July is the first month of the year named for a specific person. Well, January, March, May, and June are all named for Greek or Roman gods, but July is named for a real historical person: Julius Caesar. Caesar was born in the month of July, which is why, in 44 BC, Rome renamed the summer month of Quintilis "Iulius" after the ambitious, toga-wearing general. We've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to cross the Rubicon this month and set the record straight about the life and death of the ancient world's biggest celeb. Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend him your ears.
The Debunker: Was Caesar Killed in the Capitol?
In Shakespeare's mind, the famous assassination of Julius Caesar took place on the steps on the Capitol, where the Roman Senate met. "Come to the Capitol," Cassius urges Caesar with a petition, luring him to his death at the conspirators' hands. Later, in Hamlet, Shakespeare was so confident about this historical fact that he has the gloomy prince of Denmark make a pun about it. "I was killed in the Capitol; Brutus killed me," says Polonius, reminiscing about his acting career. "It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there," ripostes Hamlet.
This probably doesn't sound surprising to us today—especially to Americans, whose Senate does meet in a building called the Capitol. But Shakespeare's Roman geography was pretty shaky. The Capitolium, as the Romans called it, was not a building but a hill—the Capitoline Hill, the smallest but most central of the fabled seven hills of Rome. Around 500 BC, it was the site of an important temple to Jupiter, and today, Rome's city hall is found there. But the Roman Senate never met there; Shakespeare was probably thinking of the Senate House in the Roman forum, located in a small valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills.
But the Curia Julia wasn't the actual site of the historical assassination either! To weaken the Senate, Julius Caesar had removed the institution from its home at the Curia Cornelia, built by Sulla, and had ordered the construction of a new, less centrally located Senate building: the Curia Julia. But in the meantime, the Senate was meeting temporarily in a smaller room in the Theatre of Pompey, half a mile away from Capitoline Hill and even farther from the Forum. The setting for history's most famous stabbing was the portico in front of a nicely decorated room—not the cavernous, pillared space sometimes seen in paintings. But I can see how "Curia Pompeia" would have been harder for Shakespeare to write puns about than "Capitol."
Quick Quiz: The iconic dome of the U.S. Capitol was constructed during which war?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.