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Basilica Ulpia

Basilica Ulpia

This basilica—the largest in the city—was part of Trajan's Forum and was probably completed in A.D. 112. It was rectangular in shape, had five aisles and apses at the short ends. The main entrance was on the facade of the building facing the open plaza of the forum. The façade was punctuated by three porches. Between the porches were three colossal statues of Trajan, of which two are preserved (one shows him as a general; the other as a magistrate).

Basilica Ulpia

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 82.

On the north-west side of the area of [Trajan's] forum was the basilica Ulpia (probably completed in 112 A.D., CIL VI.959; FUR frgs. 25‑26; Not. app.; Cohen, Traj. 42‑44; Hist. Aug. Com. 2.1: in basilica Traiani; Geog. min. ed. Riese, p120: sicut et quae dicitur forum Traianum quae habet basilicam praecipuam et nominatam), rectangular in shape with apses at each end. Its floor was one metre higher than the level of the area, and was approached by flights of steps of giallo antico. The main entrance was in the middle of the east side, from the area of the forum, where there was a decorative façade, represented with variations on three coins (Cohen, Traj. 42‑44). This consisted of a row of ten columns, probably of yellow marble, in the line of the wall, with six others in front on three projecting platforms. These columns supported an entablature and attics on which stood quadrigae and statues of triumphatores. The central quadriga was escorted by Victories. The great hall of the basilica was surrounded with a double row of columns, 96 in all, probably of white or yellow marble, with Corinthian capitals, which formed two aisles 5 metres wide, and supported a gallery on both sides of the nave and at the ends. The nave itself was 25 metres wide, and the total length of the rectangle, without the apses, about 130. The walls of the basilica were faced with marble, and its roof was of timber covered with bronze which is mentioned by Pausanias (V.12.6; X.5.11) as one of the most notable features of the whole structure.

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    38. Overview of Forum Basilicas. Commentary.

    Each of the long sides of the Roman Forum came to be dominated by the long colonnaded structure of a basilica: the Basilica Aemelia (= Basilica Paulli) on the east side, between the Temple of Antoninus and the Senate House, and the Basilica Julia, between the Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Temple of Saturn. Little remains of the magnificent structures of these basilicas, both of them famous for the beauty of their materials and decoration, but their ground plans and some of the stone that remains give a good indication of their size and some idea of their splendor. The literary sources refer as well to several earlier basilicas that occupied these and other spaces in the republican Forum, including an unnamed basilica (later replaced by the Basilica of Aemelia and Fulvia), Cato's Basilica Porcia in 184 BC, and the Basilica of Aemelia and Fulvia in 179 BC.

    The origin of the Roman basilica has been variously traced back to Greek stoas (covered colonnades) and Hellenistic audience halls. The word itself is Greek and means “royal,” but the form came into its own in Roman towns, where it became the main center of business (especially banking transactions) as well as the venue for certain types of trials, such as the one Pliny describes. The open floor plan allowed for audiences of shifting sizes, depending on the notoriety of the case and the fame of the speakers, who had to compete not only against opposing lawyers but against the orators of other trials being held simultaneously.

    The distinguishing architectural features of the Roman basilica were a multitude of columns supporting a truss roof, and a floor plan that includes a central aisle, or nave, flanked on each long side by a narrower aisle, sometimes double. Not only was the interior space an open design, due to the columns rather than walls as load bearers, but in many instances several sides of the whole building were open to the outdoors as well (in which case the structure was like an elaborately roofed pavilion without walls). A clerestory (a central story, or upper part of the nave, that rises into the clear above the roofs of the side aisles, allowing for windows down the length of the nave walls where they rise above the aisles) was not uncommon, and there was frequently a raised platform, the tribunal, where an official might preside over trials.

    Starting with Constantine, when the Church acquired the liberty and wealth to construct large and prominent worship halls, the term basilica was applied to churches, for which the basilica architecture, with its capacious, open design was more suitable than the Roman temple, which was architecturally polluted by its pagan associations and was at any rate designed to house a deity in its most enclosed section, not to hold a congregation under roof (pagan assembly taking place around the sacrificial altar in front of the temple, in open air). Even the tribunal seat of the basilica was reconfigured as the seat of the bishop. That the church basilica was typically entered under a colonnade at its short side (a narthex) and had solid walls rather than columns for its outer perimeter, also had precedents in earlier basilica architecture (Vitruvius's “Chalcidian” vestibule, for example1), especially in its modifications as an audience hall for the emperor.


    38. Overview of Forum Basilicas. Sources.

    38.1.

    The basilicas ought to be placed in the warmest part of forums so that the businessmen can meet for business there throughout the winter without being disturbed by bad weather. The width of a basilica should be no less than a third and no more than a half of its length, unless difficulties of the site demand some other proportion. If the site does require a length of greater proportion than twice the width, put vestibules [chalcidica] at the ends, as at the Basilica of Julia Aquiliana.

    Vitruvius, Architecture 5.1.4


    38.2.

    My speech [c. 100 AD], which was in defense of one Attia Viriola, was remarkable for the rank of the woman, the rarity of the case, and the number of jurors. This woman, of noble parentage and married to a praetorian senator, was disinherited by her octogenarian father eleven days after the lovesick old man married and brought my client's new stepmother home. Her suit to regain her patrimony was being tried before a quadruple panel: all 180 jurors from the four courts combined. There was a host of lawyers on each side, benches filled with supporters, and a ring of standing spectators several rows deep around the entire court. Add to this crowd the jurors packed together up on the tribunal and still more spectators, women as well as men, leaning from the balconies above in their eagerness to see the proceedings (easily done) and hear (almost impossible).

    The outcome of the trial was awaited with great suspense by fathers and daughters, not to mention stepmothers.… The stepmother, who was herself in line to get one sixth of the estate, lost.

    Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.33.2-4, 6


    78. Forum of Trajan. Commentary.

    As Ammianus reports [78.2], corroborated by significant remains, the Forum of Trajan was the most splendid of them all, stretching for 310 meters by the time Hadrian finished it with a temple to Trajan at the northwest end. Some of its characteristic features and its design are visible today from the street at numerous angles and one of the hemicycles can be visited through the Markets of Trajan on the Quirinal above it.

    The design of the forum recalls the Forum of Augustus, with its elaborate program of statuary and giant exhedras that open off a single colonnade on each side. Where the Temple of Mars concluded the Forum of Augustus, however, Apollodorus designed a large basilica crossing the forum from side to side, duplicating at each end the hemicycles of the colonnaded square preceding it. Beyond the Basilica Ulpia (Ulpius was the family name of Trajan), formerly framed by two libraries (one Greek and one Latin) that have since fallen, Trajan's famous column still stands after nineteen centuries. Constructed of mammoth marble drums, the column is decorated with an upward spiraling, scroll-like series of very fine low-relief carvings, which tell the story of Trajan's wars in Dacia (AD 102-6), which paid for much of the forum. Inside the drums a stairway (closed, but still functioning) led to a viewing platform on the top and a statue of Trajan, where the statue of St. Peter stands today.

    One puzzle of this forum has been the nature and extent of the earth-removal carried out by the forum's builders and referred to on the inscription of Trajan's column [79.1]. It seems unlikely, both geographically and from archaeological excavations, that, before construction began to level the forum area, a ridge the height of the column connected the Capitoline and Quirinal. Explanations vary, however; perhaps the inscription meant “to the height of the base of the column,” or perhaps the column only generally located the excavations, which may have been carried out up to the height of the column but over against the Quirinal hill, where it was cut into by Trajan's Market.


  • Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project
  • German Archaeological Institute
  • Flickr images
  • Wikipedia

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