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Berenice, the Jewish Queen of Rome, and the Origins of Replacement Theory

How fear that a single Jew could transform Western society into a Jewish empire led to a broader anti-Semitism

Fredric Brandfon
January 13, 2020
Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Giovanni Volpato, 'Arch of Titus,' circa 1780; gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2009Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Giovanni Volpato, 'Arch of Titus,' circa 1780; gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2009Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The earliest example of the fear that Jews might overturn and replace the social order with their own people probably occurred in Rome during the first century CE. A circumstance arose that threatened Roman dominion over the Mediterranean world: The Flavian family line was in danger of being replaced through a Jewish takeover.

In 70 CE, the Roman Emperor Vespasian’s son, Titus, had defeated the Judean rebellion, destroying Jerusalem and the Second Temple. However, once victorious, he chose as his willing consort Berenice, the sister of Agrippa II, the former king of conquered Judaea. This choice was not so odd as it may sound: Berenice and her brother had opposed the Jewish revolt from the beginning. Along with the spoils of the Temple, Titus brought Berenice back to Rome, where, according to Cassius Dio (Roman History LXV 15), she lived with him as if she were his empress, exerting considerable power.

Some Romans were troubled by the romance of Titus and Berenice and spoke out against her. In her prior marriage to the king of Pontus, Berenice had required that he convert to Judaism and be circumcised. There was probably concern that Titus would be convinced to do the same. The result would be a Jewish emperor of Rome, in effect reversing the outcome of the Jewish War. Worse, Titus and Berenice’s children would be Jewish, ensuring that future emperors would be Jewish. In other words, the Roman Empire would be in Jewish hands.

Titus understood that consequence, and the necessity of preventing such an outcome. Indeed, preceding dynasties had also faced the charge of Judaizing the empire. Emperor Claudius, who preceded Titus by less than 20 years, had a visiting dignitary, Isidorus of Alexandria, executed for accusing him of being Jewish. A few years later, Nero, who ruled Rome until 68 CE, just two years before the Flavians, could not escape association with Jews. His wife was a “God-Fearer,” that is a person who engaged in some Jewish practices without converting. There was precedent, therefore, for both Titus’ romantic entanglement and the accusations that came with it.

Detail, ‘The Apostle Paul [not shown] explains the tenets of faith in the presence of King Agrippa, his sister Berenice, and the proconsul Festus,’ Vasily Surikov, 1875.
Detail, ‘The Apostle Paul [not shown] explains the tenets of faith in the presence of King Agrippa, his sister Berenice, and the proconsul Festus,’ Vasily Surikov, 1875.Wikipedia

Titus understood that Berenice’s potential ascendance to imperial power was a threat, real or imagined, to the future of the nascent Flavian Dynasty, which like all dynasties, needed stability and not controversy. Berenice was forced into exile.

The story of Berenice is the story of Jewish replacement boiled down to one person, a woman, who could, by herself, effect the replacement of the Flavian Dynasty with Jewish emperors. The notion that a single Jew could transform Western society into a Jewish empire was a fear that did not die.

Even the actual transformation of the Roman Empire through the establishment of Christianity as the state religion—a faith that incorporated the Jewish Bible, and replaced traditional Roman Gods with a crucified Jew—did not bring an end to the charge of Judaizing: Later emperors were accused of being Jewish when they took the side of Jews against Christians. In 387 and 388, synagogues were burned in both Rome and Callinicum in Mesopotamia. The Western Emperor Magnus Maximus ordered the Roman synagogue rebuilt, and was promptly labeled a Jew.

When the Mesopotamian synagogue was also ordered reconstructed, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan thought it wise to step in. He wrote a letter to the Eastern Emperor Theodosius and a sermon that were much more nuanced than a mere denunciation, but which reached the same conclusion. Ambrose, later Saint Ambrose, argued that by recompensing the Jews, the letter rather than the spirit of the law was being enforced. By virtue of their supposed killing of Christ, Jews had placed themselves outside the law and, therefore, should not be allowed to claim justice from Christians. He lamented that if Jews were admitted as equals before the law, it could fill the world with Jews, a non sequitur that nonetheless voiced the anxiety that Jews could replace Christians. Finally, in his letter Ambrose could not resist threatening Theodosius by saying that should justice be blind to both Jews and Christians, the emperor might just as well be a Jew himself—as had been said of Theodosius’ rival, Maximus.

Later, when popes replaced emperors, they too were accused of being Jewish. The Catholic anxiety about Jewish popes was best expressed by the Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863), a people’s poet who wrote hundreds of sonnets in Roman dialect and was fascinated by the place of Jews in his city. Most of his poems are not about Jews, but those that are often express, in satiric form, a fear that the pope and Rome were becoming Jewish. If Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) had a Jewish friend, and he did in Rabbi Moisè Sabbato Beer, there was always the danger the pope would convert.

He [Rabbi Beer] was the Pope’s friend ,
In fact the very day the Pope was elected
He took pen in hand and wrote him a sonnet,
Half in Hebrew, half in Latin.
So when he died the Pope cried huge tears
Even though he’s the Pope, and felt his heart break.
I tell you, had the Rabbi lived a bit longer,
Either we would have seen him become a Christian,
Or the Pope would have ended up a Jew.”
—Sonnet 1544 “La morte der Rabbino” (“The Rabbi’s Death”)

“The Rabbi’s Death” is not unique in Belli’s work. The transformation of the pope into a Jew was an idea that Belli came back to again and again. In 1832, after the Napoleonic Wars when the Congress of Vienna restored sovereignty to the Papal States, Pope Gregory XVI arranged a loan, not without controversy, from Karl Mayer Rothschild of the noted Jewish banking family. In Sonnet 622 “Er motivo de li guai” (“The Source of Our Troubles”) Belli lamented not only that the pope had become Jewish as a result of his financial dealings, but that Rome itself was Jewish as well.

You want to know why Rome is in such trouble,
Why God is trying her so hard with such suffering? I’ll tell you.
It’s because the Pope has become a Jew
And all that’s left of his Papal nature is the vestment.

Too bad for us. [And nothing will be done]
Because by borrowing so much money from a stinking Jew,
Pope Gregory sold him Rome and the Papal State!

Moreover, in “Er còlera mòribbus II” (“Deadly Cholera II”) (4 August 1835) Belli declares that, given the Jewish bailout of the Vatican, all of Rome is being turned into a ghetto.

[B]ecause Rome has become a ghetto of wickedness blacker than the blackest hat.

Earlier in Belli’s lifetime, Pope Pius VII had been taken into exile by Napoleon and kept prisoner at Fontainebleau. There, in 1813, he signed a treaty, probably coerced, with the French emperor, that so dismayed his disbelieving supporters back in Rome that it was reported the Romans reacted with black humor: “If this true, let us all go to the Ghetto and become Jews.”

Of course, the pope had not become a Jew, nor was Napoleon Jewish. Nonetheless, even a thoroughly non-Jewish circumstance quickly brought to the surface the fear that Rome, the Eternal City and the center of the Catholic world, could become a Jewish stronghold.

However, if the people of Rome and Belli were satirical about Rome becoming a ghetto, toward the end of the 19th century, just after the actual ghetto in Rome was dissolved, popular Italian novels expressed a similar anxiety melodramatically. In 1870, with the pope not in exile but rather trapped in the Vatican, the Papal States surrendered to Italian unification and a secular democratic government. Simultaneously, Jews were released from the Roman ghetto and emancipated throughout Italy. At the same time, the fantasy that Jews were now free to replace their Catholic neighbors became endemic to popular literature.

Carolina Invernizio’s genre fiction titled L’Orfana del Ghetto (The Orphan of the Ghetto), published in 1887, for example, told a Gothic tale of two children who were switched at birth: One born Christian is raised as a Jew and the other born Jewish is raised Christian. This mix-up would eventually be brought to light and sorted out over the course of the novel. Nevertheless, the focal point of the story is that a single Jew has replaced, at birth, a Christian, with, of course, dire consequences. In the end, Luciana, the Jew who, in secret, has had the benefit of a Catholic upbringing, declares with pride, “We own the world.”

For Luciana, and for Invernizio, Jews own, or will own, the world because it has become a world that can be bought with Jewish money. The readers of The Orphan of the Ghetto were led to believe that even the accidental replacement of one Christian with a single Jew could help bring about Jewish hegemony. Similarly, during the Fascist period (1922-1943), there were popular novels concerning Jews who intentionally disguised themselves as Christians in order to marry into good Catholic families and appropriate their power and money. The novel Il cuore a destra (The Heart on the Right), by Gian Paolo Callegari, concerns a Hungarian Jew, crudely named “Gold,” who poisons his countrymen with rotten pork. Forced to flee Hungary, he meets a cabal of Jews in Vienna who are plotting to take over the world’s financial centers. To further that conspiracy, they send him to Rome where he is to claim he is a Catholic and deceitfully marry into a wealthy Christian family. Having replaced Catholic power with hidden Jewish power he would be well on the way to accomplishing the goal of Jewish world dominance.

Il Cuore a destra expresses the fascist iteration of replacement theory. It begins with the well-known medieval accusation that Jews were intent on poisoning their Christian neighbors. It then adds the notion of an international conspiracy intent on replacing the world’s rulers, which in the fascist vision are financial magnates. But because in Italy, Jews were such a small minority—45,000 out of 47 million according to a 1938 census—that attack had to come on an individual basis. A few well-placed and hidden Jews under the control of a foreign cabal could end up controlling Italy, the “Society of Nations,” and, ultimately, the world. For Callegari, Italy was already overrun and occupied by Jews. It was now “enemy territory” that had to be reclaimed.

In the 21st century, replacement theory deals with the fact that Jews are a minority in a different way. Instead of warning against individual Jews who are surreptitiously replacing non-Jews with the intention of a global takeover, replacement theorists claim to have discovered another fantastical plot: Jewish groups like the Hebrew Immigrants Aid Society are accused of concocting an immigrant invasion in order to take control of the levers of political power away from white people.

That fantasy, nevertheless, is a response to the same fear underlying the older fantasies of Jewish replacement operating on an individual level. Whether it is a fear of one Jew replacing a non-Jew ultimately resulting in Jewish dominion, or a fear that the pope may become a Jew, or a fear that Jews are infiltrating Italy’s 20th-century commercial class, or whether it is a fear of Jews engineering a takeover of the United States by Latin American immigrants, the basic fear is always the same. It is that fear and uncertainty that drove Robert Bowers to commit mass murder in Pittsburgh: He thought he was watching an invasion of America engineered by Jews, and felt compelled to kill in order to stop it.

For those who fear their own replacement, the future they abhor is supposedly comfortable and well known to the Jews who are busy creating it. The knowledge gap between those who are fashioning the future—the Jews—and those who conceive of themselves as its victims only heightens the anxiety of the latter, who imagine that they must act before the future is upon them.

Fredric Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist at Beersheba, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa, and Jaffa, Israel, currently practices law in Los Angeles.