Perhaps there isn’t a more famous and well known ancient Roman than Julius Caesar. This is due in part to William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar and the many movies and television programs done on him. However, many of us only know this man from just these plays and movies, which aren’t necessarily historically factual.
On my list of sites to see while at the Roman Forum was where Julius Caesar was murdered. From what little I knew, again from the fore mentioned sources, he was murdered on the steps of the Roman Senate by his enemies on March 15th 44 BC, the Ides of March. I figured since the Roman Senate met in the Roman Forum that’s where I’d find where it happened, but I was wrong. Caesar, I found, wasn’t assassinated in the Forum but at another location. Although he wasn’t murdered in the Forum I did find something there on Caesar that was totally unexpected and much more amazing, but that’s for another post.
Before I take you on my journey of discovery I feel I should give a little background on the man we’re searching for.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 13 in 100 BC to a well to do Roman political family. Caesar believed that his political ambitions would be realized through a successful military career. Caesar advanced thru the ranks quickly becoming General of the legendary 13th Legion.
His fame grew when he expanded the Roman Empire into Europe and Britain. This gave Caesar immense military and popular power that he used to his advantage.
In 60 BC Caesar formed a political alliance with two of his rivals, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey “the Great,” against the wishes of the Roman Senate. This alliance ended in 53 BC with the death of Crassus. Pompey feeling threated by Caesar’s popularity, switched this alliance to the Senate.
The Senate ordered Caesar to step down from his command, which he refused to do. Instead on January 10 in 49 BC Caesar broke Roman law by leading his army across the Rubicon River, the northern border of ancient Roman Italy, starting a civil war.
The Great Roman Civil War lasted four years, ending with Pompey’s murder and those that opposed Caesar being overthrown in 46 BC. Caesar now had full say over the Senate, who named him dictator for life; however there were still those in the Senate that opposed Caesar.
With his complete control of the government he began instituting programs of social and governmental reform. He also began major building projects in the Forum.
As I had presented in my previous posts (the Roman Forum, Part II- A walking exploration and the Imperial Fora of Rome: Julius and Augustus Caesar) Julius Caesar began major reconstruction projects including building his Curia Julia. On March 15, 44 BC Caesar’s Curia wasn’t finished and the old Curia had been torn down forcing the Senate to meet in another location. That’s what threw me off as to where the assassination took place.
“Beware the Ides of March”
While the new Curia was being finished the Senate had moved their meetings to the Curia Pompey, part of the magnificent Theater of Pompey located in the Campus Martius, the new section of Rome north of the Forum.
At first Caesar refused to meet with the Senate, after being warned by his wife and a soothsayer that told him, “Beware the Ides of March.” But after the conspirators convinced him of the importance of the meeting Caesar changed his mind. Legend has it that as Caesar was on his way to the meeting he again met the seer and joked, “The Ides of March has come,” to which the seer replied solemnly, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.”
It was a little more than a mile from his house on Forum to Campus Martius where he would meet with the Senate in the Curia of Pompey. I would imagine that even after having seen Pompey’s Theater many times it still amazed him.
The Theater of Pompey
Pompey had been inspired by the Greek theater at Mytilene and chose to build one even more magnificent and larger in Rome. Pompey used his own money for its construction, but had to build it outside of the old city because of a law prohibiting the construction of permanent theaters within the city.
Construction of his theater began in around 61 BC, taking seven years to complete. It was dedicated in 52 BC. When finished the theater’s back curved wall stood 115 feet above the street and stretched 500 feet across. At the center of its back wall was the temple to Venus Victrix which rose high above the theater’s roof. The stage is thought to have been 95 feet wide. Writings at the time said the theater held 17,500 patrons.
Behind the stage was a long landscaped garden with flowers and fountains in which patrons could walk during intermissions. This garden was surrounded by a columned portico that held statues and paintings by popular Roman artists.
At the opposite end of the garden stood the Curia of Pompey, with its almost temple like design. Pompey had built his theater behind four earlier temples; the entrance to the Curia was opposite the circular columned temple to Aedes Lutatius Catulus, “Luck of the Current Day.”
The Curia of Pompey
The Curia of Pompey held meeting rooms and featured a large statue of Pompey himself at its entrance. It was here that the Roman Senate was meeting on that fateful day. Some stories of Julius Caesar’s murder has it happening on the steps as he walked into the building, while others say he was inside sitting in front of the Senators. What is known is that Caser was attacked by sixty conspirators who stabbed him twenty-three times.
The conspirators believed that Caesar’s death would be welcomed among the people, but they vastly underestimated his popularity.
Following the assassination Caesar’s adopted son Gaius Octavius quickly took power and killed all the conspirators. Octavius would change his name to Augustus and become what many consider the first Roman Emperor.
It is also believed that Augustus marked the site of his father’s murder with a concert memorial, 10 feet wide by 6 feet high. As for the Curia itself it is said that after the murder it was closed and walled up. After a fire destroyed the structure a latrine was put in its place.
What’s left of the Theater of Pompey and its Curia today?
Except for the Curia the rest of the Theater and its complex remained in use long after Julius Caesar’s murder. The emperors that followed continued to maintain and to restore the complex throughout the decades that followed. Records show that the theater was still in use after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, and did so until around 554 AD when the population of Rome declined to the point that it wasn’t used anymore. As with the other buildings of ancient Rome the Theater of Pompey’s structural materials were striped and used for other building.
Today there isn’t much visible of this amazing structure, and its historic Curia, to be seen. Some of its walls have been enveloped into newer buildings; its foundations now support many of the buildings in the Campo de’ Fiori and Largo di Torre Argentina sections of the city, or used as wine cellars for hotels and restaurants in that part of the city.
You can however still see the curved outline of the theater in the street as you walk east from the Campo de’ Fiori through the Palazzo Orsini Pio Righetti, and the Via di Grotta Pinta roughly follows the line of its stage. But for the most part this grand structure, Theater of Pompey and the site of were Caesar met his fate, has been buried and lost, their remains covered over and lying under the city square of Largo di Torre Argentina.
In 1927 during demolition work in the square a large marble head and arms were uncovered; this began an archaeological dig which unearthed four Republican era temples. These temples were the ones located at the back of the theaters garden and opposite its Curia.
Using the locations of these temples in 2012 a group of Spanish archaeologists believe they have discovered the location of Augustus’ concert memorial over the site of Caesars murders. However there is still much debate on this finding. What we do know is that the Curia of Pompey stills rests beneath the street, bus and streetcar stop on the Largo di Torre Argentina.
When you go to Rome make sure you visit Largo di Torre Argentina, and look past the ruins of the circular temple to the area that goes under the street, and you’ll be looking at were Julius Caesar fell at the hands of his enemies.
So now that we’ve found were Caesar was murdered what happened to his body? For that we’ll go back to the Roman Forum and I’ll show you what I found there in my next post.