Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Klaus S. Freyberger, Christine Ertel, Die Basilica Aemilia auf dem Forum Romanum in Rom: Bauphasen, Rekonstruktion, Funktion und Bedeutung. Sonderschriften des Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Rom, 17. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2016. Pp. 244. ISBN 9783895009761. €88.00.

Reviewed by Dominik Maschek, University of Birmingham (d.maschek@bham.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume is one of the latest additions to the venerated series of 'big green books', or, in academic parlance, the Sonderschriften of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome. After more than a century of archaeological excavations and research, this book undoubtedly constitutes a milestone along the well-trodden road of studies on the Roman forum. In their efforts to publish the architectural remains of the Basilica Aemilia, the two authors, Klaus Stefan Freyberger and the late Christine Ertel, could draw upon the results of a major research project which lasted from 2005 to 2008. Moreover, they were able to use and re-examine the wealth of meticulous architectural recordings which Heinrich Bauer had produced before his untimely death in 1993.

After a brief introduction the book follows a roughly chronological structure, with a clear emphasis on the Republican and Augustan building phases. Notably, the discussion of the Republican structures does not start with the basilica itself but with the adjacent area to the south. This narrow strip of the forum is important because of the presence of eleven small buildings, which here, for the first time, are presented in sufficient depth to be considered as one large, meaningful ensemble. Noteworthy are the convincing identification of the puteal Libonis and the thorough presentation of another circular building which, since Vaglieri and Hülsen, has been interpreted as the sacellum of Venus Cloacina.1 Ertel and Freyberger's identification of the temple of Ianus seems to be more questionable, especially when it comes to the inconsistencies between some aspects of the architectural remains (especially the brick walls which cover parts of an earlier Travertine structure) and the evidence of the written sources, e.g. Procopius' remark that the temple was made entirely of bronze (De Bello Gothico 1.25.19–23). Such reservations notwithstanding, the discussion of the small religious buildings in front of the Basilica Aemilia adds an important dimension to our perception of the Imperial forum Romanum.

In the following section, the evidence for a so-called 'Basilica I' is presented. This evidence consists of three parallel tufa walls and a corresponding floor level of tufa slabs which were uncovered by Pietro Romanelli's 1930/40s excavations underneath the walls of the pre-Augustan basilica. The architectural remains by no means permit a definite reconstruction of the building as a basilica; it is not even clear whether they were all part of one and the same structure. Nonetheless, in Ertel and Freyberger's opinion (p. 35) these walls belonged to the very first basilica on the forum Romanum, even predating the first mention of such a building type (the Basilica Porcia) in the written sources (Liv. 39.44.7; Plut., Cato maior 19.2). Apart from some inconclusive remarks about the use of certain building stones (p. 35), the authors' reasoning rests mainly upon the claim that Plautus (who died c. 184 BCE, the same year as the construction of the Basilica Porcia) already 'mentioned a basilica in this area' ('erwähnte [...] eine Basilica in diesem Bereich'; p. 34). This is clearly an over-optimistic reading of two famous passages in Plautus' plays Captivi (813-815) and Curculio (470-482). In the former, the term 'basilica' does not appear as a noun but only in a couple of adjectives (basilicas edictiones atque imperiosas; odos subbasilicanos), and there is no reference to a place more specific than the term 'forum'. In the latter, there is indeed word of a basilica, after the reference to the sanctuary of Venus Cloacina and the fish market, but again this is far too general to allow for a clear identification of the scant remains in the area of the later Basilica Aemilia.

In contrast, the following chapter on the basilica often attributed to the censors of 179 BCE, Marcus Fulvius Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, is more firmly grounded in the archaeological record. The presentation of the architectural evidence follows a persuasive trajectory and is supported by an impressive array of drawings and photos. The same is true for the thorough discussion of the protracted building history of the tabernae on the southern side of the basilica. One of the most notable passages is without doubt the identification of one of these tabernae as the basin for the water clock which, according to Varro (LL 6.4), was installed in the Basilica Aemilia et Fulvia by the censor Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica in 159 BCE. Although the authors' arguments do not fail to convince, it comes as a bit of a surprise that one of the most fundamental questions about the Republican building is never raised: Was this indeed the Basilica Aemilia et Fulvia mentioned by Varro? In the context of ongoing debates on the Republican topography of the forum Romanum, it seems odd that Eva Margareta Steinby's latest contribution from 2012, including her tentative localization of the Republican Basilica Aemilia on the east side of the forum, is not even mentioned by Ertel and Freyberger.2

By far the largest part of the book is taken up with the discussion of the Augustan building phase after 14 BCE, followed by a reconsideration of the much debated arches on the east side of the forum Romanum. This chapter contains a wealth of observations and ideas, based upon a painstakingly presented selection of architectural fragments. Amongst other potentially contentious propositions, such as their reconstruction of the interior structure of the aula, the authors also reconsider the well-known sculptural frieze which traditionally has been dated to the first half of the first century BCE.3

In Ertel and Freyberger's reconstruction, the frieze slabs are part of the marble veneer decorating the aula's south wall. Even though this placement makes sense, their new historical interpretation of the frieze is not fully convincing. The stylistic assessment of certain details, such as hairstyles and draperies, does not produce much reliable evidence for dating the reliefs. In many places the argument rests upon observations of a very general nature. For example, slightly curved locks and the 'Gabel-Zange' pattern were by no means invented in the Augustan period, but already appear in mid-Republican funerary portraiture.4

Moreover, the authors frequently suppose that mythological concepts of Roman history were exclusive features of the Augustan age (see, e.g., p. 76). They even assume a direct link between the frieze from the Basilica Aemilia and the activities of 'a small group of authors, artists, philosophers and statesmen' ('eine kleine Gruppe von Literaten, Künstlern, Philosophen und Staatsmännern'; p. 76) who literally 'invented' such scenes in Augustan times in order to glorify the aurea aetas. The frieze is therefore confidently labelled as 'characteristic of the state propaganda of the Augustan period' ('charakteristisch für die Staatspropaganda augusteischer Zeit', p. 77). However, this reading is plainly contradicted by a wealth of more recent scholarship on the pervasive and highly important role of mythological memory in Late Republican politics of the second and early first century BCE (not one of these works is cited in Ertel and Freyberger's text).5 Last but not least, the authors do not fully consider the architectural context of the frieze: The aula's south wall to which the frieze slabs were most probably attached belongs to a rebuilding of the basilica after a devastating fire in the late third century CE. Apart from the disputable stylistic and historical arguments, it is therefore virtually impossible to ascribe the frieze to any specific original setting, let alone a particular place in the Augustan building. On the grounds of style alone, it could also well have come from the late Republican basilica.

Similar propositions permeate the discussion of the imagines clipeatae and the statues of Parthians which may or may not have belonged to the basilica. As for the former, there is no recording of their original find context. The small size of the fragments could indicate that they were transported to the area of the basilica from elsewhere in the Late Roman or early Medieval period, as already suggested by Johannes Lipps, who rightly emphasized their extremely close similarities with the famous imagines clipeatae from the forum Augustum.6 His arguments are polemically brushed aside by Ertel and Freyberger, who, again, use a literary source to make a case for their reconstruction of the clipei as part of the Augustan basilica (p. 102 n. 387). However, their reference to Livy (9.40.16) does not provide any evidence in support of their argument: it is the description of Papirius Cursor's victory against the Samnites at Longula, the following triumph and the use of Samnite spolia to decorate the forum in 308 BCE – predating the Augustan building by 300 years. Oddly, Ertel and Freyberger only briefly mention Pliny the Elder's well-known report about the imagines clipeatae which Marcus Aemilius Lepidus attached to the building in 78 BCE (NH 35.13) – maybe because it does not fit into their conception of the Augustan forum as a place of unitary 'state' propaganda (see above), devoid of any reminiscences of Republican family politics.

This way of reasoning is replicated throughout the book. Ertel and Freyberger's reconstruction of the building follows a set of propositions which are grounded in a selective use of literary sources and a very specific way of thinking about the importance of certain historical periods. They have a clear predilection for the Augustan building phase, which, despite the often feeble quality of the evidence, is seen as the pinnacle of architectural achievement. Ultimately, this reflects a particular school of thought in German Classical Archaeology which goes back to Paul Zanker's studies on the Augustan transformation of the forum Romanum and his magisterial 'The power of images in the age of Augustus'. It is a shame that this 40-year- old paradigm dominates the volume to such a degree that more than 1,400 years of the basilica's continuous use, restoration and transformation during the Imperial, Late Roman and Medieval periods are summarized on only six pages and therefore almost completely eclipsed by the comparatively thin evidence from the Republican and Augustan phases.7

True to the standards of German Bauforschung, the book presents the basilica's architectural remains in a lavish set of technical drawings, supplemented by black-and-white photos and colour plates. In addition, there is a staggering total of 6,049 photos, drawings and plans which can be accessed online via the Arachne database, hosted by the University of Cologne.8 Five separate maps contain sections and ground plans in scales 1:100 and 1:200, although the most comprehensive and detailed ground plan (Beilage 1) does not show the whole extent of the building, omitting the southern half of the portico and the small cult places right in front of the basilica. Despite this odd lacuna, the general level of recording and documentation is noteworthy and closes a gap in our knowledge about the extant architectural remains on the forum Romanum. Thus, previous criticism notwithstanding, this is certainly the authoritative work on the Augustan building phase of the Basilica Aemilia, and an obvious point of reference for any future study on the Roman forum and Roman architecture in the broadest sense.


1.   D.Vaglieri, 'Gli scavi recenti nel Foro Romano', Bullettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale di Roma 31, 1903, pp. 97-9; Ch. Hülsen, 'Ausgrabungen auf dem Forum Romanum. Nordseite des Forums. Basilica Aemilia', Römische Mitteilungen 20, 1905, pp. 62-3.
2.   E. M. Steinby, Edilizia pubblica e potere politico nella Roma repubblicana (Milan 2012).
3.   See P. Kränzle, Die zeitliche und ikonographische Stellung des Frieses der Basilica Aemilia (Hamburg 1991) and P. Kränzle, 'Der Fries der Basilica Aemilia', Antike Plastik 23, 1994, pp. 93-130.
4.   See M. Papini, Antichi volti della repubblica. La ritrattistica in Italia centrale tra IV e II secolo a.C., vol. 2 (Rome 2002) p. 106, fig. 271; p. 117, figs. 302-4; p. 122, fig. 317; p. 139, figs. 359-60; p. 181, figs. 483-6.
5.   E.g. U. Walter, Memoria und res publica. Zur Geschichtskultur im republikanischen Rom (Frankfurt a. M. 2004); K.-J. Hölkeskamp, 'Im Gewebe der Geschichte(n). Memoria, Monumente und ihre mythhistorische Vernetzung', Klio 94, 2012, pp. 380–414.
6.   J. Lipps, Die Basilica Aemilia am Forum Romanum. Der kaiserzeitliche Bau und seine Ornamentik (Palilia 24, Wiesbaden 2011), pp. 151-5.
7.   Cf. the considerations in J. Lipps, Die Basilica Aemilia am Forum Romanum. Der kaiserzeitliche Bau und seine Ornamentik (Palilia 24, Wiesbaden 2011), pp. 167-172, and J. Lipps, 'Alarichs Goten auf dem Forum Romanum?', in: Lipps, J. et al. (eds.), The Sack of Rome in 410 AD. The Event, Its Context and Its Impact (Palilia 28, Wiesbaden 2013), pp. 103-8; 112-7.
8.   https://arachne.dainst.org/project/basilaemil - This is the correct link, as the one which can be found on p. 8 of the present book does not work due to a typographical error.

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