When visiting the Forum Romanum, many people notice flowers placed in the niche of the wall of Caesar’s temple in memory of his memory. This is where Caesar was to be cremated, which is why many people intuitively point to this place as his burial place. But is it possible that the tomb of the dictator is there?
According to historical sources, Caesar’s funeral murdered in the Ides of March had a very dramatic course. According to Suetonius, the body of the dictator was cremated at the Forum in an atmosphere of a great popular movement. The funeral had far-reaching political consequences because it was then that Mark Antony had his rousing speech to change the mood of the crowds and steer the course of events into completely new directions that thwarted the intentions of the conspirators planning the restoration of the republic.
But let’s go back to Caesar. Where was he buried? In accordance with the established tradition, in fact, at the site of his cremation at the Forum, a temple was later erected, the ruins of which we can see in Rome to this day. But what happened to the ashes?
There is no indication that Caesar’s ashes rested in the temple in the Forum. Firstly, because the temple was built many years later (on the day of the funeral, no one thought about its erection yet), and also because at that time it was forbidden to bury the dead within the city. If this prohibition had been waived in Caesar’s case, ancient chroniclers would have certainly mentioned it. If Caesar was not buried in the temple at the Forum, then where?
We can find a clue in Suetonius’s “Lives of the Caesars”. Let us give the floor to the ancient historian:
When the funeral was announced, a pyre was erected in the Campus Martius near the tomb of Julia, and on the rostra a gilded shrine was placed, made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix; within was a couch of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. Since it was clear that the day would not be long enough for those who offered gifts, they were directed to bring them to the Campus by whatsoever streets of the city they wished, regardless of any order of precedence. At the funeral games, to rouse pity and indignation at his death, these words from the “Contest for the Arms” of Pacuvius were sung:
— “Saved I these men that they might murder me?”
and words of like purport from the “Electra” of Atilius. Instead of a eulogy the consul Antonius caused a herald to recite the decree of the Senate in which it had voted Caesar all divine and human honours at once, and likewise the oath with which they had all pledged themselves to watch over his personal safety; to which he added a very few words of his own. The bier on the rostra was carried down into the Forum by magistrates and ex-magistrates; and while some were urging that it be burned in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and others in the Hall of Pompey, on a sudden two beings with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering
– Suetonius, Julius Caesar, 84
From the quoted fragment there is certain chaos accompanying the funeral ceremony. The first piece of information is that the stack has been raised on the Field of Mars. Then, however, Suetonius takes us to the Forum, where it was to be erected a gilded chapel with memorials. Later there is another mention of bringing gifts to the Field of Mars. But unexpectedly, the historian mentions that some wanted to burn them in the cell of Capitoline Jupiter – i.e. in the temple on the Capitoline Hill, and others – in Pompey’s curia, i.e. in the building where Caesar was murdered.
The account of Suetonius, who could not be a witness to those events, suggests that Caesar was originally supposed to be cremated in the Field of Mars because a pyre was prepared there. However, it seems that the dead dictator did not have time to move there. The body was to be placed in a gilded chapel on a mourning bed and transferred to the Field of Mars, but the events got out of hand and went on quickly. At the Forum, a new pile of whatever was at hand was spontaneously erected, and it was on this that Caesar was eventually cremated.
But this original, “official” stack in the Field of Mars is an important clue. In Rome, wealthy families cremated their deceased relatives in places called ustrinum. The ancestral ustrinae were usually built near the tomb, where the ashes were to be buried. It is no coincidence that Suetonius mentions Julia’s tomb. Julia is Caesar’s birth daughter, the prematurely deceased wife of Pompey. If a dictator’s funeral pyre was erected next to her tomb, his ashes were likely to have been deposited in her tomb. Unfortunately, we don’t know much more. Historians believe that the tomb had the form of a monumental mound. Where exactly was it located? 1Nobody knows! It was never discovered! Its further fate is not known. In some studies, I found information (unfortunately also provided with a question mark) that the tomb of Julius Caesar could have been located more or less in the vicinity of Piazza di Monte Citorio / Piazza Colonna. So maybe next time you admire the wonderful Column of Marcus Aurelius, consider that perhaps it was there, somewhere under your feet, over two thousand years ago that the ashes of the great Julius were laid!