By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 7/15/2019
Fires were common in Ancient Rome, and sometimes the damage they did provided opportunities for restoration or for new structures to be built. In the third century CE, Diocletian and Maximian did both, and one of the structures they rebuilt was the Basilica Julia. Today we’re going to look at the original structure and its purpose as well as its reconstruction. To learn a bit more about basilicae in Ancient Rome, check this earlier article about the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine.
The massive Basilica Julia was started by Julius Caesar but left unfinished after his assassination. We know that the building was built on the former site of the older Basilica Sempronia, which was built in 169 BCE by the censor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Caesar’s building was funded by the spoils of the Gallic Wars. As the new name implies, one of its purposes was to perpetuate the memory of Caesar’s victories as well as his family name. He did not live long enough to see the project through to completion, and so this task fell to his adopted son, Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Augustus’ basilica was damaged by a fire in either 14 or 9 BCE. It was restored and reopened in 12 CE, more than fifty years after Caesar had commissioned it.
The Augustan Basilica Julia was two stories tall with an upper gallery possibly accessible by a separate staircase. Very little is known of its décor since the Augustan structure was destroyed by a fire in 283 CE. The east end of the Basilica Julia was open to the Vicus Tuscus (Street of the Etruscans), where processions for the games at the Circus Maximus would have passed by. I imagine that the upper stories of the facade would have provided a wonderful view.
The Augustan Basilica Julia housed the centumviri, the Court of the Hundred, a special civil court that continued to function at least into the second century CE. The court may have begun with 100 judges, but by the time of Pliny the Younger (whose Letters through light on its operations), it had 180. They were divided into four courts of 45 judges. Each court operated in its own area of the hall separated from the others by wood partitions.
Both Quintilian and Pliny the Younger wrote about their work as lawyers arguing cases before the centumviri in this building. Pliny tells us that it was common for people to hang out to watch the trials and play games while they waited. The Roman poet Martial confirmed a few decades earlier that the place was often crowded and noisy. Quintilian praises the powerful voice of a lawyer named Trachalus, who was able to be heard over the din in the hall when all four courts were in session. Once, he was even applauded by the spectators in the three other courts when he finished speaking. He was not the only orator honored here. We learn in the sources that in the reign of Domitian, a statue of the lawyer Crispus was erected here to express the gratitude of the clients he had represented without a fee. By the way, the trials held here primarily seem to have dealt with contested wills.
This was undoubtedly not the building’s only use, but the sources are almost completely silent about the other activities that must have occurred here. One exception is mentioned in Suetonius and Josephus who wrote about how Caligula several times curried favor by tossing handfuls of coins off the top of the building. They were eagerly pocketed by the throng congregating in the Forum plaza below.
We can say that almost any building project undertaken by a Roman leader was partly propaganda for himself and his family. Clearly there was self-promotion when Augustus had the second Basilica Julia named in the memory of his deceased heirs, Gaius and Lucius Caesar. In doing so, Augustus was building on the fact that the structure had already been named for his family.
Another fire in 283 CE in the Forum area allowed the tetrarchic emperors Diocletian and Maximian the opportunity to embark upon their own massive construction program in Rome. However, they didn’t simply create new buildings but rebuilt and repaired the older structures. Among these was the Basilica Julia.
It appears that the basic plan and design of our basilica stayed the same as it had been under Augustus. Inscriptions attest that court secretaries, bankers, money-changers, and other public offices were housed in the shops on the ground floor along the south side of the building. The presence of such public businesses suggests that the basilica continued to serve a legal or government purpose.
In Rome Reborn® we see the tetrarchic phase of the Basilica Julia. It is characterized by vibrant colors from generous use of polychrome marbles. While the specifics are based on hypothesis, not solid evidence, we do know that the marbles the Rome Reborn® team used are typical of imperial buildings, and we also know that from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century the building served as a veritable marble quarry for modern building projects in the city. Not all the marbles were reused: some were melted down to make lime, a key ingredient of Roman cement.
The Basilica Julia was repaired and embellished further in 377 or 416 CE by urban prefect Gabinius Vettius Probianus. He is credited with adding Greek bronze statues by famous artists such as Polyclitus inside the hall. The statues do not survive, but some of the bases inscribed with the sculptors’ names have been found. Since the statues are only securely present after the year illustrated in Rome Reborn® (320 CE), you will not see them in the reconstruction.
The Basilica Julia was perhaps damaged by the Visigoths in 410 CE. At any rate, a contemporary source attests that the building was still in use in the middle of the fifth century. Starting in the sixth or seventh century CE, the west end of the basilica was reused as a Catholic church (S. Maria Cannapara, “St. Mary of the Ropewalk”). This church was destroyed by the 19th-century excavations. Later excavations in the 20th century, coupled with the surviving historical records, have provided the information used by the Rome Reborn® scholars to recreate the basilica.
Claridge, A. Rome. An Oxford Archaeological Guide, second edition (Oxford 2010) 92-93.
Giuliani, C.F. and P. Verduchi. “Basilica Iulia,” in Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, edited E.M. Steinby, volume 1 (Rome 1993) 177-179.
Gorski, G. and J. Packer. The Roman Forum. A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide (Cambridge 2015) 239-260.
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