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Region XI Sant' Angelo

The Region of Sant' Angelo, as has been already said, takes its name from the small church famous in Rienzi's story. It encloses all of what was once the Ghetto, and includes the often-mentioned Theatre of Marcellus, now the palace of the Orsini, but successively a fortress of the Pierleoni, appropriately situated close to the Jews' quarter, and the home of the Savelli. The history of the Region is the history of the Jews in Rome, from Augustus to the destruction of their dwelling-place, about 1890. In other words, the Hebrew colony actually lived during nineteen hundred years at that point of the Tiber, first on one side of the river, and afterwards on the other.

It is said that the first Jews were brought to Rome by Pompey, as prisoners of war, and soon afterwards set free, possibly on their paying a ransom accumulated by half starving themselves, and selling the greater part of their allowance of corn during a long period. Seventeen years later, they were a power in Rome; they had lent Julius Cæsar enormous sums, which he repaid with exorbitant interest, and after his death they mourned him, and kept his funeral pyre burning seven days and nights in the Forum. A few years after that time, Augustus established them on the opposite side of the Tiber, over against the bridge of Cestius and the island. Under Tiberius their numbers had increased to fifty thousand; they had synagogues in Rome, Genoa and Naples, and it is noticeable that their places of worship were always built upon the shore of the sea, or the bank of a river, whence their religious services came to be termed 'orationes littorales'—which one might roughly translate as 'alongshore prayers.'

They were alternately despised, hated, feared and flattered. Tacitus calls them a race of men hated by the gods, yet their kings, Herod and Agrippa—one asks how the latter came by an ancient Roman name—were treated with honour and esteem. The latter was in fact brought up with Drusus, the son of the Emperor Tiberius, his son was on terms of the greatest intimacy with Claudius, and his daughter or grand-daughter Berenice was long and truly loved by Titus, who would have made her Empress had it been possible, to the great scandal of the Emperor's many detractors, as Suetonius has told. Sabina Poppæa, Nero's lowly and evil second wife, loved madly one Aliturius, a Jewish comic actor and a favourite of Nero; and when the younger Agrippa induced Nero to imprison Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and Josephus came to Pozzuoli, having suffered shipwreck like the latter, this same Josephus, the historian of the Jews, got the actor's friendship and by his means moved Poppæa, and through her, Nero, to a first liberation of those whom he describes as 'certain priests of my acquaintance, very excellent persons, whom on a small and trifling charge Felix the procurator of Judæa had put in irons and sent to Rome to plead their cause before Cæsar.' It should not be forgotten that Josephus was himself a pupil of Banus, who, though not a Christian, is believed to have been a follower of John the Baptist. And here Saint John Chrysostom, writing about the year 400, takes up the story and tells how Saint Paul attempted to convert Poppæa and to persuade her to leave Nero, since she had two other husbands living; and how Nero turned upon him and accused him of many sins, and imprisoned him, and when he saw that even in prison the Apostle still worked upon Poppæa's conscience, he at last condemned him to die. Other historians have said that Poppæa turned Jewess for the sake of her Jewish actor, and desired to be buried by the Jewish rite when she was dying of the savage kick that killed her and her child—the only act of violence Nero seems to have ever regretted. However that may be, it is sure that she loved the comedian, and that for a time he had unbounded influence in Rome. And so great did their power grow that Claudius Rutilius, a Roman magistrate and poet, a contemporary of Chrysostom, and not a Christian, expressed the wish that Judæa might never have been conquered by Pompey and subdued again by Titus, 'since the contagion of the cancer, cut out, spreads wider, and the conquered nation grinds its conquerors.'

And so, with varying fortune, they survived the empire which they had seen founded, and the changes of a thousand years, they themselves inwardly unchanged and unchanging, while following many arts and many trades besides money-lending, and they outlived persecution and did not decay in prosperity. In their seven Roman synagogues they set up models of the temple Titus had destroyed, and of the seven-branched candlestick and of the holy vessels of Jerusalem which were preserved in the temple of Peace as trophies of the Jews' subjection; they made candlesticks and vessels of like shape for their synagogues, nursing their hatred, praying for deliverance, and because those sacred things were kept in Rome, it became a holy city for them, and they throve; and by and by they oppressed their victors. Then came Domitian the Jew-hater, and turned them out of their houses and laid heavy taxes upon them, and forced them for a time to live in the caves and wild places and catacombs of the Aventine, and they became dealers in spells and amulets and love philtres, which they sold dear to the ever-superstitious Romans, and Juvenal wrote scornful satires on them. Presently they returned, under Trajan, to their old dwellings by the Tiber. Thence they crept along the Cestian bridge to the island, and from the island by the Fabrician bridge to the other shore, growing rich again by degrees, and crowding their little houses upon the glorious portico of Octavia, where Vespasian and Titus had met the Senate at dawn on the day when they triumphed over the Jews and the fall of Jerusalem, and the very place of the Jews' greatest humiliation became their stronghold for ages.

Then all at once, in the twelfth century, they are the masters. The Pierleoni hold Sant' Angelo, and close to their old quarters fortify the Theatre of Marcellus, and a Pierleone is antipope in name, but a real and ruling Pope in political fact, while Innocent the Second wanders helplessly from town to town, and later, while Lewis the Seventh of France leads the Second Crusade to the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre, the 'Vicar of Christ' is an outcast before the race of those by whom Christ was crucified. That was the highest point of the Jews' greatness in Rome.

From a print of the last century

But it is noticeable that while the Hebrew race possesses in the very highest degree the financial energy to handle and accumulate money, and the tenacity to keep it for a long time, it has never shown that sort of strength which can hold land or political power in adverse circumstances. In the twelfth century the Pierleoni were the masters of Rome; in the thirteenth, they had disappeared from history, though they still held the Theatre of Marcellus; in the fourteenth they seem to have perished altogether and are never heard of again. And it should not be argued that this was due to any overwhelming persecution and destruction of the Jews, since the Pierleoni's first step was an outward, if not a sincere, conversion to Christianity. In strong contrast with these facts stands the history of the Colonna. The researches of the learned Coppi make it almost certain that the Colonna descend from Theodora, the Senatress of Rome, who flourished in the year 914; Pietro della Colonna held Palestrina, and is known to have imprisoned there, 'in an empty cistern,' the governor of Campagna, in the year 1100; like the Orsini, the Colonna boast that during more than five hundred years no treaty was drawn up with the princes of Europe in which their two families were not specifically designated; and at the time of the present writing, in the last days of the nineteenth century, Colonna is still not only one of the greatest names in Europe, but the family is numerous and flourishing, unscathed by the terrible financial disasters which began to ruin Italy in 1888, not notably wealthy, but still in possession of its ancestral palace in Rome, and of immense tracts of land in the hills, in the Campagna, and in the south of Italy—actively engaged, moreover, in the representative government of Italy, strong, solid and full of life, as though but lately risen to eminence from a sturdy country stock—and all this after a career that has certainly lasted eight hundred years, and very probably nearer a thousand. Nor can any one pretend that it owes much to the power or protection of any sovereign, since the Colonna have been in almost constant opposition to the Popes in history, have been exiled and driven from Italy more than once, and have again and again suffered confiscation of all they possessed in the world. There have certainly not been in the same time so many confiscations proclaimed against the Jews.

The question presents itself: why has a prolific race which, as a whole, has survived the fall of kingdoms and empires without end, with singular integrity of original faith and most extraordinary tenacity of tradition and custom, together with the most unbounded ambition and very superior mental gifts, never produced a single family of powerful men able to maintain their position more than a century or two, when the nations of Europe have produced at least half a dozen that have lasted a thousand years? If there be any answer to such a question, it is that the pursuit and care of money have a tendency to destroy the balance and produce degeneration by over-stimulating the mind in one direction, and that not a noble one, at the expense of the other talents; whereas the struggle for political power sharpens most of the faculties, and the acquisition and preservation of landed property during many generations bring men necessarily into a closer contact with nature, and therefore induce a healthier life, tending to increase the vitality of a race rather than to diminish it. Whether this be true or not, it is safe to say that no great family has ever maintained its power long by the possession of money, without great lands; and by 'long' we understand at least three hundred years.

With regard to the Jews in Rome it is a singular fact that they have generally been better treated by the religious than by the civil authorities. They were required to do homage to the latter every year in the Capitol, and on this occasion the Senator of Rome placed his foot upon the heads of the prostrate delegates, by way of accentuating their humiliation and disgrace, but the service they were required to do on the accession of a new Pope was of a different and less degrading nature. The Israelite School awaited the Pope's passage, on his return from taking possession of the Lateran, standing up in a richly hung temporary balcony, before which he passed on his way. They then presented him with a copy of the Pentateuch, which he blessed on the spot, and took away with him. That was all, and it amounted to a sanction, or permission, accorded to the Jewish religion.

As for the sumptuary laws, the first one was decreed in 1215, after the fall of the Pierleoni, and it imposed upon all Jews, and other heretics whomsoever, the wearing of a large circle of yellow cloth sewn upon the breast. In the following century, according to Baracconi, this mark was abolished by the statutes of the city and the Jews were made to wear a scarlet mantle in public; but all licensed Jewish physicians, being regarded as public benefactors, were exempted from the rule. For the profession of medicine is one which the Hebrews have always followed with deserved success, and it frequently happened in Rome that the Pope's private physician, who lived in the Vatican and was a personage of confidence and importance, was a professed Israelite from the Ghetto, who worshipped in the synagogue on Saturdays and looked with contempt and disgust upon his pontifical patient as an eater of unclean food. There was undoubtedly a law compelling a certain number of the Jews to hear sermons once a week, first in the Trinità dei Pellegrini, and afterwards in the Church of Sant' Angelo in the Fishmarket, and it was from time to time rigorously enforced; it was renewed in the present century under Leo the Twelfth, and only finally abolished, together with all other oppressive measures, by Pius the Ninth at the beginning of his reign. But when one considers the frightful persecution suffered by the race in Spain, it must be conceded that they were relatively well treated in Rome by the Popes. Their bitterest enemies and oppressors were the lower classes of the people, who were always ready to attack and rifle the Ghetto on the slightest pretext, and against whose outrageous deeds the Jews had no redress.


It was their treatment by the people, rather than the matter itself, which made the carnival races, in which they were forced to run after a hearty meal, together with a great number of Christians, an intolerable tyranny; and when Clement the Ninth exempted them from it, he did not abolish the races of Christian boys and old men. The people detested the Jews, hooted them, hissed them, and maltreated them with and without provocation. Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the composer, wrote to a friend from Berlin late in the eighteenth century, complaining bitterly that in that self-styled city of toleration, the cry of 'Jew' was raised against him when he ventured into the streets with his little children by daylight, and that the boys threw stones at them, as they passed, so that he only went out late in the evening. Things were no better in Rome under Paul the Fourth, but they were distinctly better in Rome than in Berlin at the time of Mendelssohn's writing.

Paul the Fourth, the Carafa Pope, and the friend of the Inquisition, confined the Jews to the Ghetto. There can be no doubt but that the act was intended as a measure of severity against heretics, and as such Pius the Ninth considered it indefensible and abolished it. In actual fact it must have been of enormous advantage to the Jews, who were thus provided with a stronghold against the persecutions and robberies of the rabble. The little quarter was enclosed by strong walls with gates, and if the Jews were required to be within them at night, on pain of a fine, they and their property were at least in safety. This fact has never been noticed, and accounts for the serenity with which they bore their nightly imprisonment for three centuries. Once within the walls of the Ghetto they were alone, and could go about the little streets in perfect security; they were free from the contamination as well as safe from the depredations of Christians, and within their own precincts they were not forced to wear the hated orange-coloured cap or net which Paul the Fourth imposed upon the Jewish men and women. To a great extent, too, such isolation was already in the traditions of the race. A hundred years earlier Venice had created its Ghetto; so had Prague, and other European cities were not long in following. Morally speaking their confinement may have been a humiliation; in sober fact it was an immense advantage; moreover, a special law of 'emphyteusis' made the leases of their homes inalienable, so long as they paid rent, and forbade the raising of the rent under any circumstances, while leaving the tenant absolute freedom to alter and improve his house as he would, together with the right to sublet it, or to sell the lease itself to any other Hebrew; and these leases became very valuable. Furthermore, though under the jurisdiction of criminal courts, the Jews had their own police in the Ghetto, whom they chose among themselves half yearly.

It has been stated by at least one writer that the church and square of Santa Maria del Pianto—Our Lady of Tears—bears witness to the grief of the people when they were first forced into the Ghetto in the year 1556. But this is an error. The church received the name from a tragedy and a miracle which are said to have taken place before it ten years earlier. It was formerly called San Salvatore in Cacaberis, the Church of the 'Saviour in the district of the kettle-makers.' An image of the Blessed Virgin stood over the door of a house close by; a frightful murder was done in broad day, and at the sight tears streamed from the statue's eyes; the image was taken into the church, which was soon afterwards dedicated to 'Our Lady of Tears,' and the name remained forever to commemorate the miraculous event.

Besides mobbing the Jews in the streets and plundering them when they could, the Roman populace invented means of insulting them which must have been especially galling. They ridiculed them in the popular open-air theatres, and made blasphemous jests upon their most sacred things in Carnival. It is not improbable that 'Punch and Judy' may have had their origin in something of this sort, and 'Judy' certainly suggests 'Giudea,' a Jewess. What the Roman rabble had done against Christians in heathen days, the Christian rabble did against the Jews in the Middle Age and the Renascence. They were robbed, ridiculed, outraged, and sometimes killed; after the fall of the Pierleoni, they appear to have had no civil rights worth mentioning; they were taxed more heavily than the Christian citizens, in proportion as they were believed to be more wealthy, and were less able to resent the tax-gatherer; their daughters were stolen away for their beauty, less consenting than Jessica, and with more violence, and the Merchant of Venice is not a mere fiction of the master playwright. All these things were done to them and more, yet they stayed in Rome, and multiplied, and grew rich, being then, as when Tacitus wrote of them, 'scrupulously faithful and ever actively charitable to each other, and filled with invincible hatred against all other men.'


The old Roman Ghetto has been often described, but no description can give any true impression of it; the place where it stood is a vast open lot, waiting for new buildings which will perhaps never rise, and the memory of it is relegated to the many fast-fading pictures of old Rome. Persius tells how, on Herod's birthday, the Jews adorned their doors with bunches of violets and set out rows of little smoky lamps upon the greasy window-sills, and feasted on the tails of tunny fish—the meanest part—pickled, and eaten off rough red earthen-ware plates with draughts of poor white wine. The picture was a true one ten years ago, for the manners of the Ghetto had not changed in that absolute isolation. The name itself, 'Ghetto,' is generally derived from a Hebrew root meaning 'cut off'—and cut off the Jews' quarter was, by walls, by religion, by tradition, by mutual hatred between Hebrews and other men. It has been compared to a beehive, to an anthill, to an old house-beam riddled and traversed in all directions by miniature labyrinths of worm-holes, crossing, intercommunicating, turning to right and left, upwards and downwards, but hardly ever coming out to the surface. It has been described by almost every writer who ever put words together about Rome, but no words, no similes, no comparisons, can make those see it who were never there. In a low-lying space enclosed within a circuit of five hundred yards, and little, if at all, larger than the Palazzo Doria, between four and five thousand human beings were permanently crowded together in dwellings centuries old, built upon ancient drains and vaults that were constantly exposed to the inundations of the river and always reeking with its undried slime; a little, pale-faced, crooked-legged, eager-eyed people, grubbing and grovelling in masses of foul rags for some tiny scrap richer than the rest and worthy to be sold apart; a people whose many women, haggard, low-speaking, dishevelled, toiled half doubled together upon the darning and piecing and smoothing of old clothes, whose many little children huddled themselves into corners, to teach one another to count; a people of sellers who sold nothing that was not old or damaged, and who had nothing that they would not sell; a people clothed in rags, living among rags, thriving on rags; a people strangely proof against pestilence, gathering rags from the city to their dens, when the cholera was raging outside the Ghetto's gates, and rags were cheap, yet never sickening of the plague themselves; a people never idle, sleeping little, eating sparingly, labouring for small gain amid dirt and stench and dampness, till Friday night came at last, and the old crier's melancholy voice ran through the darkening alleys—'The Sabbath has begun.'

And all at once the rags were gone, the ghostly old clothes that swung like hanged men, by the neck, in the doorways of the cavernous shops, flitted away into the utter darkness within; the old bits of iron and brass went rattling out of sight, like spectres' chains; the hook-nosed antiquary drew in his cracked old show-case; the greasy frier of fish and artichokes extinguished his little charcoal fire of coals; the slipshod darning-women, half-blind with six days' work, folded the half-patched coats and trousers, and took their rickety old rush-bottomed chairs indoors with them.

Then, on the morrow, in the rich synagogue with its tapestries, its gold, and its gilding, the thin, dark men were together in their hats and long coats, and the sealed books of Moses were borne before their eyes and held up to the North and South and East and West, and all the men together lifted up their arms and cried aloud to the God of their fathers. But when the Sabbath was over, they went back to their rags and their patched clothes and to their old iron and their junk and their antiquities, and toiled on patiently again, looking for the coming of the Messiah.

And there were astrologers and diviners and magicians and witches and crystal-gazers among them to whom great ladies came on foot, thickly veiled, and walking delicately amidst the rags, and men, too, who were more ashamed of themselves, and slunk in at nightfall to ask the Jews concerning the future—even in our time as in Juvenal's, and in Juvenal's day as in Saul's of old. Nor did the papal laws against witchcraft have force against Jews, since the object of the laws was to save Christian souls from the hell which no Jew could escape save by conversion. And the diviners and seers and astrologers of the Ghetto were long in high esteem, and sometimes earned fortunes when they hit the truth, and when the truth was pleasant in the realization.

They are gone now, with the Ghetto and all that belonged to it. The Jews who lived there are either becoming absorbed in the population of Rome, or have transferred themselves and their rags to other places, where lodgings are cheap, but where they no longer enjoy the privilege of irrevocable leases at rents fixed for all time. A part of them are living between Santa Maria Maggiore and the Lateran, a part in Trastevere, and they exercise their ancient industries in their new homes, and have new synagogues instead of the old ones. But one can no longer see them all together in one place. Little by little, too, the old prejudices against them are disappearing, even among the poorer Romans, whose hatred was most tenacious, and by and by, at no very distant date, the Jews in Rome will cease to be an isolated and peculiar people. Then, when they live as other men, amongst other folks, as in many cities of the world, they will get the power in Rome, as they have begun to get it already, and as they have it already in more than one great capital. But a change has come over the Jewish race within the last fifty years, greater than any that has affected their destinies since Titus destroyed the Temple and brought thousands of them, in the train of Pompey's thousands, to build the Colosseum; and the wisest among them, if they be faithful and believing Jews, as many are, ask themselves whether this great change, which looks so like improvement, is really for good, or whether it is the beginning of the end of the oldest nation of us all.

F. Marion Crawford