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Bill Thayer

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Lacus Curtius

 p310  Article on pp310‑311 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Black-and‑white images are from Platner; any color photos are copyrighted.

[image ALT: A very old fragmentary travertine pavement. It is the Lacus Curtius in the Roman Forum.]

The Lacus Curtius, looking roughly N. The upper travertine pavement is prominently visible; the bas-relief is a copy of the original, now removed to the Capitoline Museums. In the background, from left to right, the Arch of Septimius Severus, the Ficus Ruminalis and the Curia.

Photo © Roberto Piperno 2001.
Courtesy of the photographer, whose site,
Baroque Rome in the etchings of Giuseppe Vasi
is a major resource on the city of Rome in any period.

Lacus Curtius: the name attached to a structure in the middle of the forum (Plaut. Curc. 477), of which the remains are now visible. Three explanations of the origin and meaning of this name were current in Rome. One was that at the beginning of the regal period, a chasm suddenly opened in the middle of the forum valley, which could be closed, the soothsayers said, only by the sacrifice of that 'quo plurimum populus Romanus posset.' Thereupon a youth named Curtius leaped in and the opening closed (Varro, L. L. V.148; Liv. VII.6; Val. Max. V.6.2; Plin. NH XV.78; Fest. 49; Cass. Dio fr. 30.1; Zonaras VII.25;º Suidas II.1.572; Oros. III.5). Another story was that the swamp in the centre of the forum was called lacus Curtius from the Sabine Mettius Curtius who rode his horse into it when hard pressed by the Romans and escaped (Liv. I.12.9, 13.5; Varro, L. L. V.149; Dionys. II.42; XIV.11; Plut. Rom. 18). This is the story that is represented on a relief, found in 1553 between the column of Phocas and the temple of Castor and preserved in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Museo Mussolini), which is itself a late copy of an original of perhaps the second century B.C. (Mitt. 1902, 322‑329; S. Sculpt. 324‑326; SScR 316‑318; Cons. 36). For the inscription on the other side, see Tribunal Praetoris. According to the third explanation the lacus was simply a spot of ground that had been struck by lightning and then enclosed by a stone curb, or puteal, by C. Curtius, consul in 445 B.C. (Varro, L. L. V.150).

In the time of Augustus the lacus Curtius, siccas qui sustinet aras, was no longer a lacus but dry ground (Ov. Fast. VI.403‑4), and into it a small coin was thrown yearly by every Roman in fulfilment of his vows for the emperor's safety (Suet. Aug. 7, 57). According to Kobbert (RE I. A. 576) it is the character of the lacus Curtius as mundus which is primary; but its connection with the underworld made it religiosus,  p311 and the coins were probably offerings to the powers of the underworld (WR 235). Pliny (NH XV.78) states that an altar that stood near the lacus was removed at the time when Julius Caesar celebrated his last games in the forum, but whether this altar was afterwards restored and was one of the siccae arae of Ovid is unknown.

The existing remains of the lacus consist of two successive layers of slabs of grey cappellaccio and brown Monte Verde tufa, both attributed to the same (the Sullan) period by Van Deman and Frank, forming an irregularly trapezoidal field about 10 metres long and nearly 9 in greatest width, on which is a third layer of blocks of travertine surrounded with a curb. Only part of this layer has been preserved. On its curb are marks that indicate the existence of a screen or balustrade, on which the relief mentioned above may have stood. On the western part of the lacus are traces of rectangular bases which suggest the arae siccae of Ovid, and near the eastern corner is the plinth of what was evidently a puteal, or perhaps a round altar of cappellaccio, standing on a twelve-sided base. The structure in its present shape is clearly a restoration of the earlier lacus, carried out at the time of the Caesarian changes in the forum. For description and discussion of the ruins and lacus in general, see CR 1904, 329‑330; 1905, 74; BC 1904, 181‑187; Mitt. 1905, 68‑71; Atti 580‑582; HC 144‑148; Hülsen, Forum, Nachtrag 15‑18; Jord. I.2.399; RE IV.1864, 1892; XII.378; Suppl. IV.503‑4; NA 1909, 369‑375; Théd. 74, 268;​a DR 243‑249; JRS 1922, 8, 20, 21; TF 76.

[image ALT: A very old fragmentary travertine pavement. It is the Lacus Curtius in the Roman Forum.]
A view of the Lacus Curtius from the other side, looking S,
with the Palatine Hill in the background.

Thayer's Note:

a Platner cites the 1908 edition of Thédenat, which I haven't found online. Online at Gallica, however, is the 1898 edition; in it, the main passages on the Lacus Curtius are on pp85‑86, 247, 274‑275.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 16