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“Salvete, Amici Caesaris!”

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the anniversary of one of the most famous events in ancient Roman history, the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. According to the Roman dating system, this day was known as the Ides of March, and had some important religious observances linked to it. The Ides of every month (the 15th in March, May, July and October, the 13th in all the rest) were dedicated to Jupiter, and marked by special sacrifices at his great temple on the Capitoline hill. Those of March were also the feast of a goddess called Anna Perenna, a final festival to mark the beginning of the New Year, which for the Romans, originally started on March 1st. To the superstitious Romans, it was therefore an auspicious day to hold a meeting of the senate, and it was during just such a meeting that the assassination took place. There were various locations at which the meetings of the senate could be held, and this one took place at the senate house (or “curia”) built by Caesar’s long-time political rival Pompey the Great. The Ides of march that year were also just two days shy of the first anniversary of Caesar’s defeat of the very last of Pompey’s supporters, his sons Sextus and Gnaeus, at a battle in southern Spain.

Plutarch recounts that several days earlier, Caesar had been told by a seer to be on his guard against some great danger on that day; while making his way to the meeting of the senate, he happened to meet the man, and said to him, “Well, the Ides of March are come”, to which the latter replied, “Aye, come, but not gone.” This meeting is famously dramatized in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1, 2), in which the soothsayer tells him, “Beware the Ides of March!” Several other omens are also reported by both Plutarch and Suetonius, most notably, that Caesar’s wife Calpurnia had dreamt that she held her husband’s murdered body. The Romans were great believers in seeing omens in the activities of birds, and Suetonius also records that one the day before the Ides, “birds of various kinds from a neighboring grove, pursuing a wren which flew into Pompey’s curia, with a sprig of laurel in its beak, tore it in pieces”, a decidedly bad omen.

The site of Pompey’s Curia is now a traffic square in the center of Rome known as the Largo Argentina; it was excavated in the 1930s, but very little of the building remains beneath the street. Further excavations in 2012 lead to the precise location of the assassination, which the Emperor Augustus had marked with a marble plaque, although he latter had the whole site walled up. Efforts to make the place visitable have not yet been brought to fruition, and most people rushing to catch a bus or tram in the Largo (or more likely, waiting with ever-increasing frustration for one to show up), have no idea that they are standing on the very spot where Caesar met his violent end. Each year, on the Ides of March, a company of actors reenact the whole scene within the archeological zone in the middle of Largo Argentina, doing so as close as they can to the place where it all actually happened.

The Death of Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1804 ca.; Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

I first went to Rome in 1995 to do Fr Reginald Foster’s summer Latin course, one of the best features of which was the historical visits he would organize on weekends. For these, he would provide the students with a packet of Latin readings from a wide variety of sources, related to the places we would be visiting. One of these visits was dedicated to Julius Caesar, and took us to several locations associated with him, including the Largo Argentina. Since it is one of the highest-traffic zones in Rome, and incredibly noisy, it was impossible for us to stop and do our readings, and so we withdrew a little way down a nearby alley. As we were going through one of the ancient accounts of the assassination, someone shouted down from one of the windows above us, “Salvete, amici Caesaris!”, to which one of the students, and a good friend of VSI, Mr John Kuhner (who is now writing Fr Foster’s biography), shouted back, “Salve, amice Caesaris!” And of course, our dear Reginaldus observed immediately, “You see, my friends, Latin really is a universal language!”

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