In part one of this series, I wrote about the funeral of Julius Caesar. I told how that traumatic event set the stage for the end of the Roman Republic and helped to give rise to Rome’s first emperor, Caesar Augustus.
Augustus promised the people of Rome that he would build a temple to his deified adoptive father, which he did in 29 BC. However, Augustus would use this temple not to just glorify Julius Caesar but to further his ambitions. During the reign of Augustus the Temple of Divus Julius was one of the most impressive temples in the Roman Forum, but today it’s difficult to find its ruins.
With this article, the last in my Julius Caesar series, I’ll present what made this temple so remarkable, what happened to it throughout the ages, but most of all, how to find it when you visit the Roman Forum.
And lastly, I’ll end my search for Caesar’s grave, which I hope you’ll find very interesting.
The Monuments to Caesar and the Rise of Augustus
Shortly after the funeral, those loyal to Julius Caesar erected two monuments at the site of his cremation. One was a twenty-foot tall column of Numidian marble, with the inscription, “To the father of his country.” What’s interesting, and somewhat ironic about this inscription, is that according to the historian Appian of Alexandra, this is also what Caesar’s assassins had referred to him as before they murdered him. Next to the column was placed an altar. This alter would be the focus of cult-like worship to the fallen leader, which upset Caesar’s enemies.
Even though most of the assassins had fled Rome, there was still a large faction of anti-Caesar members in the senate. These men were able to remove the column and altar from the Forum. Their removal caused the citizens of Rome to again rise up and along with the veterans of Caesar’s legions, demanded that the monuments be returned to the Forum.
The political maneuvering for the leadership of Rome brought about the formation of a Second Triumvirate in 42 B.C. This Second Triumvirate consisted of Marc Antony, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Gaius Octavius. Using the outrage caused by the monument’s removal, the Triumvirate persuaded the Roman Senate to deified Julius Caesar, making him the first Roman ruler to be declared a god. They also pressured the Senate to authorize a temple to be built to the divine Caesar on the site of his cremation. However, the construction of this temple would have to wait, as the leadership of Rome was decided in a civil war.
Of the three members of the Second Triumvirate, Octavius became the strongest. Gaius Octavius, originally Caesar’s nephew, had been adopted by Julius Caesar. In his will, Caesar had named Octavius his son and heir, and due to the popularity of Julius Caesar, this gave him a step up over Antony and Lepidus. Over time historians began referring to Octavius as Octavian, to avoid confusing him with his great-uncle. But this is just one of the names that would be associated with this man, which I’ll cover later in this post.
Octavius was soon able to eliminate his two Triumvirate rivals. In 36 B.C. he exiled Lepidus to Circeii (today’s San Felice Circeo) and in 31 B.C. he defeated the forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Now, with Antony and Lepidus out of the way, Octavius became the undisputed ruler of Rome. Octavius finished building the temple to Caesar, and on August 18th 29 B.C. he inaugurated the Temple of Divus Julius on the site of Caesar’s cremation.
However, finishing the temple wasn’t as much about honoring his adoptive father, but as a means of promoting himself. During the early construction of the Temple of Caesar Octavius did everything he could to attach himself to the popular Julius Caesar. He took the name of his adoptive father, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar. Later he would add the title of “divi filius” or “son of the divine,” to his name.
But by the time the temple was finished Gaius didn’t need the connection to Julius Caesar any longer, and used the temple as a monument to his military accomplishments and to perpetuate his political claim to power over Rome. Gaius’s ego culminated on January 16, 27 B.C., when he insisted that the Senate bestow on him yet an additional name. This was “Augustus,” which means “majestic” or “great.” This addition would make his official name “Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus.”
Today we just know him as Caesar Augustus, or Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
The Temple of Divus Julius
The Temple of Divus Julius, also known as the Temple of Caesar, was built on the site of Julius Caesar’s cremation of 44 B.C. This spot was on the far eastern end of the Forum’s main square: in front of the Regia, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, and the Basilica Aemilia. This location wasn’t very big, which didn’t give the temple’s architects much room to work with.
It’s estimated that the Temple of Caesar was around eighty-eight and a half feet wide, by ninety-eight feet in length. When compared with other temples it was considered to be of moderate size. But what made the Temple of Caesar very interesting wasn’t the ground area it covered, but rather its height. The temple’s designers became very creative, and since they couldn’t build out, they built up instead.
To help create their desired effect, its architects designed the Temple of Caesar with two levels. The top-level supported the temple building and stood at around eighteen feet above the ground. The second lower level would serve as a speaker’s podium. This lower platform protruded out from the temple’s higher level and stretched from side to side across the front of the temple building. This lower podium level was thought to be about eleven and a half feet above the Forum square.
Besides the height of its platforms, its architects used another visual trick to give this temple more grandeur, and that was with its columns. From the writings of the ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, and the images found on Roman coins, it’s believed that the Temple of Caesar had six closely space columns across the front of the temple building, and two columns on each side of the temple’s porch. It’s estimated that these columns were between thirty-eight to forty feet tall. With the height of its platforms, along with the height and closeness of its columns, the Temple of Divus Julius would have been a towering structure on the Roman Forum. One of the often debated questions is the style of the columns used on the Temple of Caesar. All that we know about its columns are from those Roman coins and the few fragments found around its ruins. From this, it’s believed they could have been either Ionic or perhaps Corinthian.
Another question is the placement of the temple’s stairs. Some say the stairs going up to the podium were on the front of the temple, while others have them on the sides. Both may be correct. It’s accepted by historians that the Temple of Caesar had undergone a few alterations throughout its history. So, the stairs could have been relocated to accommodate its new design.
There were two other unique and distinctive features with the Temple of Caesar. First, across the front of its podium were mounted the rostra from the ships of the battle of Actium. The Temple of Divus Julius is the only temple in the Forum to have rostra on it. So it seems that although Augustus supposedly dedicated this temple to his adoptive father, it didn’t stop him from using it to celebrate his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra. It was from these ship’s rams that the Temple of Caesar’s rostrum became known as the Rostra ad Divi Juli. At times the Rostra ad Divi Juli has been confused with the Rostra Augusti, which is at the opposite or western end of the Forum’s main square. For clarification, it was on the Rostra Augusti that Marc Antony delivered his famous funeral eulogy to Caesar. Throughout the temple’s existence, the Rostra ad Divi Juli was used by Roman emperors, statesmen, and citizens alike as an alternative to the Rostra Augusti.
The other unique feature of the 29 B.C. Temple of Caesar was a semicircle niche. This niche was located at the front center of the temple’s podium. Most historians agree that this niche contained the altar that was removed from the Forum in 44 B.C., and used in the cult worship to the deified Caesar. At some point in the temple’s history, this niche was walled up with blocks of volcanic tuff. It’s historically unclear why this took place, but there’s plenty of speculation and theories on why this was done.
One theory has it being walled up late in the reign of Emperor Augustus. This is based on the belief that after Augustus had solidified his control over Rome he no longer needed to legitimize his connection with his deified adoptive father. Going along with this, Augustus had already started to use the temple to celebrate his accomplishments and wanted to play down the cult worship of Caesar. Another theory has it happening much later, during the Christian purging of pagan cults. But the most logical, for me anyway, is the theory that it was walled up and covered to make the Rostrum larger. The most powerful position to speak from on a stage is at its center, and that’s where the niche was located. By covering the niche, it optimized the rostrum’s usage. Also, this theory of expanding the speakers’ area fits with what is found at the ruins of the temple today. I’ll cover that later in this article.
From Historical accounts and images on Roman coins, it’s believed that inside the temple stood a giant statue of Julius Caesar. Accounts say that this statue was so large that it could be seen from the Forum when the temple’s doors were open. The image depicted on the Roman coins shows the statue holding an augural staff in its right hand and a star on its head. What this star represented is an interesting story by itself.
As the story goes, shortly after Caesar’s assassination a comet was seen in the sky over Rome. The common belief was that this comet was the spirit of Caesar, rising into the heavens to join the other gods. This belief created a duel cult worship for both the defied Caesar and the “comet star.”
As I mentioned earlier, the Temple of Divus Julius became more of a monument to the victories of Caesar Augustus than to the deified Julius Caesar. It was in this temple that Augustus would place the spoils from his conquests. One of these was the painting “Venus Anadyomene,” by the famous Greek painter Apelles of Kos. Sadly, by the time of Nero’s reign, this painting had deteriorated to the point that it couldn’t be saved.
Going into the first century A.D. the Temple of Caesar would stand as a constant reminder of the powerful ruling dynasty of the Julii family. But after that dynasty ended with the suicide of Nero in 68 A.D., it’s unclear how this temple was then used, other than continuing to be a speakers rostrum.
What historians do know is that it was once destroyed by a fire and then rebuilt by Emperor Septimius Severus, where it then remained mostly intact into the latter part of the 15th century. After that, it seems to have suffered the same fate as the other temples and buildings of the Forum, being stripped of its marble and stone.
It’s real easy to overlook this once magnificent Roman temple when visiting the Forum, and that’s because all that remains are a few of its walls of caementicium (Roman cement).
So, let’s go find the Temple of Divus Julius in the Roman Forum!
Finding the Temple of Caesar in the Roman Forum
To find the Temple of Caesar we’ll enter the Roman Forum at its eastern end, by the Arch of Titus. From there you’ll follow the path down toward the center of the ancient Roman Forum. This path will take you down through the centuries, down to the very level of the Forum during the time of Julius Caesar.
Once you’ve reached that level you’ll now be walking on what was the Forum’s ancient main street, the Via Sacra. Notice that amongst the modern paving are worn flagstones; these are part of the original street. If you’ve read part one in this series, you’ll know that you’re now passing the area where Julius Caesar lived and worked. It was along here where the Domus Publica (Caesar’s residence), the Temple of the Vesta, and the Regia building (Caesar’s public office) had once stood.
When you reach the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, which will be on your right, look to the left. There, behind the Temple of Vesta and in front of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, you’ll see a group of brown monolithic stones. As I stated earlier, these are all that remain of the Temple of Caesar, its foundation of caementivium walls that supported the temple’s building.
Now, as you walk around to what was the front of the Temple of Caesar, you’ll see a large rectangular stone structure. This was the lower platform that supported the temple’s rostrum. And amazingly, still at its center is the semicircle niche of the 29 BC temple. As I wrote earlier in this article, later in the temple’s history this niche was walled up with blocks of volcanic tuff. Today, there is still a fragment of that tuff wall at the front of the niche. You’ll also notice that this niche area is covered by a modern roof. What’s behind that wall fragment and under that roof is truly amazing.
The Altar to the Divine Caesar
When you go behind the tuff wall and into the niche, you’ll see what looks like a pile of old gray dirt. Scattered over this are flowers, coins, and other personal items. These are offerings from visitors who believe they’re placing them on the remains of the temple’s altar to Caesar.
As I presented earlier, most historians agree that Augustus and the Roman Senate did install an altar in the temple’s niche in 29 BC. And it’s also mostly agreed that it was the same one that was removed from the Forum in 44 BC. But is that unrecognizable stone artifact behind the tuff wall that same altar?
My sources don’t fully address what became of the altar after the temple’s niche was walled up. One source wrote, “…the altar was probably relocated to the podium.” The word “probably” doesn’t give much credence to that statement. So, if there is speculation on what the fate of the altar was, then please let me join in.
In this article, I’ve presented three possible reasons historians give as to why the niche was walled up. All three of them center on getting away from the worship of Julius Caesar in some way. My thinking is, to avoid an uproar they just left the altar where it stood, behind the tuff wall, maybe filled in, and covered up. This could account for why there is no definitive answer to what became of the altar. So for all it’s worth, I believe that gray artifact within the temple’s niche today is indeed the original altar to Caesar.
But this brings up another burning question; is this also the grave of Julius Caesar?
Is the Temple of Divus Julius Caesar’s Grave?
In my original 2017 article, “Searching for Caesar’s Grave,” I wrote that after Caesar’s cremation the Roman Senate placed his ashes inside the altar of his temple. I was new to blogging then, and I failed to cite where that information came from. When I began preparing for this rewrite I tried to find that source, but to no avail. So now, four years later, and much better at researching, I began this new quest to find Julius Caesar’s grave.
So, I’ll begin right off, could the ruined altar in the Temple of Caesar’s niche be Julius Caesar’s grave? To answer that I’ll refer to the sources I used for this rewrite. Although a couple of the websites do refer to the Temple of Caesar as his grave in their headings, they don’t follow through with that claim in the articles themselves. In fact, they state it’s not. However, there are a couple of websites that make the same allegation as I did in 2017, that Caesar’s ashes were entombed inside the temple’s altar. But they too failed to cite their sources for that claim. To be fair, these websites are more travel-oriented than a historical reference source.
My other sources, which are more historically based, make no mention whatsoever that Caesar’s ashes were ever interred in the altar of the Temple of Caesar. Without a reliable source to support the theory that Caesar’s ashes are indeed in the altar at his temple, then that theory is most likely incorrect. So, if Caesar’s ashes aren’t there, where could they have ended up? Historians will tell you, that the closer accounts are to events, the more reliable they are. So is there any source material on what happened to Julius Caesar’s remains that’s closer to the time of his cremation in 44 BC? Well, I just happened to find one.
One of the most highly regarded Roman historians and statesmen is Lucius Cassius Dio (155-235 AD). Dio gives a very detailed account of Caesar’s funeral and its aftermath in his Book XLIV. Here’s what he wrote concerning Caesar’s remains;
“… consuls forbade anyone except the soldiers to carry arms, they refrained from bloodshed, but set up an altar on the site of the pyre (for the freedmen of Caesar had previously taken up his bones and deposited them in the family tomb)…”Locius Cassius Dio, Roman History Book XLIV
So, according to this respected Roman historian, Caesar’s ashes were taken from the Forum and interred in the family’s tomb, which is believed to have been the Tomb of Julia at Campus Martius. I couldn’t find the exact location of where this tomb would have been, and so, I’m afraid it’s been lost.
Is it then appropriate for visitors to leave offerings of remembrance on the altar at the Temple of Divus Julius? The answer is yes. Even though the Temple of Caesar may not be Caesar’s grave, it is very much his cenotaph.
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