The Ancient Roman Basilica: Architecture & Overview

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  • 0:01 What Is a Basilica?
  • 0:51 Architecture of the…
  • 2:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history, architecture and use of the Roman basilica. Then test your understanding of ancient Roman engineering, innovation, architecture and culture.

What Is a Basilica?

If I asked you to meet me at the basilica, you may think I'm inviting you to church. Modern Christian churches are called basilicas because ancient Roman Christians, who had no places to meet and worship, would congregate in public buildings called basilicas.

A Roman basilica, though, was a public building that was mostly used for legal courts and business matters. Since Roman-built cities were all designed on the same plans, every Roman town had a basilica. Basilicas followed a general style of architecture that made the building roughly rectangular in shape, and they always had a roof. The oldest known basilica was built in the Forum of Rome in 184 BC by Cato the Elder and is called the Basilica Porcia. By the end of the Roman Empire, the Forum alone had at least seven basilicas.

Architecture of the Roman Basilica

The Roman basilica was built using rows of columns to create aisles inside the building and add architectural strength that allowed a second story to be built above the center aisle. A long row of columns is called a colonnade. The central aisle was usually designed to be wider than those on the side to create a sense of openness. At one or both ends of the building was called an apse, a semi-circular section covered by a dome. The apse usually had a slightly raised platform called a dais. On this was either a statue of a Roman god, typically Jupiter, or the seat where a judge or magistrate sat to hear legal matters.

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