An interview with Professor Steven Fine
It was to Rome that a menorah was brought from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Beit Ha Miqdash, the Temple, and was carried in triumph as war plunder by the imperial troops. It was under Rome, that the menorah became a powerful and representative emblem of Judaism. And finally it was in Rome that all traces of the menorah vanished without a trace, never to be found again, says Ruth Dureghello, the first woman president in the history of the Jewish community of Rome.
The seven-branched golden Menorah, silver trumpets, and the golden Table of Showbread, taken as war spoils at the destruction of the Second Temple, have much significance to the Jews of Rome. They are the main focus of a panel carved in deep relief on the Arch of Titus. The sculpted depiction of these spoils was likely originally colored yellow, likely with a blue background, says Professor Steven Fine, Director of the Yeshiva University Arch of Titus Project.
Students, licensed tour guides of Rome and tourists can benefit from this fantastic interview with Professor Fine about the history of the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forums.
The 2012 pilot project in search of color was a complete success. The scan data was processed to create a 3D representation of the form on the menorah panel and the reliefs showing Titus riding in triumph through the city and the deification of Titus at the apex of the arch with sub-millimeter accuracy. You and your team found traces of yellow ochre on the arms and on the base of the menorah. Can you explain why this discovery is consistent with biblical, early Christian, and Talmudic writings, in particular to the eye-witness testimony by the first-century historian Josephus?
It was no surprise when Heinrich and Rose Piening, conservators from Bavaria in Germany, identified the original yellow ochre paint of the menorah. In fact, based on all literary sources back to the Bible, yellow paint— or perhaps gilding (which was not found) is the only possible color. Finding what we expected allowed for some confidence that other colors discovered or posited might be accurate as well.
Quantifying the impacts of climate change, environmental issues, all impact the monument and its survival. The air quality of Rome and all other cities, such as Athens, is a great problem for Classical structures and sculptures, especially for limestone, not granite so much. A study held in 2015 led by the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) and the Institute for Conservation and Restoration (ISCR) shows that in Rome about 3600 cultural heritage made of calcareous stone (limestone) are at risk of deterioration. Today in 2022, a special restoration project is underway on the Arch of Septimus Severus in which restorers will study the best protective agent to safeguard the monument’s surfaces against airborne pollutants and other harmful atmospheric agents. Apparently, it’s part of an experimental bio-consolidation method that makes the use of carbonate bacteria, as part of the wider PArCo-GREEN project? Will the Arch of Titus be included in a similar project? How will the restorers go about preserving and protecting the yellow ochre of the arms and the base of the menorah that your team discovered?
Our first team received permission for a very short test. I am sure that others will move forward in meaningful ways with further studies.
There are about 4,000 licensed tour guides in Rome. Many make reference to Filippo Coarelli’s (1968) reconstruction of the Triumphal march going around Palatine Hill. There does not exist a single piece of evidence to prove that the route went around Palatine Hill. No one knows whether or not the triumphal procession containing the Judaic conquests of Titus passed anywhere near where the arch stands today, or whether it took another route. What is your opinion and what evidence has convinced your theory?
Both Professors Ida Ostenberg and Samuel Rocca address issues of the march in our volume, The Arch of Titus: from Jerusalem to Rome and back. I’m no expert on that question. I can say, though, that Josephus’ description of Titus’ triumph is the most complete depiction of a triumphal parade in all of classical literature.
Josephus tells us that the Law of the Jews was present during the procession into Rome:
(T)here followed those pageants (of captives) a great number of ships; and for the other spoils, they were carried in great plenty. But for those that were taken in the Temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold…and most of all the spoils were carried the Law of the Jews.
(Josephus, War of the Jews, Book 7, chapter 5)
The Torah scroll is the most important vessel to Jews. The Jews are a people of the Book and evidence for a missing Torah scroll that was first discussed by an 18th century English historian William Whiston at the University of Bristol. Then in March 2008, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “Mysteries of the Menorah”, Soloveitchik makes reference to Knight’s lecture and quotes two very important primary sources regarding the procession. First, the eyewitness account from Josephus of the procession itself, and a second eyewitness description of the arch by the overlooked 14 century historian Flavio Biondo (1392–1463), both of which suggest that there was a third element that is no longer present: a scroll of the Law. He argues that a very important quote “Postea portabatur Lex Judaeorum marmoreal item extans“. “After this was carried the Law of the Jews, which also is extant in the marble” appears in the 1511 edition, but later omitted in those printed in 1531 and 1559. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests with some probability infer that between the years 1511 and 1531, the Book of the Law ceased to be visible in the bas relief of the Arch of Titus? What is your theory on this ongoing scholarly debate?
Ida Ostenberg posits that the scroll, which follows the table and menorah in both Josephus’s description, is not illustrated but follows the others without being illustrated. Ostenberg suggests that the third titulus, sign on the left side, might have read “Law of the Jews,” or something like that. I add that our 3D scan, created by Unocad of Milan, shows no evidence of a scroll and that the sorry state of the relief, especially in earlier centuries allowed for all sorts of imaginative speculation. Some even identified the Showbread Table as the Ark of the Covenant, which is impossible. From a strictly visual perspective, a scroll has none of the iconic or unusual visual interest of the menorah and the table topped with the horns and cups. It is understandable why Roman artisans left the scroll off.
In the early twentieth century Jews, as well as British Protestants came to believe that the menorah bearers on the relief of the Arch of Titus represented Jewish soldiers and not Roman triumphadors? Can you elaborate?
Marie-Térèse Champagne points out in our volume that this belief goes back to the middle ages when Christians imagined that they saw enslaved Jews bringing the temple vessels to Rome. This belief appears in Jewish contexts beginning in the early modern period. In contemporary Jewish folk belief, the bearers of the menorah on the arch are Jewish prisoners, rather than Roman soldiers. Rather than appearing in humiliation, however, this panel has been seen as asserting Jewish power and hope even in defeat. Some modern images present those “prisoners” transformed pygmalion -into Israeli soldiers carrying the menorah “home.” The message, often scratched by Jews on the base of the arch by Jewish pilgrims is Am Yisael Chai— the people of Israel live!
Why did the State of Israel choose, as a symbol of the State, the menorah featuring the (pagan) Titus base instead of that displaying the authentic Jewish menorah with the three feet base found on stone epitaphs from the Jewish catacombs in Rome?
The idea that the base is “pagan” is quite current, but other scholars see it as just Roman. It is quite possible that one of the menorahs donated to the Temple bore this base— and that is the one the Romans chose to preserve and illustrate. The idea that Judaism is deeply aniconic is just wrong. What Jews have historically avoided is imagery that feels idolatrous. I wrote quite a bit on this issue in my The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Harvard UP, 2016).
As to why the Arch menorah: After 2000 years of oppression in Christian Europe and the lands of Islam – and especially modern genocide and expulsions, many Jews saw this menorah as a remnant of their past glory, representing their hopes for the future. Choosing the Arch menorah as a Jewish symbol during the late 19th century and then as the emblem of the State Of Israel was an act of modern reclamation. That which was taken away 2000 years ago has been restored to the Jewish people, which by its own power has restored its state. The metaphor of moving from darkness to light is very strong.
You were recently interviewed by Tzili Charney and Tzipi Trope in their program Tzuzamen (which means Together). What were the most important highlights of this engaging dialogue?
The search for color, the Restoration Project, the 2017 Jeshua University Museum exhibition and the books were the result of the hard work and imagination of scholars, curators and students from around the world. That it has caught the public imagination as it has was a delightful surprise to me. Many thanks to each of my partners, students and donors (including Tzili) that made our work possible.
The Vatican Museums and the Jewish Museum of Rome mounted a monumental exhibition back in 2017, La Menorà: culto, storia e mito (The Menorah: Worship, History and Myth). Beyond the many artifacts assembled, the exhibition display, and its impressive catalog, you write in your review of the exhibition that there is one single object in La Menorà that particularly stood out? Can you elaborate on this?
It was a marvelous exhibition! When I approached St. Peters to visit the exhibition I was not sure exactly what I would find there. I was excited, though. Crossing the great piazza, I remember gulping deeply when I saw a huge banner draped across its Renaissance portico. At the center of the banner was the Arch of Titus menorah, its golden color restored. This reconstruction, of course, was based on our research. Seeing the colored menorah fluttering there was a source of overwhelming pride – as was the moment in 2012 when the blue and white Yeshiva University banner fluttered from the Arch of Titus.
Steven Fine is a cultural historian, specializing in the Jewish experience in Roman antiquity. He focuses mainly on the literature, art and archaeology of ancient Judaism– and the ways that modern scholars have interpreted Jewish antiquity. He serves as Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies. He is a prolific writer and lecturer on ancient Judaism.
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