Constructed around the year 81 CE, the triumphal arch in Rome depicts the ceremonial military parade a decade earlier celebrating the emperor Titus’ defeat of the Jewish rebellion. Its most famous image, visible to this day, shows people carrying a seven-branched menorah. To scholars of the era, it is evident that these are victorious Roman soldiers bearing the spoils of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the belief is widespread among Jews that the menorah is being carried by Jewish captives. Steven Fine traces this legend from Renaissance Italy, to 19th-century British Protestants, to early-20th-century Jewish scholars, to Zionist iconography past and present:
The earliest identification of the Arch of Titus menorah bearers as Jewish captives appears in an almost offhanded way in the writings of the early-modern [Jewish] historiographer Gedaliah ibn Yahya’s Shalshelet Hakabbalah (The Chain of Tradition), a treatise that appeared in Venice in 1587. . . . The Arch of Titus is transformed by ibn Yahya—himself closely associated with the messianic pretender David Reuveni (d. 1535/1541) and his claims to command Jewish armies beyond the borders of Christendom—as a monument to the strength of the Jewish people. Since Titus was forced to fight so strenuously to defeat the Jews (a war that did, in fact, take the empire eight years to win), ibn Yahya reasons, he merited this triumphal arch. Thus, the “strong” Jewish captives are depicted in its bas-reliefs, and the shame that Jews experienced in relation to the arch inverted. . . .
Like ibn Yahya before them, Zionists of the fin de siècle adopted the Arch of Titus—especially the menorah panel—and subverted it. No longer was it to be a sign of Roman victory and Jewish defeat—the original intention of the arch—but rather it was transformed into a symbol of Jewish strength. It was a “refusal to admit defeat,” as Chaim Weizmann so succinctly put it. This resignification . . . allow[ed] a subjugated population to imagine the possibilities of its own strength in the face of European power, read through a marble metaphor of ancient Roman imperialism. his recourse to an ancient artifact spoke to both Jewish proclivities and to Enlightenment romanticism. The “martyred race” (as Jews were often called during the fin-de-siècle) was actually “a strong nation.”
This “hidden transcript” was surely a poignant survival tool for early modern Italian Jews. It was developed by Anglophone Protestants of the Victorian era for their own theological and poetic purposes. And, finally, it was adapted by modern Jews as they began the processes of imagining themselves a modern “secular” nation—and then seeing that nation take shape. Taken over into Israeli popular culture, it has been preserved among Hebrew speakers and Italian and American Jews.
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