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Cryptoporticus excavated under the Palatine Hill
january 5th, 2008

Another discovery from the Palatine Hill has been announced: this time amongst the complex jumble of ruins archeologists have brought to light a cryptoporticus, or underground passage, that is almost certainly the site at which the Roman Emperor Caligula was killed by the Praetorian Guard in January, 41 AD, according to the Roman historian, Suetonius:
"On the ninth day before the Kalends of February, at about the seventh hour [Caligula] hesitated whether or not to get up for luncheon, since his stomach was still disordered from excess of food on the day before, but at length he came out at the persuasion of his friends. In the covered passage through which he had to pass, some boys of good birth, who had been summoned from Asia to appear on the stage, were rehearsing their parts, and he stopped to watch and encourage them….

From this point there are two versions of the story: some say that as he was talking with the boys, Chaerea came up behind, and gave him a deep cut in the neck, having first cried, “Take that,” and that then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, who was the other conspirator and faced Gaius, stabbed him in the breast1. Others say that Sabinus, after getting rid of the crowd through centurions who were in the plot, asked for the watchword, as soldiers do; and that when Gaius gave him “Jupiter,” he cried “So be it,”2, and as Gaius looked around, he split his jawbone with a blow of his sword. As he lay upon the ground and with writhing limbs called out that he still lived, the others dispatched him with thirty wounds; for the general signal was ” Strike again.” Some even thrust their swords through his privates. At the beginning of the disturbance his bearers ran to his aid with their poles3, and presently the Germans of his body-guard, and they slew several of his assassins, as well as some inoffensive senators."

The passage. © Photo Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali. Uso concesso a corredo della notizia.

This underground passageway - perhaps the scene of an imperial murder - connects the house of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, with the Roman Forum. Currently, it lays some nine meters below the elaborate Gardens that the noble Farnese family created on the hilltop in the 16th century when they leveled the ruins of the House of Tiberius, thereby filling the tunnel with earth.
Excavation of the cryptoporticus began in September under the direction of archaeologist Maria Antonietta Tomei. She and her team have spent the past months removing tons of earth from the five-meter tall tunnel, as well as from lateral passageways.
In the process the excavation team has discovered a sizable fragment of a marble sculpture depicting a member of the imperial family as a Greek god with traces of red painting, as well as three marble wings, perhaps belonging to akroterial or rooftop sculptures that embellished the nearby Temple of Victory.
What can be learned from these excavations? Superintendent of Archaeology, Angelo Bottini suggests that the discovery demonstrates that the House of Augustus - parts of which will open to the public on 2 March 2008 - was much more extensive than has previously been suggested.

1 - Part of the ritual at the sacrifice was that the slayer raised his axe with the question “Shall I do it?” to which the priest replied “Take that”.
2 - another formula at a sacrifice was “receive the fulfillment of your omen”, i.e., in naming Jupiter, the god of the thunderbolt and sudden death.
3 - With which they carried his litter.


© 2000-2008 LMB   -  Last Update: 26-gen-2008