The Jewish Community of Rome is probably the oldest in the world, with a continuous existence from classical times down to the present day. The first record of Jews in Rome is in 161 BCE, when Jason b. Elazar and Eupolemus b. Johanan are said to have gone there as envoys from Judah Maccabee. The Roman Jews are said to have been conspicuous in the mourning for Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. On the death of Herod in 4 BCE, 8,000 native Roman Jews are reported to have escorted the Jewish delegates from Judea who came to
request that the Senate abolished the Herodian monarchy. Two synagogues were seemingly founded by “freedmen” who had been slaves of Augustus (d.14 CE) and Agrippa (d.12 BCE), respectively, and bore their names. There was also from an early date a Samaritan synagogue in Rome, which continued to exist for centuries. Although the position of the Roman Jews must have been adversely affected by the great Roman-Jewish wars in Judea in 66-73 and 132-135, the prisoners of war brought back as slaves ultimately gave a great impetus to the Jewish population.
From the second half of the first century CE, the Roman Jewish community seems to have been firmly established. A delegation of scholars from Eretz Israel in 95-96, led by the Patriarch Gamliel II, found as its religious head the enthusiastic but unlearned Theudas. The total number of Jews in Rome has been estimated as high as 40,000, but was probably nearer 10,000. Besides the beggars and peddlers, there were physicians, actors and poets, but the majority of the members of the community were shopkeepers and craftsmen (tailors, tentmakers, butchers, lime burners). With the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperors, the position of the Jews changed immediately for the worse.
While Judaism remained officially a tolerated religion as before, its actual status deteriorated, and every pressure was brought on the Jews to adopt the now-dominant faith. In 387-388, a Christian mob, after systematically destroying heathen temples, turned its attention to the synagogues and burned one of them to the ground.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the Christian bishop of Rome, the Pope, became the dominant force in the former imperial city and the immediate neighborhood, with moral authority recognized, to a greater or lesser degree, over the whole of Western Christianity.
Hence, over a period of some 1,400 years, the history of the Jews in Rome is in great part the reflection of the papal policies toward the Jews. However, up to the period of the counter-reformation in the 16th century, the papal anti-Jewish pronouncements were applied less strictly in Rome than by zealous rulers and ecclesiastics abroad, although the general papal protective policies were followed more faithfully in Rome itself than elsewhere.
The anti-Jewish legislation of the fourth Lateran Council (1215) inspired by Pope Innocent III does not seem to have been strictly enforced in the papal capital. There is some evidence that copies of the Talmud were burned here after its condemnation in Paris in 1245. The wearing of the Jewish badge was imposed in 1257 and the city statutes of 1360 ordered male Jews to wear a red tabard, and the women a red
The entire tenor of Roman Jewish life suddenly changed for the worse with the counter-reformation. In 1542, a tribunal of the holy office on the Spanish model was set up in Rome and in 1553, Cornelio Da Montalcino, a Franciscan friar who had embraced Judaism, was burned alive on the Camp dei Fiori. In 1543, a home for converted Jews (house of catechumens), later to be the scene of many tragic episodes, was established, a good part of the burden of upkeep being imposed on the Jews themselves. On Rosh Hashanah (September 4) 1553, the Talmud with many more Hebrew books was committed to the flames after official condemnation. On July 12, 1555, Pope Paul IV issued his bull, cum nimis absurdum, which reenacted remorselessly against the Jews all the restrictive ecclesiastical Legislation hitherto only intermittently enforced. This comprised the segregation of the Jews in a special quarter, henceforth called the ghetto; the wearing of the Jewish badge, now specified as a yellow hat in the case of men, a yellow kerchief in the case of women; prohibitions on owning real estate, on being called by any title of respect such as signor, on the employment by Christians of Jewish physicians, and on dealing in corn and other necessities of life; and virtual restriction to dealing in old clothes and second-hand goods.
This initiated the ghetto period in Rome, and continued to govern the life of Roman Jewry for more than 300 years. Occasional raids were made as late as the 18th century on the ghetto to ensure that the Jews did not possess any “forbidden” books – that is, in effect, any literature other than the Bible, Liturgy, and carefully expurgated ritual codes. Each Saturday selected members of the community were compelled to go to a neighboring church to listen to proseletysing sermons, running the gauntlet of the insults of the populace. In some reactionary interludes, the yellow Jewish hat had to be worn even inside the ghetto.
In the ghetto there were five synagogues or “Scole,” located on different floors of the same building: the Scola Tempio for the most ancient Roman Jews, the Scola Nova for those that came from small villages of Lazio, the Siciliana for the Jewish refugees from Southern Italy, the Catalana and the Castigliana for the Spanish Jews.
On the accession of Pius IX in 1846, the gates and walls of the ghetto were removed, but thereafter the once-kindly Pope turned reactionary and relentlessly enforced anti-Jewish restrictions until the end. During the Roman Republic of 1849, under Mazzini, Jews participated in public life, and three were elected to the short-lived constituent assembly; but within five months the papal reactionary rule was reestablished to last, without any perceptible liberalization, until the capture of Rome by the forces of United Italy in 1870.
On October 13, a royal decree abolished all religious disabilities from which citizens of the new capital had formerly suffered, and the Jews of Rome were henceforth on the same legal footing as their fellow Romans. It was only during the period after World War I, with the remarkable development of Rome itself, that Roman Jewry may be said to have regained the primacy in Italian Jewish life which it had enjoyed in the remote past.
With the armistice of September 8th, Rome remained under the German-controlled Mussolini’s Social Republic. Himmler ordered immediate preparations for the arrest and deportation of all Jews in Rome and the vicinity – over 10,000 persons. H. Kappler, the S.S. Commanding officer in Rome, first extorted 50 kg of gold from the Jewish community, to be paid by September 26 (on 36 hours’ notice), with a warning that 200 Jews would otherwise be put to death. The gold, which was collected among the Jews without resorting to outside aid, was delivered on time. Nevertheless, on September 29, a special German police force broke into the community offices and looted the ancient archives; and on October 13, looted the excellent and priceless libraries of the community and the Rabbinic college.
On October 16, a mass manhunt of Rome’s Jews was carried out by German forces, who under Kappler and Dannecker’s orders made house-to-house searches on every street, and arrested men, women, and children. Some of the population assisted Jews in escaping or hiding, but nevertheless 1,007 Jews were caught and sent to Auschwitz where they were killed.
From then on, until June 4, 1944, the day of the liberation, the methodic roundup of Jews continued. In this latter period over 1,000 Jews were caught and put to death at Auschwitz. A total of 2,091 Jews (1,067 men, 74 women, and 281 children) were killed in this manner. Another 73 Jews were among the 335 prisoners executed in the Fosse Ardeatine, outside Rome, as a retaliatory measure against Italian partisan action against the Nazi occupants in Rome.
In 1967, nearly 5000 Jews from Libya settled in Rome. The exodus of Libyan Jews had began in 1948 when a large section of the population had moved to Israel. The new community which shared the ancient roots of the Roman Jews, integrated at all levels of the Roman Jewish society and, in many ways, brought along an extraordinary wave of revitalization.
Today, Rome is home to a flourishing and diverse Jewish community.