What is a Basilica?

A title of honour given to religious buildings or churches that are distinguished by their antiquity or by their role as international centres of worship 

Basilica derives from the Greek word βᾰσῐλῐκή (basilikḗ) which translates into meaning kingly or royal. This easily represents what a Basilica is as it is a highly significant church that has been chosen by the pope for greatness. Now it is known as an ancient Roman, early Christian, or even medieval church, with a large majority found in the country Italy. The building carries special spiritual, historical, and architectural significance. It is the highest permanent title for a church and can never lose its basilica status. In the Roman Catholic Church or Greek Orthodox, these have particular significance because they are usually associated with a major saint, or important historical event. The title of a basilica gives the church certain privileges, principally the right to reserve its high altar for the pope, a cardinal, or a patriarch, and give it international status. 

Pompeii’s Basilica

Like the majority of cities within ancient Rome, Pompeii had its own Basilica. Situated in the southwest corner of the city’s forum, the building was estimated to be built towards the end of the second century B.C. The purpose and style of Roman basilicas evolved from earlier Greek stoas, open-air markets where people went to trade and do business. The basilica was an ancient remain because early Christian basilicas retained the architectural features of the Roman buildings. It was built in a long rectangular shape, measuring almost 70 metres long. The building is surrounded by a 12-by-four row of columns with an outer walkway. A two-story basilica with high windows providing the light on the outer walls. The remains of the basilica can still be seen today by the Forum. It was used to carry out business and the administration of justice. Dating back to 130-120 BC, the Pompeiian basilica is one of the oldest examples of this type of building in the entire Roman world. It has a richly decorated suggestum, where judges sat while judicial affairs were taking place. The space was also enhanced by an equestrian statue and walls heavily decorated with stucco like large blocks of marble. 


Even before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, the Basilica was slowly crumbling. An earthquake prior to the eruption in 63 caused the roof to cave in. Instead of restoring the roof, the basilica continued to function as an open-air market and justice building. During the volcanic eruption in 79, the basilica was buried in a thick layer of volcanic ash and was not rediscovered for another hundred years. It took a total of six years to uncover it, from 1813 to 1819, with only small fragments remaining. Nowadays when seeing the sight in person, the interior columns are mere stumps, with the majority of the outer walls missing. Even still you can see where the people of Pompeii would have accessed the basilica from the Forum through five entrances separated by tuff pillars. Inside the area is divided into three naves with two rows of brick columns with Ionic capitals. 

Some may be quite surprised to find that a basilica existed in ancient Pompeii. Most commonly associated with Christianity, the Romans were known worshippers of multiple deities and mythology, so why did they have one? As we said above, this was largely down to the Greeks. Not only did the greeks influence their language, they also influenced the Pompeiians religious rites. Hence the Greek stoa evolved into a covered peristyle, surrounded by ambulatory on the four sides, giving us the basilica. This went on to being one of the most successful types of Roman architecture in the ancient world and influenced some of the most magnificent Christian churches which still stand today.

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