The Basilica Aemilia

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Johannes Lipps, The Basilica Aemilia on the Forum Romanum. The building and its ornamentation in imperial times (2008)

Manuscript of Heinrich Bauer

Christine Ertel - Klaus Stefan Freyberger - Kathrin Tacke – T. Bitterer, The Basilica Aemilia on the Forum Romanum in Rome. Focus of public life.

According to Livius (40, 51, 4-5), the original building was inaugurated by the censors M. Aemilius Lepidus and M. Fulvius Nobilior 179 B.C. The basilica was a single-story construction with a nave and two aisles on either side. The construction material was tuff, a local type of volcanic rock, and also travertine, limestone, which originated from Tivoli. Several fire disasters made it necessary to restore and renew the building. In the early years of the 1st century B.C., the basilica was converted into a two-story building. It was completely renovated under the reign of Augustus after a fire in 14 A.D. without fundamentally changing the form of the previous buildings, but by using a different material: marble from Luni. The floor of the nave was decorated with precious polychrome marble while the floor of the side aisles was covered with white marble. The marble cladding of the inside walls were also decorated with reliefs of pentelic marble, representing significant scenes of the founding history of Rome. The portico facing the forum had a lavish façade with doric columns crowned by a high attic. The outer side of the attic showed sumptuous sculptural decorations. In the center of the parapet plates were the imagines clipeatae, showing probably Parthian officials. Those were flanked by monumental barbarian statues sculpted from coloured marble. Even though it is not possible to clearly reconstruct the statuary type of the barbarians, it is likely that those statues also showed Parthian officials, symbolising a nation subjected by the Romans. They refer to Augustus’ not only military but also diplomatic victory concluding a peace treaty with the Parthians in 20 B.C. Above the portico and the shops there was a monumental terrace, which, in the rear part, was surmounted by a loggia, decorated by the well-known pillars with tendril motives. In all probability, this terrace is to be identified with the maeniana mentioned by ancient authors. From the maeniana it was possible to watch the activities on the Forum Romanum but it was also used as a spectators' stand for celebrations and processions.
The archaeological record allows to draw conclusions about the various functions of the basilica. The inside showed a luxurious area with interior designed for mercantile and monetary use. It was used as a bank as well as a shop for luxury goods made of precious metal. The shops, which served most likely as sales locations, but also might have been used as bankers' offices, showed sumptuous decorations. As was common in most basilicas at the time, it is highly probable that lawsuits were also held at the Basilica Aemilia, especially financial tribunals which would go well with the monetary function of the building.
As the Basilica Aemilia was a very well visited building, it was perfectly suited for political representation. In the time of the Roman Republic, it was the gens Aemilia whose family patriarchs represented themselfs in sculpture. Later, during the Roman Empire, the emperor occupied this privilege. These various functions were already embedded in the original Basilica Aemilia building of 179 B.C. The new Augustan building had to include them as well, which is why the traditional model was kept. The most significant formal difference between the new building and its predecessors is the marble facing. At the same time the iconographic program of the building was slowly changing in order to politically represent the imperial family. Characteristics of the Augustan iconography are mythological themes praising the Roman history, from the founding heroes all the way up to the present golden age. The Basilica Aemilia with its functions and its interior is not merely a public building but more a part of a huge political context in the city centre, along with the other buildings around the forum.
During the investigations in the area between the Via Sacra and the porticos of the Basilica Aemilia a series of small sanctuaries (sacella) has been discovered, of which only the one of Venus Cloacina is known by name. Due to their simple design and small dimensions, these sacella had a somewhat rural character. They all faced the forum with their major sides, whereas the actual cult areas, located on a lower level, were accessible by steps from one of the minor sides. Those sacella are most likely to be identified with the archeia mentioned by Cassius Dio (1 Frg. 6 [2]). According to mythological tradition, Numa Pompilius performed official acts in this place. As the archeia are closely linked with the founding history of Rome, they have always been particularly important. This is mainly evidenced in the fact, that the sanctuaries have repeatedly been renewed down to late antiquity.