Bring your togas and laurel wreaths, just watch out where you snap your ancient selfie.
ROME — Even after two thousand years, Julius Caesar still has loyal followers.
On a recent Saturday in our Eternal City, I saw a crowd lined up under the beating sun in the Roman Forum, squatting down and taking selfies in a corner piled high with old bricks. The alcove where their attention was focused was nice enough, but it didn't seem worthy of such flocks of tourists. In fact, the location has no historical value whatsoever.
Still, legend has it that this particular niche on via della Curia Ostilia, in the shadows of the Palatine Hill ruins, is where Caesar was cremated and buried after the bloodbath that history marks as the Ides of March in 44 BC.
There are many other spots like this one in the capital, but it is this epic urban legend that gives this one the distinction of being somehow "secret." Tourists in adoration of Caesar have resurrected a passion for a man who has been dead for millennia.
The sign for this place makes it look like a sanctuary, and the area is lined with a layer of coins from various countries. The oldest ones are practically embedded into the bricks atop where Caesar's august ashes are mistakenly believed to rest after he was "flambéed."
I am told that it is likely that the periodic cleaning service has recently been here because there are typically bouquets of fresh flowers, small gifts and cards in every language left on this site for "imperial intercession in personal matters."
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Patrizia Fortini, director of the archeological park, confirms that tourists flock here to engage in a kind of Caesar worship. She says that she has witnessed a growing influx of visitors to the supposed tomb over the last 30 years. In the days leading up to the fateful March 15, many people with togas and laurel wreaths asked for permission to pay homage to their emperor for the anniversary of his assassination.
In fact, tour guides on loudspeakers confirm that the faux resting place of the hero, who was stabbed by his adopted son Brutus, has actually become a certified "monument" because of the insistent crowds who come to visit.
The damp ground can be reached by a corridor a few meters long. There are Americans dressed in shorts, Japanese with smartphones and tablets, lively Russians and austere Brits. They're all packed in, concentrating intensely as they peer at the moldy mound.
They exchange some small talk about the emperor. Most are convinced that this is the place where the conspirators to his murder were also killed.
But Caesar was killed nowhere near here. His demise came on the Theatre of Pompey steps, where the square of Largo di Torre Argentina now sits. On March 15 of this year, a historical group dressed in costume and reconstructed the stages of the imperial slaughter.
In fact, this Area Sacra archeological site, where a branch of the Roman Forum stood during Caesar’s time, is entirely inaccessible to visitors today because of a tram stop and a taxi stand.
The only ones who can roam this ancient rubble now are the stray cats who call it home.
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Largo di Torre Argentina — Photo: Doc Searls