At first glance, the men in leather sandals, pleated tunics, and armored breastplates who pose with tourists at the Colosseum in Rome look like what they hope to be taken for: Roman centurions. Clustered in groups of two or three, these sword-brandishing would-be warriors have become a staple attraction on the ancient cobbled streets of Rome, where they animate the city’s history and pose for pictures with eager tourists. But what’s under the embroidered red sleeves of an astonishing number of them is a little more surprising: tattoos of Hebrew words, Stars of David, and Israeli flags.
By many estimates, well over half of the 40 or so street performers who work in and around the Colosseum are Jewish. Many are proud and practicing Jews. Some even claim to be descendants of the Jews who were enslaved or killed by Roman centurions—the real ones—two thousand years ago. But while the tattoos are there to stay, the centurions themselves might not be.
In 2012, Roman authorities cracked down on the street performers, claiming that they ruin the decorum of these quasi-sacred ancient sites. Tourists had complained about the misleading behavior of the centurions, whom they accused of cheerily posing for photos without mention of money and then aggressively demanding cash—usually around five euros ($6.50) or more per photo. Cristiano Brughitta, spokesperson for the Archaeological Department of Rome, told us that the centurions “are technically extras” who are “deemed incompatible with the cultural interest associated with the area of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.”
The centurions were banned from working inside the Colosseum or on its surrounding plaza and were confined to the neighboring streets. This decree was passed just before Passover last year, so the centurions took the obvious course of action: holding a mock Seder on top of the Colosseum. Well, not quite a Seder; a small group of them munched on matzo and rice, hoisted up from their families below, while camping on the Colosseum. The full extent of the protest is hard to assess; few of the gladiators gave the same account. Some said they spent two or more nights on top of the monument, others said it was just one—but they made headlines nonetheless.
Eugenio and David Sonnino, cousins who have been working as centurions for eight years, were at the heart of the protest. Eugenio, 30, has a round and jovial face, wears a red hoodie underneath his centurion costume, and has a cigarette almost permanently dangling from his lips. David, 34, who shares his cousin’s chain-smoking habit, is short, tanned, and thin. If they looked more alike and lived in a Hergé comic, the cousins could be the Thomson & Thompson of the Colosseum; they are inseparable and often finish each other’s sentences. They were even arrested together when they tried to work on the Colosseum plaza after the decree was passed. They said they were the first ones to reach the top of the Colosseum for the demonstration and were later joined by other centurions.
“We came down because the government promised us that we could work again,” the Sonninos said, their voices merging as they recounted the story together. But once the centurions were back on solid ground, the authorities told them the decree was still in place. The Sonninos and their fellow centurions still work today, but only on the streets surrounding the Colosseum, always on the move away from the all-seeing eyes of the carabinieri.
The fake centurion business has been going on for at least 15 years. The Sonnino cousins say that it all started with two deaf and mute men who decided to dress as centurions and had so much success with the tourists that others decided to follow their example. David Moscato, 37, who has been donning gladiatorial garb for 12 years, said a group of people started to dress as Roman soldiers and re-enact battles, which others copied when they saw how fascinated passers-by were. And shopkeeper Vittorrio Moscato, who runs a souvenir stand overlooking the Colosseum, has yet another version of the story: He says it was just one man who initiated the whole thing. “He was crazy,” he said. “He wasn’t well. He was dressed up as a centurion, and he would take pictures with people in front of the Colosseum. Then, from one day to the next, there were two centurions, then four, then 10, then 50.”
Whatever the origins of the fake centurions, it’s no surprise that the Jews jumped on this tourism bandwagon: Roman Jews have a long and active history in the city’s souvenir industry. Rome’s Jewish community, the oldest in Western Europe, was plagued by severe poverty throughout much of its history. Living as neighbors to the pope, the Jews of Rome endured centuries of humiliation orchestrated by the Vatican. They were forced to live in a ghetto, established in 1555 and abolished in 1882, which was overcrowded, disease-ridden, and often flooded. The level of literacy was low, and as they were banned from most professional fields, many of the Jews became peddlers or shopkeepers.
While the ghetto and illiteracy are things of the past, this history is inextricable from modern Roman Jewish life—giving it a character shared by no other Western Jewish community—and many Jews in the city’s community of 15,000 still work in the same field as their parents and grandparents.
“We are in tourism because it’s tradition,” said Eugenio Sonnino, whose parents and siblings also work in the industry.
Around the Colosseum today, several of the souvenir stalls belong to Roman Jews, who inherited their businesses from their parents who sold rosaries and postcards around popular touristic attractions. “My family started this work 60 or 70 years ago,” Moscato, the craggy-faced seller, said. “My parents had a small case and they used to sell souvenirs of Rome and trinkets in the Colosseum.”
In fact, the relationship between Roman Jews and the city’s tourism sites dates back to pre-ghetto days. Many of the slaves who built the Colosseum in the first century C.E. were Jewish. And almost 2,000 years later, the Jews of today, much like their ancestors—whose losing battle with Rome is immortalized on the Arch of Titus, the marble monument that looms over the ancient cobbled Roman streets where these centurions work—are still fighting with the authorities.
Part of the problem, for both the authorities and the centurions, comes because the job is not officially recognized by the state. “The profession of ‘centurion’ doesn’t exist,” explained Moscato. “We’re just street artists. The city of Rome has started a war against [us] because they’re planning to privatize both the Colosseum and this profession.”
David Sonnino said the lack of official recognition paves the way for newcomers—or “scammers,” as he called them—to put on a tunic and pose as Roman soldiers. “Since we don’t have any regulations, anyone can put on a costume,” he said. “We are the official ones, but we end up being the scapegoats of many of the bad things that happen around here.”
The centurions say that today they earn just half of what they pocketed before their work area was restricted. But right now, most have no other employment options; they’re not qualified for other work, and Italy is plagued by an economic crisis and unemployment. “We keep on doing this because at the end of the day it’s all we have,” said David Sonnino. “Our company is our costume. We have no alternatives.”
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