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.

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….

But why was a replica of this monument in our building?

In 1996, in anticipation of its 50-year anniversary, FAO had accepted the Italian government’s generous offer of several well-known national works of art, including sculptures and reproductions. The replica on FAO’s wall was commissioned during Mussolini’s time, and it is the only full-size reproduction of the bas-relief from the Arch of Titus ever made. Most contemporary Romans consider the sculpture a brutta figura, an “ugly face,” because it glorifies the ruthless subjugation of a people — the main reason that this replica had been hidden from public view for decades in the maze of formal Roman government buildings. When it was offered to FAO, the staff responsible for building works naively agreed to accept this monument without realizing its full significance.

When I saw these men struggling to place this object in our building, I was shocked and deeply dismayed. FAO is an international diplomatic organization dedicated to improving the lives and protecting the rights and dignity of millions of disadvantaged people throughout the developing world. The Arch of Titus was a testament to massacre, pillage and destruction — the bas-relief was a celebration of sacrilege and enslavement — of my people! How could this thing grace our premises? Perhaps it would have gone over well in Mussolini’s Colonial offices, but not in a United Nations building! It was not an asset reflecting the ideals of our organization, it was a shameless liability.

Before making my way up to my office, I decided to do whatever was necessary to get rid of this abomination. I wrote to the director-general of FAO, the most senior official in the organization, in the hope that this could all be resolved without the need for any further action. I stressed the contradiction between the ideals of our organization and the replica crafted in the midst of Italy’s Fascist era, representing the worst of mankind’s deeds.

By the time I was finishing the final draft, most of the FAO staff had arrived for work. Yoram, an Israeli colleague and close friend who worked in my service, dropped by my office to say hello and peered over my shoulder. “Chief, what are you writing so seriously?” he asked. I told Yoram the story, and ended by describing the age-old Jewish ban on walking under the Arch of Titus.

“Chief, I didn’t know you were not supposed to walk under the Arch of Titus!” he said. “This is a real shame, bringing something like that into this building. I’m going to contact the Israeli Embassy right away!”

At precisely 10 a.m. I had my letter stamped and recorded by our registry. I hand-carried it down to the office of the director-general.

In the early afternoon, Yoram rushed back into my office and said: “Chief, the Israeli Embassy just called back. You know what? They didn’t know you were not supposed to walk under the arch! Can you believe that? What kind of government do we have? Anyway, they just fired off a fax to Jerusalem for advice, but since it’s Friday, we won’t hear anything until Sunday.”

At 4 p.m. I received a call from the office of the director of administration: “Don’t worry, Monsieur Satin, we will definitely do something about this wall. We don’t know exactly what, but we’ll do something. Don’t worry! Relax and enjoy your weekend; we’ll definitely do something. And Monsieur, accept my highest considerations and regards!” With that and a few other papers finished, I gladly made my way home in the madcap traffic for a restful weekend in the Eternal City.

Monday morning, bright and early, Yoram rushed into my office. “Chief,” he said, “the Israeli Embassy got the fax back from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem last night.”

“Yes?” I inquired cautiously. “So, what did they have to say?”

“They didn’t know we’re not supposed to walk under the arch!” Yoram said. “Can you believe that? What can I tell you — government people are the same everywhere! Bureaucrats! Anyway, because this business takes place in Rome, they said the matter should be handled locally. So our embassy will bring the matter up to the chief rabbi of Rome.”

This was not the most encouraging news, so I anxiously awaited the outcome of my letter to the director-general. At 9:45 a.m. I received a call from the director-general’s chef du Cabinet — an individual not known for his liberal views, particularly on any subject, issue or person of a non-Francophone origin. “Monsieur Satin, I wish to tell you that I spent the weekend in the library of the French Embassy at Piazza Farnese in Rome — the entire weekend! Monsieur Satin, vous avez raison — you are correct! In fact, the situation is even worse than you described. Non, Monsieur Satin, we cannot have this horrid wall here!”

At 11 a.m., I wandered down to the large alcove where the now infamous wall had finally been placed. To my surprise, it was covered from top to bottom with a dreadful orange shroud that had originally been used to wrap up the huge red carpets that are regularly pulled out to grace our floors at formal diplomatic receptions. I was astonished at the speed with which a large bureaucratic organization, traditionally known for its inertia, can move when it is motivated. I immediately penned a short note of gratitude to the director-general and the chef du Cabinet.

A few days later, Yoram dropped by and said that the chief rabbi of Rome had told the Israeli Embassy that the original ban was no longer valid, since an independent State of Israel had been established. Unfortunately, no one who knew about the ban had ever been informed of its abrogation! Trying to sound as authoritative as I could, I told Yoram, “Make sure the embassy tells the chief rabbi that the ban may be lifted for him, but for me, it isn’t!”

He replied: “Don’t worry, chief, I’m on it. Things will work out. Don’t worry!” With that, Yoram, my old colleague, dependable friend and agent provocateur, left. That was the last I heard of the matter for several months.

In November 1997, I received a call from a politically connected friend who is affiliated with the American University of Rome. He told me that the hornets’ nest I stirred up had triggered considerable deliberation within Rome’s Jewish community and had spread to the mayor’s office. It appeared that they decided it was time to formally and publicly lift the age-old ban on walking beneath the Arch of Titus. I was invited to attend the ceremony, which was to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel. I gladly accepted the invitation, recognizing that sometimes, if you had the chutzpah to mix it up for what you believed in, good things can happen. Yoram was right.

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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