Remnants of Julius Caesar in modern Rome
‘Et tu, Brute?’
Who wouldn’t have heard these famous last words attributed to Roman dictator Julius Caesar as he is stabbed to death by 60 conspirators led by his trusted aide Marcus Brutus near the Theatre of Pompey in ancient Rome.
It is one of the most vividly described moments in Roman history, immortalised over the years through its portrayal in literature and popular culture, giving a cult status to Julius Caesar himself.
Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC marks a turning point in Roman history, as one of the events that set into motion the transition of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Fascinated by the story of Caesar, I was, quite naturally, on the lookout for the sites associated with this legendary figure on my first trip to Rome recently. I was particularly keen on visiting the Theatre of Pompey – the site that was etched in my memory from books and movies on Ancient Rome.
However, a walk through the labyrinthine lanes and piazzas of the old metropolis, and I was convinced that it was naïve of me to have imagined that ruins and remnants associated with Caesar would be easy to spot in a city with a history spanning nearly 2,800 years.
The Eternal City
Founded in 753 BC, Rome is among the oldest continuously occupied cities in Europe and nicknamed “The Eternal City” by poets and writers. The city boasts of one of the biggest amalgamation of ancient monuments and sites in the world. The historic centre of the city, alone, is home to nearly 25,000 environmental and archaeological points of interest. This puts the entire historic centre in Unesco’s world heritage list.
While the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, the Capitoline Hill, the numerous and unforgettable piazzas, fountains and basilicas top the list of major tourist destinations; to chart specific monuments linked to a particular historic character – Caesar in this case – is a task cherished only by the discerning few.
Temple of Caesar
Strolling through the Roman Forum, surrounded by the ruins of several ancient monuments, one was elated to come across the remains of the Temple of Caesar. The temple stands on the site of Caesar’s cremation and was built by Augustus between 42 BC and 29 BC. Augustus dedicated the temple to his adoptive father, Caesar, making him the first resident of Rome to be deified and honoured with a temple.
Looking through my city guide, I discovered that the shrine is also known as the Temple of the Comet Star. As the story goes, immediately after the death of Caesar, a comet appeared in the sky of Rome and was visible for seven days. The comet was considered to be the soul of the deified Caesar and the symbol of the “new birth” of Augustus as the unique Roman ruler and Emperor. Hence, the Temple of Caesar became the only temple to also be dedicated to the cult of the comet.
Having seen the temple, my urge to visit the Theatre of Pompey only got the better of me. However, finding the exact location on maps and tourist guidebooks proved to be futile.
Firstly, the place is no longer called the Theatre of Pompey and moreover the site is not even listed among the major Roman attractions.
The place these days goes by the unassuming name of “Area Sacra”, literally meaning the sacred site. It is located in a square known as the Largo di Torre Argentina, popularly referred to as just “Argentina” due to the name given to the local bus stop and metro station.
I almost stumbled upon the site by accident. And I was not the only one who found it perplexing that a site of such historic significance was not highlighted as much.
“You could easily miss this site as it’s not that well promoted and also it sits a little below the surrounding roads,” said Ernesto Morris, a visitor from France.
Mike Harrold, a traveller from London agreed: “You could easily walk past this place and not see it, which is surprising considering what it stands for – Caesar was assassinated here.”
However, once you have arrived at the site, a small information board tells you about the history this site had witnessed more than 2,000 years ago.
Caesar was killed in 44 BC in the Curia of the Theatre of Pompey, and the spot he was believed to be assassinated lies in the square.
Alongside the remains of the Theatre of Pompey, there are ruins of the four Republican Roman temples, which were part of the square. One corner of the square has been transformed into a cat shelter these days. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, a no-kill shelter for homeless cats, is visited by cat lovers through the day.
“The cats seem to acknowledge the significance of the site more than the humans,” quipped Morris.
His words took time to seep in, but possibly he was right, going by the low visitor turnout at Area Sacra in a city where most other historic sites are thronged by thousands throughout the year.
Teatro dei Satiri
Another place of interest for Caesar enthusiasts would be the Teatro dei Satiri, which lies just a few hundred metres away from Area Sacra. The historic theatre, which literally translates into “Theatre of the Satire”, is still in good shape and runs Italian language productions. Over the centuries, it has also seen several productions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
However, the real significance of the site is that it stands on the ruins of a 64 BC theatre of the same name. This was the final place Caesar walked before being stabbed to death by Brutus at the nearby Theatre of Pompey.
While Caesar was betrayed by his close associates in a bygone era, going by the lack of promotion to the places historically linked to him, Caesar would today feel betrayed by Rome – a city that he took to unsurpassed heights while setting the foundation for the Roman Empire.
Admiring the posters on display at the walls of the Teatro dei Satiri, I allowed my mind to wander a bit. I see next to me the same historic figure who has lent his name to the month of July in the modern Gregorian calendar. Narrating his past, he tells me with great pride: ‘Veni, vedi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’).
But then Caesar takes a walk around his beloved city and says, “Et, tu, Roma?”