Basilica Porcia


  • Basilica Porcia in der Späten Republik (um 100 v.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Basilica Porcia in der Späten Republik (um 100 v.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Spätrepublikanische Basilica Porcia (184 v.Chr.)
  • Ältere Atriumhäuser in der Mittleren Republik (um 250 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Basilica Porcia in der Späten Republik (um 100 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Basilica Porcia in nachsullanischer Zeit (um 70 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Ältere Atriumhäuser in der Mittleren Republik (um 250 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Basilica Porcia in der Späten Republik (um 100 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick
  • Basilica Porcia in nachsullanischer Zeit (um 70 v.Chr.), topographischer Überblick

Constructed: in 184 B.C.

Alterations: in 52 B.C it was destroyed by a fire and torn down

Function: hall, location of the tribunes of the plebs

Historical Context: Late Republic II

The remains of the Basilica Porcia are not visible today because the place where the building stood, bordering the zone between the Curia and Carcer, has not been excavated yet. In the late Republic the Basilica Porcia was a politically important building in Rome: it housed the tribunes of the plebs, who sought to protect the rights of the populus. Accordingly, the Basilica was situated next to the Comitium, where the people held their assemblies, and the Curia, which housed the Senate. The elevated basilica allowed the tribunes of the plebs to observe political activity in the Forum.


In 184 B.C. the famous general and politician M. Porcius Cato (known as Cato the Elder) bought two atrium houses and four Tabernae in the area of the Forum, at public expense. He planned to replace them with a magnificent new basilica named after himself (Basilica Porcia). The basilica was intended to house the tribunes of the plebs (lat. tribuni plebis) from then on.

The Basilica Porcia united various important political spaces in the northwest corner of the Forum: the Curia, the meeting place of the Senate; the Comitium, an assembly place for the people; and the Basilica Porcia, the building for the tribunes of the plebs. Thus these important political institutions were closely linked to each other not only by virtue of their function, but also by their topography.

In 52 B.C. the building was burnt to the ground by Clodius’ followers, who started a fire near the Comitium during his funeral. This fire then went on to destroy the Curia Hostilia and the Basilica Porcia adjacent to it. The basilica was not rebuilt. The entire area of the Comitium had already become the main focus of Caesar’s construction policies, which led to the erection of the Curia Iulia and the adjoining Forum of Caesar (Forum Iulium) as well as the relocation of the speaker’s platform (Rostra Caesaris) (see Caesarian period).

Origin of the Basilica

The Basilica Porcia was one of the oldest halls in the Forum Romanum. It was preceded only by the older basilicas on the north side of the Forum, built in the late 3rd century B.C.: the Basilica Sempronia, the Basilica Fulvia and the Basilica Opimia. These buildings replaced atrium houses situated at the Forum’s perimeter – but it is unclear whether the atrium houses in the Forum (the public and political centre of the city of Rome) were used for public or cultic purposes. (This is attested for other structures similarly called “atria”: e.g., the Atrium Libertatis was the house of the censors, and the so-called Atrium Vestae was the house for the priestesses of the Temple of Vesta). The architectural transition from atrium houses to basilicae marks a “formal break,” whereas changes on the periphery of the Forum occurred much earlier and more continuously, transforming a private residential area into a multifunctional space that housed mercantile, public and political activities.

The basilica as a building type is a Roman invention. However, it was developed on the basis of a complex understanding of various functionally similar structures that were already well-established in the urban culture of Greek cities. One such is the roofed hall (Greek stoa) that often flanked public squares (agorai) in Greek cities and served mercantile and administrative purposes. Typologically the stoa and the basilica differ in that a stoa usually has one or two aisles and had no central space like the main aisle in a basilica. The throne and audience halls (Greek αὐλή, Latin aula) of Hellenistic kings served as further architectural prototypes. This comparison is particularly apt because the etymology of “basilica” can be traced back to the Greek word for “majestic, regal or royal” (Greek βασιλική). For this reason, some scholars think that the building name “basilica” stems from the Roman adoption of Hellenistic royal architecture. However, the connection between Hellenistic audience halls and Roman basilicae cannot be explained by typology or function. The Roman basilica has to be considered a kind of hybrid between the Greek stoa and the audience halls of the Hellenistic kings. From a modern perspective, however, the basilica must be understood as a Roman invention that served the specific needs of Roman society.

Function and Appearance of the Basilica

A basilica usually had a variety of functions. The Roman writer and architectural theoretician Vitruvius defines it as a multifunctional building that can serve as a market hall for merchants and bankers, a place for magistrates to conduct their affairs, and a site for trials. While other Italic cities (such as Alba Fucens, Cosa and Pompeii) largely only had one basilica in the Forum, the Forum in Rome had several such basilicae. This indicates that every such basilica may have had its own specific function, perhaps also manifest in the architecture of the building. Sources tell us that the Basilica Porcia housed the tribunes of the people (lat. tribuni plebis) – so it must have contained an elevated platform (tribunal) where the two officeholders could conduct their affairs and the people could seek their counsel.

Location and Reconstruction

Just as in the case of the Basilica Opimia, there are virtually no archaeological remains of the Basilica Porcia. However, its location can be extrapolated from the literary sources. The basilica is said to have stood “in lautumniis,” referring to an area between the clivus Lautumiarum (also called the clivus Argentarius) and the Curia, which was famously situated at the northwest corner of the Forum. Both buildings must have stood very close to one another, because we know that in 52 B.C. the Basilica Porcia was destroyed by the fire started by Clodius’ supporters and initially intended to destroy only the Curia.

The literary sources also assist in reconstructing the building’s architecture. The size of the area can be estimated based on the fact that Cato bought two atrium houses as well as four Tabernae for the construction of the basilica. Comparable atrium houses cannot be found on the Forum. It is generally helpful to compare it to the Roman colony Cosa (founded in 273 B.C.): here too two atrium houses bordering the Forum were replaced with a basilica in the mid-second century B.C. However, the proportions of this basilica (as of the atrium houses) cannot be projected back to the Forum Romanum, because the area north-west of the Curia Hostilia is simply too narrow for the basilica building from Cosa.

A reconstruction of the Basilica Porcia can be further sharpened somewhat by its position on the Forum. The topographical relationship between the adjacent Curia Hostilia and the Basilica Porcia is known only very vaguely; but by experimenting with different positions in our model, it seemed plausible that the basilica was oriented along a north-south-axis (along the clivus Lautumiarum). Only in this position would the usable ground area be maximised for the construction of the relatively small basilica. Our suggestion is that the entrance was not located on the western side of the clivus Lautumiarum, but on the southern side, above the Comitium. Accordingly, the tribunal of the tribunes of the plebs was situated on the side opposite the entrance.

Based on these deliberations we suggest that the Basilica Porcia was a building with three aisles and two storeys, about 39 m long, 17 m wide and 16 m high. Postulating two storeys for the building is justified by the literary sources, which report that the Basilica Porcia was used as a viewing platform to observe special festivities and processions in the Forum.

The reconstruction we have suggested is merely hypothetical. However, the combination of ancient literary sources (providing us with information about the location, scale, function and architectural organisation of the building) with the experimental reconstruction within the 3D-model (in order to test the optimal usage of the given construction area) allows us to generate a rough appearance of the original Basilica Porcia.

A more detailed discussion and scholarly reconstruction can be found in the wiki of the digital Forum Romanum (Jessica Bartz, Henriette Engel, Sophie Horacek)


Selected Bibliography

F. E. Brown, Cosa. The making of a Roman town, Jerome lectures 13 (Ann Arbor 1980).

F. E. Brown – E. H. Richardson – L. Richardson Jr., Cosa III. The Buildings of the Forum, Coliny, Municipium, and Village, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 37 (University Park 1993).

F. Coarelli, Il Foro Romano I. Periodo arcaico (Rome 1983).

F. Coarelli, Il Foro Romano II. Periodo repubblicano e augusteo (Rome 1992).

G. Fuchs, Die Funktion der frühen römischen Marktbasilika, Bonner Jahrbücher 161, 1961, 39–46.

K. Lehmann-Hartleben, Maenianum and Basilica, The American Journal of Philology 59, 1938, 280–296.

A. Nünnerich-Asmus, Basilika und Portikus. Die Architektur der Säulenhallen als Ausdruck gewandelter Urbanität in später Republik und früher Kaiserzeit, Arbeiten zur Archäologie (Köln 1994).

S. B. Platner – T. Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (London 1929) 82.

L. Richardson Jr., Basilica Fulvia, modo Aemilia, in: G. Kopcke – M. B. Moore (ed.), Studies in classical art and archaeology. A tribute to Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen (New York 1979) 209-215.

E. M. Steinby,  Basilica Porcia, in: E.M. Steinby (ed.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae I (Rome 1993) 187.

B. Steinmann, R. Nawracala, M. Boss, Im Zentrum der Macht. Das Forum Romanum im Modell (Erlangen-Nürnberg 2011) 92-93.

K. E. Welch, A new view of the origins of the Basilica. The Atrium Regium, Graecostasis, and Roman diplomacy, Journal of Roman Archaeology 16, 2003, 5-34.