Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

Built using new technologies, this building is overwhelming and unprecedented—displaying Roman imperial power.


Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (Basilica Nova), Roman Forum, c. 306-312

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re standing in the main aisle of what’s known as the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, and even what’s left is just huge.

Dr. Darius Arya: [0:13] Its massive scale here is to just overwhelm you with the power of the engineering and the architecture.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] And the power of the emperor.

Dr. Arya: [0:21] That niche is where the famous head and limbs of Constantine were found. We love it in archaeology, art history when we find the work of art in situ. We have the original architectural location. We have the architecture.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] This was started by the emperor Maxentius but then completed by the emperor Constantine.

Dr. Arya: [0:38] It’s pretty much a Maxentian project, but Constantine does some small modifications, and so then ultimately his gargantuan statue, about 15 meters high, was placed on one end.

Dr. Harris: [0:48] This is almost unprecedented in terms of scale in the history of architecture. The Romans were able to do this because of concrete.

Dr. Arya: [0:54] They do have some gigantic basilicas like the Basilica Ulpia by Trajan in his forum, and the Basilica Julia itself down in the Roman Forum, but this one here looks different. This one here looks more massive. Why? Because it’s using a different kind of technology.

[1:09] It didn’t have a ceiling of roof beams. It didn’t have the timber truss work. Instead, it’s borrowing from the frigidarium spaces, the large cold halls in the bath complexes, like the Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian, and it looks awesome.

Dr. Harris: [1:23] Over the main area, there was a massive groin vault made out of concrete, and we see that the side aisles have barrel vaults, and we can still see the impressions from the coffers that were there.

Dr. Arya: [1:34] Creating these coffers, you are reducing the overall weight of the vaulting, so it has a double purpose. That’s the way the Romans were, they’re interested in aesthetics, and they’re interested in engineering and technology, and they’re building things to last.

Dr. Harris: [1:44] What we’re seeing here is brick facing on the concrete, and then these would have been covered by slabs of marble that would have been very colorful, and geometric, like the interior of the Pantheon.

Dr. Arya: [1:56] Right. When you look at these small little holes that pepper the surface, that’s for the metal clamps. The metal clamps would have helped hold in place the panels of marble that also would have been glued in with cement, and it’s of course all been stripped away.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] Concrete enabled the Romans to shape space in a way that was different from post-and-lintel architecture, and to create this sense of grandeur. We’re talking about a period now at the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th century, when the empire has been coming undone for a while now.

Dr. Arya: [2:26] Maxentius managed to pull things together for at least 6 years of reign, and he decided, “I’m going to make a fresh start in the city of Rome. I’m going to build a lot of massive structures in the Forum area.” The warehouses around this part of town had burned down. It was a great opportunity to create a new, large basilica, and that’s what he does.

[2:43] When you see a structure like this, you’re very much aware that the Romans are still able to build and still able to wow the audience.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] Then a civil war follows. Constantine goes to battle with Maxentius, with whom he was co-ruler before that.

Dr. Arya: [2:57] Right. There’s a major discrepancy in who is the emperor. The tetrarchic system, where there were two senior emperors and two junior emperors, really doesn’t work. These guys are sons of some of those emperors. They’re duking it out, literally, all throughout the empire. It’s at the Milvian Bridge then that you get the total victory of Constantine and his troops.

[3:15] Maxentius is killed at the Milvian Bridge.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] It was just before this battle that Constantine had his vision that inspired him to become a supporter of Christianity and decriminalize it.

Dr. Arya: [3:27] Right, and legalize it, ultimately.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] This is the end of the Empire and, in some ways, the beginnings of the Middle Ages.

Dr. Arya: [3:33] Well, here’s a point in time in which Constantine is coming in. He’s celebrating his victory. He’s not making a sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. He will eventually move to make these big public churches for the first time — St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran. At the same time, he’s going to make sure that he takes care of the city.

[3:49] He wants to be associated with the Forum. He doesn’t build a church here, but he does make sure that everyone knows that this basilica is indeed his, and he is the ruler.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] The Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine was a civic space. It was a law court like all basilicas were. This is a form that will be adopted by the Christians for their first churches.

[4:07] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Darius Arya and Dr. Beth Harris, "Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024,