The Basilica at Pompeii

It has been tried to bring the basilica of Pompeii in relation to the Vitruvian principles, but the Pompeian basilica is completely different.
Since it is the oldest known basilica of the Roman world we must discuss it here as the starting point of one of the most successful building types of Roman architecture, that evolved into Christian architecture.

When we try to find out the origin of the basilica we must go back to the Greek stoa. The stoa was an open portico at the edge of an agora that gave shelter to merchants and other activities. In Roman architecture this evolved basically to a covered peristyle, surrounded by an ambulatory on the four sides. The first basilica should have been build by Cato after 184 B.C. on the Forum in Rome and also Plautus mentions a basilica near the sacellum of Venus Cloacina. Maybe it is the same building but nothing has been preserved of this oldest constrution since it was replaced by the basilica Aemilia.

The basilica of Pompeii is dated at the end of the second century B.C. It is situated at the south west corner of the forum with the short side adjacent to the forum and measures 226 x 86 feet externally. The inner portico is formed by 12 x 4 colums and measures 150 x 42 feet on axes. This portico is surrounded by an ambulatory 19 5/8 feet wide.

From the forum one entered a broad, plain lobby and from this climbed a flight of four steps to the main level of the building. From the middle of these stairs rose a line of four columns to carry the roof. The capitals are of tufa, Pompeian Ionic, carved into corkscrew volutes that are trimmed with palmettes carried on branches that curl back from the volute to bring the palmettes up to the abacus. The echinus is an egg molding of exaggerated plasicity, finished below with an stragal on a deep, plain collar above the top of the fluting. The abacus is a cyma reversa.

The main hall of the building consists of a long columnar nave surrounded by an aisle. The columns were constructed of specially shaped tiles covered with stucco. There are no fragments of capitals of these columns but from their bases and fillets it is probable that these capitals were Corinthian. Along the long flanks of the surrounding aisle is an engaged Ionic order. This carried a Corinthian order in a second storey. The upper wall must have been pierced with large windows that flooded the interior with light. These made a clerestorey over the central nave unnecessary, and since there is no trace of any means of access to a gallery over the side aisles, it is very unlikely that there ever was one.

At the far end of the building is a tribunal, on axis, dominating the central nave, flanked by symmetrical exedral rooms from which one could get to the tribunal by concealed lateral stairs and to a vaulted cellar under it which was most probably a storage room. The tribunal is raised just above head height and has six corinthian columns across the front, with an engaged order responding to this down the sides and across the back. Above this was a second storey, with an engaged order of uncertain characer framing rectangular windows. That the tibunal was not intended for a speaker's platform seems proved by the base of an equestrian statue set on axis between the two centre columns of the nave at this end; this would have interfered with the assembly of a crowd of any size here. The tribunal and exedras served as places where the ordinary business of the quattuorviri and the servi publici of Pompeii was transacted. The limited access to the tribunal is in favour of this interpretation, since it means that these officials would be on public view as they went about the dispatch of public business, but an ushet at the approach could keep order and prevent their being presented with more business than they could handle. If this is acceptable, we may see the cellar under the tribunal as temporary storage room foor records.

The powerful thrust of the columns of the nave, the evidence for continuous windows in the upper walls of the side aisles, the unified two-storey fašade of the tribunal, and the absence of any evidence of stairs in either side aisle combine to make a strong case against there having been a gallery over any part of the side aisles and suggest that the roof was a single longitudinal gable preceded by a single-storey vestibule with a relatively high lean-to roof. The portico on the forum built later in front of this may have carried either a sloping roof at a ower level or an open gallery for spectators at events in the forum. A stair that runs along the north side of the basilica on the exterior is support for the hypothesis of a gallery. It was clearly for public use and equally constructed after the basilica.


A. BoŰthius - J.B.Ward-Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture, Harmondsworth, 1970
F. Coarelli, Guida Archeologica di Pompei, 1976
L.Richardson Jr., Pompeii, An Architectural History, Baltimore-London, 1988
K. Ohr, Die Basilika in Pompeji, Berlin-New York, 1991

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