On March 15, 44 BC, the Senate was meeting in temporary quarters at the Theater of Pompey. The Curia (Senate chamber) in the forum had burned in a riot several years before and reconstruction, sponsored by Julius Caesar, was under way. When Caesar arrived that fateful morning, ignoring warnings and portents, petitioners greeted him, as usual. One of them was involved in the plot to kill him, and, while he distracted Caesar, the others, joined by Caesar's friend Brutus, attacked. The story goes that he received 27 wounds, meaning that there were 27 active plotters, but that sounds suspiciously like magical numerology -- three and nine were both important numbers and three times nine was extremely important.
A mob assembled quickly, but it didn't know what to make of the event. Caesar had, over the years, cultivated the mob, but he had been out of town a lot lately -- chasing Pompey through Greece to Egypt, and then dawdling there for a more than casual fling with Cleopatra (he fathered her son Cesarion.) In fact, Caesar had only returned to Rome in the autumn of 45 BC (installing Cleopatra in his villa across the Tiber) and had only had six scant months to reassume the reins of power.
To make things even more confusing for the mob, Brutus, who was at least the nominal head of the plot, had been a sure bet to be Caesar's successor. Caesar had left Brutus in charge of Rome when he went off for his extended warfare and carousal, and Brutus had been an efficient, wise and extremely popular viceroy. On Caesar's return, Brutus had surrendered the mantle of leadership as planned.
There were even rumors that Brutus was Caesar's bastard son. (Most historians say he was not, but Caesar did have an affair with Brutus' mother at about the right time, so the rumors were understandable. Caesar himself may have wondered about it.)
Caesar's short return engagement in Rome was neither wise nor popular. He had learned to enjoy the perquisites of eastern monarchical power, and he brooked no interference with his plans or his foibles. It was obvious to everyone that Brutus was better at the job. And Brutus had killed Caesar and called himself and his co-conspirators "liberators." At first, the mob seemed to believe the assassins were heroes.
But there were still eulogies to be spoken and a will to read. Great men, when they died often made public bequests, and the mob wanted to know what they were. Caesar's body was carried to the Forum, and there, Mark Antony made the famous speech that Shakespeare immortalized: "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, etc." Well maybe he did: Suetonius says that Antony gave no eulogy but instead read an act that the Senate had already passed that praised and validated Caesar's rule and that ordered that he be worshipped as a god. Plutarch makes no mention of a speech by Antony.
But the will was certainly read within a day or so and every Roman citizen got cash. And the mob saw the mutilated corpse of Caesar and, having just been enriched, regretted the passing of their benefactor. A planned cremation on the Campus Martius was preempted and a hasty pyre of benches and temple furniture was used to cremate Caesar in the center of the Forum -- a hero's immolation by acclamation. (Suetonius says the fire was lit miraculously, perhaps to excuse the sacrilegious cremation inside the city) The crowd had quickly decided that Caesar had been good -- no, great -- no Divine. Brutus and the other "liberatori", who had initially swaggered their deed, fled Rome while the mob burned their houses.
Within a few years, Mark Antony had hunted down all of the major conspirators. He still thought he had a shot at the throne despite the fact that the bulk of Caesar's wealth and real estate, and all the political patronage that went with the money and property, had gone to his nephew Octavius (posthumously adopted and renamed Caesar Octavian in the will).
While Antony was off chasing the assassins, Octavian started construction on a huge memorial to his Uncle Julius. It had an external altar at ground level at the spot where Caesar's body had been burned and a high, marble-clad, concrete podium on which stood a Temple to Divine Julius befitting his post-mortem official (Senate-approved) acceptance into the Roman pantheon. Octavian also made sure that the provision of Caesar's will that gave every Roman citizen 300 sesterces in cash was carried out and he distributed lavish funds from his own purse to Julius Caesar's veteran troops.
A temple to Divine Julius was extremely important to Octavian's own ambitions. He wanted to constantly remind everyone of Caesar's deification. If Caesar was a god, Octavian could and did claim to be a son of a god.
The Temple was completed in a few years, but it stood unused and undedicated until Octavian had finally achieved sole authority in Rome. Octavian had defeated the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC. They had slipped through Octavian's blockade and fled to Alexandria where they hoped to raise another army, but, finding that effort futile, they had both committed suicide in 30 BC. A year later Octavian finally dedicated his uncle's temple in the forum and decorated its high podium with the rostra (bronze rams) from the ships of Antony's and Cleopatra's fleets.
The Temple is gone, and the podium was long ago stripped of its marble casings and bronze rostra: various Popes found pious uses for all that. Part of the massive concrete core of the podium remains, and in front of it, behind a nondescript wall and under that inelegant semi-circular tin roof is a low mound, the remains of the Caesar's altar, that gets fresh floral decoration every day. On most days there are only a few blooms, but sometimes, on days that always seem to coincide with monarchist and (Divine Julius forbid!) Fascist remembrances, there are many more. A line of school children often waits to squeeze into the narrow space from which you can see the mound
A good modern rendering of how Caesar's
temple looked -- note the new Rostrum that Augustus installed, and the
altar in the circular niche, the base of which is still in situ:
How it looks now (but without its
inelegant tin roof):
Description of the Temple:
A drawing of the Forum -- Caesar's
temple closes the right end of the central open space:
Suetonius' "Life of Deified Julius":