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Roman Forum: Basilica Julia

The large building in front of the piazza of the Forum is the Julia Basilica. It was very large and here, too, Roman justice was administered: in fact, it held various tribunals.

The interior was divided by columns into five large naves and was so vast that it was often divided into smaller spaces by curtains so that several trials could take place simultaneously.

The Romans had an extremely advanced and complicated legal system, so well developed that it’s the basis for the legal systems in Western countries today. However, their concept of rights and laws, what today we might call a “sense of justice”, was profoundly different from ours and so can seem to us to be sometimes quite cruel.

If only the stones of the Forum could speak, they would tell of lawyers with thundering voices and trials that captured the imagination of the Romans exactly as certain televised trials do today.

Justice was not equal for all: men were spared the much crueler punishments regularly inflicted upon women but even more so on prisoners of war and slaves. Death sentences were carried out according to methods we would call inhuman, such as impalement or crucifixion.

It was forbidden to kill virgin women so, in these cases, the executioner had to first rape them. Executions took place in public, as part of the shows in the circuses but also because they were warnings to anyone intending to commit a crime. With extraordinary practicality, the Romans entertained the public while demonstrating both the force and efficiency of Roman law.

One last curiosity regarding the Julia Basilica has to do with the staircase. If you look carefully at the steps, you’ll notice some lines chiseled into them: these were the playing boards for a game similar to checkers.

It was the preferred pastime of the many ne’er-do-wells that hung out at the Forum at any hour of the day or night, or of the professional givers of false testimony that would sit on the steps of the basilica waiting to be hired by some not-too-scrupulous lawyer.