Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum - Isabel Lovell

The Story of Julius Caesar's Basilica
and of His Temple

Many labourers were making a great noise on the south side of the Forum, and many idlers, eagerly gathering about in groups to view the work, were delighting, as idlers will, in the sight of others' toil. The old Basilica Sempronia, the house of the great general, Scipio Africanus, and the row of booths known as the Old Shops, were all being torn down to make room for a vast Basilica, to be built by Julius Caesar, who planned to make it worthy of his name. And as from day to day the idlers chatted with one another and watched the building grow, they looked forward with lazy pleasure to the happy hours they hoped to spend beneath its porticos.

Although the Basilica was unfinished, it was dedicated by the great dictator, not long before his death. While the work was being completed by Augustus, a fire destroyed the building, whereupon this emperor determined to rebuild it upon a yet grander scale. This he did, not only because he always enlarged and beautified whatever he rebuilt, but also because he thought thus further to honour Caesar's memory; his plans, however, were greater than was the length of his days, and he died leaving the Basilica still unfinished. But when the building was at last completed, the Romans were not disappointed, for this splendid court of law was acknowledged to be the most magnificent gift to the people that Rome had ever received. Notwithstanding the fact that the greater part of the Basilica built by Caesar had been destroyed, that another than he had ended the work, and that the building had been dedicated by Augustus to his own grandsons, the memory of the great dictator proved stronger than aught else, and the building was always called the Basilica Julia.

This vast edifice soon became the favourite haunt of the Romans, and at all hours of the day its marble corridors were full of people, eagerly seeking for business, and still more eagerly seeking for pleasure. Lawyers, flower-girls, money-lenders, fine ladies, there came elbow to elbow, and when a sudden shower swept over the Forum the Basilica's broad porticos gave shelter to large numbers of the crowd.

The gay young Roman, freshly perfumed from the baths, there found amusement for his afternoons; for besides the chats he might have with his many friends, he might play in the outer porticos at games of chance. There, gold changed hands with great rapidity, and from these games men departed with smiles or frowns, according to the manner in which fickle Fortune had bestowed her favours. For the warning of reckless gamblers, wise sayings were graven in the marble of the pavement, where the play went on. And such words as these are seen there to-day: "Let him that wins, triumph; let him that loses, lament," and "Be silent and depart." Cut in the floor are the markings of a sort of checkerboard, used in a game played with dice, in the throwing of which the Romans were so skilful that "Like the dice-players of the Forum," became a term of reproach to men that would fain profit by others' losses.

The mad Emperor Caligula, who fancied that his power was more than human, not only decreed that Castor and Pollux should be the keepers of his doors, but, conceiving ideas still more profane, vauntingly called himself the brother of great Jupiter. Then, that he might seek the god with ease, this monarch caused a bridge to be built from his own palace on the Palatine Hill to Jupiter's splendid temple on the Capitoline. The bridge, however, was like none other, for this most vain "brother of a god," disdaining to build as did other men, used some of the Forum's buildings as the piers for his lofty crossing, and thus passed high in air from one hill to the other. One of these supports was formed by the Basilica Julia, and at this point Caligula used to stand, amusing himself by casting money to the throng in the Forum beneath. And if in the mad scramble that followed some were injured or even killed, his insane pleasure only grew the greater, and his wild laughter only rang the louder. After Caligula's death this bridge, together with other traces of his madness, was taken away, for under the rule of the next Emperor, Claudius, somewhat more order reigned throughout Rome.

But the Basilica Julia was not merely a place of amusement for the people; it was also the chief law court of Rome. Within it were four tribunals, at all of which trials could be carried on at the same time without disturbing one another. This was the more wonderful because the Basilica was not divided into rooms, as are our court-houses; the great space in its centre, where judgment was given, was enclosed only by low marble screens, to which were sometimes added heavy curtains, hung between the pillars of the portico. During any famous trial the upper galleries of the Basilica held hundreds of spectators, who came to view the scene even when they could not hear what was spoken. And the sight was well worth their pains, for when an important case was to be decided, all four courts sat together in judgment.

Here Pliny, the famous advocate and scholar, once pleaded the cause of a certain lady of high rank, whose aged father, by a foolish second marriage, had cut off her inheritance. The orator, as he rose to speak, paused for a moment and looked about him. And as he gazed upon the brilliant scene, his eye gleamed with satisfaction, for even the most ambitious could ask for nothing more. First, the building itself was one fit for the utterance of the noblest eloquence; from its walls and pillars to its wonderful floor of inlaid marble, all was grandly beautiful. Second, the assembled people were among the best citizens of Rome; from the crowds in the galleries and corridors to the one hundred and eighty judges upon their benches, all were waiting anxiously for Pliny's words. Realizing the importance of the moment and the fitness of the place, this great advocate now made one of the most noted speeches of his life, and only stopped when the man standing by the clepsydra told him that his allotted time was gone. Now the clepsydra was a hollow globe of metal or of brass, filled with water that slowly dropped away through small holes in the bottom of the vessel. By thus measuring time, the length of each lawyer's speech was determined—the number of clepsydras allowed him being greater or less according to the importance of the cause he was to plead. When documents were read, or other interruptions occurred, the flow of the water was stopped in order that every precious drop should be saved; and this perhaps it was that led the Romans to express by the words "wasting water "all that we mean by "killing time."

For a second and yet a third time the Basilica Julia was injured by fire. It was restored, however, first by the Emperor Severus, then by the Emperor Diocletian. And many years afterward the magistrate Vettius Probianus again restored the building, and ornamented it with many statues, the bases of which are still to be seen.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


The ruins of this law court are the largest in the Forum, and although there remain only parts of pillars and arches, and fragments of walls and flooring, one's fancy easily pictures the place as it was in days of yore, when in marble magnificence, it stood a stately edifice indeed.

But this Basilica tells only a small portion of Julius Caesar's story. There are, however, in the Forum the ruins of another building from which, although smaller, there is learned much more concerning the great dictator. Yet, strange to say, Caesar himself did not plan this building, neither had he any knowledge of it! Nevertheless, the Roman world there offered him the deepest homage, and the world to-day there pays honour to his memory. The last and the strongest proof of his fame and power is told in—

The Story of the Temple of Julius Caesar

A low groan was heard throughout the Forum. Upon the Rostra the consul Antony knelt before Caesar, offering him a crown and hailing him as king; around the tribunal crowded the people, watching every motion and showing their old hatred of a monarch's rule. Caesar, hearing without seeming to listen, seeing without seeming to look, understood it all, and his hesitating gesture stiffened into an attitude of refusal, while in a firm, proud voice he said, "I am no king, I am Caesar "; whereupon the crowd cheered loudly. Again and again did Antony offer him the crown; again and again did the great dictator push it from him, while at each refusal the people's cheers grew louder and yet more long. Thus Caesar and the Romans tested each other's hearts.

This happened during the celebration of the ancient festival of the Lupercalia, when all Rome was in, holiday dress for several days together, and when sacrifices were made in the Lupercal, the cave wherein Romulus and Remus had been tended by their strange nurse, the wolf. As Rome's great master, clothed in purple robes, sat in his golden chair upon the Rostra to watch these joyous festivities, his friend, the consul Antony, in the presence of the multitude, offered him the honours of a king. But Caesar, hearing the people's groan, felt that the time was not yet ripe; so, knowing full well that his power already equaled that of many kings, he let the empty honour go; thus by his wisdom gaining the people's love, and making his rule mightier than before.

But there was a power even stronger than that of Caesar. For evil Ambition plotted against him, and cruel Jealousy killed him. Hardly a single month had passed by before the envious daggers of his assassins had let out his life's blood.

Then came the proof of that people's love for Caesar. There, upon that same Rostra whereon he had refused to be their king, his martyred body lay, and there, that same Antony who had offered him the crown spoke the words of his funeral oration. The honours that he had then refused were now vainly heaped upon him; dead he was treated as if more than king. His body, covered by a cloth of gold and purple, lay upon a couch of ivory; a countless host of men and women formed his funeral guard; and the noblest in Rome thronged to pay him the last honours. The voice of Mark Antony, his fellow-consul, his relative, and his friend, rang solemnly through the Forum. As he told of Caesar's deeds of valour, of his love for his country, of his generosity toward his enemies, the multitudes were greatly moved. And their excitement became boundless when they heard the dictator's will, wherein he left a gift of money to each Roman citizen, and all his lands by the Tiber as a pleasure park for the people.

Then Antony sang a dirge to Caesar, as to one more than human, even as to a god, and as he sang he raised aloft Caesar's robe, which like a trophy had been placed at the head of the bier. And when the people saw this garment, rent by daggers' thrusts, red with the dictator's blood, they cried aloud for vengeance and joined in Antony's lament. Upon this, there was raised above the bier a waxen image of Caesar himself, bearing all the horrible marks of the twenty-three wounds given him by his assassins. By means of some machinery this image was turned about so that all could see, and at the gruesome sight the multitude, mad with grief and rage, ran from the Forum to search out the murderers.

But finding that the conspirators had secretly left the city, the baffled people, still more angry and excited, returned to the Forum. Reverently lifting Caesar's bier, they bore his body to Jupiter's great temple on the Capitoline Hill, where they would have had him placed at once among the gods; but the priests forbade them entrance. Then, carrying their mournful burden back to the Forum, they determined that the love of his people should give Caesar that which Religion had refused. So they placed his body before the Regia, the king's house, and there they built his funeral pyre. For this they used whatever wooden objects could be found at hand,—benches, chairs, tribunals,—and as the flames rose high, each cast aside the signs of his own honours to offer them to Caesar, as sacrifices are offered to a god. Robes of triumph were rent in twain and thrown upon the pyre; the armour of Caesar's well-tried soldiers was placed at his feet; women gave their jewels and the ornaments that hung about their children's necks; mantles of office, crowns, and other articles of value were given with unstaying hand to Caesar, never greater than at that moment, never dearer to his people's hearts.

Nor did the Romans alone sorrow for Caesar. Many strangers within the city came to the place where he lay, and, each after the manner of his country, mourned the noble dead. And among those that sorrowed most were large numbers of Jews, a people whose kind friend Caesar had ever been.

All through that fateful night an armed multitude watched at the Forum and guarded the sacred ashes, which were afterward taken to the tomb of Caesar's family. Then, upon the spot where his body had been burned, was raised a tall column of rich marble. It was placed there by the people, led by an ambitious man named Amatius, and it bore the words: "To the Father of his Country." Beside it was erected an altar, where the devoted Romans offered sacrifices and bowed the knee to Caesar, whom they called divine. This greatly alarmed the Senate, fearful for the authority of the State, and Cicero publicly warned the magistrates of the danger of such a wrongful worship. Whereupon the consul Antony caused Amatius to be put to death, the column to be thrown down, and the altar to be removed. A violent riot followed, and before this could be quieted many were made prisoners, and others were condemned to die. But the citizens were not content, nor was Rome at peace, until the Senate had declared that a temple in honour of Caesar should be built on the place where had burned his funeral pyre. The altar was then replaced, and from that time all Romans ranked Julius Caesar among the gods. And they say that in proof of this, there was shown to the people a sign in the heavens. For during the games, given by the Emperor Augustus in honour of Caesar, his adopted father, a wonderful comet blazed in the skies for several days together. Men, awed and amazed, believed it to be the soul of Caesar, and as a sign of his immortal power, a star was placed upon the brow of his statue.

The Temple of Julius Caesar, built in the lowest part of the Forum, was placed upon a very high foundation, that the waters of the overflowing Tiber might not harm it. The Emperor Augustus adorned the sacred building with spoils from Egypt, and with paintings of great worth; and he dedicated the Temple with much pomp and magnificence. The wide space in front of this Temple was used as rostra, and was called the Rostra Julia. This, Augustus also ornamented, placing thereon beaks of ships taken in the great battle of Actium. It was from the Rostra Julia that this Emperor spoke the funeral oration of his beloved sister Octavia; and it was from this same platform that Tiberius, his adopted son, addressed the people after Augustus's death.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


Besides the ruins of the foundation of Julius Caesar's temple, there are to be seen to-day the remains of the altar where he was first worshipped. This, perhaps, more than aught else that reminds men of the famous Conqueror, tells the story of his greatness. For it was raised to a man so honoured by the bitterest of his enemies, so loved by the most envious of his friends, that at the end they united to bestow upon him the most exalted meed of worship.