Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity

Santa Sabina

Santa Sabina, fifth-century basilica on Aventine Hill, Rome

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza, as discussed here, was not the only Late Antique building I found on my hunt through Rome. On the day I visited Santa Costanza, I also visited several basilicas and the Baths of Diocletian — not to mention a variety of artefacts on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano. Now for basilicas.

When we think of basilicas today, we immediately think of St Peter’s in Rome or Sacré Coeur in Paris; that sort of basilica, especially the latter, is not so much an architectural term any more as it is a special type of church that has a special papal blessing, if memory serves me right. However, our earliest Christian basilicas are not of that sort.

The architectural origins of the Christian basilica, as with so much other early Christian art and architecture, are classical. (The argument about alleged pagan tainting of Christianity can be had over at this blog, not here.) A basilica is a big, public building in the Roman world. They served many functions — social, economic, judicial. Stuff went down in basilicas.

The earliest named basilica is the Basilica Porcia, mentioned by Livy as being built by Cato the Elder in 184 BC. People kept building them for everyday, secular purposes throughout antiquity; there is one that served basically as a throne room at Trier, the Aula Palatina, and the giant remains of the Basilica Nova of Constantine and Maxentius are a very prominent feature of the Roman Forum today.
Basilica of MaxentiusWhen Constantine made Christianity definitively legal ca 312/3, Christian basilicas started popping up as places for public worship. The basilica at Tyre, for example, opened in the year 316 with a homily by Eusebius — and from as early as that Christian theology of space and buildings was already infusing what went on in basilicas.

The city of Rome is filled with basilicas, popping up all over the place. They started with St John’s Lateran — of which basilica (not counting the baptistery next door) nothing ancient remains, although the current Renaissance building is striking — and continued being built throughout the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval worlds.

My first basilica after visiting Constantina’s lovely, fourth-century mausoleum, was down the hill at Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, a seventh-century basilica built by Pope Honorius I that houses the remains of St Agnes in a tiny crypt beneath the apse large enough for five devout Korean women:


Basilica di Sant'Agnese

Saint Agnes flanked by Pope Honorius and some other dudeIt is a classic basilica design — a large, central nave with two smaller aisles to the side, ending in an apse. The orientation, as with all ancient Christian basilicas, is East. Before Vatican II, the priest and people would together have faced East with Saint Agnes, dressed as a Byzantine queen, and Pope Honorius looking down on them. As St Basil the Great says in a famous quotation:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. We fulfil our prayers standing upright on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason for this. –De Spiritu sancto 66, quoted by Andrew Louth in ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83.

Louth, in the essay wherein the Basil quotation is found, observes that facing East is as old as our records of Christian worship can take us.

I like Sant’Agnese. We see in this church beautiful, Late Antique mosaics as well as the late ancient innovation of placing arches directly on top of columns. Most of the decoration, save the mosaic, is later, but the effect is undoubtedly much the same as it would have been in the 600s.

My next basilica took me back further in time to the mid-400s (my playing field!). This was San Pietro in Vincoli. The fabric of the basilica is essentially fifth-century. However, none of the ancient decoration is left, and there is a lot of Renaissance embellishment in the way. Nonetheless, San Pietro in Vincoli is much wider, brighter, and airier than Sant’Agnese. This is the sort of space a newly-relocated imperial court or an ascending papacy would like to show off.

Worth noting are St Peter’s alleged chains housed in the church, brought back to Rome from Constantinople during the papacy of my dear Leo the Great, although my trip to the basilica was the first I’d heard of it! Also worth noting is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian:

St SebastianOh, and if you dig things Renaissance, there’s always Michelangelo’s Moses as part of the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II …

From San Pietro in Vincoli, I took a trip to Santa Maria Maggiore. This basilica dates from the fifth century as well, prior to the papacy of Leo. The apsidal mosaics, stunning as they are, date from 1294. However, the triumphal arch segmenting the apse from the nave sports fifth-century mosaics, and the series of mosaics running along the nave above the columns are also fifth-century originals, sporting scenes from the Old Testament.

Second trip to Santa Maria Maggiore

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal ArchMy final basilica of the day was San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. This basilica is an interesting bit of architecture, as you can see:

The Late Antique NaveThe Late Antique basilica from the 580s — dating to the period of Byzantium’s rule over Rome — has had a 13th-c nave added onto it at a higher level, then was bisected horizontally, and turned into an apse-cum-crypt. So you can’t really get a feel for sixth-century Roman architecture here. But you can get close to the capitals, which strike me as reused old ones:

Classical capitalAnd you can see the sixth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch:

Byzantine mosaicsThese are the four Late Antique basilicas I saw that day in April — two fifth-century, one sixth-century, and one seventh-century. The mosaics were that Late Antique style typically called ‘Byzantine’, and they all followed the same architectural layout, a wide nave with two side aisles and an apse; all save Santa Maria Maggiore face East.

Other Late Antique basilicas of note in Rome: Santa Sabina (5th-c, stripped of Baroque accretions) and Santa Cecilia in Trastavere (4th-c, lovely 9th-c mosaics and many modern interventions).  The highly traditional, ‘Byzantine’, decoration in Santa Prassede (9th-c) makes it also a basilica of note in this regard. And if you really like mosaics and are going to Rome, don’t miss Santa Maria in Trastavere and San Clemente — the latter has Late-Antique-inspired, 13th-c apsidal mosaics and is on top of what’s left of a fourth-century basilica on top of a Temple of Mithras and an old Roman house.

Bibliography (because I’m that kind of nerd)

Dodge, Hazel. ‘Basilica‘, in Grove Art Online, part of Oxford Art Online, accessed 22 June, 2014.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Booklet available for purchase at the basilica.

Louth, Andrew. ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, in Experiencing Byzantium, Claire Nesbitt and Mark Jackson, edd.  Pp. 79-88.


5 thoughts on “Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity

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