Reclaiming a Symbol: The Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus, Rome, 1948 Jews marching underneath the arch with signs in support for the new State of Israel. Taken from the Israeli National Library website.

When the Arch of Titus was built in 82 CE by then Roman Emperor Domitian it was seen as the symbol of an empire united; a reminder to both Romans and Roman subjects that Rome was still the most powerful empire of its time. For Jews it was a symbol of disaster, a reminder of one of the lowest points in Jewish history – the destruction of the Temple of Herod and the sacking of Jerusalem. It was meant as a reminder of how supposed Jewish self-loathing, inability to cooperate, and inherent weakness meant that Jews would always play a subservient role to greater powers. Today, that symbol has been almost entirely reversed and is unrecognizable to what it once was. That past is as old and worn as the relic itself and instead now serves as a monument for a much brighter future.

10 years before the completion of the Arch, the Jewish military commander turned slave, turned Roman citizen, Josephus Flavius, wrote how the Romans bringing the menorah, the sacramental table, and the other treasures depicted on the face of the Arch of Titus was, in their minds, the end of Gods existence in Jerusalem and the bringing of the Jewish God in to Rome. The practice of evocatio deorum, or the calling out of the gods[i], was a long practiced Roman ritual in which the sieging Roman army would promise the god or gods of the city in which they were attacking a larger and more grander temple in which to rest in Rome. Thus, according to both Jews and Romans, God had forsaken the Jews in favor of a much more powerful and worthy race of people since, according to Hellenistic tradition, the idea of bringing a god to Rome was done through the use of physical objects. Noteworthy is that the menorah, sacramental table, and torah are being carried by Roman soldiers with the wreaths of victory on their heads while Titus, ascends to heaven in a chariot to become a god himself.

In The Jewish War by Josephus Flavius (who, before becoming a Roman interpreter and historian had once fought as a commander of Jewish forces against Titus’s father Vespasian) the Arch of Titus was not meant to depict the war for how it actually was – a hard fought desperately won suppression of a rebellious province. The Romans, reeling after 69 CE or the Year of the Four Emperors, needed to maintain the image of an empire powerful, capable, and most importantly, united. The Arch of Titus represented to the Romans and the world not the reality of the war, but rather how they wanted the war to be seen. A simple and straightforward war against a foreign enemy that was in fact an eight year long rebellion and a five month siege of Jerusalem requiring four legions against, not a foreign army but a group of religious zealots in a Roman province[ii]. An interesting note from, The Jewish War, was that Josephus Flavius omits any mention of Roman soldiers in the procession of triumphators returning to Rome, as if Rome wanted to hide the amount of men and resources required to defeat the Jewish army. With the Arch serving as the primary reminder of the war, and with the spoils going on to fund numerous projects during the Flavian dynasty (the largest of which being the Coliseum which sits directly in front of the arch) the Roman view of Jews being bizarre, weak, and lazy became a generally accepted caricature throughout all of Europe. This perception, though it is unclear, most likely permeated its way in to Jewish society and intellectual thought, and this ‘outsider’ perception may have eventually affected how many ancient Jews began to see themselves.

Jewish self-perception was not the only thing affected after the fall of the Temple of Herod and the construction of the Arch of Titus. Hellenistic culture involved the use of a symbol to convey gods and religion and, in following of this tradition, Jews began carving the menorah on synagogues and gravestones. This was done both a show of their national unity and as a symbol of hope of the renewal of the temple in Jerusalem. Some of the oldest symbols appeared in synagogues and gravestones from as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the oldest from a lead seal found in a synagogue in Stobi from the 2nd century which today sits on display in the National Museum in Belgrade[iii]. The significance of the seven-branched Menorah only intensified during the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire to be used as a distinctive symbol from the cross. Interestingly, the Islamic star and crescent is also a result of the mixing of a Middle Eastern civilization with Hellenistic tradition. Originally the symbol of the city of Byzantium (later Constantine and currently Istanbul) it was picked to honor the goddess Diana. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 they chose it as the symbol for their new empire and as a show of power and superiority to the Christian West.

When Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, they interpreted the Arch of Titus to mean that Christianity had superseded Judaism in the eyes of God particularly with what they interpreted from the Arch of Titus to be not the sacramental table, but the Ark of the Covenant being brought to Rome. Emperor Domitian had the arch built on Via Sacra, or “The Sacred Way” which was believed to be the center of the universe. When the Church of St. John of Lateran was built nearby it was considered to be the sanctum sanctorum, the holiest of holies. In addition, many Christians felt reminded of Mark 13 in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus predicted the fall of the temple in Jerusalem as punishment by God against the non-believers. This prophecy, later history, was seen as historical proof by many Christians of the divinity of Christ and as continued punishment for their disbelief, Jews in Rome were forced to stand piously underneath the Arch during all sermons given by the Pope himself, and as a reminder of their submission to Western power.

As for the artifacts that were taken from the temple – reports differ to their eventual fates. According to Procopius, a Byzantine scholar who is considered the last of the major historians of the ancient Western world, the Visigoths had taken the menorah and the ark from Rome to Carthage. After the sack of Carthage by General Belisarius, the menorah became apart of Emperor Justinian’s spoils, and was carried through the streets of Constantinople much as it had been by the Roman triumphators 500 years earlier. The artifacts were placed in the Haiga Sophia in 535 and upon completion in 537, with the artifacts inside, Procopius writes that Emperor Justinian believed he had rebuilt a grader and far superior temple in Constantine and upon seeing the newly completed Haiga Sophia exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” Unfortunately for him the bringing of the artifacts to Constantinople in 535 coincided with an extreme cooling event of the northern hemisphere causing crop failures, famine, and the first recorded historical event of Bubonic Plague. Justinian, afraid he had angered God by hoarding the treasures, had them sent back to Jerusalem. Here many theories are posited about what could have happened to them; it’s possible they were destroyed by the Persian invasion of the city in 614. Some legends suggest that the Knights Templar had brought them back to Rome where they exist today or that they are buried underneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. By the 19th century public outcries were made to drain the Tiber River in an effort to look for them, none of which gained enough traction to make any sort of an impact. Or, as was shown in the 1981 movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s actually sitting in a giant government warehouse somewhere in the United States. At this point that guess is as good as any. It’s more likely that the gold has been melted down and reused countless times, and as professor of Jewish History Steven Fine likes to remind people, a piece of it could be sitting on your third index finger in the form of a wedding ring.

The Arch, which served as a shameful reminder to the Jewish people, didn’t begin to change and transform in the Jewish mind until the late 16th century due large in part, to an offhanded remark by Gedaliah Ibn Yahya, a Jewish historian during the Italian Renaissance, who wrote in his 1587 book Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah (The Chain of Tradition):

They built in Rome a large monument of carved stone, called an arch, as an eternal commemoration of his might. They illustrated on this monument the image of the Temple vessels and the captive men…”

The notion of the menorah bearers being captive Jews rather than victorious Roman soldiers eventually seems to have been an accepted idea, even amongst Protestants at the beginning of the 19th century. The London newspaper The Gentleman’s Weekly and Historical Chronicle and the Oxford English Prize Poem by J.T. White The Arch of Titus both make reference to Jews being depicted on the arch in 1822 and 1824 respectively. In the new United States of America, a country known at the time for well-funded and publicly supported conversionary missionary projects in the Middle East, a pamphlet called Rachel and Her Father at the Triumphal Arch of Titus was produced to help missionaries convert Jews to Christianity claiming as well of Jews being depicted on the Arch. The first modern Jewish source asserting that the Arch of Titus depicted Jews was produced in 1889 by Giuseppe Prospero Revere in “il Arco de Tito,” in it, Revere seems to assume that the figures being Jewish was a widely known and accepted belief. The most important and authoritative of Jewish authors to make his claim was Rabbi Moses Gaster in the London publication Israel: The Jewish Magazine in 1900. Rabbi Gaster was both a Zionist scholar and a major Cultural Zionist leader and his claims of Jews being depicted on the Arch of Titus were taken very seriously within Zionist circles. This was the first step in claiming the Arch of Titus as a Jewish motif rather than a Roman or Christian one. In Israel this sparked interest in a new school of art known as Bezalel, which tried to combine various elements of Islamic design, European tradition, and biblical themes to create a new and distinctive set of Jewish art. One of the main focuses of Bezalel art was the menorah, specifically the one carved in the Arch of Titus. In Professor Steven Fine’s book, The Menorah, Dr. Fine writes,

“Just as the French had taken the Arch of Titus to Paris in the form of the Arc de Triomphe, Pius VII had rebuilt the arch to express the renewal of papal control of Rome in 1821, and the Americans had conveyed it to Brooklyn to celebrate the victory of the Union over the Confederacy (1889-1892), the Jews were now taking control of this central “Jewish” monument.”

The most significant piece of artwork to emerge from both this new Zionist cultural thought and Bezalel art was the menorah cap medallion worn by soldiers of the Jewish Legion during the First World War[iv]. The menorah pin had the contemporary design of the menorah from the arch, the only difference being that it had been infused with the Zionist attitude prevalent during that day by having the word kadima meaning forward, or, to the east, was written on every pin. Once the British disbanded the Jewish Legion in 1921, many of it’s members would go on to become some of the State of Israel’s most prominent and important figures including future President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and future Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (who later suggested building an arch in Israel similar to the one in Rome) and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The main proponent of having the unit symbol being the Arch of Titus menorah, Ze’ev Jabotinsky went on to found the Revisionist Youth Movement and chose the same menorah to be the symbol. In Israel, Jewish towns, villages, and kibbutzim began decorating the tops of water towers, schools, and meeting halls with the seven-candled menorah. Even in the diaspora, Jewish masonry lodges and synagogues began returning to the image from antiquity and secular Jewish homes often broadcasted their Jewishness and support for the Jewish state with a seven-candled menorah in the window. The menorah, once a symbol of the loss of Jerusalem, was now becoming the symbol of a nation about to be reborn and many Jews looked at the Arch of Titus as a symbolic challenger to that rebirth. A problem to be overcome. During World War II, weeks before the allies took Rome, the Hebrew newspaper of the Jewish Batalion of the British army, la-Hayyal, issued a pamphlet to Jewish soldiers declaring:

Historians find that there is no ethnic connection between ancient Rome and modern Italy, between Nero and Mussolini. Yet many Jews continue to see contemporary Rome as the symbol of the same kingdom that killed our freedom and destroyed our Temple. The Arch of Titus stands there still today…This modern Rome that sought to renew the war of ancient Rome against Jerusalem, to continue the thread that was first spun in the days of Pompeii and Titus, now is nothing before the Allies, and in these armies are many, many, Jews. History gets its revenge.”

During the postwar period, the arch became a place for Jewish and Zionist protest and celebration. In 1946, 2000 Jews demonstrated against crackdowns by the British towards the Revisionist Irgun militia in Palestine as a response to the King David Hotel bombings. Several months later of that same year, Irgun militias bombed the British embassy in Rome and many supporters called on the Irgun to also destroy the Arch of Titus to mark the end of Jewish subjugation by the West. The most powerful moment under the arch since its completion occurred in 1948, when hundreds of Holocaust survivors, carrying signs of support for the new state of Israel, waiting to make aliyah, walked backwards underneath the arch symbolizing the return of the Jewish people to their once exiled homeland. When attempting to determine a national symbol, and in spite of many of Israel’s socialist left wing protests, David Ben Gurion chose the menorah as a way to unite the Irgun and Haganah forces and prevent civil war. In the years after the creation of the state, the seven-candled menorah, the exact same one that had been carved on the Arch of Titus nearly 2000 years ago, became the symbol of the seal of Israel. Unlike the pin worn by the Jewish legion however, there was no kadima written on the seal, instead just the world Israel.

The Arch of Titus and provoked a massive transformation in Jewish culture, a constant reminder of the greatest catastrophe to occur in Jewish history before the Holocaust. The Arch, and later the menorah, became a symbol of power for the Romans, the Christians, and later to Western culture as a whole who used the Arch of Titus as a way to showcase their own power and unification. But the last and most unexpected people to reclaim the Arch of Titus as a symbol of their own power and unity were the Jews. The Arch of Titus serves as a reminder of how history is often in the eye of the beholder. It is both a beautiful and ancient piece of art, one whose meaning had been adopted and changed throughout history. As of today it truly does seem that history has come in full circle since the 2,000 years since the Arch of Titus was built. For Jews, what was once a reminder of loss is now a symbol of what has been achieved.

[i] Gabriella Gustafsson, Evocatio Deorum : Historical and Mythical Interpretations of Ritualised Conquests in the Expansion of Ancient Rome, (Uppsala: Uppsala University Library, 2000)

[ii] Schmidt, Emily. “The Flavian Triumph and the Arch of Titus: The Jewish God in Flavian Rome.” Beyond Borders: Selected Proceedings of the 2010 Ancient Borderlands International Graduate Student Conference, 31 Mar. 2010.

[iii] Tešić-Radovanović, Danijela, and Branka Gugolj. “The Menorah as a Symbol of Jewish Identity in the Diaspora and an Expression of Aspiration for Renewing the Jerusalem Temple.” Migrations in Visual Art, Jelena Erdeljan (Ed) University of Belgrade, Faculty of Arts Martin Germ (Ed) University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts Ivana Prijatelj Pavičić (Ed) University of Split Marina Vicelja Matijašić (Ed) University of Rijeka, 2018.

[iv] Fine, Steven. The Menorah. Harvard University Press, 2016

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