Four Sanctuaries for The Gods: Area Sacra di Largo Argentina in Rome
An ancient secret is buried in front of us—just meters below our current street level. Four years ago Spanish researchers of the Institute of History of the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences (CCHS-CSIC 2012) localized the supposed place of the murder of Gaius Julius Caesar by a sensational finding on the Largo di Torre Argentina, right in the middle of the heart of the city.
Caesar was murdered by his political opponents on the Ides of March (44 BC), when he was Dictator of the Roman Republic. The agitation of Roman senators like Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus set the historical background for this event. Most antique sources point out that Caesar’s stabbing to death took place somewhere between the theatre or Curia of Pompey and the Hecatostylon (hall of one hundred columns). But how can we be sure of that?
Assassination of Julius Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public Domain)
A discovery at the feet of the Curia Pompeia could mark the exact spot
A 3 by 2 square-meter- (32 by 21.5 square-foot-) -large construct made out of a predecessor of today’s cement ( opus caementitium) was erected here by Caesar’s nephew and successor Augustus, years after the incident, to condemn the assassination. The adjacent Curia Pompeia was transformed into a memorial chapel at that time and Augustus had the statue of Pompey removed from the meeting hall.
Roman statue of Pompey. It is now in Villa Arconati a Castellazzo di Bollate (Milan, Italy). It was brought there from Rome in 1627. It is handed down that Julius Caesar was killed at the feet of this statue, but modern research reveals there’s more to the story. (Public Domain)
It suggests there may be some valid points to the theory that Caesar found his end near or in the Curia Pompeia. But these remains are not by far the only extraordinary things which can be found at this heritage site.
Location of the Area Sacra in Ancient Rome.
A well preserved temple-complex called Area Sacra di Largo Argentina is located only steps away from the Curia Pompeia. Antiquity, middle ages and modern times come together in this name: Largo Argentina describes a modern plaza at the urban quarter of Pigna. It emerged 1909, when a square had to be erected in the old town of Rome. Today it is one of the congested places in the city.
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The term Argentina descends from the latin word Argentoratum and stands for an ancient roman city of a former barbaric tribe called Vangiones, which happens to be the city of Strasbourg nowadays. At that time, it was located in Germania Superior.
The Area Sacra in Rome could be called a sacred district. The term deals with the square and its sanctuaries alike. Area Sacra was opened to tourists only since 2013. Before that date the archaeological area was closed and access was granted only for a few experts. The temple-district has become a popular cat sanctuary now. Cats scrimmage there day and night, hunting down mice in between decayed ruins.
Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Topography of a sacred temple-district
On the Area Sacra reside remains of four temples, all which were once part of the central Field of Mars ( Campus Martius). If we look at the details, we could uncover remains of secular buildings at the edge, dated between third and first century BC.
West: Curia Pompeia (55 BC consecrated)
North: Hecatostylum (First century BC – burned down in 274 AD) & Thermae Agrippae (19 BC)
South: Circus Flaminius (221 BC), Theatre of Balbus (13 BC)
East: Porticus Minucia Frumentaria (107 BC)
The date of origin of these buildings gives a crucial hint to archaeologists: Area Sacra experienced a structural development from being some kind of passageway on the Field of Mars, to constitute an enclosed square. Not until erecting building complexes in the north and west, was the sacred district encompassed architecturally. There never existed a shared, revolving porticus around all four temples. (The counter-example on this matter would be the Porticus Metelli)
Map of the sacred area of Largo Argentina, in Rome. In red the four temples A, B, C, D.
Interpretation and theory concerning cult-worship on the Area Sacra
Four sanctuaries (A to D from north to south) were aligned east along a grid of the old saepta (predecessor building to Saepta Iulia). They come from the middle republic (except temple B) – a time, in which Rome pursued the principle of evocatio. This principle permitted the Roman Republic to integrate deities of conquered enemy nations into the roman religious system. The consecration of those four sanctuaries thereby goes back to vows of victorious roman field commanders.
Any identification of the specific temple with their respective deity is disputed among archaeologists since the old studies by Platner-Ashby (1929), Castagnoli (1946-48) and the newer ones by Coarelli (1981) and Ziolkowski (1992).
We now will have a look at three of those four temples, to disclose some long-forgotten secrets.
Temple B will be omitted as it is significantly younger than the other three sanctuaries (101 BC) and stands as the only round-temple-type ( Tholos) on the Area Sacra.
The distinctive Temple B (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Temple A –Juno Curritis on the Mars Field?
Area Sacra - Temple A (CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is not certain how old exactly Temple A is, the smallest of the Area Sacra. Archaeological evidence indicates that this sanctuary originates from a time at the dawn of the second century BC.
A minimum of two roman calendars mention a temple of Juno by name as situated on the Field of Mars. Fasti Fratrum Arvalium tell us: “(I)unoni Curriti in Campo” and Fasti Paulini mentions: “Iunoni Q(uiriti) in Camp(o)“. Fasti Antiates Maiores, a third roman calendar, marks the day of consecration as the 7 of October. It has a lot to suggest that this Juno cult was of non-Roman origin. So accordingly it cannot be taken for the Juno of the Curia Rome ( Juno Curis or Juno Quiritis). (We may think of it, because of the proximity to the Curia Pompey.) With high certainty it would rather have been the cult of Juno Curritis from Falerii, main city of the sabine Falisci.
The necropolis of "Tre ponti" near Falerii. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Falerii was probably the main-center of Juno Curritis worship and the only italic city, in which Juno Curritis was granted the highest position among the gods and patrons. The city was located approx. 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Rome and belonged to the twelve city confederation of the Etruscans, even though its inhabitants were of Argive origin. After the destruction of Falerii in 241 BC some Juno cult seemed to be introduced in Rome in tradition of ancient evocatio. This theory is old and was favored by Castagnoli (1946-1948). There might be other theories to be considered.
Silver statuette of Juno. First to second century. (Public Domain)
The Romans once imported another cult of Juno from Tibur into their city, as can be proven by two passages from Servius and Ovid. However, there is no way this Juno Tibur cult can be linked with a cult for Temple A on the Area Sacra. Firstly, the main deity of Tibur was Hercules Victor. This god was firstly brought to the city of Rome by P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus in 142 BC. Secondly, Tibur was not at war during the consecration of Temple A. This way an evocation of Juno Tibur can be excluded for this case.
Temple C –Feronia or Juturna?
Area Sacra - Temple C (CC BY 2.5)
Temple C is the oldest Temple of the Area Sacra. The appearance of the podium, used materials and fragments of inscriptions from the third century BC suggest a date stamping between late fourth and early third century BC.
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Castagnoli and Coarelli both identified Temple C with the cult of Feronia. They explain it with an early dating of archaeological evidence and the likewise early evocation of a Feronia cult. There is every indication that this is the right deity to be related with Temple C: Inscriptions for the sabine heroes Hercules and Sabus can tell us a whole story about it. (Feronia was a sabine goddess.)
Another passage from Orvid describes a Temple for Juturna, which once was placed near the aqua Virgo, one of eleven aqueducts in Ancient Rome. Problem is that this could be applied to all four sanctuaries of Area Sacra. Ziolkowski still identified Temple C as the Temple for Juturna. Especially the water system in near distance to Temple C could point towards the cult of a water goddess. Both Juturna and Feronia were deities with close cult connection to water, which is left out by Ziolkowskis’ thesis.
Temple D – Temple for the protector god of seaman
Area Sacra – Temple D (CC BY 2.5)
Temple D, the biggest of the Area Sacra, can be safely dated back to the early second century BC. Roman calendars refer to the 7 of October. Richardson identified Temple D as a sanctuary for Jupiter Fulgur because of its hypaethral form—having no roof and being open to the air—amongst other things. This can be dismissed as implausible, because it then would date to third century BC, which is significantly older than actual archaeological evidence.
As distinguished from other temple structures on the Area Sacra, researchers agree, Temple D must be the shrine for a roman protector god of seaman ( Lares Permarini).
On the lost doors of the Temple-entrance there has been a consecration-inscription in Saturnian meter, mentioned by Livius. By his account this temple of Lares stood “in portico Minucia”. The hall system called “Porticus Minucia vetus” could have thereby enclosed Temple D. Other theories need to be revisited.
In all, the archaeological temples and the ancient concrete memorial in the historic center of the Roman capital have revealed pieces of an ancient puzzle, unearthing the location of the infamous death of one of the most notable men in ancient history.
Featured image: Area Sacra di Largo Argentina in Rome (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Carsten Timm
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Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), ScienceDaily (20.10.2012), Spanish researchers find the exact spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed. [Online] Available at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121010102158.htm
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A. Ziolkowski, The temples of mid-republican Rome and their historical and topographical context, Rome 1992, pp. 63-96.