Rome is home to the oldest continuous community of Jews outside the middle-east. There were Jews in the city as early as the second century BCE. They tended to first settle in Trastevere and by the second century CE, it is thought there were about 40,000 with more than a dozen synagogues. In ancient Rome the Jews were tolerated more than Christians, possibly because they made no attempt to convert people. Around the beginning of the 13th century they started to settle on the east side of the river. For centuries, the Jews and the papacy coexisted fairly amicably; the Jews serving the popes as doctors and bankers. However, in the 13th century things began to change. The Jews were first made to wear a yellow ‘O’ on their clothing for the purposes of identification.
In 1555 the situation deteriorated dramatically when Pope Paul IV (r. 1555-59) had all of the city's Jews enclosed in a walled and gated ghetto, with a curfew on entry and exit. Later laws tried to prevent Jews from exercising any form of trade apart from rags, scrap metal and money-lending. By the middle of the 17th century 4,000 people were living in a very small area, no more than 3 hectares (7 acres) in size. The conditions inside the Ghetto must have been desperate and deplorable. During one outbreak of the plague in 1656 one in five Jews died.
In 1848 the walls of the Ghetto were taken down. In 1871 Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy and Jews were finally allowed to hold political office and enter the professions. In 1888 much of the Ghetto was demolished.
The political climate changed for the worse under the rule of Benito Mussolini (1922-43), with pressure from Nazi Germany. The first and most important of the Racial Laws (Leggi Razziali) was issued on November 17th 1938. It restricted the civil rights of Italian Jews, banned books written by Jewish authors, and excluded Jews from public offices and higher education.
Two months after the downfall il Duce in July 1943, German troops occupied Rome. On October 16th, over one thousand Jews were rounded up and deported to foreign concentration camps; few returned. Today, the total number of Jews living in Italy is roughly 28,000; more than half of whom live in Rome. The Great Synagogue of Rome (Tempio Maggiore di Roma), which stands in was completed in 1904. Its dome is a prominent landmark on Rome’s skyline.