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Damned with Feigned Praise: The Role of Architecture in the Death of Julius Caesar

Penelope Davies

On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, a group of senators swarmed Pompey’s Senate House in Rome with daggers concealed in their togas. At a given signal, they lunged at the man they had appointed dictator for life, and brought his term to an end. That their action was the result of a conspiracy seems beyond doubt, and literary sources concur that the plot was long in the making. Masked as a philosophical necessity, the assassination was based in a crisis of senatorial identity and competition. For, free from term limits, answerable to no one, Caesar’s primacy presented other politicians with a problem: they came to understand that his status thwarted their ambitions, and rendered meaningless the very values that defined elite life. When discussing the murder, ancient authors associate it with an extraordinary series of honors with which the senate inundated Caesar after Pompey’s murder. On the whole, scholars lend these accounts surprisingly little credence (e.g. Gardner 2009). The culmination of an extended study on architecture and politics in Rome throughout the course of the Republic, this paper reassesses those honors, and assigns them a decisive role in a much more sophisticated and multilayered conspiracy than scholars usually describe; it contends that in the initial phase of the plot, the set-up to action, architecture played a critical part.

Cassius Dio describes the senate’s honors in three lists (43.14.2–7, 43.46–61, 44.4–7, 44.8.2), amplified by Appian, Plutarch and Florus. Scholars (particularly Weinstock 1971) have analyzed the tributes as a group; my emphasis falls particularly upon architectural honors which, had they been fulfilled, would have constituted the most lasting and powerful of them. After Caesar’s victory at Utica in April of 46, it was decreed to inscribe Caesar’s name on the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, in place of that of Lutatius Catulus, who had rebuilt it after a fire in 83; the senate also offered him a house, separate from the Domus Publica to which he was entitled as pontifex maximus. Among the honors bestowed at disparate moments after the battle of Munda in March of 45 was a public temple of Libertas. Dio places his final and longest list after Caesar’s assassination–and names them as the reason for his downfall, a point that scholars routinely dismiss. Among the visual signs of power were statues in the cities and all the temples of Rome, the right to a tomb within city limits, as well as a Temple of Concordia Nova, a Temple of Felicitas and a temple to Caesar and to his Clemency. Sometime in 45–44, also, the senate either gave Caesar the charge to oversee the construction of a senate house or promised to name their new senate house after him.

Examining these honors in their political context and against the backdrop of earlier Republican building habits, I suggest that we reconsider Cassius Dio’s assertion that there was a double conspiracy–or at least a conspiracy in two phases. I focus on issues of agency (the role of the senate as patron throughout the Republic), as well as choices of honorand for the temples, and the architectural inter-texts these buildings implied (such as the relationship of the Temple of Concordia Nova to earlier temples of Concordia, usually vowed in irony). I also assess the dynamic effect of a second Caesarian phase of building at the senate house, the one building that was eventually accomplished; archaeologists identify the change of design with the senate’s honor (e.g. Delfino 2008). I conclude that an analysis of the senate’s vows in the light of earlier patterns casts suspicious light on their intentions.

Session/Panel Title:

The Ides of March: New Perspectives

Session/Paper Number

5.1

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