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→ This is a general article on a characteristic type of Roman building.
For specific examples, however — any of more than 20 in the city of Rome —
see the article Basilicae
in Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

If on the other hand you are looking for the Basilika, a Greek compilation of Roman legal texts, see this separate article of Smith's Dictionary.

 p198  Basilica

Article by Anthony Rich, Jun. B.A. of Caius College, Cambridge
on pp198‑200 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

BASI′LICA (sc. aedes, aula, porticusβασιλική, also regia, Stat. Silv. I.1.30; Suet. Aug. 31), 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 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. The term is derived, according to Philander (Comment. in Vitruv.), from βασιλεύς, a king, in reference to early times, when the chief magistrate administered the laws he made; but it is more immediately adopted from the Greeks of Athens, whose second archon was styled ἄρχων βασιλεύς, and the tribunal where he adjudicated στοὰ βασίλειος (Paus. I.3 §1; Demosth. c. Aristogeit. p776), the substantive aula or porticus in Latin being omitted for convenience. The Greek writers who speak of the Roman basilicae, call them sometimes στοαὶ βασιλικαί, and sometimes merely στοαί.

The name alone would make it highly probable that the Romans were indebted to the Greeks for the idea of the building, which was probably borrowed from the στοὰ βασίλειος at Athens. In its original form it may be described as an insulated portico, detached from the agora or forum, for the more convenient transaction of business, which formerly took place in the porticoes of the agora itself; in fact, a sort of agora in miniature. The court of the Hellanodicae, in the old curia of Elis, was exactly of the form of a basilica. [Agora].

The first edifice of this description was not erected until B.C. 184 (Liv. XXXIX.44); for it is expressly stated by the historian, that there were no basilicae at the time of the fire, which destroyed so many buildings in the forum, under the consulate of Marcellus and Laevinus, B.C. 210 (Liv. XXVI.27). It was situated in the forum adjoining the curia, and was denominated basilica Porcia, in commemoration of its founder, M. Porcius Cato. Besides this, there were twenty others, erected at different periods, within the city of Rome (Pitisc. Lex. Ant. s.v. Basilica),º 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. XLIV.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.

  3. Basilica Pauli Aemilii, or Basilica Aemilia, called also Regia Pauli by Statius (l.c.). Cicero (Ad Att. IV.16) mentions two basilicae of this name, of which one was built, and the other only restored, by Paulus Aemilius. 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 (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.24; Appian, B. C. II.26; Plut. Caes. 29). The position of these two basilicae has given rise to much controversy, a brief account of which is given in the Dict. of Biog. Vol. II p766.

  4. Basilica Pompei,º 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).

  6. Basilica Caii et Lucii, the grandsons of Augustus, by whom it was founded (Suet. Aug. 29).

  7. Basilica Ulpia, or Trajani, in the forum of Trajan.

  8. Basilica Constantini, erected by the emperor Constantine, supposed to be the ruin now remaining on the via sacra, near the temple of Rome and Venus, and commonly called the temple of Peace.

Of all these magnificent edifices nothing now remains beyond the ground-plan, and the bases and some portion of the columns and superstructure of the two last. 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 Honor. Sext.º Cons. VI 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. V.9).

Vitruvius (V.1) directs that the most sheltered part of the forum should be selected for the site of a basilica, in order that the public might suffer as little as possible from exposure to bad weather, whilst going to, or returning from, their place of business; he might also have added, for their greater convenience whilst engaged within, since many of these edifices, and all of the more ancient ones, were entirely open to the external air, being surrounded and protected solely by an open peristyle of columns, as the annexed representation of the basilica Aemilia from a medal of Lepidus, with the inscription, clearly shows.

[image ALT: A woodcut of a small columned building. It represents a coin of the gens Aemilia depicting Basilica Aemilia in Rome.]

When, however, the Romans became wealthy and refined, and consequently more effeminate, a wall was substituted for the external peristyle, and  p199 the columns were confined to the interior; or, if used externally, it was only in decorating the πρόναος, or vestibule of entrance. This was the only change which took place in the form of these buildings, from the time of their first institution, until they were converted into Christian churches. The ground plan of all of them 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 served 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.

[image ALT: A plan of a large columned building. It represents the Basilica of Pompeii.]

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, above mentioned), 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 — an instance of which is afforded in the basilica Trajani, of which the plan is given ↓ below. It will be observed that this was a most sumptuous edifice, possessing a double tribune, and double row of columns on each side of the centre aisle, dividing the whole into five aisles.

[image ALT: A plan of a very large columned building. It represents the Basilica Ulpia in Trajan's Forum, Rome.]

The internal tribune was probably the original construction, when the basilica was simply used as a court of justice; but when these 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. VI.33), and the advocates; 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. IV.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 was on the outside, as is seen in the plan of the basilica of Pompeii. It is similarly situated in the basilica of Constantine. 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  p200 empire apply the term basilicae to all churches built after the model just described;​a 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. A Christian basilica consisted of four principal parts:— 1. Πρόναος, the vestibule of entrance. 2. Ναῦς, navis, 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. Ἀμβων (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 βοτῆμα, 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 of 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. (Theatr. Basil. Pisan. cura Josep. Marl. Canon. III. p8; Ciamp. Vet. Men. I. II. et De Sacr. Ed.; Stieglitz, Archäol. d. Baukunst, vol. III, pp19, &c.; Hirt, Lehre d. Gebäude, pp180, &c.; Bunsen, Die Basiliken des Christlichen Roms, Munich, 1844.)

Thayer's Note:

a churches built after the model just described: a number of churches have survived in the city of Rome with such a basilican plan, some of them actually built in Late Antiquity, others modelled on them in the Middle Ages. The best example of the former is probably the church of S. Sabina.

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Page updated: 23 Dec 08