Remains of the
Basilica of Maxentius
and Constantine in Rome. The building's northern aisle is all that remains.
Floor plan of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine
The Roman basilica was a large public building where business or legal matters could be transacted. The first basilicas had no religious function at all. As early as the time of
Augustus, a public basilica for transacting business had been part of any settlement that considered itself a city, used in the same way as the late medieval covered market houses of northern Europe, where the meeting room, for lack of urban space, was set above the arcades, however. Although their form was variable, basilicas often contained interior
colonnades that divided the space, giving aisles or arcaded spaces on one or both sides, with an
apse at one end (or less often at each end), where the magistrates sat, often on a slightly raised
dais. The central aisle tended to be wide and was higher than the flanking aisles, so that light could penetrate through the
The oldest known basilica, the
Basilica Porcia, was built in Rome in 184 BC by
Cato the Elder during the time he was
Censor. Other early examples include the basilica at Pompeii (late 2nd century BC).
Probably the most splendid Roman basilica (see below) is the one begun for traditional purposes during the reign of the pagan emperor
Maxentius and finished by
Constantine I after 313 AD.
Basilicas in the Roman Forum
Roman Imperial period (after about 27 BCE), a basilica for large audiences also became a feature in palaces. In the 3rd century AD, the governing elite appeared less frequently in the forums.
They now tended to dominate their cities from opulent palaces and country villas, set a little apart from traditional centers of public life. Rather than retreats from public life, however, these residences were the forum made private.(Peter Brown, in Paul Veyne, 1987)
Seated in the
tribune of his basilica, the great man would meet his dependent
clientes early every morning.
A private basilica excavated at
Bulla Regia (Tunisia), in the "House of the Hunt", dates from the first half of the 5th century. Its reception or audience hall is a long rectangular nave-like space, flanked by dependent rooms that mostly also open into one another, ending in a semi-circular
apse, with matching
transept spaces. Clustered columns emphasised the "crossing" of the two axes.
Christian adoption of the basilica form
Structural elements of a gothic basilica.
Variations: Where the roofs have a low slope, the gallery may have own windows or may be missing
The remains of a large subterranean
Neopythagorean basilica dating from the 1st century AD were found near the
Porta Maggiore in Rome in 1915. The ground-plan of Christian basilicas in the
4th century was similar to that of this Neopythagorean basilica, which had three
naves and an
4th century, once the Imperial authorities had decriminalised Christianity with the 313
Edict of Milan, and with the activities of
Constantine the Great and his mother
Helena, Christians were prepared to build larger and more handsome edifices for worship than the furtive meeting-places (such as the
house churches such as that of the Roman consuls
John and Paul) they had been using. Architectural formulas for temples were unsuitable, for their pagan associations, and because pagan cult ceremonies and sacrifices occurred outdoors under the open sky in the sight of the gods, with the temple, housing the cult figures and the treasury, as a backdrop. The usable model at hand, when Constantine wanted to memorialise his imperial piety, was the familiar conventional architecture of the basilicas.
Floor plan of a Christian church of basilical form, with the
shaded. Either the western part of the nave or the choir may have a hall structure instead. The choir also may be aisleless
There were several variations of the basic plan of the secular basilica, always some kind of rectangular hall, but the one usually followed for churches had a central
nave with one aisle at each side and an
apse at one end opposite to the main door at the other end. In, and often also in front of, the apse was a raised platform, where the altar was placed, and from where the clergy officiated. In secular building this plan was more typically used for the smaller audience halls of the emperors, governors, and the very rich than for the great public basilicas functioning as law courts and other public purposes.
 Constantine built a basilica of this type in his palace complex at
Trier, later very easily adopted for use as a church. It is a long rectangle two storeys high, with ranks of arch-headed windows one above the other, without aisles (there was no mercantile exchange in this imperial basilica) and, at the far end beyond a huge arch, the apse in which Constantine held state.
Comparison of profiles of churches
Basilical structure: The central nave extends to one or two storeys more than the lateral aisles, and it has upper windows.
Pseudobasilica (i. e. false basilica): The central nave extends to an additional storey, but it has no upper windows.
Stepped hall: The vaults of the central nave begin a bit higher than those of the lateral aisles, but there is no additional storey.
Old St Peter's, Rome
, as the 4th century basilica had developed by the mid-15th century, in a 19th-century reconstruction
has windows on three levels, one above the aisles, one above the file of chapels and one in the chapels.
altar instead of the throne, as was done at Trier, made a church. Basilicas of this type were built in western Europe, Greece, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, that is, at any
early centre of Christianity. Good early examples of the architectural basilica include the
Church of the Nativity at
Bethlehem (6th century AD), the church of St Elias at
Thessalonica (5th century AD), and the two great basilicas at
The first basilicas with
transepts were built under the orders of
Emperor Constantine, both in Rome and in his "New Rome",
- "Around 380,
Gregory Nazianzen, describing the Constantinian
Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople, was the first to point out its resemblance to a cross. Because the
cult of the cross was spreading at about the same time, this comparison met with stunning success." (
Yvon Thébert, in Veyne, 1987)
Thus, a Christian symbolic theme was applied quite naturally to a form borrowed from civil semi-public precedents. The first great Imperially sponsored Christian basilica is that of
St John Lateran, which was given to the
Bishop of Rome by Constantine right before or around the Edict of Milan in 313 and was consecrated in the year 324. In the later 4th-century, other Christian basilicas were built in Rome:
Santa Sabina, and
St Paul's Outside the Walls (4th century), and later
St Clement (6th century).
A Christian basilica of the 4th or 5th century stood behind its entirely enclosed
forecourt ringed with a colonnade or arcade, like the
peristyle that was its ancestor or like the
cloister that was its descendant. This forecourt was entered from outside through a range of buildings along the public street. This was the architectural ground-plan of
St Peter's Basilica in Rome, until in the 15th century it was demolished to make way for a modern church built to a new plan.
In most basilicas, the central nave is taller than the aisles, forming a row of windows called a
clerestory. Some basilicas in the
Caucasus, particularly those of
Georgia, have a central nave only slightly higher than the two aisles and a single pitched roof covering all three. The result is a much darker interior. This plan is known as the "oriental basilica", or "pseudobasilica" in central Europe.
Gradually, in the early
Middle Ages there emerged the massive
Romanesque churches, which still kept the fundamental plan of the basilica.
United States the style was copied with variances. A rare American church built imitating the architecture of an Early Christian basilica,
St. Mary's (German) Church in
Pennsylvania, was demolished in 1997.
Basilicas in Eastern Orthodoxy
Wooden church from Maramures, Romania.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, in general, the basilica is a mere architectural description of churches built in the ancient style. It bears no significance with regard to precedence or importance of the particular building or clerics associated with it. Eastern basilicas may be single-naved, or have the nave flanked by one or two pairs of lower aisles; it may have a dome in the middle: in this case, it is called a "domed basilica".
In Romania, the word for church both as a building and as an institution is
biserică, derived from the term basilica.
The style influenced the construction of early wooden churches.