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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Journal of Philology
Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan.‑Mar. 1934), pp74‑76.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p74  The Basilica Argentaria

One of the most interesting discoveries that has recently been made in Rome, in connection with the excavation of the Forum of Julius Caesar, is the ascending road between the Capitol and the Comitium, which is known as the clivus argentarius. Close to it have been discovered the remains of a building which probably dates from the time of Domitian.1 This has been tentatively identified as the basilica argentaria, a structure mentioned only in the Regionary Catalogues. Although there is no documentary evidence for the application of the adjective argentarius to the clivus earlier than the Middle Ages, it seems likely that the street was so designated in the time of Roman Empire,2 and that it took its name from the building adjacent to it. What activities, then, may we assume were housed in this basilica?

Among the Romans the adjective argentarius was used in two senses (1) referring to the use of silver as a metal — hence, argentarii, "silversmiths", as in the arcus argentariorum, applied to the well-known arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum Boarium; (2) in a derived sense, like the French argent means "money", e.g. mensa argentaria, "a money-changer's counter." It is this second usage that is most frequently cited from Latin authors, and this is the meaning that the eminent Italian archaeologist, Corrado Ricci, believes must be understood in the case of the basilica. In describing the excavations of the Forum of Julius Caesar, Ricci refers to the mention of the basilica argentaria in the Regionary Catalogues and says that we must not believe in this instance that the adjective refers to the silversmiths who plied their trade and had their headquarters here, but to the argentarii who were money-changers and bankers.3  p75 There are indications, however, that this statement is open to question.

Granted that the word argentarius may refer to bankers as well as to silversmiths, let us consider the noun to which it is attached, in hopes that we may get further light upon it in this case. A Roman basilica has been defined as "a very common type of building erected for business purposes and also for the accommodation of the courts."4 We are told that bankers and money-changers had their headquarters in the Basilica Julia in the Forum,5 and the probable situation of the Janus medius near the Basilica Aemilia connects that building with money-lenders and speculators.6 Thus it is natural to associate the idea of banking and money with the activities of a basilica, a fact which may lead to a misinterpretation of the adjective under discussion.

It has already been observed7 that while the basilica argentaria appears in the text of the Regionary Catalogues, this building is not mentioned in the Appendix to the same document, though basilica vascellaria, a building not included in the text, does occur there. This fact leads to the obvious conclusion that these buildings were identical. If this is true, there is no doubt that the building was used for the sale of small objects of bronze and silver. Inscriptional evidence shows that vascularius and argentarius are often applied to the same man, along with such words as caelator and excusor,8 in all of which cases it must refer to an artisan rather than to a banker. One significant inscription reads de basilica vascula(ri)a aurari(o) et argentario.9 This seems to mean "to the gold and silver dealer from the basilica vascularia". Thus it appears that the substitution of vascellaria for argentaria by the compiler of the Regionary Catalogues would be most natural.

Furthermore in the Regionary Catalogues we have mention of  p76 a basilica floscellaria,10 where apparently flowers and fruit were sold, and of a basilica vestilia,11 which must have been a clothing emporium. Since banking was a normal function of the basilicas in the Forum, it seems less likely that argentaria in this sense would be applied to a building which was used strictly for financial dealings than to one which offered small objects for sale. We may notice too a comment of Acron on Horace12 where one of the Janus statues (or arches) is said to be post basilicam Pauli ubi vasa aenea venum dabantur. Perhaps this place of business near the Basilica Aemilia was later installed in a large and impressive building that gave its name to the clivus adjoining it. At any rate, the evidence seems to show that the basilica argentaria of the eighth region, whether or not it is to be identified with the building which has just been uncovered, was the headquarters for dealers in small metal objects, rather than the center of the banking activities of that part of the city.

Dorothy M. Robathan.

Wellesley College.

The Author's Notes:

1 Corrado Ricci, "Il foro di Giulio Cesare," Capitolium VIII (1932), 385.

2 Platner and Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (London: Oxford University Press, 1929), p122.

3 Ricci, op. cit., p385.

4 Platner and Ashby, op. cit.p71.

5 C. Huelsen, The Roman Forum (Rome: Loescher and Co., 1909), p61.º

6 Platner and Ashby, op. cit., pp275‑76.

7 Ibid.p76.

8 CIL VI, 4328; II, 3749; XIII, 1948.

9 Ibid., XI, 3821. The editors of the Corpus believe that this refers to the basilicam urbanam quae fuit in regione octava, dicta in indice regionis ipsius argentaria, in appendice vascolaria.

10 Platner and Ashby, op. cit.p78.

11 Ibid.p82.

12 Ep. I.1.53‑54.

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