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Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine: huge brick and concrete arches

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in the Roman Forum

Where is the Basilica of Maxentius?

The Basilica of Maxentius was the last building the emperors built in the Roman Forum before the fall of Rome.

What is a basilica?
The Roman Forum
Roman architecture
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When was it built?

The Emperor Maxentius started the basilica in the early 300s AD. He wanted a big meeting-space where officials could hold court cases, or public meetings. Maxentius’ architects were very up-to-date. They designed the building with all sorts of new features. They decided to build Maxentius’ new basilica out of brick and concrete. That was normal. But they added a great brick and concrete vaulted roof, where most earlier basilicas had wooden roofs.

What is concrete?
More about brick
What is a barrel vault?

Looking into one of the side aisles.

Looking into one of the side aisles.

How big is the Basilica of Maxentius?

See the great concrete vaults? Those are only the vaults of the side aisles; it was originally much higher in the center nave (you can see what’s left of the center roof starting at the top of the picture, and a chunk of the vault that fell down, surrounded by the metal fence in the front).

What is a nave?
What are side aisles?

Marble decoration of the Basilica of Maxentius

Marble decoration of the Basilica of Maxentius

When Constantine killed Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD (where Constantine converted to Christianity), Constantine took over construction of the half-finished basilica.

Entrance on the long side

Maxentius had planned for people to come into the basilica from the middle of the long side facing the Forum, but Constantine decided to change the plan and have people come in from the middle of the short side instead (the way people do in churches).

It’s interesting to see that architects were already changing the entrance to the short side before people began to use basilicas for churches.

Constantine's giant head

Constantine’s giant head

Marble decoration

This picture shows some of the short side, along with a bit of the marble that once decorated the inside of the basilica. After the building fell down, people took most of the marble to use in other buildings. Or they burned it to make lime for mortar.

What is marble?
Medieval lime kilns

Constantine's giant foot

Constantine’s giant foot

Giant statue of Constantine

Constantine also put an enormous statue of himself on the other short side, opposite the door where you would see it as soon as you came in. Some of the pieces of the statue are still around today!

What happened to the Basilica of Maxentius?

Even though the Basilica of Maxentius is not in very good shape today, this was not the fault of the builders – the basilica was knocked down by a bad earthquake that hit Rome in the 800s AD, when the basilica was already 500 years old.

More about earthquakes
Early Medieval Italy

Bibliography and further reading about the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine:

Roman Architecture, by Frank Sear (1983). The standard college textbook.

The Architecture of the Roman Empire: An Introductory Study, by William MacDonald (1982). Actually not so introductory, but it’s got great illustrations that really make the building techniques clear.

Roman Imperial Architecture, by J. B. Ward-Perkins (1992). A more detailed textbook, and harder going.

More about early Christian churches
More Roman Architecture
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