Beware the Ides of March: the Hazards of Tax Day & a Monument to a Dead Roman

This is actually a revised rerun of a post from a bit less than a year ago. I realized this date (15 March) was more appropriate for it and that the original was not tagged with my subsequently inaugurated occasional series, “Monuments to Dead Romans.” Also, since the COVID-19 scare has given everyone something else to beware this Ides of March, it seems apt; AND since Italy is pretty much closed at the moment, it allows a bit of virtual tourism . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum. Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned funeral pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. That also seems a timely issue on this Ides of March, 2020.

The original of this 2019 “seasonal” post related to the looming April 15 tax deadline in the USA. My consideration of a tax theme was solidified when the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon at University Baptist Church dealt with the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. I promised a follow-up post on Jesus’ answer to the question and the business of public perception. For some reason, I never produced that (I had to work on my taxes . . . ), but now with my travel-induced quarantine and cancellation of most gatherings (including church and school), perhaps I can finally deliver.

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. As was the case last year at this time, I am glad.

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The Influence of the Memory of Romans who Died while Traveling: the Maison Carrée

This is a brief followup to the previous post in my series on monuments to dead Romans. That post featured a forgotten cenotaph to Gaius Caesar, one of two adopted grandsons of Caesar Augustus and presumed heirs to the first true Roman emperor. As noted in that post, Gaius Caesar died on the way home in AD 4 after physical and mental wounds incurred leading a military campaign to the east. His younger brother, Lucius Caesar, had meanwhile died at Marsalla (modern Marseille) en route to military training in Hispania (Spain) in AD 2.

Death from illness while traveling was a real threat in the ancient world, as highlighted by my recently-defended thesis in Geography (“Malaria Risk on Ancient Roman Roads . . .”). Augustus himself died in the month named for him in AD 14 while visiting Nola in Campania. His health was already failing, but the region’s nature and timing of Augustus’ demise make malaria a suspect in my mind. This aside is prompted by the fact that I am writing this on a layover while returning prematurely from a journey to southern France and Spain because of the COVID-19 chaos and panic.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

Happily, I was able to hit most important goals of my trip before the sudden need to return due to presidential fiat and cancelled flights. One of those targets was the Maison Carrée, one of the best-preserved of all Roman temples, in Nîmes, France.

The deep porch of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

The Maison Carrée (“square house”) functioned as part of the imperial cult in which Augustus and a personification of Rome were worshiped; but was dedicated (or rededicated) to the deceased brothers Gaius and Lucius Caesar, probably by their father Marcus Agrippa in AD 4-7.

We know about the dedication from an inscription in bronze letters, removed in medieval times (no doubt for the metal), but cleverly reconstructed from the position of the mounting holes by local Nîmes scholar Jean-François Séguier in 1758.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes; in this panorama the mounting holes for the missing dedicatory inscription can be seen on the frieze and architrave above the columns (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

In addition to being one of the best-preserved Roman monuments, the Maison Carrée is a textbook example of a “Tuscan” style temple in the Corinthian order as described by the ancient architect Vitruvius. It is pseudoperipteral, meaning that the appearance of surrounding columns is created by the embedded pilaster columns in the sides and back wall. A deep porch emphasizes the front of the building.

The rear of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, showing the pilaster columns creating the pseudoperipteral effect (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

While the deceased Caesar brothers’ memory was long-forgotten with respect to the Maison Carrée, the structure was a major influence in neo-classical architecture. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, was moved by the building which inspired his architectural ideas seen in the Virginia state capital and Monticello. Indeed, the Maison Carrée would look right at home in most American cities as a post office, or court building.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-03-08)

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What Might Have Been: The Gaius Caesar Cenotaph at Limyra

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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