Thousands of years ago, a single event changed the course of history. Frustrated by their leader’s dictatorial rule, dozens of Roman senators colluded in the assassination of the great Julius Caesar. But for millenia, the exact site of this historic betrayal has remained unknown. Now, a team of researchers have identified the spot where Rome’s most famous ruler fell.
In October 2012 archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council made a startling announcement. For the past three years, they had been excavating the Curia of Pompey, a meeting hall from the days of the Roman Republic. According to historical records, this was where Caesar was assassinated – but could they pinpoint the precise location?
At first, the archaeologists had little to go on, relying on scraps of historical information to guide their dig. From classic sources, they knew that the spot had been marked after Caesar’s death, left as a reminder of the brutal assassination. But as the centuries passed, the city grew – and this once-important monument was lost in time.
Born into a powerful Roman family in 100 B.C., Caesar became the head of his household at just 16 years old. Initially, he entered into the priesthood, although the political rivalries of his relatives soon saw him stripped of this title. Relieved of his holy duties, he was free to pursue a career in the military instead.
Leaving the turmoil of his home city behind, Casar served in the military across Asia, earning himself a reputation as a distinguished fighter. Eventually, he returned to Rome, where he embarked on a political career. And slowly, he made his way through the ranks from minor official to one of the most powerful men in the republic.
At the time, the Roman Republic had a constitution in place designed to stop any one man from wielding too much power. However, in 60 B.C. Caesar joined forces with two other leading politicians, Pompey the Great and Marcus Linius Crassus, to effectively bypass the legislation. And with this alliance in place, the future dictator was able to enjoy unprecedented influence and control.
Installed as governor in Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, parts of modern-day Italy and France, Caesar had the command of four Roman legions. And after facing conflict with the neighboring Germanic tribes, he soon entered into an all-out war. Ultimately, he emerged victorious, and the entire region of Gaul was eventually conquered in 52 B.C.
By that time, however, Crassus had passed away, and the allegiance between Caesar and Pompey had begun to break down. Two years after his conquest of Gaul, the future dictator found himself accused of treason by his former ally. Undaunted, he returned to Italy, where the disagreement soon escalated into civil war.
Although Pompey’s troops outnumbered his rival’s by far, he fled rather than engage in a fight. And eventually, Caesar caught up with him in Illyria on the Balkan Peninsula. However, it would be another month before the rivalry between the two men reached its ultimate conclusion. At the Battle of Pharsalus in what is now central Greece, Caesar finally emerged victorious.
Opting to chase the defeated Pompey to Egypt, Caesar’s rival was killed by the Egyptian leader, Ptolemy VII as he came ashore. Now Ptolemy, a child pharaoh, was already in a civil war with rival leader Cleopatra when Caesar turned up in Egypt. And in becoming Cleopatra’s lover, Caesar helped her to overthrow Ptolemy, making her the undisputed leader.
After a campaign of battles in the middle east, and a child with Cleopatra named Caesarion,
Caesar returned to Rome. Appointing himself dictator for life in 44 B.C., his opponents became outraged at the extent of his power. In fact, he used it to make sweeping changes to Rome, as we’ll soon find out about.
Yes, over the course of Caesar’s reign, the Roman Republic underwent many changes. Perhaps the most significant was the revamp of the calendar, switching from a moon-based system to one designed around the sun. However, the dictator was also responsible for a number of political and social reforms.
Seeking to change the face of Italy, Caesar granted citizenship on an unprecedented level, extending it across the Roman Republic. Elsewhere, he focused on policies that benefited the common people, such as reforming the tax system and giving out grain. Meanwhile, he plotted to hand over large chunks of land to the poor as well as military veterans he’d served with.
Before Caesar’s reign, Rome had been a dangerous place plagued by corruption and violence. But as dictator, he created a safer environment for citizens of the republic. And as well as providing jobs and reducing crime in the city, he also hosted grand banquets and games to entertain the people.
Thanks to these policies, Caesar was greatly loved by the common people. However, many in his Senate were horrified by the direction that the republic had taken. You see, the dictator position was only supposed to be a temporary fix for governance reasons. So when Caesar named himself dictator for life in 44 B.C., tensions only grew. To some, Caesar was power-hungry, a man with the potential to become a great tyrant.
Certainly, it does not seem as if these fears were completely unfounded. During Senate meetings, historians believe Caesar would remain seated in a special golden chair, dressed in the purple clothing typically associated with the Roman kings. And to celebrate the dictator, the entire month of Quinctilius was renamed July in his honor.
To some, it must have seemed as if Caesar was growing to have the power of a king – something that did not align with the democratic values of the republic. And before long, a sinister plot began to form. There were many who wanted to see the dictator removed from power – but how to achieve such a treasonous mission?
In the Senate, Caesar’s old enemies began to plot against him. But surprisingly, they were also joined by some of his previously loyal advisors, men who had grown tired of the dictator’s populist policies. And when traditionalists seeking to protect the republic also joined the fray, a formidable conspiracy was formed.
At the forefront of the plot to overthrow Caesar were four men: Gaius Trebonius, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinius, Gaius Cassius Linginus and Marcus Junius Brutus. Together with a number of other co-conspirators, they began dreaming up ways to dispose of Caesar. Would they push him off of a bridge, perhaps, or murder him during a gladatorial performance?
Eventually, the conspirators, who called themselves the Liberators, settled on a plan. During the upcoming Ides of March, an auspicious day when debts were settled, they would make their move against Caesar. At the time, the usual Senate building was out of action, and the dictator was due to meet with senators at an alternative location.
With daggers concealed beneath their togas, the conspirators waited patiently for Caesar to arrive. However, the murderous plot was almost thwarted at the 11th hour. According to a historian at the time, the dictator’s wife Calpurnia believed that the bad dreams she was experiencing were a warning to Caesar not to attend the Senate. Furthermore, Caesar was reportedly sick, too.
And that wasn’t the only strange omen to precede the assassination. At the Rubicon river north of Rome, Caesar’s horses were said to have wept, while others reported that a soothsayer had warned of danger to come. But while the dictator hesitated at first, one of the lead conspirators eventually persuaded him to attend the Senate.
As Caesar made his way to the Senate, the conspirators mobilized to prevent anyone loyal to the dictator from issuing a warning. And once he was inside, their plan began to unfold. First, one of the men approached Caesar’s chair, ostensibly to hand over a petition. And as he did so, the others closed in around them.
Of course, there was no petition, and the man grabbed Caesar by the toga instead. Meanwhile, one conspirator pulled out a dagger and lunged towards his victim’s throat. Before long, as many as 60 men had descended upon the dictator, stabbing him repeatedly as he fell to the floor. And by the time that the attack was over, they had reportedly dealt more than 20 separate blows.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Rome was in shock. While some sought to throw Caesar’s body into the river and immediately reverse his controversial laws, much of the city mourned a beloved leader. And for the conspirators, who had imagined a return to the old days of the republic, the situation was far from ideal.
Yes, instead of the revolution they’d hoped for, the conspirators were forced into an uneasy truce with Caesar’s general Mark Antony. This meant that Caesar’s populist reforms remained in place. And when the dictator’s adopted son Octavian returned to Rome, him and Antony hunted down the conspirators until their deaths. But even though Octavian initially joined forces with Antony, around 10 years later the pair found themselves on the opposite sides of a civil war.
Beginning in 32 B.C., the last war of the Roman Republic pitted Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra against Octavian for two years. Eventually, the latter emerged victorious and swore to unite his people after decades of unrest. And in 27 B.C. he was named Augustus, the first emperor of the new Roman Empire.
Today, most historians consider Caesar’s assassination as one of the main catalysts that led to the formation of the Roman Empire. And as such, it’s an occasion looked back on with much reverence and fascination. However, up until recently experts had no idea exactly where the historic event had taken place in the modern city itself.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1920s that archaeologists first discovered a clue as to where Caesar had fallen. Around that time, a far more modern dictator, Benito Mussolini, was attempting to legitimize his rule by tying it to the Roman Empire of old. And in the process, he launched extensive archaeological works across the city of Rome.
As a result of these excavations, archaeologists uncovered the Theatre of Pompey, a complex of buildings and temples constructed just before Caesar’s reign. According to historical records, this was where Caesar met his bloody fate, in a small meeting place known as a curia. But before experts could take a closer look, World War II broke out and the project was forgotten.
Then in 2012 archaeologists announced the findings of a new dig at the site. By that time, the square, known as Largo di Torre Argentina, was home to a busy tram and bus stop as well as the ancient ruins. And at this location, the team from the Spanish National Research Council began hunting for the exact spot where Caesar fell.
“We always knew that Julius Caesar was killed in the Curia of Pompey on March 15th 44 B.C. because the classical texts pass on so,” researcher Antonio Monterroso explained in a statement. “But so far no material evidence of this fact, so often depicted in historicist painting and cinema, had been recovered.”
But what exactly were they looking for? According to one of the researchers involved in the excavation, history is clear about what happened at the Curia of Pompey after Caesar’s assassination. Apparently, Octavian ordered the construction of a small concrete enclosure over the spot where his father had been killed.
“We know for sure that the place where Julius Caesar presided over that session of the Senate, and where he fell stabbed, was closed with a rectangular structure organized under four walls delimiting a Roman concrete filling,” the researcher explained. And now, archaeologists believe that they have located the construction.
According to the researchers, the structure is 10 feet wide by 6.5 feet tall and located at the foot of the Curia of Pompey. And with this discovery, they believe, comes confirmation that Caesar really was slaughtered where he sat while presiding over the Senate. Monterosso explained, “It is very attractive, in a civic and citizen sense, that thousands of people today take the bus and the tram right next to the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed 2056 years ago.”
At the time, the researchers announced that renovations would begin on the remarkable discovery the following year. However, 2013 came and went without any work taking place. And by 2019, the Largo di Torre Argentina was perhaps better known by its other claim to fame, as a colony for feral cats.
Apparently, the cats had started moving in around the time of Mussolini’s original excavations, and now a sanctuary exists to help care for them. But that hasn’t stopped the authorities in Rome from making big plans for the site of Caesar’s assassination. In February 2019 Mayor Virginia Raggi made an important announcement.
According to Raggi, Largo di Torre Argentina was about to undergo a complete overhaul and would be open to the public in 2021. However, it wasn’t the Italian government that was behind the ambitious project. Instead, the Italian fashion house Bulgari had promised to invest around $1.1 million into the restoration.
What’s more, the money will be spent on making the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey – and the site of Caesar’s death – accessible to the public. To that end, planners will ensure that the structures are secure, as well as construct walkways and public toilets. Happily, however, those behind the project have also offered assurances that the cats will be left in peace.
Meanwhile, the researchers behind the latest excavations are confident that their conclusions were correct, and that the structure really does mark the spot where Caesar died. However, Monterroso admits that there is always room for debate. In a 2012 interview with Mail Online, he explained, “It is not indisputable. All archaeological science is open to dispute, it should be open to dispute and open to criticism, of course.”