The basilica has a long and storied history that begins second century BCE and continues to the present day. The basilica gained popularity during the rise of the Roman Empire and went through its most dramatic changes during Late Antiquity. Modern day society has led us to believe basilicas to be religious buildings, mainly churches, and therefore has skewed the view we have of the origins of basilicas. A basilica was not initially a spiritual place. In fact, it was a civic building, much like a forum, it was used for legal proceedings and other civic needs for the Roman people.
The architecture of the early basilica allows for many people to be housed, and became ideal for spiritual buildings. The early basilicas were long rectangular buildings, usually with an entrance on the long sides rather than the shorter sides. There are several distinct pieces to the basilica’s floor plan; the apse, aisle, and nave. The nave, is the longest part of the building, generally a large open area that is flanked by the aisles on either side.
The aisles were separated from the nave by a long row of Corinthian columns, stretching from the rear of the building all the way up to the front, where the apse was located.
The apse, is the most notable portion of the basilica and it was normally where the tribunal was located. The apse is normally a half circle tacked on to the end of the rectangle formed by the nave and aisles, and is [the apse] is generally considered to be the ‘front’ of the building. This is the basic basilica floor plan as it was introduced to the early Roman Empire, and as it evolved a narthex and a transept were added, due to their religious importance.
The word basilica was derived from the Greek term, “Basilike Stoa” meaning the tribunal chamber of the king. Early basilicas were found in the roman forum, and were civic buildings used from time to time for legal proceedings and other administrative needs. As with the expansion of the Roman Empire, so to came the development of the basilica and eventually its assimilation into religious architecture specifically into cathedrals for the Christian faith. The first basilica on record was financed and erected by Marcus
Porcius Cato in 184 BCE, and dubbed the Basilica Porcia and it was primarily used as a tribunal for the plebs. Between 184 BCE and 300 AD many more basilicas were built, all of which were contributing to the Roman Forum and not used for religious purposes until the time of Constantine. Basilicas were the often-favored building for the Roman Forum because of their structure and its ability to hold immense amounts of people in one area. This was also the primary reason for their integration into Christian architecture.
The Christianization of the basilica can be traced to the time of Constantine and indirectly attributed to the emperor himself. While he did not commission the plan to implement the basilicas his adoption of the Christian faith allowed for the expansion and overall acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Along with this new religion came rapid expansion and the need for a place for congregation and worship, enter the basilica. Due to its open floor plan and ability for expansion, it was soon adopted into Christian architecture.
In contrast Pagan temples were built to be shrines to the many gods and were favorable to outside worship. The traditional basilica design was built upon, and two key additions were made, the narthex and transept. The transept, is set perpendicular to the aisles and separates the nave from the sanctuary. The transept also gives Christianized basilicas the cross-shaped floor plan that is often associated with them today. Basilicas were meant to pay homage to God and Christianity and adding the transept to shape the building like a crucifix was not by chance.
Gregory Nazianzen connected the initial resemblance in 380, and the resemblance was met by much success, partially due to crucifix as a symbol in the Christian faith and partially due to the rise in popularity of the Cult of the Cross. Constantine, in both Rome and Constantinople, commissioned the “new” basilicas as part of his rebuilding of the old city. Another addition to the basilica floor plan was the addition of the narthex. The narthex functions as the “foyer” of the church and in Roman architecture was further divided into an inner and outer narthex.
The narthex served as the entrance but more importantly served as a holding area for those who were not eligible to enter the sanctuary because they were not full members of the congregation. The two distinct portions of the narthex were the inner narthex, endonarthex, and the outer narthex, exonarthex. The endonarthex, acts much like a porch to the church, as it is separated from the interior of the church by a wall. The early Roman basilicas were built all around Italy and specifically Rome, during the 4th century.
Saint Paul Outside the Walls was commissioned by Constantine in the 4th century and is a personal favorite of mine. It is a traditional Roman ecclesiastical basilica and it stays true to the old form that was made popular by Constantine. The cross-shaped floor plan includes two transepts, a large center aisle, nave, apse, and tomb/memorial to St. Paul. The basilica was built outside the Aurelian walls, which enclosed Rome and the 7 hills of Rome, hence, the name ‘Outside the Walls’.
The floor plan of this basilica follows tradition perfectly and executes the architecture of what historians believe to be truly Roman. Saint Paul Outside the Walls follows the cross-shaped floor plan introduced to Christian architecture. The interior has 4 sets of columns splitting the central nave into five distinct sections, with a large middle aisle and 2 aisles on either side and the apse is flanked by two separate transepts. The structure of the interior has over 80 columns and is marked by long sightlines and high ceilings, a traditional mark of the early basilicas.
The interior is decorated in mosaics and artwork depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament as well as scenes from the life of Saint Paul. This traditional floor plan was popular in the Western half of the Roman Empire, and would eventually combine with the Eastern, Byzantine architecture that was developed under Justinian. The early Roman basilicas were made popular under Constantine, as this was the period where Christianity gained popularity within the empire. During the spread of Christianity to the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine influence on the basilica begins to take shape.
The Eastern Empire, specifically Constantinople, was the site of many fine examples of early Roman basilicas, none more majestic than Hagia Sophia, which stands today as a mosque and a museum but was initially built as a basilica by Justinian I. When Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople) the prior culture would have a large impact, architecturally, on the Roman culture. Byzantine architecture is most known for the large domed buildings, with stone or marble columns, and beautiful mosaics dressing the walls.
Early basilicas arrived to Byzantium by way of the Roman Empire and by the time of Justinian, the simple cross-shaped floor plan would transform into the octagonal or circular dome that is now famous in the Middle East. There are two particular basilicas of note in the Eastern Empire, Hagia Sophia in modern day Istanbul is a massive Justinian era basilica that has been transformed into a mosque. The other basilica that still stands is the Church of Hagia Sofia in Sofia, Bulgaria. The Church of Hagia Sofia (St.
Sofia) is a cross-shaped basilica with three apses and is part of the Greek Orthodox church. Beginning with Hagia Sophia, we can see how Byzantine architecture found its way into Roman basilicas and created a clear division between the architecture of the empire. Early Roman basilicas were strictly Roman, and followed a general plan while not deviating far from the norm of the Corinthian columns and early Church architecture. However in the Eastern Empire we can see the emergence of massive domed structures, the circular or octagonal shape, and the minarets as well.
All of this is present in Hagia Sophia, the design that stands today is not the original design, as it was rebuilt three times with the final time commissioned by Justinian I. The original design was considered large for the time, as it was given the name ‘Great Church’ however because of a domestic dispute between the Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom and the wife of Arcadius, Aelia Eudoxia there were riots in the city and the first church of Hagia Sophia was burned down and nothing remains of the original design today.
The second design of Hagia Sophia had a similar fate, another fire burned this concept down because of its wooden roof, however some marble slabs survived and remain on the grounds today. The third version was commissioned by Justinian I, in February 532. This date is important for several reasons, many historians consider the year 476 for the fall of the Roman Empire, but that was when the Western half of the Roman Empire fell. Other Historians consider the fall of the Byzantine Empire to be in 1453 with the Fall of Constantinople. The Empire is split in half once Diocletian and the tetrarchy create the second capital in Constantinople.
While the two halves of the empire were part of the larger Roman Empire it was well understood that they were two separate and distinct halves with the Eastern Empire drawing much influence from the Greeks and Byzantines. The influence of the Byzantine culture can be found in the architecture of the current structure, of Hagia Sophia, and much of the Byzantine architecture is still popular in the Middle Eastern mosques of today. The main body of Hagia Sophia is not a cross-shaped basilica found in its Early Roman counterparts but in fact it is a circular shaped basilica.
This was not a radical new design of the time period, however the massive size and complex groundwork would make this basilica the crowning achievement of architecture during Late Antiquity. The floor plan (see Fig. 2) shows the circular shaped open area within the squared outer structure. While the large dome in the center of the structure provides the most notable feature of the structure. The dome is the most talked about feature of the structure and for good reason, while the structures in the past had seen domes it was not until the construction of this basilica had a dome been transitioned into a square structure below (nave).
The Byzantine architects used pendentives to support the structure as well as provide a beautiful aesthetic appeal to the interior of the dome. Pendentives had never been used prior to the building of Hagia Sophia, which is an engineering invention by the Byzantines and proves that Hagia Sophia was not just a brand new basilica but it was in fact an architectural and engineering masterpiece because of its sheer size. The dome is the literal crowning achievement of Hagia Sophia and is 55. 6 meters (182 feet) off the ground and 31. 4 (102 feet) meters in diameter. The dome is not only famous because of its size, the addition of 40 windows around the bottom of the dome introduce 360? of light into the nave, producing a beautiful natural light to an otherwise dark room. The addition of these 40 windows makes the dome appear to be hovering over the nave and gives natural lighting to the people inside. This type of natural lighting can also be found in the Pantheon, in which a large circle was cut out of the dome and is the only source of light within the building other than the entryway.
The dome at Hagia Sophia was the beginning of a new style of basilica that would be widely popular in the Eastern Empire, because of the Byzantine influence. The Byzantine influence on Christian architecture would spread back to the Western half of the empire, in Ravenna during the 6th century. The construction of the Basilica of San Vitale would combine elements of the Roman architectural style as well as the Byzantine style. This basilica takes the traditional pieces of the early Roman basilicas; the dome, the doorways and stepped towers and mixes them with the polygonal floor plan found in Byzantine architecture.
The basilica itself is octagonal with the apse protruding out at the uppermost side, and a dome covering the entirety of the central nave. (Fig 3. ) The dome would include the pendentives found in Hagia Sophia, as they were becoming a routine inclusion into most Byzantine basilicas, because of their aesthetic appeal as well as their engineering use. The pendentives allowed for a heavier dome, because they would spread the weight into the surrounding walls instead of onto several potentially unstable columns.
The dome of San Vitale would eventually become the inspiration for the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (the Duomo). While the dome has always been a noted mark of basilicas, it was the Byzantine interior that has been truly revered in this particular basilica. The original Byzantine artwork depicts Justinian and Theodora as well as other traditional Roman scenes from the Bible. This mixture of Roman and Byzantine would unite the two halves of the Roman Empire and still stand today.
The integration of the basilica into Christian architecture was one that still lives on today and acceptance of Christianity into mainstream Roman society is to thank for its widespread use. The spread of the basilica into early Roman Christian architecture was marked by the addition of the transept and the narthex into the nave. This addition allowed for the congregation to maintain worship to specific saints as well as to God himself during the mass. While masses were held in basilicas, it was their use of the additional side areas, normally dedicated to specific Saints or martyrs that drew people inside.
The traditional Roman basilicas were often crafted to be memorials to certain saints, and each basilica was built either on holy ground or on the burial place of a saint or martyr. This was the case with Saint Paul Outside the Walls and St. Peters Basilica as well. Building a basilica on top of the burial ground of saints was not frowned upon, instead it was looked at, as a great honor to have a building dedicated to the worship of God and built in the name of someone who dedicated their life to the worship of God.
The tombs of the saints are often integrated into the overall basilica plan either through restricted access rooms or memorials built into the main floor plan. In the basilica of St Paul, the altar was built on top of the proposed burial ground of St Paul and it wasn’t until a few years ago that the sarcophagus was excavated and determined to be the actual remains of St Paul himself. A similar situation with the discovery of Saint Peter’s tomb occurred recently as well.
Constantine initially commissioned Saint Peter’s basilica in the 4th century however due to a large fire, it was rebuilt to its current standing. The Old Saint Peter’s basilica, pre-fire, was built on top of burial ground that was thought to be the site of St. Peter’s tomb. Later excavations showed that it was in fact St. Peter’s tomb and subsequent church renovations occurred. The idea of building basilicas on top of burial grounds cannot be traced back to any one person, while it can be said that Constantine was the initial commissioner of Roman basilicas, this idea cannot be fully attributed to him.
The use of basilicas in Christian architecture was made popular during the 4th century when Constantine was emperor and made Christianity the official religion of the entire Roman Empire. Their integration was not a mistake or an accident, in fact, the integration of the basilica was a well thought out plan that was executed because of the basilicas size, potential for Christian customization. The prior temples used for Pagan worship did not provide the necessary space for Christian worship and thusly the basilica entered the picture.
The early Roman basilicas transcend time and many of them are still standing today or have been rebuilt according to similar floor plans. The integration of the basilica into the Byzantine empire via Constantinople was only seen as a success once Justinian built Hagia Sophia in the 6th century. The completion of Hagia Sophia marked an important day in Christian architecture, not only was the this the largest free standing basilica in the world at the time, but the architects and engineers created several key components that had never been used in basilicas prior to Hagia Sophia.
Pendentives were key additions to Hagia Sophia, as they were they primary reason for the support of the extremely large dome at the top of the basilica. The two styles would converge through Justinian’s reconquest of the western Empire and they would form to make the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, the new capital of the Western Empire during the time. The polygonal shaped nave would serve as the lovechild of the two styles and provide a different style in contrast to the traditional cross-shaped floor plan.
These two styles would be responsible for the differences in Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox style cathedrals however the base floor plan is rooted within the early Roman basilicas from the 4th century. The basilica has clearly changed since its conception in Ancient Greece, but we see how a simple building that was first introduced to the Roman Forum as a civic building can be made into the beautiful works of architecture and engineering that were pioneered by the minds of the Roman Empire.
Late Antiquity provided the arena for differing styles because of the vast spreading of Christianity throughout the entire empire. Changes from the artwork to the exterior architecture all depict the time period and the style of the basilicas and where their roots lie in the church.
1. St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome – Archaeology and the Great Churches of the World. ” About Archaeology – The Study of Human History. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. 2. Basilica Di San Vitale. ” Diocesi Di ROMA – Chiesa Cattolica. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. . 3. Basilica Papale San Paolo Fuori Le Mura. Vatican: the Holy See. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. . 4. Peterson Henricks, Karen I. The Early Christian Double Basilica. Diss. Univeristy of Missouri- Columbia, 1989. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1989. Print. 5. Walthew, Christopher Vaughan. A Metrological Study of the Early Roman Basilicas. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2002. Print. 6. White, L. Michael. Building God’s House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. Print. 7. Grimal, Pierre, and Caroline Rose. Churches of Rome. New York, NY: Vendome, 1997. Print.
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