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BASIL´ICA (also regia, Stat. Silv. 1.1, 30; Suet. Aug. 31 ; in the Greek writers who speak of the Roman basilicae, στοὰ βασιλική or στοά), a building which served as a court of law and an exchange, or place of meeting for merchants and men of business. The two uses are so mixed up together that it is not always easy to say which was the principal. Thus the basilica at Fanum, of which Vitruvius (5.1, 6--10) himself was the architect, was entirely devoted to business, and the courts were held in a small building attached to it--the temple of Augustus. A basilica then was an adjunct to the market-place, affording shelter and comparative freedom from interruption. Its special architectural peculiarities were division into nave and aisles, and clerestory lighting. Phylander (Comment. in Vitruv.) derives the term from βασιλεύς, in reference to early times, when the king was judge; but those who hold that the Roman basilica was of Athenian origin derive the word from the title of the ἄρχων βασιλεύς, whose court was called βασίλειος στοά, or τοῦ βασιλέως στοά. (Paus. 1.3, 1; Demosth. i. Aristog. p. 776.23.) The plan of this building is unknown to us, nor are we acquainted with that of the court of the Hellanodicae in the old agora of Elis. (Paus. 6.24, 3.) The evidence then for tracing the Roman basilica from the Athenian στοὰ βασίλειος lies simply in the resemblance of the names, which is not complete; while the adjective basilicus was not unknown to the Latin tongue of the age when the first basilica was built at Rome. (Plaut. Capt. 4.2, 31; Trin. 4.3, 23.) M. Viollet le Duc (Lectures on Architecture, 1.147, Eng. trans.) thinks the word came from Asia, that this kind of building originated with the successors of Alexander, and that it was probably their Divan, the place where they administered justice. He sees (p. 154) as differences between the Greek basilicas (such as those at Thoricus and Paestum) and the Roman ones, (1) the Greek basilicas were not closed with side walls, the Romans were,--which is, however, a very disputed point (see below); (2) the Greek had not a place for the tribunal which appears in all Roman basilicas.

The first edifice of this description was not erected until B.C. 184 (Liv. 39.44, 7); for it is expressly stated by the historian, that there were no basilicas at the time of the fire which destroyed so many buildings in the Forum, during the consulate of Marcellus and Laevinus, B.C. 210. (Liv. 26.27, 3.) It was situated in the forum adjoining the Curia, and was denominated Basilica Porcia, in commemoration of its founder, M. Porcius Cato. This basilica was destroyed by the fire at Clodius' funeral, 52 B.C. (Ascon. Arg. ad Cic. pro Mil. § 8.) Besides this, there were twenty others, erected at different periods, within the city of Rome (Pitisc. Lex. Ant., s. v. Basilica), of which the following are the most frequently alluded to by the ancient authors :--1. Basilica Sempronia, constructed by Titus Sempronius, B.C. 171 (Liv. 44.16); and supposed, by Donati and Nardini, to have been between the Vicus Tuscus and the Velabrum. 2. Basilica Opimia, which was above the Comitium, built 155 B.C. (Varro, L. L. 5.156; Cic. Sest. 67, 140.) 3. Basilica Pauli Aemilii, or Basilica Aemilia, called also Regia Pauli by Statius (l.c.). Cicero (Cic. Att. 4.16, 14) mentions two basilicas of this name, of which one was built, and the other only restored, by Paulus Aemilius. The original basilica called Aemilia et Fulvia (Varro, L. L. 6.4) had been built in 179 B.C. by the censors M. Fulvius and M. Aemilius Lepidus. It stood behind the bankers' offices on the north-east side of the Forum (Liv. 40.51, 4). Both these edifices were in the Forum, and one was celebrated for its open peristyle of Phrygian columns. A representation of this one is given below from a coin of the Aemilia gens. (D. C. 49.42; Plin. Nat. 36.102; Appian, App. BC 2.26; Plut. Caes. 29.) The position of these two basilicas has given rise to much controversy, a brief account of which is given in the Dict. of Biog. vol. ii. p. 766. 4. Basilica Pompeii, called also regia (Suet. Aug. 31), near the theatre of Pompey. 5. Basilica Julia, erected by Julius Caesar, in the Forum, and opposite to the Basilica Aemilia. (Suet. Calig. 37.) The Basilica Julia was begun and almost finished by Julius Caesar, afterwards completed by Augustus; shortly after, however, it was burnt down, was restored by Augustus on a larger scale, and then bore the title of his two sons, Caius and Lucius (Mon. Ancyr. 4.12, and Mommsen, p. 85). “It was a large double porticus with two tiers of columns one over the [p. 1.288]other: open on three sides, and having a range of rooms two or three stories high on the southwest side. . . . The large central space appears to have been without a roof, as the space is too great to admit of one” (J. H. Middleton, Ancient Rome in 1885, pp. 171-2, where see particulars as to the materials it was built of). We learn from Quintilian (12.5, 6) that all four companies of the centumviri sometimes met at once in the Basilica Julia. 6. The Basilica Flavia is the best preserved example of that special form of classical basilica which is supposed to have been the model of the Christian churches. It is rectangular, ending in a semicircular apse. It has a nave and two narrow aisles formed by five Corinthian columns decorated with metal ornaments; over these columns an entablature and upper gallery. The gallery was approached by steps starting from the colonnade. The apse was screened off from the nave by cancelli, as was the chancel in the Christian churches. The emperor's judgment-seat was in the apse (Middleton, op. cit. p. 121). 7. Basilica Ulpia, or Trajani, in the forum of Trajan. 8. Basilica Constantini, also called the Basilica of Maxentius, as it was begun by him, erected by the Emperor Constantine, supposed to be the ruin now remaining on the Via Sacra, near the

Basilica Ulpia. (From medal in British Museum.)

temple of Rome and Venus, and commonly called the Temple of Peace. Of all these magnificent edifices nothing now remains beyond the ground-plan of the Basilica Julia, and the ground-plan, with the bases and some portion of the columns and superstructure, of the others. The basilica at Pompeii is in better preservation; the external walls, ranges of columns, and tribunal of the judges being still tolerably perfect on the ground-floor.

The forum, or, where there was more than one, the one which was in the most frequented and central part of the city, was always selected for the site of a basilica; and hence it is that the classic writers not unfrequently use the terms forum and basilica synonymously, as in the passage of Claudian (de Sexto Cons. Honor. 645): “Desuetaque cingit Regius auratis fora fascibus Ulpia lictor,” where the forum is not meant, but the basilica which was in it, and which was surrounded by the lictors who stood in the forum. (Pitisc. Lex. Ant. l.c.; Nard. Rom. Ant. 5.9.)

Vitruvius (5.1) directs that the most sheltered part of the forum should be selected for the site of a basilica, in order that during winter the business men may resort thither without suffering from the inclemency of the weather. It is hard to decide whether the basilicas were closed or not. For the latter view it is urged that we hear of people passing through a basilica (Plin. Ep. 2.14, 8), that there is no trace of front walls whatsoever in the Basilica Ulpia, that the passage of Vitruvius quoted above points to an open building, and that the Basilica Aemilia, if we can trust the annexed representation (Cohen, Monnaies de la République romaine, pl. 1, gens Aemilia, No. 8), was open. On the other hand, we hear of parietes in the basilica at Fanum (Vitr. 6.1, 6; cf. Quint. 10.5, 18; Henzen, 6591), a very strong argument. Most probably it was a development on the early open form when the porticoes came to be bounded on the open side by a wall,

Basilica Aemilia. (From. medal in British Museum.)

the central space enclosed by the three porticoes being left open; and it thus formed a transition step between the open colonnade and the completely roofed--in building.

The ground-plan of all these buildings is rectangular, and their width not more than half nor less than one-third of the length (Vitruv. l.c.); but if the area on which the edifice was to be raised was not proportionally long, small chambers (chalcidica) were cut off from one of the ends (Vitruv. l.c.), which serve as offices for the judges or merchants. This area was divided into three parts, consisting of a central nave (media porticus) and two side aisles, each separated from the centre by a single row of columns--a mode of construction particularly adapted to buildings intended for the reception of a large concourse of people. At one end of the centre aisle was the tribunal of the judge, in form either rectangular or circular, and sometimes cut off from the length of the grand nave (as is seen in the annexed plan of the basilica at Pompeii, which also affords an example of the chambers of the judices, or chalcidica, abovementioned), or otherwise thrown out from the hinder wall of the building, like the tribune of some of the most ancient churches in Rome, and then called the hemicycle. But the Basilica Ulpia and that of Constantine deserve a special notice, as the former is the finest specimen

Plan of Basilica at Pompeii. Scale 100 ft. to 1 in. (From Fergusson.)

of the basilica with wooden roof, and the latter of the vaulted class; besides, they are widely different as to their style of structure, and so are important in the development of Roman architecture.

The Basilica Ulpia was a rectangle about 370 feet long by 180 broad. It has a nave 87 feet wide, and four aisles, each 23 feet 4 inches wide, divided by four rows of columns, each column being 35 feet high. Above the side aisles was a gallery, the roof of which was [p. 1.289]supported by an upper row of columns, and from these columns sprang the arches of the nave. This roof, 120 feet high, was of wood, and was richly adorned with gilt plates. At one end, not at both, was a semicircular apse, the back part raised and approached by steps: in the centre of this platform was the raised seat of the presiding magistrate, and on the steps were places for the judges or others engaged in the special business in hand (cf. Plin. Ep. 6.33). On the north-west side of the basilica were two large libraries, one for Greek and the other for Latin MSS. It must be observed that in the fragment of the Capitoline plan on which a part of the ground-plan of this basilica is represented, the apse is marked LIBERTATIS. So we have seen in. the basilica at Fanum a temple of Augustus was attached to the basilica, and was used as a court of justice. For further details see Middleton, op. cit. 270-271, and his plan, p. 272; also Viollet le Due, op. cit. 1.154, who finds (p. 155) the key

Plan of Trajan's Basilica at Rome. Scale, 100 ft. to 1 in. The part shaded darker is all that is uncovered. (From Fergusson.)

to such buildings in those Persian palaces, all of which exhibit in one of the sides of the courts, surrounded by porticoes, a hemicycle of large relative dimension covered by a vault in the form of a quarter sphere. For a ground-plan of the Basilica Ulpia see the preceding cut, taken from Fergusson (Hist. of Architecture, 1874, fig. 198).

The Basilica of Constantine (or of Maxentius, for it was he who commenced it), commonly called the Temple of Peace, was 195 feet broad by 270 feet long. The centre aisle was 83 feet wide, and the height 120 feet. “In this building,” says Mr. Fergusson (op. cit. 1.318-20), “no pillars were used, with the exception of eight great columns in front of the piers, employed merely as ornaments or as vaulting shafts were in Gothic cathedrals, to support in appearance, though not in construction, the springing of the vaults. The side aisles were roofed with three great arches, each 72 feet in span, and the centre by an immense intersecting vault in three [p. 1.290]compartments. The form will be understood from the annexed sections, one taken longitudinally, the other across the building. As will be seen from them all, the thrusts are

Plan of Basilica of Maxentius. Scale, 100 ft. to 1 in. (From Fergusson.)

collected to a point, and a buttress placed there to receive them; indeed almost all the peculiarties afterwards found in Gothic vaults are here employed on a far grander and more

Longitudinal Section of Basilica of Maxentius. Scale, 100 ft. to 1 in. (From Fergusson.)

gigantic scale than the Gothic architects ever attempted.”

The transition between these two styles of buildings may be seen in the Praetorium at

Transverse Section of Basilica of Maxentius. Scale, 100 ft. to 1 in. (From Fergusson.)

Mousmieh (De Vogüé, Syrie Centrale, Pl. 7), built about 165 A.D. The aisles are arched longitudinally, the nave arched transversely. The arches of the nave and aisles are coupled [p. 1.291]and supported by Corinthian columns, four on each side. The basilica at Chaqqa (Pl. 16), which De Vogüé considers the most complete type of the ancient basilica, has the aisles arched longitudinally and transversely, the different thrusts meeting in a buttress, which is very strong. The basilica at Tafkha, which is practically similar to the foregoing, is a Christian building of the 5th cent. at latest, and in it we can trace, says De Vogüé (p. 57), the transition from the Christian basilica to the Christian church. Another good example of the transitional style is the basilica of Soueideh (Pl. 19).

The next important basilica at Rome which was built after that of Constantine (or Maxentius) was Constantine's St. Peter's. But it was a Christian church; and for an account of this and subsequent basilican churches the reader is referred to Smith's Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, art. Church.

As to the provincial basilicas of the Romans, few remain, as most were converted into churches, and afterwards modified; but that of Trèves survives. As the annexed cut shows, it was a little more than twice as long as broad (85 feet broad). The walls were 100 feet high, with two rows of windows; but whether there was a gallery between them is not certain. The semicircular apse was 60 feet in diameter, and raised above the level of the rest of the floor of the building (Fergusson, op. cit. 1.321). The basilica at Pompeii is elaborately discussed by Overbeck (Pompeii, pp. 121-127). It was built about 93 B.C. It most probably had a gallery, and was

Plan of the Basilica at Trèves. Scale, 100 ft. to 1 in. (From Fergusson.)

almost certainly not roofed in the centre. It is highly noticeable that the place for the tribunal is rectangular, and not a semi-circular apse. The basilica at Fanum, built and described by Vitruvius (5.1, 6-10), is fully treated of, with beautiful illustrations, by M. Viollet le Duc (op. cit. 1.150 foll.); and the basilica of Otricoli is slightly touched on by Guhl and Koner (fig. 426, ed. 4, 1876), who give a plan of it from Hirt (Geschichte der Baukunst, Taf. 11, fig. 12).

The coin of Lepidus, figured p. 288, gives indications of a sloping external roof. The more magnificent basilicas, at any rate, were decorated both in the interior and the exterior with statues and other works of art, and marbles and precious materials. (Gel. 13.24, 1 ; Plin. Nat. 35.13; Cic. Att. 4.1. 6, 14; Tac. Ann. 3.72; Donaldson, Archit. Numism. 66, p. 152.)

Basilicas did not always agree with Vitruvius' ideal; his own structure at Fanum, which he describes (5.1, 6-10), shows some variations from it. Again, the nave of the Basilica Julia was surrounded on all sides by a double arcaded corridor, and the arcades were supported by solid piers of masonry with pilasters; the basilicas of Praeneste and Aquinum show only a single nave. The basilica of Constantine presents great peculiarities, both in its extremely

Ground-plan of the Basilica of Constantine.

ponderous vaulted roof, of which a considerable portion is still standing, and in its general plan, which, as may be seen from the accompanying woodcut, consists of a nave and two aisles, all three being divided into three bays; besides, the apse at the head of the nave is a lateral one, which has been supposed, like the openings opposite to it, to date from the time when the basilica was applied to Christian uses.

The name of basilica was in course of time applied to other public halls of all sorts, such as those attached to temples, theatres, or baths (Plin. Ep. 10.33, 3; Orelli, 3696; Henzen, 1626); also to halls of audience in palaces and villas, like that of which ruins exist on the Palatine and the three in the villa of the Gordiani on the via Praenestina, which were each 100 ft. long (Capit. Gord. 32, 3); and, lastly, to any large covered building, even to a riding school (basilica equestris exercitatoria: Bulletin de l'Académie des Inscriptions, 1869, p. 280). There are still existing some remains of the private basilica of Domitian which Plutarch (Poplic. 15) mentions as being so splendid; from these remains we can gather that it was a rectangular building with a semicircular apse at one of its extremities, very similar in shape to the basilica at Trèves, but of smaller dimensions.

The internal tribune was probably the original construction, when the basilica was simply used as a court of justice; but when those spacious halls were erected for the convenience of traders as well as loungers, then the semicircular and external tribune was adopted, in order that the noise and confusion in the basilica might not interrupt the proceedings of the magistrates. (Vitruv. l.c.) In the centre of this tribune was placed the curule chair of the praetor and seats for the judices, who sometimes amounted to the number of 180 (Plin. Ep. 6.33, 3), and the advocates; [p. 1.292]and round the sides of the hemicycle, called the wings (cornua), were seats for persons of distinction, and for the parties engaged in the proceedings. It, was in the wing of the tribune that Tiberius sat to overawe the judgment at the trial of Granius Marcellus. (Tacit. Ann. i, 75.) The two side aisles, as has been said, were separated from the centre one by a row of columns, behind each of which was placed a square pier or pilaster (parastata, Vitruv. l.c.), which supported the flooring of an upper portico, similar to the gallery of a modern church. The upper gallery was in like manner decorated with columns of smaller dimensions than those below; and these served to support the roof, and were connected with one another by a parapet-wall or balustrade (pluteus, Vitruv. l.c.), which served as a defence against the danger of falling over, and screened the crowd of loiterers above (subbasilicani, Plaut. Capt. 4.2, 35) from the people of business in the area below. (Vitruv. l.c.) This gallery reached entirely round the inside of the building, and was frequented by women as well as men, the women on one side and the men on the other, who went to hear and see what was going on. (Plin. l.c.) The staircase which led to the upper portico can be recognised in the Flavian basilica (Middleton, op. cit. p. 121); it is similarly situated in the basilica of Constantine: but what is supposed to be the staircase in the Pompeian basilica is really not so (Overbeck, op. cit. 124). The whole area of these magnificent structures was covered in with three separate ceilings, of the kind called testudinatum, like a tortoise-shell; in technical language now denominated coved, an expression used to distinguish a ceiling which has the general appearance of a vault, the central part of which is, however, flat, while the margins incline by a cylindrical shell from each of the four sides of the central square to the side walls; in which form the ancients imagined a resemblance to the shell of a tortoise.

From the description which has been given, it will be evident how much these edifices were adapted in their general form and construction to the uses of a Christian church; to which purpose many of them were, in fact, converted in the time of Constantine. Hence the later writers of the Empire apply the term basilica to all churches built after the model just described; and such were the earliest edifices dedicated to Christian worship, which, with their original designation, continue to this day, being still called at Rome basiliche. It is generally supposed that the origin of the Christian church is the Roman basilica. But the earliest type of the Christian church was a courtyard with a house for prayer at the end. Such virtually are some of the earliest Christian basilicas, as San Clemente and Constantine's St. Peter's. In fact it is rather the Roman house than the Roman forensic basilica that is the original type of the church. See this view advocated in an interesting article by M. Salomon Reinach in the Bulletin de Correspondance hellénique, Avril, 1886, pp. 334-5, and compare also J. P. Richter, Der Ursprung der abendländischen Kirchengebäude, 1878, who appears to find the original of the meeting-places in the oeci of the private houses. In a highly-important work, From Schola to Cathedral, 1886, by Prof. Baldwin Brown, of the University of Edinburgh, it is urged that the early Christian church was a schola enlarged, not a basilica simplified. The true germ, he says (pp. 196-7, cf. p. 129), of the Christian church was an oblong interior terminated by an apse. The Pagan basilica had not essentially the apse (pp. 123 foll.), though it is found in the basilica of Maxentius, and, as we saw, in others also. Prof. Kraus of Freiburg (in the Realencyklopädie der christlichen Alterthümer) shows that the forensic basilica had no one determinate shape,--it had sometimes an apse and sometimes not; but the Christian basilica, keeping to the form of the crypt, had always an apse, and was always entered from the side opposite the apse. It has been by some supposed that the basilicas in private houses (cf. Vitr. 6.8, 2) which had a semicircular tribunal were the originals of the churches, but they cannot have been sufficiently numerous, as Professor Brown points out (p. 127), to have influenced the form of the churches. See too his discussion in Appendix, Note 1, “The Pagan Basilica and the Christian Church,” directed against Dr. Konrad Lange, of Halle (Haus und Halle, 1885), who upholds the old theory of the acquisition of Pagan basilicas by the Christians in the age of Constantine.

A Christian basilica consisted of four principal parts:--1. Πρόναος, the vestibule of entrance. 2. Ναῦς, and sometimes gremium, the nave or centre aisle, which was divided from the two side ones by a row of columns on each of its sides. Here the people assembled for the purposes of worship. 3. Ἄμβων (from ἀναβαίνειν, to ascend), chorus (the choir), and suggestum, a part of the lower extremity of the nave raised above the general level of the floor by a flight of steps. 4. Ἱερατεῖον, ἱερὸν βῆμα, sanctuarium, which answered to the tribune of the ancient basilica. In the centre of this sanctuary was placed the high altar, under a tabernacle or canopy, such as still remains in the basilica of St. John Lateran, at Rome, at which the priest officiated with his face turned towards the people. Around this altar, and in the wings of the sanctuarium, were seats for the assistant clergy, with an elevated chair for the bishop at the bottom of the circle in the centre. (See, besides the books cited in the text, Theatr. Basil. Pisan. cura Joseph. Marl. Canon. iii. p. 8; Ciamp. Vet. Men. i. ii. et De Sacr. Ed. ; Stieglitz, Archäol. d. Baukunst, vol. iii. pp. 19, &c.; Hirt, Lehre d. Gebäude, pp. 180, &c.; Bunsen, Die Basiliken des christlichen Roms, Munich, 1844; Zestermann, Antike und christl. Basiliken, Leipzig, 1847; Weingärtner, Ursprung und Entwickelung des christlichen Kirchengebäudes, Leipzig, 1858; Guhl and Koner, Das Leben der Griechen und Römer, ed. 4, pp. 508-514, Berlin, 1876; H. Jordan, Forma urbis Romae, iv., Berlin, 1874.)

[J.H.F] [L.C.P]

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  • Cross-references from this page (35):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 4.14
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 4.16
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 4.1.6
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.24
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.3
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.1
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.3
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 2.4.26
    • Cicero, For Sestius, 140
    • Cicero, For Sestius, 67
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 5.1
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 6.1
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 6.6
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 5.10
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 5.6
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 6.2
    • Vitruvius, On Architecture, 6.8
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.72
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 31
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 35.13
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 10.33
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 2.14
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 2.8
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 6.3
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 6.33
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 44, 16
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 27
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 7
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 40, 51
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 3
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 40, 4
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 13.1
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 13.24
    • Plutarch, Caesar, 29
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