Basilica of Maxentius or Constantine


Christian Hulsen, 1906.

Between 306 and 310 Maxentius began to construct at the upper end of the Sacra Via a colossal new basilica (basilica nova), which was not yet completed at the time of his death (313). His vanquisher, Constantine, completed the building, with certain changes of plan, however. The main entrance was originally on the side toward the Colosseum, and the apse for the tribunal on the side opposite (toward SS. Cosma e Damiano); but later a second entrance was made, from the Sacra Via, and corresponding to this a second apse in the middle of the north aisle. We can still see clearly that the back wall, which was originally straight, was afterwards broken through in the centre, and a semi-circular apse adorned with niches was built into it at that point. In the middle of the semi-circular wall is preserved the foundation for the seat of the emperor, or of the magistrate who presided over the proceeding. Besides this a strip of marble is still in situ, to which was fastened the rail which separated the space reserved for the judges from that open to the public. The remains of architectural ornaments (brackets with victories, richly sculptured cornices) bear witness to the decadent and fulsome style of the rv. century BCE Nevertheless the general effect is powerful, and very different from that produced by the older basilicas with their columns and pillars. We must seek the model for this sort of basilica rather in the great central rooms of the imperial baths (cf. especially those in the baths of Diocletian, at present the church of S. Maria degli Angeli). Four huge piers support the barrel-vaulting of the side-aisles and the cross vaulting of the central nave. The space roofed over is more than 7000 square yards (S. Maria degli Angeli is scarcely than 2300 square yards). Some idea of the dimensions may be obtained from fig. 143 and 144, which contrast the longitudinal and the cross-section of the basilica with certain important mediaeval and modern churches (the cathedrals in Limburg, Freiburg and Cologne and the Thomaskirche in Berlin). The huge columns which stood against the piers were merely ornamental and did not support the vaulting. The last of these columns was removed by Pope Paul V to the piazza in front of S. Maria Maggiore, where at present it serves as the support for a bronze statue of the Madonna.

In the western half of the building, many remains of the costly marble pavement, beside bits of the vaulting with the coffers and remnants of stucco, were dug up in 1904. After the second apse had been built in the transverse axis, a colossal seated figure of Constantine was placed in the original apse on the west wall; the head of this statue, and fragments of the arms and legs, were dug up here about the year 1490, and are at present in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Near the apse, at the corner of the third arch in the right aisle, an ancient winding staircase leads upwards. For 54 steps this staircase may still be used, and the continuation of it is in the great fragment which lies at present behind SS. Cosma e Damiano . The roof of the building, which affords a splendid view over the Forum, Palatine etc., has unfortunately not been accessible for several years.

In the early middle ages the destruction of the gigantic building began: Pope Honorius I (625-638) took the plates of bronze from the roof and used them on the roof of St. Peter’s. The enormous size of the building precluded its use for Christian worship or practical purposes. Shortly after this time the building had fallen into neglect and was much injured by an earthquake. In the ” Mirabilia ” it is called templum Ronndi supra templum Latonae: from the fifteenth century on it was generally known as the templum Pads, until Nibby (1819) gave it its correct name.

Hulsen, Christian. The Roman Forum, its history and its monuments. Rome: Loescher; New York, G. E. Stechert, 1906.

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Stephanie Sepúlveda & John William Bailly  14 April 2018