Why You Should Visit the Basilica at Pompeii

Built between 120 BC and 78 BC the Basilica in Pompeii is found in the south-western corner of the Forum. A Forum was the hub of public life in ancient Roman cities and it contained various buildings where the legal, political and economic functions of the area could take place. The Basilica would have been the most important building within the forum and is the best surviving building to be found there today. The devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D may have brought a tragic end to the ancient city of Pompeii but despite the Basilica being in ruins, its remaining architecture is still impressive to behold.

Basilica

What is a Basilica?

The word ‘Basilica’ means kingly or royal and these buildings certainly lived up to the name. Often one of the largest buildings in the Forum, a Basilica was used as a site for court hearings, as well as to gather large groups to discuss business and legal matters and to hold official or public functions. As Christianity spread, the purpose of Basilicas changed but this one still retains the name ‘Basilica’.

History of the Basilica in Pompeii

The Basilica, Pompeii

Pompeii’s Basilica sat in the centre of everything, located in the main square of the Forum. It is the oldest existing basilica, dating back to the second century B.C. The purpose and style of these buildings were inspired by the earlier Greek stoas, which were open-air markets for the community to do business such as trading. It was one of the most important public sites during ancient times as it was at the centre of economic life and law courts. The building could be accessed through five entrances from the Forum, all separated by tuff pillars. Inside the building was rich in decoration, home to equestrian statues, and walls covered with stucco-like large blocks of marble.

What did the Basilica look like?

In its glory day, this would have been the most imposing building in the Forum, with its pillared frontage looming over the square. There were five entrances with the main entrance accessed via stone steps on one of the short sides of the building. Basilicas would ordinarily have their main entrance on the longer walls so this specific design feature is unique. The Basilica was rectangular, had a tiled roof and an internal layout that was divided into three sections by 28 large brick columns. Each section was called a nave with the largest at the centre. From the diameter of the remaining columns, it can be assumed that they would have stood at 11 meters tall and supported the roof. Some people believe that the central area of the basilica was uncovered.

At the far wall opposite the main entrance was a raised area called the tribunal where the magistrate would have sat as he passed judgement on the defendants placed before him. There are no stone stairs leading to this area which suggests it was accessed by a wooden staircase. In the ruins of Pompeii, no wooden items survived so archaeologists have had to piece together where wooden structures would have been placed. The elevated position where the magistrate sat was not only to highlight the importance of the magistrate but also to protect him from the anger of the accused or the crowds.

The Graffiti of the Basilica

Graffiti in society today is generally frowned upon and considered to be a criminal offense, but the graffiti in Pompeii is looked at very differently. Whilst it may have been a nuisance in the past, today it offers us the greatest of insights into the lives of the inhabitants of Pompeii. When the Basilica was excavated, archaeologists discovered more than crumbling pillars and staircases, they found ancient graffiti. These were etched into the walls of the building and were often very rude with their authors discussing their sexual experiences or those of others. Just like some of today’s graffiti, it seemed intent on causing offense.

The Roman Forum

If you emerge from the entrance of the Basilica then you will find yourself at the western corner of the Roman Forum of Pompeii. The Forum was the centre of life in Pompeii and was where most religious, political and cultural life took place within the city. It was comprised of a large, open central space with many of the most beautiful buildings in the city surrounding it. If you were to stand on the steps of the basilica and glance right then you would be looking at the municipal offices and if you looked to your left towards the end of the forum then you would be looking at the Temple of Jupiter. Three other temples also lined the forum. These were the Temple of Apollo, the Lares, and Vespasian. Within the Forum you would also find facilities such as toilets and public weights and measures.

What You Can See at Basilica Today

The Basilica

Pompeii wasn’t rediscovered until 1599, with hundreds of years passing after this first finding. Only to be discovered again in the eighteenth century. It would take approximately another hundred years for excavations to begin. After the uncovering, only fragments of the original Basilica structure remained. The columns are now mere stumps, with the majority of the outer walls missing. However, the arcade that fronted the tribunal’s lower level has remained intact. Stroll through the ancient city and listen to your guide detailing each crumbling section, and the past lives that flourished within this building.