Basilica Constantiniana   Rome


1999.04.01 Holy Thursday
a recollection of the day's events.1
My day began with an early morning Internet search of St. Agnes. I specifically wanted to locate a previously found Internet reference that attributed the original (early Christian) building of the St. Agnese basilica in Rome to Constantina, Constantine the Great's daughter. I found the St. Agnes-Constanti(n)a reference, however, during the search process I also accidentally found St. Helena, the mother of Constantine and the grandmother of Constantina. My "discovery" of Helena occurred while reading The Catholic Encyclopedia's online entry on Constantine, where there is a hyperlink to St. Helena. Seeing that Constantine's mother is a proclaimed saint naturally sparked my curiosity. The St. Helena hyperlink connects to The Catholic Encyclopedia's online entry on St. Helena herself, and it was there that I found out that it was not Constantina who was behind all the early Christian church building but rather Helena: Tradition links her name with the building of Christian churches in the cities of the West, where the imperial court resided, notably at Rome and Trier, and there is no reason for rejecting this tradition, for we know positively through Eusebius that Helena erected churches on the hallowed spots of Palestine. Despite her advanced age she undertook a journey to Palestine when Constantine, through his victory over Licinius, had become sole master of the Roman Empire, subsequently, therefore, to the year 324. It was in Palestine, as we learn from Eusebius, that she had resolved to bring to God, the King of kings, the homage and tribute of her devotion. She lavished on that land her bounties and good deeds, she "explored it with remarkable discernment", and "visited it with the care and solicitude of the emperor himself". Then, when she "had shown due veneration to the footsteps of the Saviour", she had two churches erected for the worship of God: one was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity, the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. Suddenly, and most unexpectedly, my (re)search turned from St. Agnes and Constantina towards St. Helena. Admittedly, I did not immediately comprehend that Helena was indeed that "builder" of the first Christian churches for which I searched, yet, within an hour of further research, I realized that Helena may well be the first master architect of Christianity.

Rodolfo Lanciani, Forma Urbis Romae (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1989).


Dedications in the Castra Equitium Singularium found below the nave of the basilica on an Ionic capital.


Fragmentary inscriptions referring to Diocletian and Maximian found in excavations, 1934-8, inside the remains of the Castra Equitium Singularium.

end of
312 (?)

Constantine founds the Lateran basilica, subsequently called after him the Basilica Constantiniana, has it decorated and endows it with furnishings and landed property.

9 Nov. 312
9 Nov. 318

«Quinto idus nov. Romae dedicatio basilicae Salvatoris», referring either to its founding, in that case November 312 or to its consecration, 318; these being the only years in the reign of Constantine and Sylvester when November 9 falls on Sunday, as customary for church dedications.

Richard Krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae: Le basiliche cristiane antichi di Roma (sec. IV-IX) (Cittá del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1937-).

"[referring the Basilica Constantiniani] Construction need not have taken many years. The huge Basilica Nova [another building] with its time-consuming vaulting system was built and completely decorated in four or five years; and we shall see that at St. Peter's construction and interior decoration were presumably completed in the course of six to eight years. The Lateran basilica, being smaller than St. Peter's, might well have been built and finished within five or six years. Dates given for the consecration are numerous, varying from 315 to 324, but they are never based on any sources. The Martyrologium Romanum gives November 9 as the feast day of the basilica, "Romae dedicatio Basilicae Salvatoris". However, as pointed out by Lauer, the date occurs first in the second version of the Descriptio Ecclesiae Lateranensis, 1153-1154: "Cuius dedicatio per totum orbum quinto idus novembris...celebratur...". By that time, then, the tradition was well established, but we do not know how far back it went. It is certainly older than the twelfth century, but it does not occur in the early sacramentaries and martyrologia dating from the fifth to ninth century. Is it, then, the date of a reconsecration after the rebuilding by Sergius III (904-911)? This is possible, but it is equally possible that the tradition springs from a fourth century root. We leave the question open. In any event, no year is given. However, it is curious that in the reigns of Constantine and Sylvester, November 9 falls on a Sunday--since the Middle Ages the customary day for church consecrations--only four times: 312, 318, 329, 335. The last two dates can be dispensed with: the period of construction [beginning from] 313 or 314 would be too long. However, 318 would be a very plausible date for the consecration of the church. Or should we stress the choice of the word dedicatio, rather than consecratio, by the sources? Dedicatio in Roman legal language is the act of handing over or ceding--dedere--an object, be it real estate or something else, to a deity; the act of consecratio follows, once the object has been installed or the shrine, temple or whatever, has been built. Is it possible, then, that November 9, 312, not quite two weeks after his conquest of Rome, was the day Constantine ceded to Christ the terrain on which the basilica was to be built and made the endowment for its future maintenance, in servitio luminum?"
Richard Krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae: Le basiliche cristiane antichi di Roma (sec. IV-IX) (Cittá del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1937-), p. 90.

From the The Life of Pope Sylvester:
In his time Constantine Augustus built the following basilicas and adorned them: the Constantinian basilica1 where he offered the following gifts: a ciborium of hammered silver, which has upon the front the Savior seated upon a chair, in height 5 feet, weighing 120 lbs., and also the 12 apostles, who weigh each ninety pounds and are 5 feet in height and wear crowns of purest silver; further, on the back, looking toward the apse are the Savior seated upon a throne2 in height 5 feet, of purest silver, weighing 140 lbs., and 4 angels of silver, which weigh each 105 lbs. and are 5 feet in height and have jewels from Alabanda3 in their eyes and carry spears; [or: which are each 5 feet in height uopn the sides and carry crosses and weifgh each 105 lbs. and have jewels from Alavanda in their eyes;] the ciborium itself weighs 2025 lbs. of wrought silver; a vaulted ceiling of purest gold4; [or: the ciborium itself weighs 2025 lbs.; -- the ciborium itself, where stand the angels and the apostles, weighs 2025 lbs. of wrought silver;] and a lamp of purest gold5, which hangs beneath the ciborium, with 50 dolphins of purest gold, weighing each 50 lbs., and chains which weigh 25 lbs.; [a lamp of purest gold beneath the ciborium with 50 dolphins and a chain which weighs 25 lbs.;--a lamp of purest gold which hangs beneath the ciborium, with 50 dolphins, which weighs with its chain 25 lbs.;]
4 crowns6 of purest gold with 20 dolphins, weighing each fifteen lbs.;
a vaulting for the basilica of polished gold7, in length and in breadth 500 lbs.;
7 altars of purest silver, weighing each 200 lbs.;
7 golden patens, weighing each thirty lbs.;
16 silver patens, weighing each thirty lbs.;
7 goblets of purest gold, weighing each 10 lbs.;
A single goblet of coral set all about with prases and jacinths and overlaid with gold, which weighs in all 20 lbs. and 3 ounces;
20 silver goblets, weighing each fifteen lbs.;
2 pitchers of purest gold, weighing each fifty lbs. and holding each 3 medimni8;
20 silver pitchers, weighing each ten lbs. and holding each one medimnus;
40 smaller chalices of purest gold, weighing each one lb.;
50 smaller chalices for service, weighing each 2 lbs.;

For ornament in the basilica:
a chandelier of purest gold before the altar, wherein burns pure oil of nard, with 80 dolphins, weighing 30 lbs.;
a silver chandelier with 20 dolphins, which weighs 50 lbs., wherein burns pure oil of nard;
45 silver chandeliers in the body of the basilica9, weighing each 30 lbs., wherein burns the aforesaid oil;
on the right side of the basilica 40 silver lamps, weighing each 20 lbs.;
25 silver chandeliers on the left side of the basilica, weighing each 20 lbs.;
50 silver candelabra in the body of the basilica, weighing each 20 lbs.;
3 jars of purest silver, weighing each 300 lbs., holding 10 medimni;
7 brass candlesticks before the altars, 10 feet in height, adorned with figures of the prophets overlaid with silver, weighing each 300 lbs.;

and for maintenance of the lights there he granted:
the Gargilian estate in the region of Suessa10 yielding every year 400 sol.;
the Bauronican estate in the region of Suessa, yielding 360 sol.;
the Aurian estate in the region of Laurentum11, yielding 500 sol.;
the Urban estate in the region of Antium12, yielding 240 sol.;
the Sentilian estate in the region of Ardea13, yielding 240 sol.;
the estate of Castis in the region of 14Catina1 yielding 1000 sol.;
the estate of Trapeae in the region of Catina, yielding 1650 sol.;
2 censers of purest gold, weighing 30 lbs.;
a gift of spices before the altar, every year 150 lbs.

1. San Giovanni in Laterano. As early as 313 a council called to try the case of the Donatist heretics under Pope Miltiades met "in the house of Fausta in the Lateran." Jaffè, Regesta, vol. I, p. 28, 313. Fausta was the wife of Constantine. The basilica erected on the site was first called Constantinian in the record of the Roman synod of 487. Mommsen, op. cit., p. xxvii and n. 4. Needless to say no vestiges of this first basilica are visible in the present structure. The former fell to the ground in 877 and was rebuilt once in the tenth century, twice in the fourteenth and thoroughly "restored" in the seventeenth and nineteenth. For a description of the several basilicas ascribed in our text to Constantine see Gregorovius, History of Rome, vol. I, pp. 88-112.
2. The figure of Christ seated in the midst of his apostles was represented often in the catacombs and on the sarcophagi of the fourth century. The mosaic of the apse of the church of Santa Pudenziana dates from the end of that century. Christ enthroned between angels was, for some reason, a subject less frequently chosen. A nave mosaic of San Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, built for Theodoric about the year 500, shows the latter scene, the attendant angels carrying spears, as here. This ciborium of Constantine was destroyed by Alaric's Gauls and replaced by one given by the emperor Valentinian in the pontificate of Xystus III. See infra, p. 95, n.1.
3. A city in Caria, now Arab-Hissar.
4. I.e. the vault of the ciborium from which depended the great lamp next described.
5. An ornament of lamps or chandeliers, shaped like a dolphin; probably each dolphin held a light.
6. I.e. circular chandeliers with pendant lights.
7. The readings of this clause vary a little but none are quite intelligible. The vaulting is that of the half dome of the apse.
8. The medimnus or [Greek word] was the Greek bushel, comprising about twelve gallons or one and one half English bushels.
9. I.e. the central nave. The right side mentioned next would be the right aisle, reserved at this time for women communicants, the left side the left aisle reserved for men.
10. The modem Sessa in Latium. There is a village of Garigliano in that region now.
11. The modem Torre Patemo in Latium. From the opening of the second century to the close of the fourth the ancient villages of Laurentum and Lavinium united to form one municipality.
12. The modern Porto d'Anzio in Latium. Antium was a city in the fifth century and its bishop attended the synods at Rome. It suffered severely and dwindled in size during the later disorders.
13. The colony of Ardea is mentioned as late as 223 A.D., but it sent no bishops to the Roman councils of the fifth century. It was evidently declining in population in the interval. Duchesne, op. cit., p. 192, n. 39.
14. The modern Poggio Catino southwest of Rieti.




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