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.
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December 23, 1997, was a very mild, starlit night in Rome and a perfect time to celebrate Erev Hanukkah, the lighting of the first candle. The entire Roman Jewish community, along with several politicians and dignitaries, gathered in the ancient Roman Forum by the Arch of Titus. In a beautiful candle-lit ceremony, the 2,000-year-old ban on the Arch of Titus was formally lifted.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi said it was time to remember the tragedy of the Holocaust and reaffirm the rights of people to live in peace and dignity everywhere. The evening’s most inspiring words, however, were spoken by Rome’s marvelous young mayor, Francesco Rutelli. Loosely translated, he said: “When many people look at the sculpture under the arch, they only see the misery inflicted upon a conquered race. But look again. I see not a conquered race, but a monument to one of the greatest modern nations on earth. The conquering Romans are a footnote of history, but the Jewish nation continues to thrive, within and outside the State of Israel. That is what the arch represents to me.”

After the events concluded and the stage props were taken away, it was curious to see a few brave Romans cautiously approach the arch and peer underneath it. But they still refused to walk directly beneath it, despite the lifting of the ban. With time, I expect that more and more Jews will venture fully beneath the arch. History marches on, however hesitantly.

For four years, the grotesque replica remained hidden under the orange shroud, which continued to get more tattered. FAO finally decided to resolve the matter permanently. Without the pitiful shroud ever having been removed, a crew was brought in one weekend and quickly constructed a false wall to remove all overt evidence of its existence. Thus, the infamous Titus bas-relief, verging on resurrection, became damned, like Poe’s poor Fortunato in search of a drop of Amontillado, to suffer eternal immuration. As far as I know, that is where it remains to this day.

Morton Satin is vice president of science and research for the Salt Institute. He has authored seven text books in English and Spanish on the subjects of food safety and food history, as well as his most recent book, “Coffee Talk” (Prometheus Books, 2010).


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