Standing in the old Campus Martius, and at a literal crossroads of today’s city center, the Largo di Torre Argentina is a historical site typical of the Eternal City.
Ruins dating all the way back to the 4th century BC jut out from the ancient ground level, barely out of reach from passing traffic and tourists. Thousands of people pass them every day on their way to the Pantheon, Trastevere, or the Roman Forum. Yet hardly anyone really knows what this place was, at least in any detail, beyond a jumbled assortment of obscure ancient monuments.
Some people know the Largo di Torre Argentina as site where the famous dictator Julius Caesar was stabbed to death, bleeding to death on the Ides of March, 44 BC, after suffering 23 wounds from his senatorial friends and colleagues. This is true, but it’s far from the only thing the Largo di Torre Argentina hides.
Curious? Keep reading to find out the truth behind Caesar’s murder, the history of the Largo di Torre Argentina, and what attracts most tourists to this site today.
The Largo di Torre Argentina stands on the site of the old Campus Martius (Field of Mars): so-called because Mars was the god of war and this was where the Roman army used to train.
Throughout most of the Roman Republic (509 BC - 31 BC), this area was a sprawling open field, outside the city walls, scarcely populated by roads and temples. You can still see four of these temples at the Largo di Torre Argentina today.
Given the imaginative names of Temple A, B, C, and D, these temples date from between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC. What makes these temples fascinating is that they embody the Roman practice of evocatio or ‘summoning.’
Temples of the Largo di Torre Argentina
This involved Roman generals on the battlefield carrying out a religious practice that literally involved summoning the enemy’s god and trying to call them over to the Romans’ side.
Generals who achieved success believed the gods had answered their prayers and come over to the Roman side. To thank them for this and honor them among their own gods, they vowed to build a temple in their name. Indeed, all four of these temples were indeed dedicated to gods won over in battle.
Temple A was dedicated to Juno Curritis (Juno of the Senate) who belonged to the Etruscan city of the Falerii some 31 miles north of Rome. Temple C is the oldest in the area sacra (Sacred Area) and was dedicated to the Sabine goddess Feroni or to Juturna, the water goddess.
Temple D, the least well-preserved of the four temples, is also perhaps the most interesting. It was dedicated to the gods who protected sailors (Lares Permarini). It was vowed by the Roman general Lucius Emilius Regillus in 190 BC in return for success against the forces of Antiochus III of Syria at the naval battle of Cape Mionesso.
Theater of Pompey - Marquettes Historiques
During the reign of Augustus (31 BC - 14 AD), the emperor’s right-hand man Marcus Agrippa funded extensive building projects on the Campus Martius. The most famous surviving building is the Pantheon, rebuilt under the emperor Hadrian in the early 1st century AD, yet there were many others too: not least the enormous stone Theater of Pompey.
The Campus Martius in the Age of Constantine (306 - 337 AD)
The Theater of Pompey, dedicated by Caesars great rival in 55 BC, was formed up of a huge complex comprising gardens, a temple to Venus Victrix and, at its edges, and a senate house.
It was Rome's first stone theater (up to this point, all others had been temporary and made of wood) and had been funded out of Pompey'smilitary victories in Greece. Its design was inspired by Pompey's visit to the Greek city of Mytilene in 62 BC. The city had a remarkable theater of its own: Pompey's vision was to replicate this in the flourishing capital of a budding empire.
Reconstruction of the Theater of Pompey
It was inside this senate house that Julius Caesar was brutally assassinated on the Ides of March (15th), 44 BC.
The assassination of Julius Caesar was as shocking as it was violent. As a decorated military general and ruthlessly ambitious politician, he had earned the mistrust of his senatorial colleagues, who believed (quite rightly, it seems) that he was intent on establishing himself as the sole ruler of Rome.
The problem with this is that Rome was a Republic - a democracy of sorts (though we use this term loosely) whose ruling class had an innate hatred of kings. Caesar never called himself king. He did, however, establish himself as dictator - the highest possible position in the Roman Republic - which replaced Rome’s traditional two-consul government with a single ruler.
The Death of Julius Caesar - Vincenzo Camuccini
You could only be appointed dictator in times of national emergency and had to renounce the position as soon as that danger had passed. Caesar, however, declared himself dictator in perpetuum (dictator for life) which, for the senatorial class, was seen as unacceptable.
A conspiracy led by Caesars friends Cassius and Brutus was put into practice on the Ides of March 44 BC. As Caesar entered the Curia (Senate House) adjacent to the Theater of Pompey, a senator approached him petitioning Caesar to allow his brother’s return from exile. Caesar refused, at which point the senator grabbed his toga.
Telling the senator to get his hands off him, Caesar then found himself surrounded by several other colleagues, who brandished their knives and lunged towards him. He fought them off for a while, sustaining a deep cut to his hand as he grabbed a blade, but before long the dictator was brought down by multiple stab-wounds (23 in total).
The Death of Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme
Only the last wound was fatal, inflicted by Caesar’s trusted ally Marcus Junius Brutus. We think Caesar’s last words, as Brutus plunged a dagger into his chest, were et tu Brute (“you too Brutus?”). But this was actually invented by Shakespeare.
If we believe our ancient sources, Caesar’s last words were in Greek - καὶ σύ, τέκνον (you too, son). The idea that the terminally bleeding dictator would have switched to a second-language to poetically rebuke his prodigy is pretty fanciful though, and most probably invented.
We’ll never know exactly how Caesar died. Yet the image we have - Caesar crumpled on the floor, pulling his toga up to cover his face, and bleeding out beneath the statue of his former rival Pompey - may well be close to the truth.
Always Open (from the outside)
The Largo di Torre Argentina will be opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 2021.
It might surprise you to know that the square has nothing to do with the South American country. Instead, it takes its name from the city of Strasbourg whose Latin name was Argentoratum.
The reason for this French import was that the Papal Master of Ceremonies, Johannes Burckardt, hailed from this city. Known as Argentinus, he had a palace in this area which still stands at Via del Sudario, 44.
Here, among the ruins of the Largo di Torre Argentina’s Republican-era victory temples. Volunteers at the sanctuary care for around 130 cats, many of which are sick, injured, disabled, or have come from abusive households.
Nothing survives of the Theater of Pompey on ground level. Beneath Rome’s streets, however, you can still make our the shape of the enormous structure that dictates the topography above.