In Ancient Roman architecture, a basilica was a large public building with multiple functions, typically built alongside the town's forum. The basilica was in the Latin West equivalent to the Stoa in the Greek East. The building gave its name to the architectural form of the basilica.
Originally, a basilica was an ancient Roman public building, where courts were held, as well as serving other official and public functions. Basilicas are typically rectangular buildings with a central nave flanked by two or more longitudinal aisles, with the roof at two levels, being higher in the centre over the nave to admit a clerestory and lower over the side-aisles. An apse at one end, or less frequently at both ends or on the side, usually contained the raised tribunal occupied by the Roman magistrates. The basilica was centrally located in every Roman town, usually adjacent to the forum and often opposite a temple in imperial-era forums. Basilicas were also built in private residences and imperial palaces and were known as "palace basilicas".
In Late Antiquity, church buildings were typically constructed either as martyria, or with a basilica's architectural plan. A number of monumental Christian basilicas were constructed during the latter reign of Constantine the Great. The Roman Empire adopted Christianity under the Constantinian dynasty and basilica thus became a standard model for Christian spaces for congregational worship throughout the Mediterranean Basin and Europe during the Christianization of the Roman Empire, which the establishment of Nicene Christianity as the state church. From the early 4th century, Christian basilicas, along with their associated catacombs, were used for burial of the dead.
By extension the name was applied to Christian churches which adopted the same basic plan and is used as an architectural term to describe such buildings. It continues to be used in an architectural sense to describe rectangular buildings with a central nave and aisles, and usually a raised platform at the opposite end from the door. In Europe and the Americas the basilica remained the most common architectural style for churches of all Christian denominations, though this building plan has become less dominant in new buildings since the late 20th century.
The Latin word basilica derives from Ancient Greek: βασιλική στοά, romanized: basilikè stoá, lit. 'royal stoa'. The first recorded basilica was erected by Cato the Elder in 184 BC; later the term was applied to any large covered hall, whether it was used for domestic purposes, was a commercial space, a military structure, or religious building. The word was at first used to describe an ancient Roman public building where courts were held, as well as serving other official and public functions. To a large extent these were the town halls of ancient Roman life. The basilica was centrally located in every Roman town, usually adjacent to the main forum.
These buildings, an example of which is the Basilica Ulpia, were rectangular, and often had a central nave and aisles, usually with a slightly raised platform and an apse at each of the two ends, adorned with a statue perhaps of the emperor, while the entrances were from the long sides.
The Roman basilica was a large public building where business or legal matters could be transacted. 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 covered market houses of late medieval 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 – the nave – tended to be wider and taller than the flanking aisles, so that light could penetrate through the clerestory windows.
The first known basilica, the Basilica Porcia in the Roman Forum, 184 BC by M. Porcius Cato during the time he was Censor. Reference to earlier basilicas in the plays of Plautus suggest an earlier building existed at the time of the plays's composition between 210 and 184 BC; possibly identified with the Atrium Regium. Another early example is the basilica at Pompeii (late 2nd century BC). Inspiration may have come from prototypes like Athens's Stoa Basileios or the hypostyle hall on Delos, but the architectural form is most derived from the audience halls in the royal palaces of the Diadochi kingdoms of the Hellenistic period. This room, called the aula regia, was typically a high nave flanked by colonnades.
Beside the Basilica Porcia on the Forum Romanum, the Basilica Aemilia was built in 179 BC, and the Basilica Sempronia in 169 BC. In the early Roman Republic two types of basilica were built across Italy in the mid-2nd to early 1st centuries BC: either they were nearly square as at Fanum Fortunae, designed by Vitruvius, and Cosa, with a 3:4 width-length ratio; or else they were more rectangular, as Pompeii's basilica, whose ratio is 3:7. In the late Republican era, basilicas were increasingly monumental; Julius Caesar replaced the Basilica Sempronia with his own Basilica Julia, dedicated in 46 BC, while the Basilica Aemilia was rebuilt around 54 BC and renamed the Basilica Paulli in so spectacular fashion that Pliny the Elder wrote that it was among the most beautiful building in the world. Thereafter until the 4th century AD, monumental basilicas were routinely constructed at Rome by both private citizens and the emperors. 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 basilica at Ephesus is typical of the basilicas in the Roman East, which usually have a very elongated footprint and a ratio between 1:5 and 1:9, with open porticoes facing the agora (the Hellenic forum); this design was influenced by the existing tradition of long stoae in Hellenistic Asia. Provinces in the west lacked this tradition, and the basilicas the Romans commissioned there were more typically Italian, with the central nave divided from the side-aisles by an internal colonnade in regular proportions.
The emperor Trajan's Forum (Latin: forum Traiani) enclosed his famous Column depicting the Dacian Wars and was accompanied by his Basilica Ulpia, dedicated in 112. It was an especially grand example whose particular symmetrical arrangement with an apse at both ends was repeated in the provinces as a characteristic form. The basilica at Leptis Magna, built by the Severan dynasty a century later in about 216 is a notable 3rd century AD example of the traditional type, most notable among the works influenced by the Basilica Ulpia.
The largest basilica built outside Rome was that built under the Antonine dynasty on the Byrsa hill in Carthage. The basilica was built together with a forum of enormous size and was contemporary with a great complex of public baths and a new aqueduct system running for 82 miles (132 km), then the longest in the Roman Empire.
Earlier basilicas had all had wooden roofs, but the 4th century Basilica of Maxentius, begun by Maxentius between 306 and 312 and completed by Constantine I, was an innovation that dispensed with timber trusses and used instead cross-vaults made from Roman concrete to create one of the ancient world's largest covered spaces: 80 m long, 25 m wide, and 35 m high. It chanced to be the last civic basilica built in Rome.
The aisled-hall plan of the basilica was adopted by a number of religious cults in late antiquity. New religions like Christianity required space for congregational worship, and the basilica was adapted by the early Church for worship. Because they were able to hold large number of people, basilicas were adopted for Christian liturgical use after Constantine the Great. The early churches of Rome were basilicas with an apisidal tribunal and used the same construction techniques of columns and timber roofing.
In the early 4th century Eusebius used the word basilica (Ancient Greek: βασιλική, romanized: basilikḗ) to refer to Christian churches; in subsequent centuries as before, the word basilica referred in Greek to the civic, non-ecclesiastical buildings, and only in rare exceptions to churches. Churches were nonetheless basilican in form, with an apse or tribunal at the end of a nave with two or more aisles typical. A narthex (sometimes with an exonarthex) or vestibule could be added to the entrance, together with an atrium, and the interior might have transepts, a pastophorion, and galleries, but the basic scheme with clerestory windows and a wooden truss roof remained the most typical church type until the 6th century. The nave would be kept clear for liturgical processions by the clergy, with the laity in the galleries and aisles to either side.
At Constantinople the earliest basilica churches, like the 5th century basilica at the Monastery of Stoudios, were mostly equipped with a small cruciform crypt (Ancient Greek: κρυπτή, romanized: kryptḗ, lit. 'hidden'), a space under the church floor beneath the altar. Typically, these crypts were accessed from the apse's interior, though not always, as at the 6th century Church of St John at the Hebdomon, where access was from outside the apse. At Thessaloniki, the Roman bath where tradition held Demetrius of Thessaloniki had been martyred was subsumed beneath the 5th century basilica of Hagios Demetrios, forming a crypt.
At the start of the 4th century at Rome there was a change in burial and funerary practice, moving away from earlier preferences for inhumation in cemeteries – popular from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD – to the newer practice of burial in catacombs and inhumation inside Christian basilicas themselves.
Three examples of a basilica discoperta or "hypaethral basilica" with no roof above the nave are inferred to have existed. The 6th century Anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza described a "a basilica built with a quadriporticus, with the middle atrium uncovered" at Hebron, while at Pécs and near Salona two ruined 5th buildings of debated interpretation might have been either roofless basilica churches or simply courtyards with an exedra at the end. An old theory by Ejnar Dyggve that these were the architectural intermediary between the Christian martyrium and the classical heröon is no longer credited.
The largest and oldest basilica churches in Egypt were at Pbow, a coenobitic monastery established by Pachomius the Great in 330. The 4th century basilica was replaced by a large 4th century building (36 × 72 m) with five aisles and internal colonnades of pink granite columns and paved with limestone. This monastery was the administrative centre of the Pachomian order where the monks would gather twice annually and whose library may have produced many surviving manuscripts of biblical, Gnostic, and other texts in Greek and Coptic. In North Africa, late antique basilicas were often built on a doubled plan. In the 5th century, basilicas with two apses, multiple aisles, and doubled churches were common, including examples respectively at Sufetula, Tipasa, and Djémila. Generally, North African basilica churches' altars were in the nave and the main building medium was opus africanum of local stone, and spolia was infrequently used.
At Nicopolis in Epirus, founded by Augustus to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Actium at the end of the Last war of the Roman Republic, four early Christian basilicas were built during Late Antiquity whose remains survive to the present. In the 4th or 5th century, Nicopolis was surrounded by a new city wall.
A Christian basilica was constructed in the first half of the 5th century at Olympia, where the statue of Zeus by Phidias had been noted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World ever since the 2nd century BC list compiled by Antipater of Sidon. Cultural tourism thrived at Olympia and Ancient Greek religion continued to be practised there well into the 4th century.
Nine basilica churches were built at Nea Anchialos, ancient Phthiotic Thebes (Ancient Greek: Θη̑βαι Φθιώτιδες, romanized: Τhḗbai Phthiṓtides), which was in its heyday the primary port of Thessaly. The episcopal see was the three-aisled Basilica A, the Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki, and similar to the Church of the Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki. Its atrium perhaps had a pair of towers to either side and its construction dates to the late 5th/early 6th century. The Elpidios Basilica - Basilica B - was of similar age, and the city was home to a large complex of ecclesiastical buildings including Basilica G, with its luxurious mosaic floors and a mid-6th century inscription proclaiming the patronage of the bishop Peter. Outside the defensive wall was Basilica D, a 7th century cemetery church.
At Stobi, (Ancient Greek: Στόβοι, romanized: Stóboi) the capital from the late 4th century of the province of Macedonia II Salutaris, had numerous basilicas and six palaces in late antiquity. The Old Basilica had two phases of geometric pavements, the second phase of which credited the bishop Eustathios as patron of the renovations. A newer episcopal basilica was built by the bishop Philip atop the remains of the earlier structure, and two further basilicas were within the walls. The Central Basilica replaced a synagogue on a site razed in the late 5th century, and there was also a North Basilica and further basilicas without the walls. Various mosaics and sculptural decorations have been found there, and while the city suffered from the Ostrogoths in 479 and an earthquake in 518, ceasing to be a major city thereafter, it remained a bishopric until the end of the 7th century and the Basilica of Philip had its templon restored in the 8th century.
The mid-6th century Bishop of Poreč (Latin: Parens or Parentium; Ancient Greek: Πάρενθος, romanized: Párenthos) replaced an earlier 4th century basilica with the magnificent Euphrasian Basilica in the style of contemporary basilicas at Ravenna. Some column capitals were of marble from Greece identical to those in Basilica of San Vitale and must have been imported from the Byzantine centre along with the columns and some of the opus sectile. There are conch mosaics in the basilica's three apses and the fine opus sectile on the central apse wall is "exceptionally well preserved".
After the 6th century, basilicas remained the most common type of small church in the East Roman Empire until the 15th century, but larger constructions from the 6th century tended to replace the timber roofed and hypostyle construction principles of the basilica, adding a tower or dome above the nave and employing masonry vaulting there or throughout.
In the 9th there was a renaissance in the construction of basilicas on the Balkan Peninsula, though not at Constantinople. Major new basilicas were built then: the basilica Church of the Anargyroi at Kastoria, the Hagia Sophia, Nicaea, and at the First Bulgarian Empire's capital at Pliska.
In the Roman Imperial period (after about 27 BC), a basilica for large audiences also became a feature in palaces. In the 3rd century of the Christian era, 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)
Constantine's basilica at Trier, the Aula Palatina (AD 306), is still standing. 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.
In the 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 Cenacle, cave-churches, house churches such as that of the martyrs John and Paul) they had been using. Architectural formulas for temples were unsuitable due to 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.
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.
Putting an 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), the church of St Elias at Thessalonica (5th century), and the two great basilicas at Ravenna.
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 stoa or 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 Armenia and 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. A peculiar type of basilica, known as three-church basilica, was developed in early medieval Georgia, characterized by the central nave which is completely separated from the aisles with solid walls.
In Romania, the word for church both as a building and as an institution is biserică, derived from the term basilica.
In the United States the style was copied with variances. An American church built imitating the architecture of an Early Christian basilica, St. Mary's (German) Church in Pennsylvania, was demolished in 1997.
In the Catholic Church the term basilica refers to an official designation of a certain kind of church: a large and important place of worship that has been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope. They need not architecturally be basilicas. Basilicas in this sense are divided into classes, the major ("greater") basilicas and the minor basilicas. Churches designated as papal basilicas, in particular, possess a papal throne and a papal high altar, at which no one may celebrate Mass without the pope's permission.
St. Mary's Cathedral in Ernakulam, India is the Episcopal See of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The cathedral was elevated to the status of a Basilica by Pope Paul VI on 20 March 1974. St. George Forane Church in Angamaly, also of the Syro-Malabar rite, was raised to the status of basilica on 24 June 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.
On 10 May 1997 Pope John Paul II visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, Lebanon. The basilica is under the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate. The Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in North Jackson, Ohio, USA is under the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. The shrine was elevated to the status of a minor basilica by Pope Francis on 8 July 2014.
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