When “Basilica” Didn’t Mean “Church”

We all know what the term “basilica” means, right? By definition, a basilica is a very, very large church! That’s why some of our clients occasionally do a bit of research in advance of their trip to Rome… and decide that they want to visit the Basilica Julia. They assume it’s a huge and lovely church of some kind, and have no idea that they’re actually asking to see THIS:

Basilica Iulia

That’s right. That area in the Roman Forum where you see rows of column-stumps, that is the Basilica Julia. Built in the first century B.C., it most certainly was not Christian, and not a church. No, it was merely some boring government office-building, built in the era of Julius Caesar, which is how it got its name. How is this possible?

The confusion stems from the evolution of the term “basilica,” which is really an architectural term. Originally, a basilica was a building of any size and intended for any purpose, which had a particular style of roof, and a particular number of interior aisles. That’s why in ancient times there were pagan basilicas all over the Roman Empire, some of which were teeny tiny!

When some of the earliest Christian churches were constructed, they were built in the basilican style–and thus merited the title of “Basilica of Saint Mary Major” or “Basilica of Saint Lawrence.” Many of them were/are humongous. They inadvertently caused confusion in the minds of simple people, who concluded that a “basilica” is a big church. But technically, that’s not what a basilica is at all.

Confusing the issue even further, some of Rome’s Catholic basilicas were not actually built in the basilican style. St. Peter’s Basilica–the largest Catholic church in the entire world–is a good example of this. Did you know that?

We always explain historical points like this to our clients, whether they are mistakenly looking forward to visiting the Basilica Julia or not. After all, a little advance knowledge can clear up a lot of misunderstanding…