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ReligionChristianityThe Basilica - the royal home of the new people of God

The Basilica – the royal home of the new people of God

Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny - Reporter at The European Times News

Written by Ventzeslav Karavalchev for dveri.bg

Immediately after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit created the Church, a rapid development of the Christian communities began – the Gospel spread, worship developed, theology was clarified, asceticism was revealed as the main way of Christian existence, the administrative structure of the Church unfolded, etc. All this development finds embodiment and expression in Christian architecture. During the first three centuries – until the edicts of Galerius in Serdica (Sofia, 311) and Constantine the Great in Mediolanum (Milan, 313) – Christians were persecuted by the imperial authorities, and no traces of temple construction have been preserved from this period. It is a generally accepted opinion that during these nearly three hundred years the worship took place in private homes,[1] where house churches (domus ecclesiae) were organized, and from the 2nd century the catacombs were also used for such. However, the reports of various authors from this era, testifying to the construction of Christian temples, which during the persecutions were either destroyed or handed over to the local authorities, who used them according to their needs, should not remain without attention.

One of the earliest testimonies to the construction or rather the remodeling of a private home into a Christian temple is given by St. Clement of Rome († 101), probably the first bishop of today’s Sofia.[2] He tells us about a noble Christian from Antioch, named Theophilus, who “sanctified as a church the huge basilica of his home” (ut domus suae ingentem basilicam ecclesiae nomine consecraret) and handed it over to the local ecclesiastical community. The construction of a Christian temple is also mentioned in the time of imp. Commodus († 192). Imp. Septimius Severus († 211), who is known in history for his religious tolerance, personally defended in court the right of Christians to build their temple on purchased, probably public, land. Tertullian († 230) and St. Gregory of Neocaesaria († 270) testify to Christian temples, and the archaeological excavations of the last century and continuing to this day, revealed in Dura – Europe (an ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates , located on the road connecting Damascus with Mesopotamia, now in Syria) a synagogue and a house church with a baptistery, dating from the second quarter of the 3rd century. The house church has interesting frescoes with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, created in the period 232-256.

A similar Christian temple appeared in the 3rd century and in Rome, created from converted private homes; its remains are located in the area of ​​the modern temple of San Martino di Monti. Similar temples, also dated to the 3rd century, exist in Rome and under the foundations of later churches dedicated to St. Clement and St. Anastasia. The basilica-type temple in Eilat (southern Israel), built around 300 AD, was specially built for the needs of Christians. That in the 3rd century Christian temples already existed as special buildings is also evidenced by St. Gregory of Nyssa and especially the father of church history, Eusebius of Caesarea. About the time before and the first years of Diocletian, he writes that the Christians “in all the cities began to build extensive churches from their foundations” (εὐρείας εἰς πληρου ἀνὰ πάσας τὰς πόλεις ἐκ θεμελίων ἀνίστων ἐκκλησίας).

Apparently, this mass construction of Christian temples began to annoy and frighten, and imp. Diocletian issued a special edict against them. The great Christian apologist Lactantius (d. 325) describes the destruction of a Christian temple at the time of Diocletian (d. 305) and Galerius (d. 311). Probably this happened in 302, when the imp. Diocletian issued an order to completely destroy all Christian temples wherever they were located in the empire. The description probably refers to the destruction of the Nicomedia Cathedral Church, in which 20,000 Christians, martyrs for the faith, were burned alive on the feast of the Nativity of Christ. Even if the number is exaggerated, this account certainly attests to the existence of a temple of great size. The temples which for one reason or another survived were handed over to the pagans.

The real flowering of Christian architecture began in the 4th century, with the edict of Constantine the Great in 313. The long-pent up creative energy of Christianity was unleashed in full force. The vast number of Christians who can now profess their faith freely and publicly need their houses of prayer, where they can thank their God undisturbed. In this first free period for the Church, the most suitable building in which the faithful can gather is the basilica. The advantages over the other types of temples that began to appear in parallel with it or at a slightly later stage, when the initial need for temples to accommodate the huge number of believers was satisfied, are indisputable. First of all, its architecture was not commonly associated with that of pagan temples, something that was of great importance to the early Christian community. The basilica has a simple construction, representing a rectangle and less often a square: four walls, with the possibility, depending on the space they surround, of placing several rows of columns to divide the temple into several “naves” (nave)[3 ] in length, a gabled roof with timber construction,[4] which is also quick and easy to implement.

The interior space is maximally simplified, with the possibility of gathering a large number of people – something that is impossible with other types of temples that appeared later with more complex construction, which bet much more on the impact of the believers’ perceptions. The maintenance of the basilica type of temple is also much easier and cheaper compared to temples of more complex construction. Therefore, the most widespread type of temple in the early Christian period turns out to be the basilica, and, as we have already said, parallel to it, temples with a more complex structure appeared, the construction of which was conditioned by various reasons.[5] Such can be the significance of the place and the event with which it is connected – from the life of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the apostles and prophets, the lobular place of a martyr, etc.

In addition to these advantages, we must note that the basilica fully meets the requirements for a Christian temple in the Apostolic Decrees (composed ca. 380, but reflecting postulates, many of which can be traced back to the time of the apostles). According to these requirements, the temple building must be rectangular and oblong, and remind the shape of Noah’s ark, i.e. a ship.

From a royal house to a temple of the “common work” of ἐκκλησία

The basilica (from Greek: βασίλειον, βασιλική – royal house; Latin basilica – royal palace, palace) is not a discovery of Christian architectural thought. It was borrowed and adapted to the needs of the Church from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.[6] As a dwelling, it appeared in the late Neolithic era, which corresponds to the earliest period of the history of Hellas. The collision of the Achaeans (the ancestors of the Greeks) who invaded the territory of present-day Greece with the inhabitants and culture of the island of Crete (approx. 1500 BC) led to a strong influence of the Minoan civilization on all spheres of the Achaeans’ life. including in the field of architecture. Thanks to this influence, the Achaeans learned to build, like the Cretans, royal palaces. The basis of the special type of architecture of the basilica is the so-called megaron – large hall (μέγα – large and ρον – hall). The megaron was a rectangular room, which was divided internally, by means of columns or massive pillars, as a rule, into three parts. It had no windows and the light entered it through the doors.

The works of the great ancient Greek poet Homer contain a detailed description of the house of Basileus, the most numerous being in the Odyssey. Homer informs us that the life of the ruler was very ordinary. According to Homer, the famous ancient Greek hero Odysseus personally participated in the construction and especially in the furnishing of the royal house. The main emphasis in this construction is given to the strengthening and protection against external enemies of the building:

Sigur, Eumeea, this is the wonderful home of Odysseus.

It is easily recognized even among many buildings.

Hall o hall rests, the toothed wall skillfully protects the courtyard,

the double-winged gate is securely locked.

No one would even think of breaking it with violence.


In the Odyssey, Homer also gives a description of some details of the royal house, such as the presence of columns, thresholds, etc. The house of Basileus was divided into three parts: the prodrome (προδρομος), the megaron (μέγαρον) and the domos (δόμος).

The prodrome, lit. “in front of the house” was an inner courtyard around which guest rooms were located. Here were also rooms for a bath, a mill, warehouses, etc. In the middle of the courtyard was an altar to the ancient Greek god Zeus.

The megaron was an elongated rectangular hall with an entrance located at the end of the building. This is the main or “men’s” hall with two rows of wooden columns that divided the interior space into three parts and also served to support the high ceiling. In the center of the hall was a hearth around which the men gathered for feasts and entertainment. From here it was possible to enter the third part of the home – the female part. According to Homer, Penelope spent most of her time here.

With time and the complication of state administration, the basilica became a public one from a private home. The first archons-vasilevsi rule independently. With the development of the policy and the increase in the volume of administrative cases, they began to need assistants. Thus, in Athens, for example, the college of nine archons appeared, ruling the city for a year. Subsequently, they became members of the council of elders – Areopagites (from Ἄρειος Πάγος – literally hill of Ares). This complication of the administrative apparatus of the polis transformed the basilica from a private home into a building used exclusively as the workplace of the archons.

With the changes in the state administration and with the complicated “bureaucracy”, changes also occur in construction. Depending on the number of columns used, temple construction is divided into several types:

– pardon – presence of four columns in front of the main entrance;

– amphiprostyle – presence of columns supporting a portico in front of the main entrance and on the opposite side of the temple;

– peripter – the temple premises are surrounded by columns on all four sides.

During the time of Pericles, the building of the “Basilica Stoa” was built in Athens. This term, stoa, indicates the presence of columns as a mandatory element of the building. The purpose of the “Basilica Stoa” in Athens was to be a place for judicial sessions – a city court. Until it was built, the archons conducted court cases in the square (ἀγορά), which is why the new building acquired the rectangular shape resembling the agora. To be able to perform his duties, the archon needs a special official place, which appears in the “basilica stoa”, and which is a semicircular niche called an apse.[8] Similar buildings appeared elsewhere in Hellas, in Sparta, in Piraeus, etc. The column system itself also underwent development. They begin to be made of marble, and depending on the shape and ornamentation (mostly on the capital[9] of the column, but also depending on whether the body of the column has a base or not) we distinguish: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian style columns.

The development of trade and especially the expansion of Rome lead to interaction of the Roman Empire with other cultures of the peoples it conquered or with which it had trade relations. According to the famous Roman historian Titus Livius, author of Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Foundation of the City” – a history of the foundation and development of Rome), the influence of other cultures, especially Greek on Roman, began with censorship[10] of Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder (234-149 BC). Cato was a man who had gained enormous experience and impressions from the time when he led the Roman army in Spain, Greece, Carthage. He used this experience to decorate Rome. New construction begins on the Roman Forum with large and beautiful buildings borrowing architectural elements from different cultures. By his order in 184 BC. the first basilica was built in Rome, the construction of which met with serious resistance from the local municipality, since its construction was carried out with public funds, and a number of pavilions and shops were destroyed to clear the ground. It received the name “Basilica of Portia”. After its construction, the basilica in Rome combined judicial, political and commercial functions. Five years after it, a second basilica appeared, named in honor of its builders Fulvius Nobilior and Aemilius Lepidus. Not long after, a third basilica appeared in Rome – Sempronius. It suffered a number of destructions and fires, but was always rebuilt, with its last restoration dated to 377 AD.

A new stage in the construction of basilicas and in general the flowering of architecture in Rome occurred with the reign of Octavian Augustus. According to Suetonius, the face of the imperial capital did not match its grandeur.[11] Rome continued to suffer from floods and fires. To minimize these dangers, Augustus began a massive construction project. Again, in the words of Suetonius, “he took the city in brick and left it in marble”. The author of the famous work on the theory of architecture (De architectura libri decem – “Ten books on architecture”) Marcus Vitruvius Pollio also wrote about the construction of Augustus.[12] In Chapter 1 of Book 5 he gives specific instructions as to where and how the basilica is to be built. Vitruvius draws attention to another important fact, namely that the Romans did not blindly copy the architectural forms from Greece and other countries, but put into them a new, creative content and execution, according to the needs and traditions of Rome.

During the time of imp. Trajan, in AD 112. the grandest Roman forum was built, nearly twice the size of Caesar’s. The central place there is occupied by the Basilica of Ulpia, which is one of the largest to this day, measuring 120 m. long and 60 m. wide. The roof is lined with copper or bronze. There are two apses, and the interior space was divided by four rows of columns.

According to the Russian researcher Voloshinov, from the end of the 2nd century AD. by 476 (the end of the imperial period) between 22 and 29 basilicas were built as public buildings in Rome.[13] Subsequently, some of them were converted into Christian temples.[14] As the most notable in terms of architecture, decoration and size among them, we can point to the basilica of Maxentius and Constantine the Great – the famous Basilica di Massenzio, Basilica Nova.[15]

In addition to the enormous basilicas, built with funds from the state treasury, a number of private ones were also built – in different parts of the empire, which also amaze with their size and architectural appearance. Of the private ones, it is worth mentioning the great basilica in Antioch, belonging to the noble man Theophilus, the basilica in the palace of Alexander Severus, the Sicilian basilica, the Alexandrian basilica, Graziana, Theodosia, etc.[16] This indicates that in the last period of the history of Ancient Rome, the basilica as an architectural type, after passing from the East to Rome, left its borders and spread throughout the vast territory of the empire.

Thus, as a summary of the development of the basilica in Ancient Greece and Rome, we can say that the original “dwelling of the basileus” was transformed into the “basilica of the stoa” and from a private home into a building with public functions. Transferred from Greece to Rome, as a public building, it received its completion.

The New Language of the Christian Basilica

The Edict of Milan of 313 placed Christianity on an equal footing with other cults. It quickly managed to displace them and become a leading, basic confession. We have already said that the most practical, convenient, functional and relatively quick to build is the temple with a basilica plan. Last but not least, the basilica is relatively religiously neutral, i.e. pagan churches of the basilica type are few.[17] In it, of course, Christians bring new elements, understanding, functionality and meaning, conditioned by the needs of worship and Christian symbolism.[18] Every part of it and the building itself acquire a new semiotics. Moreover, in light of the debates that continue today as to the continuity between the basilica of the pagan period and the Christian basilica, or whether the Christian basilica is an entirely new architectural type, perhaps the only indisputable fact is that Christianity borrowed the name of the Roman civil edifice basilica to denote of his worship building.[19] The basilica became the name of the Christian temple, while the temple (templum) became the term with which Christians denoted pagan cult buildings, with the only exception being that the Jerusalem temple was also called that.[20] The word basilica appears in the earliest Christian texts in Latin, such as the 1st-century Lists of the Roman Popes, where Christian buildings of worship are called basilica or ἐκκλησία.[21]

Oriented along its longitudinal axis, the basilica with its elongated shape fully meets the Christian requirement and idea of ​​the temple as a ship of salvation – the path from the entrance to the altar apse is perceived precisely as a path to salvation, as a passage from the earthly to the heavenly, from the created to the uncreated. The external form of the basilica reminds and personifies the mountain. And some of the most important biblical events are connected with the mountain: Moses receives the commandments at Sinai; Noah’s Ark rests on a mountain; The life of Christ is connected with the Mount of Olives; Christ is transfigured on Tabor; he was crucified on the mountain (hill) Golgotha, etc. In Christianity, the mountain acquires a symbolic meaning as a place of divine revelation and deliverance, of faith, of sacrifice and of salvation.

The interior of the basilica is also undergoing changes and receiving a new semantic load. On the eastern side of the basilica appears the apse, whose architectural semicircular shape with the altar located in it symbolizes the cave in which Christ was born and the cave (rock tomb) in which he was buried. The beginning of the new life, of the new Adam, Who with His death defeated death.

With the beginning of permitted Christianity, the great temple building began – in Rome, Constantinople, the Holy Land, etc., associated with Constantine the Great and his mother, Empress Helena. Among the earliest examples of such construction is San Giovanni in Laterno in Rome – a five-nave, single-apsed, highly elongated basilica built in 313-318. Another church from this period is the first dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle in Rome – also five-nave basilica, in the middle of which is the tomb of the apostle: the compositional center of the temple. It was built in the period 320-330.

Often the dimensions of the Christian basilica rival and even surpass those of the pagan. The orientation of the early Christian basilica is often arbitrary, some of the mandatory elements of today are not always present. In many of the earliest examples the apse is oriented not to the east but to the west. Such are the churches of St. Ap. Peter’s, San Giovanni in Laterno, Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, as well as that of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (ca. 330) has an octagonal building attached instead of an apse. The basilica in Aquileia has no apse at all.

During these first years of mass construction of Christian temples, the model imposed by the imperial family was imposed, which was the guarantor and founder of many of the most famous and significant religious buildings even today. With its simplicity, functionality and relatively quick and easy construction, the basilica became a major early Christian architectural type. The main elements of its internal division from this period are: a nave or nave, at the end of which the altar part or presbytery is formed, located on a specially raised part called solei.[22] These include the appearance of the atrium,[23] the narthex and the exonarthex[24] to the opposite part of the apse.

In conclusion, we can give the following definition: a basilica is a Christian temple with a rectangular shape, the nave of which is divided longitudinally by columns into three, five or more parts (naves), with the central one being higher. This central (middle) nave is the widest. It is raised at a height above the roofs of the side aisles, and from the windows located there, the whole temple is illuminated. The entrance is on the opposite side of the altar apse. In front of the basilica there is a closed space – a courtyard, an exonarthex. Over time, many parts of the basilica underwent development, new elements were added, corresponding to the liturgical development of the service. Transepts appeared, [25] allowing better organization of the interior space. Over time, the architectural plan of the basilica was constantly refined and complicated. Twelve main compositions or the plan of the basilica appear. Among them we can point out the cruciform one, the one with an external atrium, the one with an additional narthex, etc. The basilica was the main architectural type in temple construction in the 4th-6th century. After the collapse of the empire in the West (476), the construction of large, exquisitely shaped basilicas ceased. In the East, from the middle of the 6th century, the basilica was also gradually displaced by the domed temples. Regardless of the emergence of other types of Christian churches, however, basilica churches continue to be built to this day.


[1] The first Christian temple, on which all the others step like a cornerstone, is the Mount of Zion, where the Lord Jesus Christ himself performed the sacrament of the Eucharist together with the apostles.

[2] Karavalchev, V. “St. Clement, Pope of Rome – first bishop of Serdica” – In: Christianity and Culture, 10 (67), 2011, pp. 116-127.

[3] A nave (from French nef; Latin navis – ship) is a room bounded on one or both of its long sides by a row of columns or pillars, separating it from the neighboring rooms. An early Christian temple may have 3 or 5 naves (usually an odd number), with the central nave usually wider and higher.

[4] We should note that in the early, pagan period, the basilica had a mostly flat roof.

[5] Janson, W. Janson’s History of Art: The Western tradition, Upper Saddle River 82011, p. 246-247.

[6] Tomlinson, R. From Mycenae to Constantinople: The Evolution of the Ancient City, London 1992. There are various theories today about the origin of the basilica in antiquity, which became the prototype of the Christian basilica. There are theories that its homeland is not Ancient Greece, but Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ethiopia, etc. Many see the prototype of the Christian basilica in the Jerusalem Temple – a statement that even today can neither be categorically confirmed nor rejected. More on this in: Swift, E. Roman sources of Christian Architecture, New York 1951; Ciampini, J. Vetera monumenta, 1, Roma 1690, p. 22.

[7] Homer, Odyssey, Song 17:265, trans. G. Batakliev – here.

[8] The apse – in some editions it is also found as apsida, from the Greek word ἀψίδα representing a vault, arc, semicircle, Latin absis. In architecture, this is expressed in the form of a convexity of a building with a semicircular, oval or rectangular shape, with a half-dome covered by a conch or a lowered half-vault. Ancient Roman basilicas, baths and temples were built with apses for the first time. An Orthodox church usually has one or several, always an odd number of apses. In the eastern part of the temple is the altar apse – on the opposite side of the main entrance of the Christian temple – and it houses the altar, the holy throne.

[9] Capital – the upper extended part of the column.

[10] Censor – according to Plutarch was the highest honorary position attainable in the state – in this case, Rome.

[11] Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (De vita XII caesarum). Translated into Bulgarian: Guy Suetonius Tranquille, The Twelve Caesars, Sofia: “Riva” 2016.

[12] Vitruvius, The ten books on architecture, trans. M. Morgan, Cambridge 1914.

[13] Voloshinov, A. Mathematics and art, M. 1992, p. 90.

[14] The conversion of pagan temples and public buildings into Christian ones in the first years after the edict of 313 is an interesting phenomenon, which, although not so frequent, was dictated by the great need for places of worship in the first years of the free practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Imp. Theodosius II the Younger (401-450), for example, issued a law to purify all pagan temples by placing the sign of the cross, i.e. a sign that they were being converted into Christian temples. Beda the Venerable says that St. Gregory the Great ordered the monk Augustine not to destroy the well-built shrines of the Saxons, but to rebuild them into places of true worship. At imp. Phocas, the pagan sanctuary in Rome called the Pantheon, “temple of all the gods”, was converted into the temple of All Saints. A large number of studies have been published on the matter, including: Pagoulatos, G. “Destruction and conversion of ancient temples to Christian churches during fourth, fifth and sixth centuries” – In: Θεολογία, τ. ΞΕ‘, τευχ. 1, σ. 152-169; Bayliss, R. “From temple to Church: Converting paganism to Christianity in Late Antiquity” – Minerva, September-October, 2005, p. 16-18; From Temple To Church: Destruction And Renewal Of Local Cultic Topography In Late Antiquity (Religions In The Graeco-Roman World), ed. J. Hahn, S. Emmel, U. Gotter, Leiden–Boston, 2008; The Archeology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’, ed. L. Lavan, M. Mulryan, Leiden–Boston 2011.

[15] Giavarini, C. The Basilica of Maxentius: The Monument, its Materials, Construction, and Stability, Roma 2005.

[16] See, for example: Pokrovskii, N.V. Ocherki pamjatkov khristianskogo iskusstva, St. Petersburg. 2000, p. 335.

[17] An opposing opinion was expressed in the 15th century by Leon Battista Alberti, the first researcher who defined the basilica as a separate type of building. He is the author of the work: De re aedificatoria libri decem – “Ten books about construction”. According to him, in the pagan period the basilica had a religious purpose and was one of the centers of the pagan cult. This opinion is not supported by modern researchers. About Alberti see more in: Zubov, V. Architectural theory Alberti, St. Petersburg. 2001.

[18] Worthy of attention is the study of one of the first and most prominent connoisseurs and researchers of the basilica, Adolf Zestermann (Zestermann, A. Die antiken und die christlichen Basiliken, nach ihrer Entstehung, Ausbildung und Beziehung zu einander dargestellt, Leipzig 1847), who , comparing the Roman and Christian basilicas, comes to the conclusion that the Christian has no connection with the Roman and is something completely original. This notion is also supported by other researchers.

[19] And here is another theory: that “basilica” became a designation for the Christian temple, coming not from its Greek and Latin equivalent, but from the Hebrew hekhal, meaning home, palace, abode of the king, and together with that, temple, abode of the deity. However, this theory uses as its source a text from the Middle Ages – “Etymology” of Isidore of Seville from the 7th century, which is why it does not stand up to criticism. See: Wilkinson, J. From Synagogue to Church. The Traditional Design. Its Beginning, Its Definition, Its End. London – New York 2002, p. 6.

[20] See: Mohrmann, C. Études sur le latin des chrétiens, 1 Roma, 1961, p. 62.

[21] Regesta pontificum romanorum ab condita Ecclesia ad annum post Christus natus, ed. P. Jaffé, 1, Lipsiae 1881.

[22] The sole is a raised place from the floor of the naos, located in front of the iconostasis in the Orthodox church. In a later period, there were the thrones of the kings and prefects. In the West, the soleum is called the senatorium, because that is where the senators sit. Today, in some temples, the chancel is surrounded by a railing and contains the singers and the bishop’s throne. The central part of the solea is the pulpit, and the side ones are the kliros. Even today, there is a dispute as to whether the sole begins from the altar partition – the iconostasis, or from the altar itself. The second opinion is more common, with the main argument being that the altar is at the same height as the saltire.

[23] Atrium – a colonnaded courtyard in a Hellenistic or Roman house. In the early Christian temple, this was a courtyard in the western part of the temple complex.

[24] Narthex – also known as the vestibule of the temple – the entrance to the Orthodox temple, vestibule; one of the three main parts of the temple today: narthex, naos (central part) and altar. Some smaller public prayers and sacraments are usually performed there: betrothal, ninth hour, liturgy, cleansing prayers… In ancient times, there was usually a baptistery here as well. The announced and the penitents stand in the porch. The vestibule can be a closed room or an open gallery – a portico, located only to the west or both to the north and to the south. In the presence of a closed and open porch, the second is called external – exonarthex.

[25] Transept (transeptum) – an additional nave, a nave located perpendicular to the central nave of the temple.

Photo: 19th century reconstruction of the 2nd century AD Basilica Ulpia, part of the Trajan’s Forum, Rome / Public Domain

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