Basilica of Maxentius

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Basilica of Maxentius (Basilica di Massenzio), known as the Basilica Nova (the new basilica) during Roman times is an ancient monumental building in the Roman Forum. Constructed during the reigns of emperors Maxentius and Constantine, hence sometimes called the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, it was not only the largest structure in the Foro Romano it was also the largest basilica in the ancient city of Rome at the time.

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The construction of the Maxentine Basilica on the northern perimeter of the forum during the reign of Emperor Maxentius in the year 308 CE Subsequently, the construction was completed in 312 CE by Constantine I. This coincided with Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312 CE).

The basilica was situated on the north side of the Via Sacra, in proximity to the Temple of Peace (Templum Pacis), which was potentially disregarded during that period. Additionally, it was located near the Temple of Venus and Rome, a structure that Maxentius had undertaken to restore as part of his initiatives.

The design of the Maxentius Basilica incorporated elements drawn from both Roman baths and traditional Roman basilicas. During that era, it embraced cutting-edge engineering methods, incorporating advancements inspired by structures like the Markets of Trajan and the Baths of Diocletian.

Much like several contemporary basilicas, including the Basilica Ulpia, the Maxentius Basilica showcased an expansive central area within its nave. However, it differed from typical basilicas in terms of its architectural details. Unlike other basilicas that employed columns to uphold the ceiling, the Maxentius Basilica utilized arches, a feature more commonly associated with Roman baths than traditional basilicas. Another point of departure from conventional basilicas was its roof design. While the usual practice was to have a flat roof, the Maxentius Basilica introduced a folded roof structure. This innovation not only reduced the overall weight of the building but also diminished the horizontal forces applied to the outer arches.


circa 310 CE

Maxentius' Basilica was constructed with a central nave that featured three groin vaults, which were suspended at an impressive height of 39 meters (approximately 128 feet) above the floor. These vaults were upheld by four substantial piers. At the western end of the basilica, there was an apse that housed a colossal statue of Constantine. Remnants of this statue can now be found in a courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the Musei Capitolini.

To provide stability for the groin vaults, flanking aisles measuring 23 by 17 meters (about 75 feet by 56 feet) were employed. These aisles were traversed by three semi-circular barrel vaults that extended perpendicular to the nave. Narrow arcades also extended parallel to the nave beneath the barrel vaults. The dimensions of the nave itself were 25 by 80 meters (approximately 82 feet by 262 feet), contributing to a spacious floor area of 2,000 square meters (approximately 22,000 square feet). This vast interior space had a significant emotional impact, akin to the grand imperial baths.

Running along the eastern facade of the building was a projecting arcade, enhancing its architectural features. On the southern face, a projecting porch with four columns (referred to as a tetrastyle) provided an imposing visual element.

Likely, the southern and central portions endured destruction due to the earthquake of 847. In 1349, another earthquake led to the collapse of the nave's vault. Out of the eight columns, each towering at 20 meters (about 66 feet) in height, only one managed to survive the earthquake. Pope Paul V relocated this surviving column to Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore in 1614. Presently, the sole remaining section of the basilica is the northern aisle, showcasing its three concrete barrel vaults. These barrel vaults boast an advanced level of structural ingenuity, employing octagonal ceiling coffers that demonstrate a mastery of weight-saving techniques.

Surviving Architectural elements

circa 310 CE

Column of Peace
The Column of Peace (Colonna della Pace) is the only surviving column (originally eigth) that once supported the grandiose central vault arches. During the Middle Ages it was mistakenly identified belonging to the Templum Pacis, the imperial forum built by emperor Vespasian, hence the name Colonna della Pace.

In early seventeenth century CE (circa 1614 CE), Pope Paul V Borghese had it installed in its current location. The column stands on a refined marble and travertine square base (inspect) constructed by Carlo Maderno, nephew of Domenico Fontana. The four corners of the base are decorated with bronze winged eagles and dragons, reference to the noble coat of arms of the Borghese family. The column is topped with a bronze statue of the Virgin and Child designed by the sculptor Guillaume Berthélot and casted by Orazio Censore. At the foot of the column is a beautiful fountain, realized by Maderno the following year, facing the basilica and fed by the Felice Aqueduct.

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