I would like to have attended the Lupercalia, in 44 B.C.. It was the beginning of the Roman holiday season, and the city probably never looked (or smelled) better than it did every Ides (15th) of February. In part this ancient festival of cleansing and renewal celebrated Fanus, the Roman incarnation of the Greek god Pan. Young children ran naked around the Palintine Hill, striking married women lightly with palm branches. This was supposed to increase fertility, or, if you were already pregnant, to induce an easy birth. Women lined the hill and offered up their bottoms to be spanked. This was the beginning of our Valentines Day.
But the festival was named for Lupe, the mythical she-wolf, and that was the major thrust of the official celebrations. Two children were given the honor each year of entering the temple cave on the Palatine Hill where Lupe had supposedly suckled the abandoned human twins Romules and Remes. There the honored boys witnessed the sacrifice of two goats (representing Pan) and a dog (representing Lupe), and their faces were smeared with the animals still warm blood. It was a joyous day, reminding the citizens of their heritage. After killing his brother, Romules had gone on to found the city of Rome. But it also reminded citizens that change was a challenge that made you great, and not something to be feared.
There were several city fathers who feared the future, at this year's Lupercalia. Standing outside the temple, Julius Ceasar (above), newly elected dictator for life, was offered a crown three times by his lieutenant Mark Anthony. It was a piece of political theatre. The crowds cheered every time Ceasar rejected the crown, but to a dictator for life any crown would have been a meaningless ornament. Still the few remaining aristocrats in the Senate thought they saw the fifty-three year old Ceasar hesitate a little longer each time the laurel crown was offered, as if hoping the crowds would call for him to accept the title of king.
Rome had not had a king for 500 years. The last, Tarquin the Proud, had been driven from the city by Lucius Junius Brutus, who had then founded the Republic. The mayor of Rome in 44 B.C., Marcus Junius Brutus, liked to claim ancestry from that ancient republican. But that seems to have been just more theatre, politics as usual in the first century B.C., which was also the last century B.C. Change was coming. And if you were a member of the top 1% of the population of Rome, like Brutus, at the peak of the money pyramid, the peak of the privilege pyramid, the peak of the power pyramid, nothing about change would have been appealing.
Immediately after the festival, Ceasar threw himself into preparations for his expedition against the Parthians. He had already sent the first legions marching from Germany toward the Parthian borders, under the command of his young nephew, Octavian. But Ceasar himself could not depart Rome until after the festival for the goddess Anna Perenna, on the Ides of March, even though it seems unlikely Ceasar was planning on participating in the Anna (year) Perrena (perennial) festivities himself.
Until Ceasar's new calendar, this had been the Roman new year's eve. Celebrants pitched tents among a peach tree grove next to the Tiber. Both sexes wore blossoms in their hair and drank and danced into the night. There was an aura of sexuality and licentiousness. But that was, again, a young man's game, and Ceasar was no longer a young man. He did not spend the night beside the Tiber. But the holiday crowds were also good cover for secret movements and meetings by the Senate aristocrats. Crasius, Brutus' brother-in-law, had decided that something had to be done before Ceasar left Rome.
What Crassius expected to be done was obvious to anyone familiar with Roman politics over the previous century and a half. A hundred forty years before this Ides of March, Tribune Tiberius Gracchus was beaten to death by the Senatorial aristocrats and his body thrown into Tiber. Ten years later Tribune Gaius Gracchus died along with three thousand of his supporters at the hands of the Senate elite. Gaius Memmius was assassinated just for standing for election as Tribune in 100 B.C. Two of his allies, Lucius Appuleius Saturninu and Gaius Servilius Glaucia, were actually elected Tribunes, but they were arrested on trumped up charges and while in jail a mob of Senate aristocrats had stoned them to death in their cell. In 91 B.C. Marcus Livius Drusus was murdered. Tribune Sulpicius Rufus lost his his head in 88 B.C. Then Counsel Marius Gratidianus was literally sacrificed by aristocrats, and thirty-two years ago Cnaeus Sicinicus had been murdered. All of these men and thousands of their supporters had been killed in the alleys and back streets of Rome, even in the Senate House itself, just to keep money and power in the hands of the rich and powerful.
And now the Senate aristocrats were faced with their greatest enemy, Gaius Julius Ceasar. They charged Ceasar with wanting to be king, the same charge they had made against Graacchus, against Memmius, against Saturninu, against Drusus, against Rufus, against Marius and against Sicunicus. The Aristocrats knew they had to act before Ceasar left Rome, because once surrounded by his loyal legionaries, there would be no chance reaching him.
The historian Nicokaus of Damascus described the conspiracy. “The conspirators...assembled a few at a time in each other's homes....Some suggested that they should make the attempt along the Sacred Way, which was one of his (Ceasar's) favorite walks. Another idea was to do it...(when) he had to cross a bridge...A third plan was to wait for a coming gladiatorial show...because...no suspicion would be aroused if arms were seen. The majority opinion, however, favored killing him while he sat in the Senate. He would be there by himself, since only Senators were admitted, and the conspirators could hide their daggers beneath their togas. This plan won the day.” And there was an appealing irony in this plan, since the Senate House had been burned down after the murder of Tribune Publious Clodius Pulcher, the Senate was now meeting in the Pompey's Theatre.
It was a massive complex (above), a multi-use facility, like a sports complex in 21st century America, and had been funded by the late Pompey the Great. Besides a magnificent stage for public performances, it also had, behind the stage, a large walled enclosure containing several meeting halls and markets, and beyond that temples, connected by shaded walks and fountains. It was a protected island of calm and beauty, seperated by walls from what had become a violent and ugly city. The Senators saw no irony in the need for those enclosing stone walls, even though a large percentage of the criminal gangs that had become pervasive in Rome, were financed by their own members, and used to terrorize each other and the Plebians, the working class citizens of Rome. Contained within the surrounding walls were meeting rooms, ringed by a covered portico. In the largest if these rooms, just behind the stage, stage right, stood a statue of Pompey the Great. That room was called the Curia of Pompey.
Curia was an ancient term in ancient Rome, referring to a gathering of the tribes of Rome. The Curia of Pompey was thus the perfect place for the Senate to meet. The only drawback, to the Senate aristocrats, was that the room shared a common wall with what the theatre patrons at the time described as a “monumental public latrine”. And it was in this room next to a toilet, that the Senate would meet with Ceasar for the last time.
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