15 March 2014

A walk through Rome on the Ides of March

In the year 44 B.C., as many as 60 men, led by Brutus and Cassius, assassinated the "dictator in perpetuity" of Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar, whom they - many of the Senators whom Caesar put or helped put in office - had just given the title Imperator (though without the ability to use it) and were thinking of naming him King of Rome, stabbing him 23 times, though only one was mortal. When Caesar what was about to happen, he said, Ista quidem vis est ("Why this is violence")! His dead body was taken away three hours later to be cremated in a funeral ceremony marked with the vestiges of an emperor.

While Seutonius tells us that Caesar had no last words, as it were, he reports that others said Caesar's last words were spoken in Greek (Kai su, teknon, "You too, child?"). Plutarch tells us that Caesar simply covered his head with his toga and that he spoke in Latin, asking, "Casca, you villain, what are you doing?" It was William Shakespeare who gave to Caesar his final words which have now become so famous: Et tu, Brute?

In the Roman calendar, this day was known as the Ides of March, which coincided with the first full moon of the new year (the new year beginning with March). Plutarch relates that a soothsayer by the name of Spirinna had foretold to Caesar that harm would come to him before the Ides of March. Caesar, passing by the seer on this very said, "The Ides of March have come," in a jest of sorts that he was still alive. The seer responded, "Aye, Caesar; but not gone." The seer, it turns out, was correct.

Being in Rome this day and not very far from where this brutal event took place, it seemed a decent idea - especially in year 44 B.C. the Ides of March also fell on a Saturday - to commemorate the assassination of the first of the imperial Caesars. So it was that I joined a walking tour with readings of the proceedings in Latin.

We walked around - above, really - what was once the theater of Pompeii. It consisted of both a massive courtyard and a stadium for the games. Up until the time of Pompeii the Roman stadia were constructed of wood and taken down once the games were complete to keep the people from doing nothing but watching the games. Pompeii, however, built his theater out of stone, in order both to make it last and to bring honor to his name. Fearful, though, that his stadium might in the future be torn down, he added to it a temple to Venus. By building a temple with a stadium attached to it, so he said, it could not be torn down.

A model of the theater of Pompeii. The Temple of Venus is at the bottom of the photograph.
Much of Pompeii's theater still remains, though some thirty feet or so below the modern ground level of the Eternal City. We into a restaurant and went down several flights of stairs to view some of the vaults of the theater that still remain:

In March of the year 44 B.C. the Roman Senate was meeting at the end of the theater of Pompeii opposite the Temple Venus because the Senate building in the ancient forum had been burned down and not yet rebuilt. At this end of the great courtyard were built four temples, parts of which remain to this day in what is known as the Argentina because it is where silver was once sold:

The building used then by the Senate stood just beyond the temples. In the photograph below, the building once stood where the yellow building is now:

After reading Seutonius' account of the assassination of Caesar, we made our way to the Capitoline Hill where many statues - including the two at the top of the below stairs - that once stood in the theater of Pompeii are now housed.

From there we went around back, you might say, to look upon the place were the body of Caesar was brought and burned in the forum, though for some reason I did not think to take a picture of it. We continued on from their to the statue of Gaius Julius Caesar that now stands on the Via Imperiali:

The conspirators aimed to free Rome from Caesar's power, though many of the same men helped Caesar rise to power in the first place. Instead, though, they launched a violent civil war that ended the days of the Republic.

Long before the days of Caesar, the Roman Senate gave the Consuls power to appoint a Dictator ("one who dictates") for specific and important causes that required immediate attention - such as a war - that the Senate simply could not adequately handle. A committee will not always do; sometimes you need one man to get things done. Though the Dictator was answerable to no one and could do as he saw fit with full immunity, his office lasted only for a time, giving Rome a long series of dictators.

With the assassination of Caesar, in place of a Dictator, Rome now would have an Emperor, one not only in title but in power.

Having become enamored of Caesar and his policies, the Romans proclaimed him Dictator in Perpetuity, that is, for life. It was not long, however, before they him as a threat to the Republic and killed him. And yet, curiously, the funeral planned for him accorded him all of the honors of an emperor. In death, they loved him whom they first loved in life but grew to hate. It is a strong warning for every society, one too often unheeded through the centuries.

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