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Roman Architecture - Basilicas

( Originally Published 1921 )



Basilicas, which were halls of justice and commercial exchanges, indicate clearly, by their central position, the importance of law and business in Old Rome. These buildings, which are of a pronounced type, are a link between Classic and Christian architecture (p. 202). The usual plan of a basilica, which was probably a Roman development from a Greek temple, was a rectangle twice as long as its width. Either two or four rows of columns, forming three or five aisles, ran the entire length, and above were galleries with upper columns which supported the roof. The entrance was either at the side or at one end. The tribunal at the other end was on a raised dais, generally in a semicircular apse, and sometimes separated from the main building by a screen of columns or by a low balustrade. Ranged round the apse were seats for the assessors with a raised seat in the centre for the praetor, and in front was the altar where sacrifice was offered before transacting "business. The building, which was generally covered with a wooden roof, was, according to Vitruvius, sometimes open along the sides, and presented a simple and unadorned exterior in comparison with the interior.

Trajan's Basilica, Rome (A.D. 98) (p. 157), designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, was entered through a noble portico from Trajan's Forum. Adjoining the Basilica were the Greek and Latin libraries with Trajan's famous Column in an open court between them (p. 157 B). It had a central nave (p. 157 A), 385 ft. long and 87 ft. wide, with double aisles, each 23 ft. 9 ins. wide, and the total internal height was about 120 ft. The columns separating nave and aisles were of red granite from Syene, with white marble Corinthian capitals, and they supported galleries over the side aisles, above which came the clear-story and simple timber roof usual in these basilicas. At each end were raised tribunals with semicircular apses and sacrificial altars in front.

The Basilica of Constantine, Rome (A.D. 312) (p. 157), sometimes known as the Basilica of Maxentius and formerly as the Temple of Peace, adjoins the Forum Romanum. It consists of a central nave, 265 ft. long by 83 ft. wide, and was crowned at a height of 120 ft. by an immense groined vault in three compartments. North and south are aisles also in three compartments, each roofed with a great semicircular vault, 76 ft. in span, springing from walls which are at right angles to the nave and pierced by openings, and these walls, steadied by the pressure of the aisle vaults, supported the nave vault. Monolithic columns stood in front of these transverse walls and supported entablatures from which sprung the nave cross-vaults (p. 157 F). There were two apses, north and west of the nave. Light was introduced in the upper part of the nave over the aisle vaults by lunettes in the wall formed under the intersecting vaulting. The building is similar to the tepidarium of the therms (p. 159) and is in many respects a prototype of a Gothic structure, in which the thrust and weight of intersecting vaults are collected and brought down on to piers built to receive them. The vaults to the northern aisle remain with their deep brick coffering, and a portion of the main concrete vault of pozzolana still overhangs in mid-air, although the column which supported it has disappeared, thus showing the extraordinary cohesive quality of concrete.

Other basilicas at Rome were the Basilica Porcia (B.C. 184), believed to be the oldest ; the Basilica Julia (B.C. 46) (p. 139) ; and the Basilica AEmilia (p. 139). There are also remains of basilicas at Pompeii, Fano, Treves, Timgad, and at Silchester in England, and indeed there can be no doubt that wherever Rome established her power a basilica for the administration of justice formed an important feature in her town-planning.



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