Basilica Julia


Christian Hulsen, 1906.

The entrance to the Forum is on the south side in the Via delle Grazie. A footpath bordered by bits of columns and various antique and mediaeval fragments leads down: the Basilica Julia is the first building which one enters.

The Basilica was begun in the year 54 BCE; and the Tabernae veteres and the Basilica Sempronia had to make way for it. On the day of celebration for the victory of Thapsus, September 26th, 46 BCE, it was dedicated by the Dictator Caesar, although it was not yet finished. The building was completed by Augustus but was destroyed by fire. After the fire the emperor began a new building on a larger piece of ground, and dedicated it 12 CE in his own name and that of his adopted sons Gaius and Lucius, who had died. The building however kept the name Basilica Julia, and is only very rarely referred to as Basilica Gai et Luci. We know very little about the Basilica in the first centuries after Christ: in the great fire in Carinus’s time and again in that in the time of Diocletian it was injured; and it also suffered when Rome was plundered by Alaric and his Goths: the Prefect of the City Gabinius Vettius Probianus restored it again and decorated it with works of art (416). In the ninth century a little church, S. Maria in Cannapara, nestled itself into the west portico. In the following centuries it lay ruined and covered with debris, and served as a stone-quarry for the builders of the Renaissance. The hospital of the ‘ Consolazione’, which owned the land, made a very considerable revenue in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by renting it out to those who wished to dig for marble and travertine’. The site of the Basilica was partially excavated in 1788, more completely in 1849, and at last entirely after 1870, but only such scanty remains of the architecture were found as the marauding diggers of the previous centuries had left.

The Basilica consists of three parts: the vestibule alongside of the Sacra Via, the main hall with the galleries surrounding it, and the separate rooms (tabernae) situated behind it (toward the ‘Consolazione’). In order to see these three parts in their proper order one should first walk through the Basilica, as far as the vestibule (opposite the two colossal columns on the Sacra Via).

From the Sacra Via the vestibule was reached by a broad flight of steps (seven steps at the east end, only one at the west). The portico, which consisted of two stories, was supported by large pillars of marble, against the front of which were laid half-columns with simple Doric capitals. On the side toward the Forum the facade has been entirely destroyed; one pillar made of travertine was built up in modern times and does not represent therefore the original material. On the broken ends of the other pillars – and even these ends are mostly of modern construction – all sorts of architectural fragments and pieces of inscriptions, found in and around the basilica, have been placed: in the middle near the modern pillar two large bases with inscriptions of the city-prefect, Probianus, 416 CE; on these are two small flat bases with the inscriptions: opus Polycliti and opus Timarchi. Such bases with the names of artists, always very famous ones, are frequently found in the period after Constantine, when an attempt was made to protect the old statues of the gods against the iconoclasm of the Christians by ascribing to them high artistic worth (the best known instances of this are the inscriptions of the “Horse-tamers” on the Quirinal). The pavement of the portico consists of slabs of white marble, on which in many places the diagrams of games (tabulae lusoriae) have been scratched: most of these diagrams are in the form of a circle and were employed in a game where two players, each provided with three pebbles, placed them at various points on the diagram and then made alternate moves until one of them won by getting his three pebbles in a row (see fig. 20); others were rectangular, with various letters and symbols, mostly in groups of six. They seem to have been used in a game similar to our ‘tick-tack ‘. The vestibule and the side-aisles of the basilica had flat roofs with terraces: Caligula was very fond of throwing coins from the roof of the building down into the crowd in the Forum, who fought for them.

Two steps lead from the vestibule up into the main hall, which including the aisles was about 328 feet long and 118 feet wide (central nave 271 ft. by 59 ft.). Thirty-six pillars of brick, covered with marble, surrounded the central nave, and on this nave the galleries iu the upper story opened; the roof above the central nave was one story higher than over the side aisles and the vestibule, and the central nave was lighted principally by windows in this story under the roof. The great quantity of timber which was used in making the roof offered food for the flames by which the building was so often injured. The side-aisles had ceilings of massive cross-vaulting with rich ornamentation in stucco (remains of the decoration were found in 1789 and 1849, but they have disappeared since). The floor of the central nave was paved with large slabs of costly colored marble (giallo, africano, pavonazzetto); the pavement consisting of small bits of marble, which now covers the greatest part of the space, is modern. The side aisles were paved with white marble; on the slabs are scratched, in addition to numerous diagrams of games, various representations of figures, in part clumsy attempts to reproduce statues which were exhibited there.

In the main room of the basilica the sessions of the Roman jury-court (centumviri) were held; this court sat in four sections, at four separate tribunalia, but in especially important cases all four could be united (quadruplex indicium}. Ouintilian tells us that when Galerius Trachalus (Consul 68 CE), who was not only a very eloquent man but also the possessor of an unusually powerful voice, was speaking before the first tribunal, he received applause from the public of the other three tribunals as well. According to this the four tribunals can scarcely have been separated by solid walls, but curtains or wooden partition-walls, which could easily be removed, were used instead. Concerning a general session of the four tribunals in connection with a cause c^ftbre, Pliny, who made one of the speeches himself, tells us that not only was the lower room crowded but also the upper galleries “where one could see well, but hear only with difficulty.” The Basilica accordingly, like many modern halls of similar construction, seems to have been deficient in acoustic properties.

Back of the second side aisle is a row of rectangular rooms with walls of tufa and travertine blocks which have an archaic appearance but belong in reality to the construction of Augustus. They are called tabernae and were probably used as offices, and as places of assembly for corporations etc.; possibly also money-changers and bankers had their places of business here: nnmnlarii de basilica Inlia are often mentioned in sepulchral inscriptions. Up to the present only a small part of these tabernae has been excavated.

In the vestibule on the west side (that toward the Vicus Jugarius) are to be seen the remains of the small church of S. Maria in Cannapara (“in the rope-walk”; the central nave must have served as such in the centuries of the decline): a column and slabs which formed a part of the chancel-rail, ornamented in the style of the vu. and vin. centuries. Owing to the building of the church within the Basilica one or two of the outer pillars, which supported the vestibule, have been preserved; in the case of one pillar three layers of marble blocks are still in position ; in the case of a second (at the north-west corner) only the impressions are to be seen, which have been left in the mortar of a brick pillar afterwards built against it. This pillars formed part of an arch over the street (the Vicus Jugarius); but both the name of the arch and the time of its construction are uncertain. Also at the north-west corner of the basilica recent excavations have brought to light remains of walls of tufa and opus reticulation, which possibly belong to the older buildings of Caesar and Augustus.

Hulsen, Christian. The Roman Forum, its history and its monuments. Rome: Loescher; New York, G. E. Stechert, 1906.

Back to JW Bailly Lectures

Stephanie Sepúlveda & John William Bailly  14 April 2018


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