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 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...
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