Smack in the middle of one of the busiest transportation hubs in Rome — Largo di Torre Argentina — sits a rectangular excavation site that until last month seemed a nondescript, abandoned archeological pit. Well, abandoned except for a plethora of feline figures milling about like the ghosts of so many Ancient Roman senators amongst the toppled columns.
If you’ve been to Rome before, you have almost surely passed through Largo Argentina. Perhaps you have even gone there on purpose, as many cat-loving tourists do, to visit the cat sanctuary. Yes, that’s right, Rome has a cat sanctuary and it is an impressive one, providing shelter, care, and adoption services to about 350 Roman kitties.
In recent years, the cat sanctuary has been the tourist draw in this forgotten pit of ruins but an ancient infamy is about to upstage the famous felines: the notorious assassination of Julius Caesar.
Contrary to what William Shakespeare would lead us to believe, the bumping-off of Julius Caesar did not take place in the environs of the Roman Forum. Nope, the site of one of history’s most nefarious crimes was right in the spot where our Roman pusses now prowl.
Setting the Stage for Murder and the Birth of the Roman Empire
First, a little background on Caesar’s assassination.
The era of Julius Caesar was a pivotal time in Rome’s (and the world’s) history, and his murder was the catalyst in the transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire.
Some members of the Senate were concerned about the steam that Caesar’s dictatorship was gathering. “Concerned” might be too gentle of a word, seeing as these pro-republic advocates plotted to execute their ruler, believing it to be the only way to return Rome to governance by its people and the Senate.
The assassination backfired, however. Rome did not return to republican rule. Instead, The Eternal City was launched into civil war that culminated with the final curtain coming down on the Roman Republic, and Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, being declared the first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.
The Scene of the Ancient Crime
So exactly where amongst the ruins do we find the scene of the ancient crime?
What we see in Largo Argentina today represents a small part of a sprawling complex constructed by Pompey in the middle of the first century BCE.
Pompey was Rome’s most accomplished general until he was defeated by Julius Caesar in 48 BC (and then killed in Egypt by Caesar’s allies). In addition to the huge theatre and hecatostylon (a portico with a hundred pillars), the monumental complex also comprised a Curia built by Pompey. This meeting hall — the Curia Pompeiana — was being used by the Roman Senate at the time of Caesar’s demise. In fact, he was sitting in it when Brutus and the other conspiring senators attacked and stabbed him twenty-three times.
The precise spot where Julius Caesar met his end has been identified by a team from the National Research Council of Spain. It is an enclosed space about 9 feet wide and 6 feet tall inside the Curia Pompeiana, filled with cement on the orders of Augustus to commemorate the crime against his father and brand it locus sceleratus — a cursed place.
From Murder Scene to Cat Sanctuary to Sacred Site
Zoom ahead twenty centuries and the echoes of ancient bloodshed have morphed into the meows of stray cats. The cat sanctuary in Largo Argentina has been in operation since 1993, a superhuman accomplishment propelled by two women. The story of how the sanctuary evolved from its humble, grassroots beginnings to the world-famous organization it is today is a cat tale worth reading.
But the kitties that now preside over the locus of history-altering murder will have to share the limelight with Rome’s hottest new attraction: the archeological site of Largo Argentina itself, known as the Area Sacra (Sacred Area), owing to the four temples in the excavation.
The opening of the site to the public has been a long time coming. The ruins were originally unearthed by Mussolini in the late 1920s as part of his efforts to connect the glory of Ancient Rome to himself. Almost a hundred years later, and thanks to almost a million Euro (over 1 million US dollars) in funding from fashion house Bulgari, the Area Sacra has been outfitted with exhibits displaying statuary and artifacts from the excavations as well as walkways where visitors can stand amongst the ruins.
For a mere 5 Euro entry fee, we visitors on two legs can enjoy these important ruins — some of the best-preserved remains from the era of the Roman Republic — alongside our furry four-legged friends.