At Large  July 11, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

Curia, Site of Caesar's Assassination Discovered

Christopher Siwicki

The circular Temple B, vowed by Quintus Lutatius Catulus

Rome in the 1920s was a building site, as Benito Mussolini’s regime pursued a program of urban redevelopment. In 1926, another old neighborhood in the area of Campus Martius was scheduled to be torn down in order to make way for a series of new buildings. Planners already knew of the existence of two ancient Roman temples in the location, as some of the columns were visible in the walls of later structures, but as work continued a further two temples were uncovered. 

Digging just behind the temples, archaeologists then revealed a narrow building with a curved end, which they originally thought to be an apse, and therefore, the structure to be an early Christian church. However, further investigation found a series of marble slabs with distinctive keyhole-shaped cutouts, indicating that it was actually a large and elaborate, ancient, public toilet. 

Next to this, the archaeologists also came across the base of a large rectangular hall, which was realized to be the ‘curia’ (senate house) of the theatre of Pompeii. Infamously, this was the building in which Julius Caesar was assassinated.

Christopher Siwicki

Colossal marble head of a female deity

The cumulative importance of the discoveries led the authorities to cancel the plans to build over the area; instead, it would be left open as an archaeological site. 

A good idea in theory, the problem was that l’Area Sacra di Largo Argentina was then for decades inaccessible to members of the public. People could look down at temples from the street, but not actually visit them. Stray cats found refuge among the ruins and their presence often drew more attention from tourists than the confusing and somewhat neglected archaeology did. A large hole in the center of the city, the site came to serve as a traffic island – a curiosity, but with little explanation as to its significance.

This has now changed with the installation of walkways, which were completed and opened in June of this year. Today, it is possible to descend to the ancient levels. Floating above the Roman-era paving, the new paths are not overbearing, but sensitively executed, and being able to get so close to the structures allows for a far greater appreciation of them.

Christopher Siwicki

Close-up of Temple B showing two phases. The original building in brown tuff stone and a latter additional in white, travertine stone after the paving level of the area increased.

Standing immediately in front of the temples makes their long and complex history more apparent. There are different phases to all four shrines, having been rebuilt on different occasions in antiquity following various fires and floods. The temples are labeled ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’. This is because the gods to which they belonged are disputed by archaeologists. 

Only temple ‘B’ can be identified with a fair degree of certainty as that of Fortuna Huiusce Diei (Fortune of today) owing to the discovery of the goddess’ statue when the site was first excavated. This circular temple was vowed in 101 BC by the Roman general Quintus Lutatius Catulus during a battle against the Cimbri, a Celtic-Germanic people that had invaded northern Italy. The building was altered around fifty years later and then again following a fire in AD 80, and traces of all these phases can be seen.

Christopher Siwicki

The paving tiles of the church, recut from ancient inscriptions and sarcophagi

During the Middle Ages, the area fell into disuse and the temples were stripped of their statues and much of their precious building material. Temple A was converted into the church of San Nicola de’ Cesarini, which was largely destroyed when the area was excavated, although some of its frescos can still be seen.

In addition to the walkways, a small museum has also been installed at the site, in the storerooms formerly used for archaeological finds. On display are a number of never before exhibited artifacts that tell the story of the area. They include two colossal heads of deities, as well as numerous decorated marble pieces, some of which come from the temples and others which were possibly brought to the area in the Medieval period where they were to be burnt to produce lime. 

A particularly nice display is the 17th-century floor of the now-destroyed church of San Nicola de’ Cesarini. This was composed of octagonal marble tiles, which as is made apparent when turned over, were cut from ancient Roman inscriptions and sarcophagi.

Christopher Siwicki

Interior of the museum

The restoration of the archaeological area, the installation of the walkways, and the creation of the museum were all paid for by the luxury fashion house Bulgari, and their restraint in not overtly placing their name on the signs at Largo Argentina is commendable. It is one of several monuments in the Eternal City which have received sponsorship from Italian high-end brands: among others, Tod’s has financed the work at the Colosseum, and Fendi funded the restoration of the Temple of Venus and Roma. This is a welcome trend and given the sheer quantity of ancient monuments in the city and the continual need for repair, it is to be hoped others will continue to step up. 

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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