christian piety does not indulge the Jews in usurious matters” (Stowe). To add insult to injury, the Catholic Church imposed a heavy tax on all Jews living inside the ghetto. Only a few Jewish families who managed to maintain the wealth they had earned prior to living in the ghetto could afford to pay the tax; they bore the burden for the entire Jewish community.
While all of the above factors influenced Paul IV’s decision to establish the Jewish ghetto, his primary motive was to promote conversion to Catholicism, “turn[ing] back the tide of heresy” (Seltzer). Paul IV hoped that imprisoning the Jews within the ghetto would encourage conversion, appealing to the 16th century social theory that criminal incarcerations and strict workhouse regimens can drive criminals to change their ways and reintegrate into society (Stowe). Paul IV created strong disincentives for the Jews to maintain their religious commitments; his actions “violated canonical limits” (Seltzer). These included censorship of all Jewish literature, Talmud burnings, and heavy taxing. Paul IV promised that the Jews would be treated with tolerance if and only if they made “haste to arrive at the true light of the Catholic faith” (Stowe). He expanded the House of Catechumens (a house for converts built in 1543) and required all occupants of the ghetto to attend conversionary sermons. Failures of the Jewish community to meet their quotas and listen attentively to the sermons resulted in severe punishment.
Conditions of the Ghetto
The ghetto itself consisted of an area inside four walled city-blocks, or approximately 33,000 square meters. When the ghetto was first built, there was only one gate for the Jews to enter and exit. By 1589 there was already severe overcrowding inside the ghetto; by 1824 the ghetto population had expanded to 7,000 and seven more gates were added. Still, the amount of space allotted for the Jews was inadequate. To accommodate for the growing population, the Jews built additional stories on top of each building. This blocked out sunlight and made the ghetto a dark and dreary place, even during daytime. Inside the ghetto, the Jews’ only access to clean water was the Fontana delle Tarfughe (Turtle Fountain), built in 1588 by Giacomo della Porta and Taddeo Landini and renovated in 1658 under the supervision of Pope Alexander VII.
The gates of the ghetto were carefully monitored and locked at night. Jews were only permitted to leave during certain times of day and could never stay outside the ghetto overnight. Upon leaving they were forced to wear pointed hats and yellow badges, disclosing their Jewish identities to the outside world and promoting ridicule and harassment from their Christian neighbors. The gatekeepers of the ghetto mostly consisted of members of the Mattei family who lived outside the ghetto, and who passed their job on from generation to generation. Piazza Mattei was named after the Mattei family and the Fontana delle Tarfughe was constructed in their honor.
During the first hundred years that the Jews were imprisoned inside the ghetto, the Romans held a yearly carnival, during which they held animal races. Jews were often forced to compete against the animals, wearing nothing but loincloths. This practice was degrading and dehumanizing. The Jews begged for their mandatory participation in the games to end. In 1668, the Romans finally established a tax that the Jews could pay to avoid participating in the carnival. Paying the tax was undoubtedly less humiliating than participating in the carnival, but nonetheless the tax was a constant reminder to the Jews of the atrocities committed against them.
Inside the ghetto there were five synagogues located in a building called Cinque Scole. The synagogues were separated by different levels of observance and places of family origin. The distinctions were reminiscent of the thirteen Jewish communities that existed in Rome before Paul IV was elected to the papacy. The Jews of the ghetto found consolation inside Cinque Scole. There they were free to escape from the harsh realities of the outside world and embrace spirituality through prayer and rigorous study. The safety of the synagogues was not to be taken for granted, however. Mobs of monks frequently invaded Cinque Scole, vandalizing the synagogues and physically threatening the Jews in efforts to convert them to Catholicism (Grayzel).
The isolation of ghetto life transformed the question of conversion from a religious matter to a social matter. In choosing the seclusion of the ghetto walls over conversion, the Jews succumbed to their status as outsiders. The ghetto separated the Jews from the rest of Roman society both physically and psychologically. Physically, bricked walls and locked gates made interactions between ghetto occupants and the outside world impossible. Psychologically, the Jews were constantly reminded that the duration of their isolation was in their own control; the mere decision to reject Judaism and embrace Catholicism as the true religion would end their imprisonment (Stowe). Unfortunately this was cold comfort for many Jews; converting to Catholicism under such self-deprecating terms was an impossible choice.
Post-Ghetto Conditions for Jews in Rome
The Jews’ imprisonment inside the ghetto walls lasted for three hundred years. They were finally freed when Italy became a unified country in the mid nineteenth century; only then, for the first time in history, were the Jews of Rome granted equal status as citizens. Still, Italy had not seen the end of anti-Semitism. The spread of fascism and German occupation of Italy during World War II again questioned the Jews’ legitimacy as citizens. In 1943 two thousand Jews were rounded up by Nazis in front of Templo Maggiore and sent to concentration camps, where nearly all were brutally murdered. When the war ended, only ten of the initial two thousand returned.
Mistreatment towards Jews in Rome occurred even after the end of World War II. In the 1980’s a terrorist group attacked Templo Maggiore. In response to the attack, the entrance to the synagogue is now heavily guarded. The bullet holes from the attack remain embedded within the temple walls, blemishing an otherwise ornate and glamorous building with reminders of the Jews’ difficult past.
Paul IV’s goal of converting the Jews of Rome to Catholicism was never achieved. During the Jews’ imprisonment inside the ghetto, only a few people converted each year. The Catholic Church’s failure to initiate massive conversions demonstrates the Jews’ determination to survive and maintain their religious traditions. Today the Jewish community of Rome has a population of 16,000. The elaborately constructed Templo Maggiore located in the heart of the old ghetto represents the Jews’ abilities to overcome hardships and rise above years of persecution. Today the Jews of Rome are finally able to embrace their status as equal citizens under the law.
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Chazan, Robert. (1980). Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages. New Jersey: Behrman House, 1980.
Grayzel, Solomon. (1968). A History of the Jews. New York: Plume.
Seltzer, Robert M. (2003). Jewish People, Jewish Thought. The Jewish Experience in History. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Stow, Kenneth R. (1992). Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.