Cum nimis absurdum
The Jewish Ghetto, also known as the Ghetto of Rome, is a historic district on the banks of the Tiber. There has been a large Jewish community in Rome since the 2nd century BC. Originally the Jews were allowed to settle in the city; after the Roman wars with Judea, however, they began to be treated as second-class citizens. In 1555, by order of the Pope Paul IV’s Papal Bull 'Cum nimis absurdum' - which takes its name from the first line, ‘Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault were condemned by God to eternal slavery...’ - the area was sectioned off and became a ghetto which was controlled by the Papacy, until its abolition in 1870 with the unification of Italy.
Life here was extremely hard. Jews were heavily taxed, only allowed to work unskilled jobs, forced to attend Catholic sermons on Shabbat, and had to wear yellow pointed hats or veils to mark them out when they ventured outside the ghetto. It was an area of severe poverty and overcrowding, with housing built higher and higher above its narrow streets to accommodate the growing population. The district was also frequently flooded. Having been isolated from the rest of the city for over three centuries, the Jews here developed their own Judeo-Roman dialect, which you can still hear spoken by some locals today.
Today it is a thriving district, and its streets are full of excellent kosher bakeries and restaurants. Much of the area is taken up by the Great Synagogue of Rome, which was built at the start of the 20th century and dwarfs most of Rome’s Christian churches. It incorporates eye-catching and eclectic architectural features as a celebration of Jewish freedom; its distinctive squared aluminium dome is the only one in the city.
Behind the synagogue is the ancient Portico of Octavia, built by the first Emperor Octavian Augustus and dedicated to his sister. From the 16th century, it was used as a fishmarket and formed a gateway to the ghetto. In the Middle Ages half the portico was converted into a bricked archway which linked it to the Church of Sant’ Angelo in Pescheria; this half-and-half structure from two distinct periods is still visible. Just down the pathway from the Portico, you can also see the only remaining section of the ghetto wall.