Through the Arch of Titus


There was a brief moment during the installation of Pope Benedict XVI last week when it seemed a historical pity that Rome was no longer under papal rule. That unlikely moment came during Benedict's homily, when he paused to address those outside the Church, including the Jews. "With great affection I also greet . . . you, my brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage, one rooted in God's irrevocable promises."

His remarks were dramatically different from the words spoken for centuries by newly installed popes as the temporal rulers of the Jews of Rome. The pity is that Benedict's warm sentiments couldn't be received directly by the ancient community that had endured so many difficult years under Benedict's predecessors.

When the popes ruled Rome, an installation included a procession between St. Peter's and the Lateran. Each new pope would be met en route by a delegation of Rome's Jews, who would wish the new pontiff well and present him with a copy of the Pentateuch. The medievalist Ferdinand Gregorovius thought this curious tradition may have begun with the emperors of imperial Rome. That's possible; the city's Jewish community dates to Pompey, and it has seen every pagan emperor as well as every Christian Pontifex Maximus who ruled from Rome. Throughout this entire history, Jewish Rome has been centered along the same bend of the Tiber, having only crossed the ancient Ponte Fabricio from one bank to the other.

Anyway, nearly all the new popes received the Roman Jews' gift of Scripture with the same formula: We affirm the Law, but reject your interpretation of it. Some popes said more and worse, and some are recorded as tossing the gift to the ground. At one time, it was even the responsibility of Rome's Jews to place decorative hangings on various landmarks along the pope's processional route. Among the sites they had to beautify was, invariably, the Arch of Titus, which was notable because the local Jews abominated it; the reliefs still show Titus' triumphal procession of the Temple's treasures. The city's Jews never passed beneath the Arch.

(One pope, by the way, was from the Roman Jewish community. Anacletus II of the converted Pierleoni family held the Papacy from 1130 until 1138 under disputed circumstances; he is today counted among the anti-popes.)

Benedict's warm words during his homily probably didn't surprise anyone; as Cardinal Ratzinger he was reportedly instrumental in arranging John Paul II's historic 1987 visit to Rome's major synagogue. It's easy to understand why that visit is so celebrated. While numerous popes sought good relations with Jewish Rome (Gregory the Great, Martin V, Sixtus V, Clement VII, John XXIII, etc.), many tried to crush it. The worst case was surely Paul IV (1555-1559), whose brief but appalling reign was an authoritarian nightmare. He used the Inquisition to terrorize the city, systemized the censorious Index and burned thousands of books, imprisoned some of his own cardinals, and published Cum Nimis Absurdum, which established a walled Jewish ghetto. When the hated Paul died, the city erupted in a riot; a mob burned down the Inquisition headquarters, decapitated Paul's statue, and threw its pieces into the Tiber. The city's Jews, however, were to remain trapped in their pestilential ghetto for three centuries.

A series of harsh popes was to make life in that ghetto extremely difficult, mandating that Jews wear identifying badges, subjecting them to weekly conversion sermons, tolerating forced baptisms, and preventing them from pursuing any profession or almost any trade. You can walk around the ghetto's old perimeter in less than 10 minutes; it once held 4,000 people. The ghetto was finally abolished only with the end of papal temporal rule in 1870.

Today the Papal States are merely another Roman memory, just as is Titus, and still Rome's Jews remain near the Ponte Fabricio. Close by that bridge stands the city's great synagogue. When John Paul II entered its sanctuary, the ancient congregation rose to welcome him by singing the exaltations of Psalm 150. Praise ye the Lord, they sang. Praise him with the timbrel and dance. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.

NEXT: God Made Man, But A Monkey Supplied the Glue

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  1. “Anyway, nearly all the new popes received the Roman Jews’ gift of Scripture with the same formula: We affirm the Law, but reject your interpretation of it.”

    …especially the first, second and fourth commandments, which God, apparently, miswrote with his own hand.

    That’s some rejection of relativism!

    “When John Paul II entered its sanctuary, the ancient congregation rose to welcome him by singing the exaltations of Psalm 150. Praise ye the Lord, they sang. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet; praise him with the timbrel and dance. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.”

    Did they throw palm fronds before his feet? Did he forgive their sins?

  2. Well, I thought it was a very nice post. πŸ˜›

  3. Thanks for that fascinating stroll down pious racist history lane. Now for the love of Dog, can we pleeeeeeeease limit posts to 300 words?

  4. no!

    good stuff, mr. freund.

  5. I’ve been fascinated with all the papal history on H&R. It’s been the only bright spot in an otherwise miserable slog of “ALL POPE, ALL THE TIME” coverage in the MSM. But now, can we PLEASE move on?

  6. That was an historically very interesting post, and an encouraging episode of contemporary religious tolerance. Thank you for it Charles. This part gave me pause…

    “The worst case was surely Paul IV (1555-1559), whose brief but appalling reign was an authoritarian nightmare.”

    …Because, due to the close chronology, I got him confused with Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who Raphael painted the fabulous, The School of Athens for. This painting of many ancient philosophers still hangs in the Vatican and is quite interesting in its own right:

    I have the poster and I framed it. Next time we have H&R blog show and tell; I’ll take a digpic and post it. πŸ™‚

  7. Freund, that was a great read, full of weird stuff and half-forgotten history … whatever it means, I will leave to the libertarians, but plz keep posting such detailed little history books, because they’re great fun to read.

  8. Gimme that old time religion.

  9. Interesting little article. I read it all.

  10. yes, great post πŸ™‚

  11. Hated as Paul IV was, he was the most “straight-shooting” pope of the late Rennaisance (though, many would claim he singlehandedly killed it as well). He cleaned up the Curia, tossed out the whores and thieves, and generally tried to actually practice what he preached.

  12. The worst part about hooking a new pope that is so close to death is that he’s going to die soon. And we’re going to have to go through this shit all over again.

    Is the world ready to stop talking about this yet? PLEASE?

  13. What Friar Tuck said. Great post–always good to have a ‘history moment’, and Mr. Freund is one of the most consistently interesting writers around!

  14. Very interesting post, Mr. Freund…this should be a full-blown article, not “just” a blog entry.

  15. Yes, a very good read Charles

    Rick Barton, who’s the slouch lying on the stairs in the middle? Seems like my kind of guy!

  16. I agree, good post.

    Wasn’t there a time when there were, like, 7 popes or something? It was in the middle ages, but I don’t remember the details. I didn’t do too well in school… :/

  17. The was a point when there were three popes at once, during the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Captivity,’ when the papacy was forcibly relocated to Avignon, France and answered to the French king. Popes spent decades excommunicating each other. Some of the most interesting aspects of history, to me, involve the Catholic Church and its relationship with secular authority.
    A great post!

  18. Thanks Steve M, that’s not what I was thinking of, so I’m probably totally off base. (Or maybe it was what I was thinking of but I’m just totally clueless.)


  19. it is interesting, mr freund, but it is (as almost everything here dealing with catholic religion is) unidirectional. the magazine often doesn’t seem to have any conception of human faith and therefore abhors mysticism — with tragic and militant myopia, imo, refusing to contemplate the better part of human existence. judaism often comes in for rightful praise for its unmystical rabbinical tradition; but why must a mystery religion like catholicism be scorned so at every single opportunity? it makes reason look quite narrowminded and abstractly irrelevant to the reality of a social human existence to continually do so.

  20. If we are going to post the 10 commandments in government buildings, the time has come for Congress to repeal the second commandment.

  21. Hey gaius, get with the program! Don’t you know that every good Libertarian is required to be anti-religious? Read your freakin’ Manual!

  22. Is it true that, during this ceremony, some of the mediaeval popes used to ritually kick the kneeling Chief Rabbi of Rome in the backside? I read this, I think, in Michael walsh’s “Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy” (1983), but have heard elsewhere that it never happened.

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