National Geographic : 1946 Nov
In a Court of Law O UR PAINTING shows a provincial governor newly arrived in Africa with the proud title of proconsul hearing a case in the basilica. Built originally as covered halls for public meetings of all sorts, basilicas came more and more to be used as courts of law. The litigants here are represented by professional ad vocates, freeborn Roman citizens of rank and eminence. Besides the ordinary civil suits, the governor could adjudge criminal cases and, if he chose, impose the death sentence. Only full Roman citizens had recourse to any higher au thority than the provincial governor. "I appeal to Caesar!" could not be said by the ordinary provincial, until the late Empire abolished such distinctions. In the early days of Rome's expanding power, when such men as Pompey and Cicero and Julius Caesar were alive, Roman governors undoubtedly plundered the provinces which were entrusted to their rule. When they returned to the capital city on the Tiber after a year or two of depredation under the guise of official administration, bringing with them inordinate wealth in precious metals and jewels, they were often impeached and tried before senatorial commit tees, but not often convicted and sentenced. The theory of personal civil rights and universal impartial justice was so deeply rooted in the Roman mind, however, that sooner or later it won out. Little by little it led to the establishment of empire-wide government under codified law and firmly maintained order, with the pursuit of gainful enterprise guaranteed by a stable military and civil ad ministration. Ancient Rome thus created and handed down to modern times its most cherishable contribution tothe de velopment of civilization. Even as the organizedtradition ofthe Roman law sur vived into medieval Europe, sothe type ofbuilding inwhich legal assizes had been held influenced the architectural thought of the Middle Ages. The Christian church could not evolve from the pagantemple; for the temple was not a place of communal assembly but agod's private dwelling, open only to priests and temple servants. After Christianity hademerged from the secrecy of sub terranean chapels or private houses tobecome the State religion, it had need of buildings which could accommodate great throngs of worshipers. Precisely such a type ofbuilding was the law court, or basilica. In its broad hall could gather the congregation; and on its raised dais in the semicircular apse could sit the bishop and his assistant clergy, even asinearlier times the judge and his ushers hadtaken their places for the pro nouncement of earthly law. In pursuance of this obvious inspiration, basilical churches were erected through the length and breadth ofthe Empire, with their rows of columnsseparating nave from aisles, their walls lined with marble veneer, their floors covered with inset patterns of stone. They reproduced all the splendor of Roman imperial architecture, even though not always on the same plane of craftsmanship. Many of these churcheshave survived, and itisfrom them, rather than from themournful ruins ofimperial Rome, that we can gain the bestimpression ofthe lost basilicas.