Rome Reborn

Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities

Rome Reborn

Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    38. Overview of Forum Basilicas. Commentary.

    Each of the long sides of the Roman Forum came to be dominated by the long colonnaded structure of a basilica: the Basilica Aemelia (= Basilica Paulli) on the east side, between the Temple of Antoninus and the Senate House, and the Basilica Julia, between the Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Temple of Saturn. Little remains of the magnificent structures of these basilicas, both of them famous for the beauty of their materials and decoration, but their ground plans and some of the stone that remains give a good indication of their size and some idea of their splendor. The literary sources refer as well to several earlier basilicas that occupied these and other spaces in the republican Forum, including an unnamed basilica (later replaced by the Basilica of Aemelia and Fulvia), Cato's Basilica Porcia in 184 BC, and the Basilica of Aemelia and Fulvia in 179 BC.

    The origin of the Roman basilica has been variously traced back to Greek stoas (covered colonnades) and Hellenistic audience halls. The word itself is Greek and means “royal,” but the form came into its own in Roman towns, where it became the main center of business (especially banking transactions) as well as the venue for certain types of trials, such as the one Pliny describes. The open floor plan allowed for audiences of shifting sizes, depending on the notoriety of the case and the fame of the speakers, who had to compete not only against opposing lawyers but against the orators of other trials being held simultaneously.

    The distinguishing architectural features of the Roman basilica were a multitude of columns supporting a truss roof, and a floor plan that includes a central aisle, or nave, flanked on each long side by a narrower aisle, sometimes double. Not only was the interior space an open design, due to the columns rather than walls as load bearers, but in many instances several sides of the whole building were open to the outdoors as well (in which case the structure was like an elaborately roofed pavilion without walls). A clerestory (a central story, or upper part of the nave, that rises into the clear above the roofs of the side aisles, allowing for windows down the length of the nave walls where they rise above the aisles) was not uncommon, and there was frequently a raised platform, the tribunal, where an official might preside over trials.

    Starting with Constantine, when the Church acquired the liberty and wealth to construct large and prominent worship halls, the term basilica was applied to churches, for which the basilica architecture, with its capacious, open design was more suitable than the Roman temple, which was architecturally polluted by its pagan associations and was at any rate designed to house a deity in its most enclosed section, not to hold a congregation under roof (pagan assembly taking place around the sacrificial altar in front of the temple, in open air). Even the tribunal seat of the basilica was reconfigured as the seat of the bishop. That the church basilica was typically entered under a colonnade at its short side (a narthex) and had solid walls rather than columns for its outer perimeter, also had precedents in earlier basilica architecture (Vitruvius's “Chalcidian” vestibule, for example1), especially in its modifications as an audience hall for the emperor.

    38. Overview of Forum Basilicas. Sources.


    The basilicas ought to be placed in the warmest part of forums so that the businessmen can meet for business there throughout the winter without being disturbed by bad weather. The width of a basilica should be no less than a third and no more than a half of its length, unless difficulties of the site demand some other proportion. If the site does require a length of greater proportion than twice the width, put vestibules [chalcidica] at the ends, as at the Basilica of Julia Aquiliana.

    Vitruvius, Architecture 5.1.4


    My speech [c. 100 AD], which was in defense of one Attia Viriola, was remarkable for the rank of the woman, the rarity of the case, and the number of jurors. This woman, of noble parentage and married to a praetorian senator, was disinherited by her octogenarian father eleven days after the lovesick old man married and brought my client's new stepmother home. Her suit to regain her patrimony was being tried before a quadruple panel: all 180 jurors from the four courts combined. There was a host of lawyers on each side, benches filled with supporters, and a ring of standing spectators several rows deep around the entire court. Add to this crowd the jurors packed together up on the tribunal and still more spectators, women as well as men, leaning from the balconies above in their eagerness to see the proceedings (easily done) and hear (almost impossible).

    The outcome of the trial was awaited with great suspense by fathers and daughters, not to mention stepmothers.… The stepmother, who was herself in line to get one sixth of the estate, lost.

    Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.33.2-4, 6

    55. Basilica of Constantine (or Basilica Nova). Commentary.

    One of ancient Rome's most impressive buildings, and also one of its last, the Basilica of Constantine is scarcely mentioned in the literature. By Roman standards, its design may have been overreaching—its massive central nave may have fallen in an earthquake only (!) five hundred years after it was built—but the remains impressed and influenced the leading architects of the Renaissance, including Bramante's design of St. Peter's basilica. The design of the Basilica of Constantine, in turn, was influenced more by the central halls of the great imperial baths than by the post-and-beam architecture of the famous basilicas in the Forum. Some idea of the construction and effect of the central hall of the Basilica can be had from the nave of St. Maria degli Angeli (Piazza della Reppublica), formerly the central hall of the Baths of Diocletian, as refurbished by Michelangelo and others. One marble column remains from the nave of the Basilica of Constantine, now standing in front of St. Maria Maggiore.

    The Basilica of Constantine was actually begun by Maxentius after he ascended the throne in AD 306. Maxentius then lost to Constantine both his life and the perpetuation of his name through this building. After Constantine defeated Maxentius in the famous battle at the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, he altered the design of the basilica, giving it a grand entrance in the middle of the long side facing the Sacred Way, adding a large niche (still standing) on the opposite side, thereby giving the building another axis in addition to the longer one down the center of the nave. This long axis (parallel to the Sacred Way, and entered by a narthex-like porch on the end towards the Colosseum) also ended at a semi-circular niche, which is probably where the giant statue of the seated Constantine was located, parts of which can now be found in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori museum on the Capitoline.

    55. Basilica of Constantine (or Basilica Nova). Sources.


    Each of the magnificent works which Maxentius constructed—the Shrine of the City and the Basilica—was credited by the Senators to Constantine.

    Aurelius Victor, On the Emperors 40.26

    Aicher's Note: The “Shrine of the City” (Urbis Fanum) was perhaps the Temple of Venus and Rome, which Maxentius restored after a fire. Others have identified it with the “Temple of Romulus,” which, at least in its present form, was built in the time of Maxentius and Constantine, and had (Renaissance drawings show) an inscription that identified it as the work of Constantine.

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