One Man's Campaign Against the Arch of Titus — and How It Changed Italy's Jews

Lonely Objection to Mural Prompted Soul Searching

When in Rome: A bas-relief on the Arch of Titus depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.
yonidebest, wikimedia commons
When in Rome: A bas-relief on the Arch of Titus depicts the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.

By Morton Satin

Published December 01, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Heavy rain was forecast for that blustery Roman morning in December 1996, so I arrived early in order to escape the frenzied traffic and secure a space in the parking lot of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, where I was a division director. The marble-and-travertine-clad buildings of the FAO, originally constructed by Mussolini in the 1930s to house his Colonial offices, were located in the very heart of ancient Rome, diagonally across the street from the Circus Maximus, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.

Coming into the near-deserted main building from the side-door entrance, I heard loud, scraping noises and muffled groans. More than a dozen men were laboring heavily to move an enormous white object: a huge plaster wall, more than 3 yards high and 6 yards long, and more than a foot thick. Even in the dim light, I immediately recognized this behemoth — but I hardly believed my eyes.

The straining men were shoving a full-size replica of the bas-relief sculpture on the underside of the Arch of Titus, one of the arches in the ancient Roman Forum, a stone’s throw away from the very building we were in. The arch in the forum was constructed to honor Emperor Titus after he conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its Holy Temple in the year 70 C.E. History records that more than 60,000 of his finest, fully equipped Roman legions battled for more than a year to overcome the 25,000 poorly armed defenders of Jerusalem. In the aftermath, more than a half-million defenseless Jewish civilians were massacred, with the remainder marched to Rome to be sold and used as slaves.

The procession depicted on the arch’s bas-relief is the triumphal march of the victorious Roman legions and their Hebrew slaves back to Rome, carrying the great menorah as well as the other holy artifacts taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. The arch is a monument that celebrates the destruction and pillaging of Jerusalem together with the brutal humiliation and enslavement of a people that dared resist the empire. The Roman Senate had agreed that something had to be built in order to detract from Titus’s wretched performance as a military leader.

Jews have lived in Rome for more than two millennia. According to an ancient ban placed on the monument by Rome’s Jewish authorities, once a Jewish person walks under the arch, he or she can no longer be considered a Jew. So, from the time the Arch of Titus was first built, no Jew has ever willingly walked under it, unless he or she was oblivious to its significance.

I had a rather strange passing familiarity with the Arch of Titus and its bas-relief from the stories told to me by a close family friend who happened to serve in His Majesty’s Jewish Brigade during World War II. When he and a group of brigade buddies entered Rome, they formed ranks and briskly marched straight under the arch, giving the quintessential Roman gesture: place left hand over the top crook of the right elbow, aggressively swing the right fist straight up — the Roman salute! This was done in defiance of history’s repeated attempts to annihilate the Jewish people. As the saying goes, when in Rome….


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.