Today (21 February 2020) marks the 2016th anniversary of the passing of Gaius Caesar. “Who?”—you ask? He was once the presumed heir to the throne of the new Roman Empire; now largely forgotten, much as his monumental cenotaph in Turkey. This brief remembrance of that structure is the latest in an apparently very occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity. But first, the backstory . . .

Limyra: Lycian tombs in the E Necropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

The first true Roman Emperor, Augustus (formerly Octavian), had a wildly successful reign (31 BC to AD 14) that transformed Rome forever (and for better or worse). But Augustus had no son, and succession was a major issue for him. His only daughter, Julia, produced three sons by Augustus’ right-hand man and son-in-law Marcus Agrippa, and the oldest was Gaius Caesar. Gaius and his three-year younger brother Lucius were adopted by Augustus and named as heirs and raised as such.

Byzantine wall, likely built with some materials from Gaius Caesar’s cenotaph, constructed across the middle of the Hellenistic “Ptolemaion” structure; above now flooded ruins of a basilica (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At the young age of 18, Gaius was commissioned by Augustus to deal with troubles in Syria with Parthia and Armenia. He was dispatched to the region with some advisors in 1 BC. The boy’s inexperience was questioned by some, but Augustus apparently praised him for not offering prayers (presumably to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities) when he visited Jerusalem (Suetonius, Augustus 93).

Limyra: view from the theater to the remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Peaceful negotiations with Parthia included a meeting between Gaius and the Parthian king Phraates on the Euphrates. But soon after Parthia incited rebellion against a new ruler of Armenia installed by Gaius. Military action ensued. Gaius, lured into a trap on promise of information, was wounded. The Romans prevailed, but Gaius struggled physically from the injury and in spirit over the next year. By the end of AD 3, he resigned his command and withdrew to Syria, announcing his desire to stay there and retire from public life (princes tiring of royal duty and family intrigue is not a new thing!).

Limyra: Remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At Augustus behest, he reluctantly agreed to return to Rome and took a trading ship to Lycia where he died suddenly at Limyra on 21 February AD 4 Velleius Paterculus, 2.101-102). His brother Lucius had also died at Massalia en route to military training in Spain the previous year, leaving Augustus and Rome with no heir apparent. Grief-stricken Augustus had a cenotaph erected to honor his grandson Gaius’ short life at the site of his death. Meanwhile, the brothers’ ashes were interred in the mausoleum prepared for Augustus in Rome (read about the Augustus Mausoleum here).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph; looking SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Like Gaius Caesar’s memory in popular Roman history, his cenotaph stands unnoticed in a marshy field at the edge of the ruins of Limyra; a nondescript hulk of ruined masonry. It’s former glory is hinted by the nice pavement surrounding the base. Visitors rarely go there; for the picturesque tombs, theater, and other ruins of Limyra are more attractive. But there is a better story and more mystery with the cenotaph. Even in ancient times, there was rumor of involvement by Livia, mother of the eventual heir Tiberius, in the deaths of Gaius and Lucius (Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.10-11).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph, looking NW, with the Limyra acropolis on the right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

What might have been? Augustus’ sorrow over his progeny may have been an omen for Rome’s future.  

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3 thoughts on “What Might Have Been: The Gaius Caesar Cenotaph at Limyra

  1. I initially had a false idea of the size of this monument; it was only until I noticed the man standing in the final image did I realize how massive its dimensions are.

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