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Bill Thayer

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 p76  Basilica Constantini

Article on pp76‑78 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Basilica Constantini (Pol. Silv. 545), Constantiniana (Chron. 146; Not. app.) or Nova (Not. Reg. IV): begun by Maxentius but completed by Constantine (Aur. Vict. Caes. 40.26: adhuc cuncta opera quae magnifice construxerat urbis fanum atque basilicam Flavii meritis patres sacravere) on the north side of the Sacra via, a site previously occupied, in part at least, by the horrea Piperataria (Chron. cit.) of Domitian.1 It was the last of the Roman basilicas, which it resembled less than it did the halls of the great thermae. Its proper designation appears to have fallen into disuse at an early period, for in the sixth century it was called templum Romae;2 (LPD I.280; Mél. 1886, 25 ff.; cf. however, BC 1900, 303), and in the seventh when Pope Honorius took its bronze tiles for the roof of St. Peter's (LPD I.323; cf. BC 1914, 106). The south aisle and the roof of the nave probably collapsed in the earthquake of Leo IV in 847 (LPD II.108; see Venus et Roma, templum).

The basilica stood on an enormous rectangular platform of concrete 100 metres  p77 long and 65 wide, and consisted of a central nave 80 metres long, 25 wide and 35 high, with side aisles 16 metres wide and 24.50 high. These aisles were divided into three sections by walls pierced by wide arches and ending on each side of the nave in massive piers. In front of these piers and at the corners of the nave were eight monolithic columns of marble, all of which have been destroyed except one that was removed by Paul V in 1613 to the Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore, where it now standsa (LS II.209; JRS 191, 180). The height of the shaft of this column is 14.50 metres, and it is 5.40 metres in circumference. On the piers rested the roof of the nave, divided into three bays with quadripartite groining. The ceiling was decorated with deep hexagonal and octagonal coffers. For the entasis see Mem. Am. Acad. IV.122, 142.

The façade of the basilica as built by Maxentius was towards the east, and at this end was a corridor or vestibule, 8 metres deep, which extended across the whole width of the building. From this vestibule there were five entrances into the basilica, three into the nave, and one into each of the aisles. A flight of steps led up from the street in front to the vestibule, which was adorned with columns. At the west end of the nave was a semicircular apse, 20 metres in diameter, in which the fragments of the colossal statue of Constantine, now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, were probably found in 1487 (HC 242; Cons. 5, 11 ff.). The statue probably sat in this apse, which would have been its natural place.

Constantine spoilt the original conception of the building when he constructed a second entrance from the Sacra via in the middle of the south side, where he built a porch with porphyry columns (?) and a long flight of steps (Ill. 10). Opposite this new entrance he constructed a second semicircular apse in the north wall, as large as that at the west end of the nave but lower (PBS II. pls. 16, 59; CR 1905, 76). Thenceforth the basilica produced the same impression — of three parallel halls — whether one entered it from the south or from the east.

Besides the foundation, which has been almost wholly uncovered, the north wall and the north aisle — or, as it rather appears, the north sections of the three halls regarded as running north and south — are still standing. The semicircular apse in the central hall contains sixteen rectangular niches in two rows, with a pedestal or suggestus in the centre. A marble seat with steps runs round the apse, which was separated from the rest of the hall by two columns and marble screens, thus forming a sort of tribunal. Nothing of the nave remains except the bases of the great piers. The core of the porch and of the flight of steps leading down to the Sacra via is still visible, and several fragments of the porphyry columns have been set up, but not in situ. Of the pavement of slabs of marble considerable fragments have been found (Mitt. 1905, 117).

The material employed in this basilica was brick-faced concrete (AJA 1912, 429‑432), and the great thickness of the walls — 6 metres at one point at the west end — and the enormous height and span of the  p78 vaulted roof made it one of the most remarkable buildings in Rome. The magnificence of its interior decoration was commensurate with its size and imposing character. It was modelled on the central halls of the great thermae.

The north-west corner of the basilica joined the wall of the forum of Vespasian, thereby cutting off the previously existing thoroughfare between the forum Romanum and the district of the Carinae. Maxentius therefore constructed a passage-way under the north-west corner of the building, about 4 metres wide and 15 long. In the Middle Ages this was known as the Arco di Latrone3 from its dangerous associations (JRS 1919, 179). For the road round the back of the north-eastern apse see LS II.211; PBS II.17.

For the older literature and illustrations, see especially: Nibby, Del Foro Romano, della Via Sacra, dell' Anfiteatro Flavio, Rome 1819, 189 ff.; Del Tempio della Pace (under which name it was generally known before his time) e della Basilica di Costantino, Rome 1819; Roma antica II.238 ff.; Canina, Edifizi II. pls. 129‑132; Mél. 1891, 161‑167; Mitt. 1892, 289; more recent: Reber 392‑397; Middleton II.224‑229; Théd. 343‑348;b Petersen, Vom alten Rom 31‑53; HC 227‑31; HJ 11‑14; Durm. 174, 175, 232, 259‑260, 265; NS 1878, 132, 163; 1879, 14, 263, 264, 312, 313; RE IV.961‑962; D'Esp. Fr. I.100; II.100; DuP 105‑107; Toeb. I.117‑130; ZA 109‑111; RA 211‑215; DR 419‑428; ASA 84, 85.

The Authors' Notes:

1 See s.v. — though the remains which have actually been discovered belong in part at least to the porticoes of the Sacra via of Nero (AJA 1923, 386, 421; Mem. Am. Acad. V.115).

2 It was later called templum Romuli, while the temple of Venus and Rome was called palatium Romuli; but the name never properly belonged to the so‑called templum Divi Romuli at all.

3 So Mon. L. I.551: ASRSP 1881, 378. But the correct reading in Ordo Bened. is per arcum Latone (Jord. II.666; Lib. Cens., Fabre-Duchesne, II.158, § 72).

Thayer's Notes:

a When Rome ran out of obelisks to rededicate, the Popes went thru a spate of moving ancient columns around, setting them up as focal points of newly cleared piazzas. Under the direction of Carlo Maderno, the architect of St. Peter's, this column was moved to the Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore, where it forms a pendant with the Lateran obelisk at the other end of the via Merulana: it now stands in a fountain by Maderno, and is crowned by a bronze statue of the Virgin, the work of Guillaume Berthelot and Orazio Censore.

b Platner cites the 1908 edition of Thédenat, which I haven't found online. Online at Gallica, however, is the 1898 edition; in it, the main section on the Basilica is on pp319‑324; but see also the (rather discreet) "Module de recherche" search function to the left of the pages.

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