The assassination of Julius Caesar was only the beginnings of this historic story of ancient Roman intrigue, what came next was his funeral and cremation. For this story we’ll return to the Roman Forum, and my surprising find.
As I stated in my last post (The Roman Forum: Searching for the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination) I expected to find where he was murdered in the Forum, and although I didn’t find the site of his assassination there I did find something even more amazing- his grave!
But before I describe what I found I’d like to again go back in time to 44 BC, and the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination.
The Funeral of Julius Caesar
There are no firsthand accounts as what took place at Caesar’s funeral and cremation. What we know comes from two sources: the Greek historian Appian of Alexandria (c. 95-c.165), in his Roman history writings History of the Civil Wars, and the Roman scholar Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c.71-c.135), in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, both written decades after Caesar’s funeral. From these two accounts we get a picture as to what may have taken place in 44 BC.
A few days after Caesar’s assassination his body, still in the cloths he wore when murdered, was taken on a bier of ivory and placed on the Rostra in the Roman Forum. In the Forum today is the reconstructed rostra that sits on that site near the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Serverus. The condition of Caesar’s body couldn’t have been very good after days in the heat of Rome, embalming hadn’t been invented in 44 BC. This would have added to the horror of the event. Also on the Rostra, next to the body, was a torso of Caesar made of wax, which revolved mechanically, showing the 23 stab wounds.
The large crowd that had gathered for the funeral was becoming more and more agitated as time went on, and there was great wailing and moaning coming from them. Armed men were placed in front of the Rostra to hold back the crowd as Caesar’s friend and Consul Marc Antony took to the platform to give the funeral oration.
Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Act III, Scene II of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.
These opening lines by Marc Antony in Julius Caesar at Caesars funeral are perhaps the most recognized and well known lines in all of Shakespeare’s works, however Appian presents another version of Antony’s opening words, “It is not right, my fellow-citizens, for the funeral oration in praise of so great a man be delivered by me, a single individual, instead of by his whole country…” Although a word-for-word record of what Antony actually said hasn’t been found both Appian and Tranquillius state that what he said denounced the conspirators for their ghastly act and turned the crowd of mourners into an enraged mob.
After Antony’s speech the mob rushed the Rostra, pushing passed the guards, seizing the bier with Caesar’s body, and carried it down the Via Sacra to the Forum’s square, between the Basilica Julia and the Temple of Caster and Polllux. There they sat it down, covering it with wood, clothes, furniture, anything that would burn, and set it ablaze. It was said that fire was so large and out of control that several of the building in the Forum were damaged.
After the funeral pyre had burned out the crowed, still enraged, went through the city burning the houses of the conspirators. This caused many of the them to flee the city. Both Antony and Octavian used this anger to their own political ends, getting rid of the senate conspirators and to form their own seat of power in Rome.
One year later, in 42 BC they, along with Marcus Lepidus, formed yet another three person ruling partnership called the Second Triumvirate. Also they got the new puppet senate to formally deify Caesar, making him the first Roman to be named a god. In addition Octavian pushed the senate to name him “Divi filius,” or Son of god, giving him more power than Antony and Lepidus.
Finally after years of another civil war and his political gamesmanship Octavian had killed all of Caesar’s murders and Marc Antony, and exiled Lepidus, leaving him in absolute power of Rome. This culminated with the senate titling him with the name “Augustus,” in Latin meaning “the illustrious one.” This title was more of a religious title of authority than a political one that would allow Augustus Caesar to maneuver his way into becoming Rome’s first emperor, and ending the Roman Republic era.
The Temple of Divus Caesar
Caesar’s ashes had been collected and later placed in the base of the Alter the Rome Senate had erected on the site of his cremation. In 31 BC Octavian began the construction of a temple to honor his adopted father also at that site. In 29 BC, two years later, the temple was dedicated to “Divus Julius,” the Deified Caesar.
One of the most unique aspects of the Temple of Caesar was the recess built into its front to accommodate the senate’s Alter holding Caesar’s ashes. Around this recess was constructed a raised orators platform designed to be the new rostra for public speeches. This platform was adorned with the bronze rams taken from the ships of Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. The temple was flanked by two arches, one for the Battle of Actium and the other to celebrate Augustus’ returning the Legionary Standards after the battle of Carrhae. Inside the temple was a large statue of Julius Caesar, which included a star on his head and bearing the augural staff in its right hand. This statue could be seen from the Forum outside when the temple’s doors were open.
It’s recorded that the Temple of Caesar remained mostly intact until the late 15th century, after which it was stripped of its marble and stone.
The Temple of the Deified Caesar today
To find the Temple of Caesar in the Roman Forum when going through the Arch of Constantine entrance you walk down the still unexcavated hill toward the center of the Forum. As you pass the Temple of Antonius and Faustina on the Via Sacra, and behind the columns of the Temple of Vesta and those of the Temple of Castor and Pollus, you’ll see what looks like a small roof covering something; this is what remains of the Temple of Caesar.
As you walk around to its front all you’ll see are just parts of the temple’s cement core. These were the base which supported the orators’ platform and temple building, and is all that remains of the temple itself. There are segments of the temple’s decorations around the site and also in the Forum Museum but that all. What really amazed and thrilled me is what I found the roof protecting.
As you walk under the roof and around the cement wall of the old temple you’ll see what looks like a pile of gray dirt. This is what’s left of the Alter that the Roman Senate erected over 2,000 years ago, the Alter holding the ashes of Julius Caesar. It’s then that it hits you, you are looking at the grave and final resting place of the most famous Roman in history, Julius Caesar.
Still today people of Rome, and visitors, pay homage to this great man by offering coins and flowers on his grave, and for me it was a fabulous, and unexpected discovery.
This ends my seven part series on the Roman Forums. I hope you’ll read, or re-read them all:
The Roman Forum: Part I, the center of an empire
The Roman Forum: Part II, a walking exploration
The Imperial Fora of Rome: Julius and Augustus Caesar
The Imperial Fora of Rome: Emperors Vespasian and Nerva
The Imperial Fora of Rome: Forum of Trajan
The Roman Forum: Searching for the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination