What to See in the Roman Forum? The Basilica of Maxentius!

The Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum, as taken from above on the Palatine Hill

You can’t miss it. The Basilica of Maxentius dominates the labyrinthian ruins of the Roman Forum and towers over the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Countless tourists will have taken photos of this remarkable architectural wonder, that so immediately awes you with its sheer size and scale. Astonishingly, the Basilica of Maxentius only becomes more impressive when you know the story behind it.

The History of the Basilica of Maxentius

The Basilica is named after Emperor Maxentius and construction work began during his reign, in 308 AD. Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge — the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity — and it was only under his orders that the remarkable Basilica was completed, in 312 AD.

The Architecture of the Basilica of Maxentius

The Basilica’s sheer size distinguishes it as remarkable; at the time, it was the largest building in Rome. The Basilica’s vaulted ceiling stretches 130ft high and its floor spans 6561 square feet. A colossal statue of Constantine stood in the apse. An Ancient Roman who walked into the Basilica of Maxentius must have felt a lot like a modern pilgrim as he enters St. Peter’s; overwhelmed by the vast interior space and artistic flourishes.

The Basilica’s architects were clearly inspired by the grand, Imperial Roman Baths, such as the Baths of Diocletian. Other Roman Basilicas, such as the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum of Trajan, were clear influences. Cutting-edge engineering techniques were used to build the Basilica of Maxentius, that had recently been trialed on the Markets of Trajan.

What Was A Roman Basilica?

Today, we associate the word ‘Basilica’ with major Roman Catholic Churches; St. Peter’s Basilica is, of course, the one which immediately springs to mind. However, among Ancient Romans, the word ‘Basilica had a different meaning.

‘Basilica’ derives from a Greek expression, which literally means ‘Royal Walkway’. In Ancient Rome, a Basilica essentially functioned as a modern town hall — with a few ancient flourishes. The Basilica of Maxentius would have been used for commercial and administrative business. It’s likely that the offices of the Prefect of the City would have been found within.

How the Ancient Basilica Became the Christian Church

Constantine and his successors were the first to Christianize the Basilica, to make these government buildings the modern churches we know today. Constantine thought that the layout of the building — already shaped like a Crucifix — would be perfect for Christian worship.

The sheer size of the pre-existing Basilicas gave them a logistical advantage, as a logical site of Christian worship, as they could easily accommodate a large congregation. Another advantage of Basilicas is that they were free from the Temple’s pagan associations.

The Basilica of Maxentius Today

As Christianity spread, the origins of the Basilica were all but forgotten. the 9th and 14th century, earthquakes destroyed a large part of the Basilica of Maxentius, but what remains is magnificent nonetheless – it is by far the biggest building in the Roman Forum.

You can visit the Basilica of Maxentius and explore some of the other wonders of the Forum on our Roman Forum tour, which also includes the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of basilicas of Rome, we also recommend our Papal Basilica tour. This unique, private tour, includes visits to three of the major Papal Basilica: San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo Fuori le mure.

The ultimate Basilica is, of course, St Peter’s Basilica, which is best experienced on a Vatican Museums tour. Enter St. Peter’s directly, after visiting The Sistine Chapel. Allow wonder to wash over you as you marvel at the spectacular architecture, in what is arguably the most beautiful building in the Eternal City. The connection between the evocative ruins of the Roman Empire and St. Peter’s should only enrich your experience of Rome — and allow you to appreciate this wondrous city all the more.

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