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The Latin word basilica (derived from Greek, Basilikè Stoá, Royal Stoa, the tribunal chamber of a king), was originally used to describe a Roman public building, usually located in the forum of a Roman town. Public basilicas begin to appear in Hellenistic cities in the 2nd century BC.

The term was also applied to buildings used for religious purposes. The remains of a large subterranean Neopythagorean basilica dating from the 1st century AD were found near the Porta Maggiore in Rome in 1915. The stuccoes on the interior vaulting have survived, though their exact interpretation remains a matter for debate. The ground-plan of Christian basilicas in the 4th century was similar to that of this Neopythagorean basilica, which had three naves and an apse.

After the Roman Empire became officially Christian, the term, by extension, came to refer specifically to a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rites by the Pope. Thus the word retains two senses today, one architectural and the other ecclesiastical.



In architecture, the Roman basilica was a large roofed hall erected for transacting business and disposing of legal matters. As early as the time of Augustus, a public basilica for transacting business had been part of any settlement that considered itself a city, used in the same way as the late mediaeval covered market houses of northern Europe, where the meeting room, for lack of urban space, was set above the arcades, however. Such buildings usually contained interior colonnades that divided the space, giving aisles or arcaded spaces on one or both sides, with an apse at one end (or less often at each end), where the magistrates sat, often on a slightly raised dais. The central aisle tended to be wide and was higher than the flanking aisles, so that light could penetrate through the clerestory windows.

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