In the Steps of Julius Caesar
By Judith Geary
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Laurel wreaths tied with red and black ribbons adorn the statue of the dictator and fresh flowers are strewn across the ashes of his funeral pyre. It's March 16th, but the year is not 719 of the city of Rome, but 2001 of our common era. Remarkably, even after 2000 plus years, there are those who remember. (Pic 1)
Little remains of the Rome that Gaius Julius Caesar knew. People of the intervening millennia: barbarians, popes, cardinals and peasants, all robbed the ancient monuments to shelter and enrich themselves. But we can still follow his steps, those of his murderers and his mourners, if we know what to look for. Traces appear in the curve of a street, the incongruous outcropping of brick or tufa, the emergence of a column from a flat wall. And, of course modern archaeology in many cases marks the way for us clearly.
The Curia, the designated meeting house for the Roman Senate, wasn't available that fateful morning in March. (Pic 2) It had been burned eight years earlier during the aftermath of the death of Clodius, and restoration was likely not complete. Instead the Senate met in a space in the porticus attached to the Theater of Pompey. The Theater, a massive complex, combined a Greek style amphitheater with a colonnade that provided food, drink, strolling space and latrines to theater goers. (Pic 3) Its style was a pattern for Augustus' Theater of Marcellus, which still exists in recognizable form because of being converted to fortresses, first for the Savelli and later for the Orsini families. (Pic 4)
Pompey had been charged by the Senate with restoring both order and the Curia, so his new pleasure complex was a logical meeting place for several reasons. It was also an ideal spot for an assassination since it was located on the Campus Martius outside the sacred pomerium, the city's official boundaries, away from restrictions against concealed weapons and away from the Forum crowds that might have brought help in response to the cries of a man attacked by his colleagues.
Pompey's Theater complex extended for several blocks, from what is now Campo di Fiori to Largo Argentina (named after the silversmiths who once worked there.) Today, the curve of the theater's seats is echoed in streets of apartments and restaurants, (Pic 5, Pic 6 & Pic 7) and even in unexpected outcroppings of curving brick walls. (Pic 8)
Extending into underground chamber that originally served as entrances to theater seating, Ristorante di Pancrazio is noted for excellent Italian food, as well as its location. One can request to be seated sotterraneo, but on this March 15 those rooms were limited to private parties. The proprietor did graciously allow some exploring and picture taking, however. (Pic 9, Pic 10, Pic 11 & Pic 12)
Columns long concealed in building walls, and recently revealed as part of Rome's focus on maximizing the resources of its past to fund its future, are likely remnants of the second or upper story of Pompey's colonnade. (Pic 13) If so, the column and scrap of brick ceiling visible inside the latteria, Haiti Sud are also remnants of this colonnade. (Pic 14) Several small hotels are located in what was the theater complex, so it's possible to stay within this historic area. Our favorite is the Smeraldo, on Via Chiadaroli. (Pic 15)
Closing in on the spot of Caesar's death, we move from the complex of tiny streets surround Campo di Fiori to the open square of Largo Argentina. Standing on Via Arenula, looking across the area sacra in the center of Largo Argentina we see remains of four temples that existed at the time of Caesar. (Pic 16) Immediately behind these temples, extending all the way across the square, and indeed, wrapping around on the north side with an extension of the portico was the back wall of the Theater of Pompey which housed what is termed a "monumental latrine." (Pic 17)
Tradition tells us that Caesar was murdered near this spot. Afterward, his body was brought back into the city. Part of that journey was on the Via Sacra, substantial sections of which are visible in the Forum itself. (Pic 18) We can only speculate whether it was with dignity or disdain that the body was deposited on the Rostra. (Pic 19) Here Brutus spoke over the body, justifying the conspirators' actions as necessary to save Rome. Here Anthony spoke, his disclaimer that he came "To bury Caesar, not to praise him," his ironic references to Brutus as "an honorable man," turning the curious crowd into a mass of mourners, turning the dead dictator into a martyr. To one standing in the back of the crowd that day, the figures must have seemed little more than chirping birds. But even at this distance the effect of the display of Caesar's bloody toga, the sympathetic murmurs of the crowd would have taken their toll. (Pic 20)
The crowd was so inflamed by Anthony's words, we are told, that they seized Caesar's body and burned it in the center of the Forum on an impromptu pyre constructed from wooden benches. Later, a temple was raised over the spot, dedicated to the Deified Julius. (Pic 21 & (Pic 23)
Even after 2000+ years, there are those of us who remember.
Judith Geary lives in Boone, NC and is a sometime writer, amateur historian, and adjunct faculty member at Appalachian State University. The material for this piece came from an independent trip on March 9-17, 2001. Judy and a friend stayed at Hotel Smeraldo, located within the area of the porticus of Pompey. Her next trip to Italy is a group trip including Rome, Pompeii and the temples at Taormina planned for late December of 2001.
For more from Judith Geary read about her recent trip to Rome: Big Changes in Ancient Rome
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This resource page is copyright © 2001-2002 Judith Geary.