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….