Lecture of Estelle S. Brettman at Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan (September 25, 1981)

The Kelsey Museum presented an illustrated lecture by Estelle Brettman, executive director of the International Committee for the Preservation of the Catacombs in Italy, to introduce a special exhibition in Auditorium A of Angell Hall. The lecture marked the opening of the exhibit "Vaults Of Memory," at the Kelsey Museum.

How fortunate the International Committee is to have its exhibit "Vaults of Memory" make its first trip away from home to the Kelsey Museum. The cooperation and enthusiasm of the staff have been most rewarding and it has been so exciting to see the exhibit augmented by objects and archival photographs from such a fine collection.

In addition the University of Michigan has afforded me the opportunity to experience the warm mid-western hospitality that my mother often spoke of in telling of her childhood.

The Kelsey's Associate Director, Prof. Elaine Gazda, has suggested that I relate a bit of the personal background for the exhibit and since the handling of the exhibition has been so masterful, there seems to be little need for explication on that score.

The brochure for the exhibition states that Vaults of Memory had its beginnings 2,000 years ago, but perhaps the story had its true beginning about 3,000 years ago, when the Talmudic legend has it that every time King Solomon erred, an angel dropped some soil into the ocean and this eventually became ancient Rome. Thus the close ties which developed between Rome and ancient Israel can perhaps explain my own warm feelings for the eternal city.

The first political ties between ancient Israel and Rome developed during the time of the Maccabees, a little before the middle of the second century CE, but it was when Pompey besieged Jerusalem and returned with Jewish prisoners that the ranks swelled and by Augustus' time probably reached 40,000 persons (between 6 and 9 percent of the total inhabitants of the Roman empire).

Julius Caesar had been a friend of the Roman jews, giving them full freedom to worship, the right to congregate, to raise their own funds, judge their own criminals, and be exempt from military service in order to observe their traditions. Augustus and his son-in-law and general Agrippa made offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the Roman Jews fared reasonably well, with a few exceptions, as opposed to the Jews in other parts of the Mediterranean and the early Christians until the time Rome ceased to be the center of the Roman Empire in the time of Constantine. Under the rule of Tiberius and Claudius historians tell of exile for Jews and other sects. During the time of the Emperor Vespasian, the Fiscus Judaicus - a levy which channeled the original yearly Temple tax to a poll tax for the Roman Treasury - was instituted. Ironically, this 2 drachma tax was used for the upkeep of the pagan temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Under Domitian (the brother of Titus, who destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt) the abuses engendered by this tax reached excessive harshness but later were liberalized during the short reign of Nerva and succeeding enlightened emperors.

When Paul reached the shores of Pozzuoli in 62 CE, there was a thriving colony of Jews there and likely in nearby Pompeii. He found a similar situation in Rome, where he stayed with Jews and others sympathetic to his new doctrine.

One of the oldest and most crowded quarters of Rome was the Augustan Region XIV - the Transtiberinum (Trastevere). Since it is likely that many Roman Jews were engaged in commercial activities, the proximity to the Tiber River and to the via Portuensis made Porto and Ostia Antica, the sea ports of Rome, very accessible. The catacomb of Monteverde (catacombs are multi-leveled burial grounds well below the surface) which would have been conveniently located for such a community of Jews for the most part collapsed in 1928 as the end result to quarrying nearby. Fortunately, almost 200 precious documents for the history of Jews in the Roman diaspora, in the form of epitaphs, were salvaged at the instigation of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, after the site was excavated by German archaeologist Nikolaus Muller at the start of the 20th century. Today, there are only three Jewish catacombs extant in Rome - originally there were at least 6. These catacombs show use from the 2d to 5th centuries CE.

Recent new excavations below the Villa Torlonia in 1973-1974 conducted by the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology have revealed 2 catacombs. These catacombs had been the last to be discovered and have an intriguing history. In 1919, while laborers were digging for stables below the estate of the Prince of Torlonia on the via Nomentana, which runs northeast from Rome, they discovered these Jewish catacombs. Benito Mussolini, when he occupied the prince's villa before and during World War 2, was no doubt aware that he was living above acres of burials belonging to Roman Jews - a population he called "strangers in Italy." Today the occupants of the Roman Ghetto are considered the oldest native Romans and probably the oldest Jewish colony of the European Diaspora.

In 1976, I approached my long-awaited entrance to the Jewish catacomb of Villa Torlonia with great enthusiasm. My guide and I descended the mossy, slippery stairway to the actual catacomb entrance and proceeded through the tall but narrow corridors, until we reached the decorated areas of the upper catacomb. There I found the intermingling of Greco-Roman symbols in one funerary chamber very striking. As I readied my camera to take a photograph in this only decorated chamber in the site, I found out that the flash wouldn't function. It was only through the patient manipulation of the gas lanterns the custodian had brought with him that I was able to take any pictures at all - and now they are part of the exhibit!

- Estelle Shohet Brettman, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, September 25, 1981.

Catalog: Vaults of memory Jewish & Christian imagery in the catacombs of Rome: a guide to the exhibition (Ann Arbor, MI: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology), 1981), Estelle Shohet Brettman, edited by Elain Kathryn Gazda.