The Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 4/01/2019
One of the Rome Reborn® applications lets us look at the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. I asked my family and friends if they knew what that was; no one did. So today, I want to lay out some more information about what it was so when you go use the program, you might appreciate the amazing recreation even more. This huge structure may also be listed as the Basilica of Maxentius, the Basilica Nova, and even The Basilica of Constantine; I’ll simply be calling it the Basilica of Maxentius.
Today, the term basilica brings religious buildings to most minds. But originally, Roman basilicae housed law courts, government offices, and often some shops, though the focus was still on state or city matters. The word may be derived from the stoá basilikè in Athens, a particularly prominent covered walkway with colonnades. In Rome it became a style of two-story roofed building with a large central walkway connecting several offices. The first Roman basilica is credited to Cato the Elder in the early second century BCE, but it was followed by several other basilicae over the years. That Cato the Elder would call his public building by this Latinized term is amusing if you are familiar with some of his anti-Hellenic sentiments.
The basilica this article talks about was begun by Maxentius in 308 CE. Maxentius was one of the leaders who fought for power with the breakdown of Diocletian’s tetrarchic system in the early fourth century CE. His center of power was in Rome, where he became actively involved in building projects—including a new villa on the Via Appia—in the manner of an emperor in the empire’s better times during the second century CE. Maxentius sited his basilica between the Temple of Venus and Rome (which he also restored) and the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum. Building here was a demonstration of his power and connection to the past glories of Rome.
One of Maxentius’ rivals, Constantine, eventually defeated him in the epochal Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Constantine continued the work on the Basilica of Maxentius, finishing it in 313 CE. Why would he finish it? It was far along in construction at the time, so destroying it may have seemed wasteful when he could simply have made some changes to the design to mark it as his own. There were several structures in the historic center of the city that were begun under one person and finished under another, so finishing this project was not unusual in Rome. But I think that, by completing it, Constantine was able to claim his right to rule by attaching his name to what was the largest building in the Forum area.
The Basilica of Maxentius differed from previous basilicae in a couple of ways. Instead of columns holding up the roof on the interior, it had arches, amazing architectural features that can be both functional and decorative. The Romans may have learned the concept of the arch from the Etruscans, but they mastered the technique and used it routinely, especially after developing the new building technique of opus caementicium in the middle and late Republic. The roof was not flat but was folded, which dispersed the weight even more. The roofs were made of brick when earlier basilicae seem to have had wooden roofs. The combination of arches and a folded roof created more stability, but parts of the building fell victim to earthquakes (perhaps those of the years 847 CE and 1348 CE).
What was the Basilica of Maxentius used for? The vaulted areas that might correspond to offices or shops are more opulent and certainly far more spacious than those in other basilicae and do not show archaeological or textual evidence of such mundane usage. Likewise, no texts mention court proceedings happening here. Could it be that it was merely a show of power, with the giant statue of Constantine overlooking everyone inside of it? Was that the original intention for Maxentius as well? Rome Reborn® collaborator Prof. Hauke Ziemssen (based at the Free University of Berlin) has researched this issue and has cogently proposed that Maxentius planned to use the building as an audience hall.
The Rome Reborn® program allows us to look inside, and this is where the reconstruction may be the most surprising. Over and over in modern sources I have seen the building described as white or gray, but studies of the standing walls and arches as well as consultation eyewitness accounts show that it was quite striking inside. The Basilica of Maxentius would have been decorated, not plain, to show off the wealth of the men having it built as well as the riches of the empire. Contrary to a popular misconception , ancient buildings were not clad in white marble inside and out but were polychrome, whether the color came from paint or the use of colorful marbles and stones such as porphyry, giallo antico, serpentine, gray and rose granite, etc. As you will see in the app, the interior of this building made extensive use of such polychrome stones as well as paint and gilding. While experts might disagree about the intensity of the colors, walking through this reconstruction is breathtaking, and the opportunity to do so while listening to the commentary of the dynamic duo, Beth Harris and Stephen Zucker of Smarthistory, makes the experience all the more rewarding.
Leppin, Hartmut and Hauke Ziemssen. Maxentius. Der letzte Kaiser in Rom (Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie). Mainz: Zabern, 2007.
Ziemssen, Hauke. “Der Herrscher im Tempel. Bild und Inszenierung im kaiserzeitlichen Rom,”
Bild - Raum - Handlung. Perspektiven der Archäologie, edited by O. Dally, et al. 2012, pp. 137-163.Join the discussion!