#17.5: Lacus Curtius

Ok this 10 m x 9 m site stretches along on just the other side of the fence that runs west-to-east (from the Gladiator tunnel opening over to that modern low tin protective roof).

LACUS CURTIUS means 'Lake of Curtius' and there are three possible scenarios for this site. Whichever one is true it's still a major site because of its location and also because it remained intact over the centuries, whereas other monuments in the Forum came and went over the years during the Roman Empire. So we have a LACUS which means a LAKE or pool of water and a person's name to work with, in most of the scenarios (except one) the lake would just translate into a pool of water. CURTIUS is an ancient (pre-Roman) Sabine family name but after they unite with the Romans (Romulus' era) the name passes-on through generations of descendants who are now Romans.

[Ok there are three scenarios which can be backed up by fact or myth. But I'm also going to try and tie them together. This is only what *I* think is possible, so its value is only worth the electrons I used in writing it :-) ] All three scenarios call the site a 'Lacus' but only one of them has anything relating to water.

(1) The earliest is during Romulus' battle with the Sabines (about 753 BC) when a mounted Sabine Knight gets stuck in the marsh with his horse. In this one we have a Lacus and the knight is named Curtius.

(2) 445 BC this area is struck by lightning and as Romans always do the site is considered sacred and is fenced-in. The Consul that ordered this is named Curtius. The name but no Lacus.

(3) 362 BC An deep abyss opens up in the Forum, a Roman Knight name Marcus Curtius following an Oracle rides into the abyss which closes up after him. Again the name but no Lacus.

Maybe it was a true oral legend about Curtius getting stuck during the Rome-Sabine War. But it will still be a swampy marsh 100+ years later, so very unlikely it's an exact location. But when the Forum is finally canalled and drained there was a small area here that water would still pool (fact). Perhaps it was from an underground spring, remember the Forum was just filled-in with dirt with no stone pavement.

Now with oral legends and myths still being told later by this early post-Romulus era society perhaps this small pool of water became associated with the stuck-in-the-mud Curtius and was called the Lacus Curtius? Or perhaps it never was until centuries later when it gets hit by lightning and the Consul Curtius puts a fence around the spot and later it mistakenly gets tied-in as the location of the stuck in the mud Knight Curtius?

And still later in time perhaps a small sinkhole opened up here due to the ground being marshy? The Romans have found far lesser omens than a Forum sinkhole to get all panicky about :-) .

And then a myth develops about a great abyss, an Oracle and once again a man named Curtius. So it's possible all three scenarios about this location are true in fact and myth but with the Lacus in the name I have to think that it is tied to the original somehow.

(1) Now in the beginning of this walk I went over the Roman-Sabine War following the 'Rape of the Sabine Women'. Just to recap: You're now standing in a swamp, on your left is the Sabine army and on your right Romulus' army. A mounted Sabine Knight named Mettius Curtius gets himself and his horse stuck in the swamp that separates the two armies. He was either fighting, attacking or retreating when this happened. He survives either way and the Sabine women convince the men to call a truce and the two tribes join together as one. That is the story I like :-) . Plus it seems plausible especially with the lacus/lake included in it. And as I said Curtius is a Sabine name and the first name Mettius comes from the Sabine word Medìss which means Leader. So I can believe this either as a true oral history or a myth. And Livy later said that this *entire* swamp later came to be known as the 'Lake of Curtius' in early ancient times. He was a hero in these battles with Romulus so perhaps it wasn't named after him just because he got stuck in the mud :-) .

(2) The proof of the lightning strike comes from Varro when the Consul Q. Lutatius Catulus (102 BC) and someone named Cornelius wrote that this site was struck by lightning in 445 BC and the Consul C. Curtius put a puteal (a round well curb) around the spot which fenced-it off.

(3) In 56 BC a man named Procillis who might have been a Tribune for the Plebians said that in 362 BC a chasm appeared here and the Romans consulted the soothsayers who said that they must throw into (sacrifice) the abyss "that which is the greatest strength of the Roman people and the Empire would last forever". This oracle was only understood by a young Patrician Knight named Marcus Curtius who armed himself and mounted his horse. He then rode his mount into the abyss which closed behind him and Rome was saved because he understood that Rome's "greatest strength" was its Citizens. I don't know it's in the middle of the Republic and hard for me to believe that at this time a wild myth like this could be born without some truth to it?

Now when the Gauls were heading for Rome the Sybilline Books consulted and interpreted as: If you bury alive two Greeks and two Gauls in the Forum Boarium you'll win the battle. Also when Rome got their butts kicked by Hannibal at Cannae they needed someone to blame. Being a male dominated society and not wanting to blame themselves of course, someone had the bright idea that they lost because the Gods were mad at Rome. And the Gods must be mad because a Vestal Virgin lost the Virgin part, so bury one of them alive to appease the Gods. So I wonder, could this story actually be based on a human sacrifice? Could something like just a simple sinkhole have opened up here in the Forum? The Romans panic at this omen and assume that the Gods/Spirits/Dead in the Underworld are not pleased with Rome. Soothsayers are consulted and come up a young Patrician sacrifice as the answer?

A brave Citizen-Soldier voluntarily riding to his death to save Rome sounds a lot better than some unlucky citizen being pitched into a hole and buried alive? The Marcus Curtius and the Abyss was *the* story of this site when the remains you see were rebuilt 2000+ years ago.

Ok now stand roughly at the middle of the fence |----x----|. In front of you is a relief (plaque) showing an armed (spear, shield, helmet) knight on a horse. The spear and horse's head are pointing down and the horse is slightly angled downward. This shows the story of Marcus Curtius sacrificing himself to save Rome by riding into the abyss which then closed up behind him. That relief is a plaster cast of the original now in the Museo Capitolino Nuovo. The original was found nearby (somewhere in-between the Column of Phocas and the Temple of Castor and Pollux) in 1553.

Ok the first relief (lost) was possibly from the second Century BC and suggested by some to have been a copy or replacement for an even earlier relief. A second relief was possibly a copy of the earlier one and dates to post-14 BC because there is an inscription on the back with L. Naevius Surdinus' name on it (the pavement inscription guy). He almost certainly rebuilt the Lacus Curtius site after the 14 BC Fire plus the latest remains under the low tin roof date to that time. So I'm assuming that this about 14 BC relief could be seen on both sides? Now that 14 BC relief is also lost and this is a copy from the later Imperial era and that is the 'original' I mention above which was discovered in 1553. The inscription on the back of the relief is the exact same as the Surdinus' inscription on the Forum pavement.

OVID living in the era of this 14 BC relief mentions altars within this site and later Pliny 100+ years later mentions an altar that was removed for Julius Caesar's last Gladiator Games in the Forum. So Ovid says altars, so more than one.

I mention this because roughly between you and this relief are three square impressions in the pavement, #1 above it #2 above it #3 so in a line. #1 is on the earlier pavement with #2 and #3 the Augustus/Surdius pavement. These square impressions are believed by some to be where those small votive altars stood. It just seems odd to have two or three separate altars for one site? Perhaps #2 and #3 which are right next to each other in-line are the base/legs for a single altar? Whereas #1 is off-center and a little bit away from #2 and #3 it's possibly something separate (an earlier altar or pedestal?) or was never replaced after the later paving of the site? Some say these impressions were possibly pedestals/bases for statues. It was in a high-profile area so maybe two or three nice little bronze statues would dress it up a bit :-) .

Ok let's get to the heart of this site. Walk over to the small low tin roof. Now before we begin imagine this whole site was fenced-in with either a low screen or balustrade. This complete site (10 m long x 9 m at its widest) was not a rectangle but five-sided. Picture the modern fence as the only straight long side, then a short section to the right of the tin roof, then an angled section over to the plaque, an angled section from plaque to Gladiator opening and an angled section from the opening back to the modern fence.

Ok now bend down and look under the modern protective tin roof to see this photo or a wider view. That is the Lacus Curtius which in its heyday looked like a very fancy well. There were twelve slotted rough tufa blocks (seen in photo) which formed the base of this twelve-sided circular well and fitted into each block's slot was very likely a decorative marble slab. And probably some kind of marble ornamental top connecting the twelve marble slabs together?

So what we have now is what looks like a twelve-sided well maybe about 1 m high. This well-like structure encloses a circle of tufa blocks but in the exact center is a puteal (in photo, remains are a small half-circle). In this case a puteal is a round stone curb which surrounds a well. So now we have a large well-like structure which surrounds a small hole which is actually a well but this is definitely a dry well with no water. [But a Puteal could also be the large stone curb that surrounds where there was a 'lightning strike'. The area would now be considered sacred (sign from the Gods) and fenced-off by a puteal maybe 2 or 3 m in diameter.]

Suetonius said that the Equestrian Order voluntarily and unanimously decided to celebrate Emperor Augustus' birthday with a two-day festival where men of all classes would throw coins into the Lacus Curtius as a vow for Augustus' good health and well-being. It's believed that the coins were tossed into the twelve-sided Well and not the center hole. A 'Well' where 'Coins' are thrown in for 'Wishes', I wonder if this fad will ever catch on? :-)

[The Lacus Curtius we see today are the remains of rebuilding by Sulla, Julius Caesar and mostly Augustus, all three done in the first Century BC.] Ok as I said, 2000+ years ago when this site was being rebuilt the Romans were going exclusively with Marcus Curtius abyss story. The 'stuck in the mud' Curtius and the Lightning Strike from the Gods myth seems to have been left behind. With the Equestrian Curtius on the relief and the Equestrian Order pitching coins into the Well this seems to now be their turf :-) .

One source believes that the Hole might be connected to the dead and/or the underworld (like the Mundus by the Arch of Septimius Severus) because of the Abyss opening up and the basically human sacrifice of Curtius. We also have two incidents and evidence of human sacrifice just a stone's throw away from the Lacus Curtius. If true perhaps the site and altar wasn't for the heroic Curtius but instead for keeping the dead/Underworld satisfied. Sounds reasonable and perhaps the Hole was like a 'Pozzi Rituali' where the small animal sacrifices were offered by the Priests? Who knows perhaps it did start as a feared site where the Underworld had to be appeased by animal sacrifice and worship? But a couple of centuries later it became a site where the hero Marcus Curtius was honored? Anyway whenever or however this site began it ended as the Marcus Curtius heroically saves Rome monument.

Plautus who I've mentioned before was the author of several comedies (early second Century BC) says that the Lacus Curtius was the place where people gathered to gossip and slander.

For more information and photos, please see Lacus Curtius in A Tourist in Rome.

Next: #17.6: Hole
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