The Arch of Titus must come down
Almost every day of the last month, statues of slave traders and colonialists, racists and missionaries that are prominently displayed in our parks, city halls and public squares have come crashing down in a collective outpouring of rage and hurt. This summer has been a watershed moment in so many ways, and as activists press for systemic political change and progressive policies in the present, many are also rethinking the narratives of our past and the figures we choose to immortalize in bronze and stone.
Under the rallying cry of “topple the racists,” this has included tearing down statues of historical figures who no longer reflect the values of our society and do not deserve to be celebrated or memorialized. Although it started with Confederate generals, the era of statue removal has expanded to include popular icons of broader American history like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
Similarly, the movement has made it beyond American borders and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to become a worldwide phenomenon, including massive demonstrations and statue toppling from England to Belgium. The statues in question have been a diverse bunch, running the gamut from 19th-century Southern confederates to 16th-century Spanish explorers.
What should come down next? The Arch of Titus.
The Arch of Titus is a 2,000-year-old monument that sits in the heart of ancient Rome, between the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, and is visited by millions of curious, selfie-taking tourists each year. Built in 81 C.E., it deifies the emperor Titus, who was recently deceased at the time of its construction, and celebrates his victory over Judea ten years earlier.
Most famously, one of its panels depicts a triumphal procession of Roman soldiers proudly parading their spoils from the capture of Jerusalem. These include the vessels they stole from the Jerusalem Temple, and perhaps most famously, the golden menorah. Titus, the man that this arch honors, led the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 68-70 C.E. that culminated in the destruction of the Temple, the enslavement and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and the gradual end of communal Jewish life in the land of Israel, our indigenous home.
It’s time it came down.
It’s true that it is the oldest Roman triumphal arch we have, and that it’s an architectural wonder and priceless historical artifact that has much to teach us.
But like Columbus, Robert E. Lee, and King Leopold II, it too must come down. There is no excuse for Italy to maintain, fund, and proudly display a structure that celebrates the destruction of Jerusalem, the forced displacement of the Jews of Judea, and the burning of the Temple.
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The ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus put the number of Titus’ Jewish casualties at anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 people, and while these figures are clearly exaggerated (there simply weren’t that many Jews in Judea), it is clear that the Roman-Jewish War led to a large part of the Jewish population being either murdered or enslaved.
The story continues: While the Arch of Titus was erected by the Romans as a paean to the man known in rabbinic literature as “Titus the Wicked” for his gratuitous cruelty, it was enthusiastically supported by popes of the early modern period and used as a symbol to humiliate the Jews of Rome well into the 19th century.
In 1555, Pope Paul IV, who incidentally created the Jewish ghetto of Rome by papal bull, forced the Jews of Rome to take an oath of submission every year while standing underneath the Arch. Hundreds of years later, in 1821, as the arch was weakened by time and in need of restoration, once again the Church came to the rescue. Pope Pius VII gave his blessing to a renovation project and added a new inscription to this ancient arch:
(This) monument, remarkable in terms of both religion and art,
had weakened from age:
Pius the Seventh, Supreme Pontiff,
by new works on the model of the ancient exemplar
ordered it reinforced and preserved.
Indeed, it is a monument “remarkable in terms of both religion and art.” What Pius VII means by “religion” is that the arch is a fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy of the Temple’s destruction in Matthew 24: “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Mt. 24:2).”
In a few weeks, Jews will observe the fast of Tisha B’av, mourning the destruction of the Temple, the loss of Jewish communal life in Israel, and the ensuing persecutions and tragedies that have followed us through 2,000 years of Diaspora life. The Arch of Titus, in its construction by Rome and preservation by the Church, celebrates nearly all of these very things.
As an ancient propaganda tool to glorify Rome’s bloody conquests and a modern emblem of Christian persecution and Jewish subjugation, the Arch of Titus is a cruel symbol. While it would certainly have its place in a museum, its current location and framing as a benign tourist attraction that shows off the “grandeur of Rome” along with the other shrines, basilicas, and stadiums, is unacceptable.
Some might argue that Jews have more important things to worry about than a 2,000-year-old arch. But with anti-Semitic crimes in the U.S. at their highest level in decades and anti-Semitic rhetoric increasingly finding its way into anti-racism protests and demonstrations in France , Germany, and the United States, it sadly remains the case that everything the Arch of Titus represents is yet to be eradicated.
Thoughtful people around the world are looking back at their collective histories and reconsidering the sometimes-monstrous actions that their nations have unfortunately memorialized through public history and art. In that vein, Italians might consider rethinking whether the arch of Judea’s conqueror and butcher ought to go the way of monuments to slave traders and colonialists, racists and missionaries, and finally come down.
Michael Weiner, a Straus Scholar and senior at Yeshiva University, studies Political Science and Jewish History and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Lehrhaus, and The Imaginative Conservative.