Return to Roman Forum

Basilica Julia

Named after Julius Caesar, who dedicated it in 46 BC from the spoils of the Gallic War, the Basilica Julia was completed by Augustus but burned shortly afterward and was not rededicated for another twenty years, in AD 12. It again was rebuilt by Diocletian after the fire of AD 283 and later restored by Gabinus Vettius Probianus, urban prefect in AD 416, who embellished the interior with statues by Polyclitus, Praxiteles, and Timarchus (his son).

The Basilica housed the civil law courts and tabernae provided space for government offices and banking. In the first century AD, it also was used for sessions of the Centumviri (Court of the Hundred), who presided over matters of inheritance. In his Epistles, Pliny the Younger describes the scene as he pleaded for Attia Viriola, whose 80-year-old father has disinherited her within days of taking a new wife (VI.33).

Quintilian speaks of a gifted orator pleading a case before the Centumviri and, even though "the whole building was full of noise," still managing to make himself heard and be applauded (Institutio Oratoria, XII.5.6; also Martial, VI.38). Pliny recounts a story told to him by his tutor Quintilian, who related that a colleague was repeatedly interrupted by the sound of applause from another court. Wondering what it meant, he stopped and then resumed when it was quiet again. Again there were shouts and then quiet, and then more extravagant applause and shouting. When told that it was Largius Licinius who was speaking (the man who was "the first to introduce this new fashion of procuring an audience"), the exasperated barrister discontinued his case, exclaiming 'Centumvirs, this is the death of our profession.'" Indeed, the payment for such enthusiasm was three denarii a head.

"Such is the outlay you must make to get a reputation for eloquence! At that price you can fill the benches, however many there are, you can collect a great throng of bystanders and obtain thunders of applause as soon as the conductor gives the signal. For a signal is absolutely necessary for people who do not understand and do not even listen to the speeches, and many of these fellows do not listen at all, though they applaud as heartily as any. If you happen to be crossing through the basilica and wish to know how any one is speaking, there is no need for you to mount to the Bench or listen. It is perfectly safe to guess on the principle that he is speaking worst who gets the most applause" (Epistles, II.14, trans. Firth).