The Evolution of Basilicas in the Roman Empire During Late Antiquity

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The Evolution of the Basilica in the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity

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, “Basilikè Stoá” 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...
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