The Julian Basilica in Corinth and Its Possible Commercial Use

Paul D. Scotton
  • 1 I would like to thank Karl Friedrich Ohr, Ulrich Fellmeth, Jürgen Krüger, Jürgen J. Rasch, and eve (...)
  • 2 The complete discussion of these findings will be presented in the forthcoming monograph on the Ju (...)

1Although the Julian Basilica was discovered in 1896 during the first excavation season of the American School of Classical Studies, the majority of the building was not excavated until the 1914 and 1915 seasons by Carl Blegen and Emerson Swift1. The early records are a combination of extensive documentation but placed within a logistical System of triangulation based in part upon long lost features. The rediscovery of a plan of the 1914/1915 excavation seasons, which had been lost for nearly 60 years has helped greatly in determining provenience and stratigraphy. This has facilitated an extensive architectural and archaeological re-examination of the building and the finds from within it, which in turn has produced a significantly different understanding of the structure and its function2.

2The following discussion is in three parts: a description of the first or Augustan phase architecture of the basilica; the key finds within the basilica, which establish one of the primary functions of the basilica; and finally the evidence of commercial activity. Such activity may seem contradictory to the form and dominant function of this basilica; however, it is consistent with what would appear to be an attendant function.

3There were four phases of construction in the basilica with the first and fourth the most industrious. The first phase can be dated to sometime between 2/1 BCE and ca. 4/5 CE. The fourth phase can be dated to the Antonine period during which the building underwent considerable change in decoration moving from what had been largely poros limestone, stucco, and paint to granite and several different types of marble. In spite of the addition of opulent materials, the changes were primarily cosmetic and the basic plan of the building remained largely unchanged. This paper will focus upon the first, i.e. the Augustan phase.

Plan of Forum.

Site Plan of Julian Basilica.

4The Julian Basilica demarcated the east end of the forum and when complete rose more than 17 m above the forum floor (see Figure 1). The plan is easily recognizable as a simple rectangle within a rectangle, a form commonly associated with a basilica (see Figure 2). The task of restoration, however, is more difficult. Although there are fairly extensive remains in situ, far more is missing. The east wall is the best preserved followed by the south but the north and west walls have suffered significant robbing. The same is true for the interior walls. In total only ca. 12-13% of the building stands in situ and none of it above the level of the cryptoporticus.

5The exterior wall blocks, however, provide useful information. They are of a fairly uniform size, 2 R(oman)F(eet) high and 4 RF long (0.5914 x 1.1828 m). This means that the lengths and heights of the walls are multiples of 2. In fact, the lengths of the walls are 130 RF x 80 RF (38.44 x 23.67 m) for the exterior and 90 RF x 40 RF (26.61 x 11.83 m) for the interior. This reveals that the design is based upon a module of 10 RF (2.96 m), which is clear in the plan (see Figure 3). This same module should likely have been present in elevation and is in fact key to the restoration of the building.

Fig. 3
Design Module.

Fig. 4 (left)
Cryptoporticus Section.

Fig. 5 (right)
Cryptoporticus Typical Wall Segment.

6Running the length of all four aisles of the cryptoporticus were plinths set mid-aisle and best preserved in the east aisle. These plinths were placed in approximately equal distances, varying from ca. 4.1 to 4.3 m. Upon these plinths stood columns, each with a plain bell capital supporting a wooden girder which ran the length of each of the four aisles (see Figure 4). The girders supported the joists of the main floor which were set every 3 RF (0.8871 m). Between every other pair of joists was a window (see Figure 5).

7The main story is more problematic. Three complete column drums and several fragments of others are from the inferior colonnade and provide the means to restore the height of the main hall. The three complete drums were found in the south aisle of the cryptoportus. As named by the excavators, columns A and B remain upright and as found, although not in their original position. C was found on its side by A and was placed upon the south wall where it still stands today. These drums are all from the same series, the lower diameter of which was 3 RF (0.887 m). The order of these columns is indicated by fragments of an Ionic base and capital, all of which were found in the south aisle and in the same general area as column B. Based upon the 10 RF module, these columns have been restored as 30 RF high (see Figure 6). Columns of this size can only have come from the inferior colonnade and as such are restored as standing upon the inner rectangle. They are centered in accordance with the 10 RF module except at the corners. Here, rather than being centered on the module, they have been set back half of the lower diameter so as to sit squarely on the wall below. This preserves an aisle width in the main hall of 20 RF, the same as that of the cryptoporticus. The height of the interior colonnade is not the total height for the main hall; it does not include the height of the entablature. No elements of the entablature have been identified. This would appear to be because the architrave/frieze was almost certainly made of wood and hence has not survived. The extant elements of the façade, however, provide the means to determine that height.

8Of particular importance for the restoration of the façade are three previously published Springer blocks of the archivolt from the clerestory (see Figure 7). The detail of the archivolt is preserved on one side. Of perhaps greater significance is a keystone block from this series (see Figure 8). This block is 2 RF high. This is important because it indicates that the standard wall block height employed in the cryptoporticus was used in the main story as well and that the height of the window bays was a multiple of 2. Each pair of Springer blocks and their piers are 4 RF wide as is the calculated width of the Windows. If the width and the height of the window bays are assumed to have been consistent with the 10 RF module, each iteration of the module would have included an additional element or elements 2 RF wide. This assumption has proven correct with the recognition of the placement of three series of blocks.

Fig. 6
Interior Colonnade SW Corner.

Clerestory Archivolt Springer Blocks (Courtesy of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Corinth Excavations).

Fig. 8
Clerestory Archivolt Keystone Block.

Fig. 9
Clerestory, SW Corner Exterior from the west.

9Built into the later vault in the south aisle are a number of engaged columns with lower diameters of ca. 0.36-0.37 m. These columns stood on engaged bases which were set back to back forming cruciform piers. The width of the bases is ca. 2 RF. Each bay was then 10 RF wide on center and 10 RF high from the base to the top of the capital with the Corinthian order on the exterior and Ionic on the interior (see Figure 9). The Orders of these columns is made clear by the Orders of the lower register of columns of the exterior and interior.

10The lower order of the exterior is established by two pilaster blocks, the one a base and the other a capital. Although the capital is badly worn, it is clear that it is Corinthian. These blocks conform with the dimensions of a standard wall block and indicate that the height of the pilaster was a multiple of 2. With a pilaster width of 2 RF, that height can be restored to 20 RF including base and capital. This is another iteration of the design module. The spacing of the lower façade has been established by that of the window bays, i.e. 10 RF on center, and it is assumed that the configuration of the façade was pilasters at the corners and engaged columns between them. With the lower order established as Corinthian, it is assumed that the upper order was also Corinthian.

11Various membra disiecta from the basilica provide the combination architrave/frieze blocks and the cornices in the en tablature for both the lower and upper exterior orders. The cornices of the upper order indicate that the slope of the roof was 9° and that the rafters were set ca. 0.63 to 0.64 m on center. This distance was also the width of the roof tiles and lion spout simas.

12More elements from the Antonine phase of the west porch exist than the Augustan but the width of the stairs, the length of the run, and the depth of the porch appear to have been the same in both phases. The length of the run and depth of the porch are indicated by the south paratid (see Figure 2). It is assumed that the north paratid would have been placed symmetrically to it on the west wall. If all of these elements are combined, the west façade of the Julian Basilica can be restored as this: from the forum floor a podium rose 14 RF high (4.14 m), the basilica proper was of superimposed Corinthian Orders 20 and 10 RF (5.914 & 2.957 m) high with a clerestorey of 13 window bays set 10 RF on center. All in all, including the entablatures of the lower and upper Orders and the height of roof, the basilica was over 17 m fall (see Figure 10).

Fig. 10 (above)
Exterior West Facade.

13The Augustan phase interior was largely replaced during the Antonine period but there are enough remains among the membra disiecta to restore it with a good degree of certainty. Among these are an engaged Doric capital block and a fragmented block of the attendant triglyph/metope frieze. From the upper diameter of the engaged column a lower diameter can be restored at ca. 0.51 m, which is appropriate for a lower order for the inferior. This indicates that the superimposed order of the interior, i.e. the inferior of the cruciform piers in the window bays, was Ionie. The final interior course was a series of wall crown blocks with sockets for ceiling coffers. These coffers were 0.19 m wide and almost certainly 0.19 m2. There is currently no data to resolve whether the coffers were only above the aisles or if they extended over the nave as well (see Figure 11).

Fig. 11 (below)
Interior West Wall Elevation.

14One last architectural feature needs to be discussed. Various elements of a dais are scattered around the basilica although the two with known findspots were found in the south aisle. These elements include two orthostates, a crown which would have been affixed to the orthostates, a large fragment of a fluted Ionic column drum, and two fragments of an Ionic capital. More elements from the Antonine phase dias exist but the elements of both phases can be associated with a dais/tribunal either in the south aisle or, what seems to be more likely, in an exedra along the south wall. The adjacent Southeast Building adjoined the basilica at this exedra and on either side of the dias were entrances providing passage between the two buildings (see Figure 12).

Abb. 12
South Aisle Elevation.

The Sculpture

  • 3 Vanderpool’s findings will be presented in full in the monograph on the Julian Basilica.

15Continuing work by Catherine de Grazzi Vanderpool has greatly increased and changed our understanding of the statues from the Julian Basilica3. The best known are Augustus and his two grandsons/sons, Gaius and Lucius (see Plates 1 & 2). They are often treated as a group but recent studies have indicated that they may not have been. Gaius and Lucius should be dated to either the period 2 BCE to just before the death of Lucius in 2 CE or more likely right around the death of Gaius in 4 CE. The Augustus statue, however, is ca. ten years later either right before the time of his death or shordy after. Furthermore, the statue of Augustus was found as it fell in the Southwest corner in the collapse of the basilica in the 4/4 of the 4C CE. Gaius and Lucius were found in the east aisle. Lucius had been built into a medieval wall but Gaius had not been disturbed. It had been carefully placed on its back with the plinth still attached and intact. At sometime before the collapse of the basilica, the statue was carefully moved and at some later date buried under ca. 0.40 m of fill. It seems likely that the statue of Lucius had originally had similar treatment but had been found during a late robbing of the collapsed building. Nearby these two and found in a layer of marble debris above the fill entombing Gaius was the well-known head of a Julio-Claudian prince, the identification of which is unsettled (see Plate 3). Although his body is missing, the head is in excellent repair suggesting that it too had been placed in the cryptoporticus and found during a later robbing. A cuirassed figure identified as Germanicus was found just south of the Gaius figure built into a later foundation (see Plate 4).

Plate 1 (left)
Lucius and Gaius.

Plate 2 (right)

The Epigraphical Evidence

  • 4 Kent 69 (Connth VIII.iii). Now recognized as part of an altar and restored as Divo Augsto.
  • 5 West 17 (Corinth VIII.ii).
  • 6 West 4. Two additional fragments have been joined.

16Studies by Carolynn Roncaglia have shed new light on the inscriptions from the Julian Basilica. Found near the Augustus statue and in the same Stratum is a dedication to Divus Augustus4. Nearby in the south aisle was a dedication to Tiberius Gemellus, Antonia Augusta, and the Gens Augusta5. At the east end of the south aisle was a dedication to the genius of Augustus6.

  • 7 Scotton, “A New Fragment of an Inscription from the Julian Basilica at Roman Corinth”, Hesperia 74 (...)

17In the north aisle was a dedication to the CAESARIBVS AVUGVSTIS, a nomenclature without any exact parallels from any period7. Roncoglia suggests, although with reservations, that the dedication is most likely Julio-Claudian in date and likely one to Gaius and Lucius. Her full account will be published in the forth coming monograph on the basilica and one should stress her caution over what is an uncertain attribution.

Plate 3 (left)
Julio-Claudian Prince.

Plate 4 (middle)

Plate 5 (right)
Mensa Ponderaria.

18Regardless, what is certain is a strong presence of imperial statuary and dedicaüons within the Julian Basilica. The greatest concentration of these statues and dedications is in the south aisle around and apparently upon the tribunal. The one certain function of the Julian Basilica is then a venue for the imperial cult and to date the most extensively documented in Corinth. This function is consistent with that described by Vitruvius in the basilica he designed at Fano where he describes an aedes Augusti within the basilica and a tribunal within the aedes.

Commercial Activity

19Within a basilica standing on a podium 4.14 m high, with limited access, and with abundant trappings of the imperial cult, it might be unexpected that objects with an unmistakable commercial function have been found. Nonetheless, such objects were found among the marble fragments from the 1914/1915 excavations. Specifically, they are fragments of a mensa ponderaria (see Plate 5) and a fragment of a marble weight preserving the tail of a dolphin (see Plate 6), both implements of everyday commercial activity. The configuration of the Julian Basilica, however, does not lend itself to support such activity. The question is then, if the building is an unlikely place for such activity, why are the implements there?

  • 8 Corinth I.v. pp. 27-28. See also Corinth VIII. iii, pp. 132-133 for John Kent’s assessment.
  • 9 Vitruvius V.1.8 “Item tribunal quod est in ea aede hemicycli schematis minoris curvatura formatum. (...)

20The best answer may be provided by the adjacent and adjoining structure, i. e. the Southeast Building. Oscar Broneer identified the Southeast Building as the tabularium for the Roman city based in part upon epigraphical evidence8. There is now additional evidence that supports this identification. The presence of a tribunal or bema within the Julian Basilica indicates that the particular civic function that Vitruvius cites as transpiring within the aedes Augusti of his basilica in Fano, i. e. a magistratus adjudicating from his tribunal, may well have been true for the Julian Basilica9. If this identification is correct and it was one of the venues for judicial activity in Corinth, it would not be unusual for the adjoining Southeast Building to have had an attendant function. As such, that building is a logical place for the records hall. In that vein, we should perhaps view the mensa ponderaria and the weight to be not just any weight and measures but to be part of the official Standards for volumetric measurement and weight. Whether they would have been stored in the basilica or in the Southeast Building would seem to be an unanswerable question for the discovery of these fragments has not been recognized in the excavation notebooks. Where they on display as were those in the precinct of the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii? If so, they likely would have been placed somewhere on the main floor of the Julian Basilica. If they were stored and used only occasionally, they may have been kept in one of the rooms of the Southeast Building or in the cryptoporticus of the basilica. Regardless of just where they were placed, the presence of official Standards is in keeping with the functions of a records hall.

Plate 6
Dolphin Weight.

21In the Claudian period, a new basilica, the so-called North Basilica, was built above the shops along the west side of the Lechaion Road. It may have been that by this time the function of Julian Basilica had become so devoted to activity other than commercial, a new venue was necessary. With its close proximity to the shops along the Lechaion Road, the North Basilica would have been a good location to meet this need. The Julian Basilica, however, played a major role as a religious center but with apparent judicial and administrative activities among which were to keep the city and provincial standards for weights and measures.

References of the illustrations

22Fig. 1, 3, 7: Courtesy of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Corinth Excavations.

23Fig. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12: Paul D. Scotton.

24Plate 1 - 6: Courtesy of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Corinth Excavations.


1 I would like to thank Karl Friedrich Ohr, Ulrich Fellmeth, Jürgen Krüger, Jürgen J. Rasch, and everyone responsible for organizing this Conference, the value of which was only surpassed by the hospitality of our hosts.

2 The complete discussion of these findings will be presented in the forthcoming monograph on the Julian Basilica to be published in the Corinth Excavations series.

3 Vanderpool’s findings will be presented in full in the monograph on the Julian Basilica.

4 Kent 69 (Connth VIII.iii). Now recognized as part of an altar and restored as Divo Augsto.

5 West 17 (Corinth VIII.ii).

6 West 4. Two additional fragments have been joined.

7 Scotton, “A New Fragment of an Inscription from the Julian Basilica at Roman Corinth”, Hesperia 74, pp. 95-100.

8 Corinth I.v. pp. 27-28. See also Corinth VIII. iii, pp. 132-133 for John Kent’s assessment.

9 Vitruvius V.1.8 “Item tribunal quod est in ea aede hemicycli schematis minoris curvatura formatum. Eins autem hemicycli in fronte est intervallumpedes XLVI, introrsus curvatura pedes XV, uti qui apud magistratus starent negotiantes in basilica ne inpedirent.”


Paul D. Scotton