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CHAPTER V
The Christian Basilica

JUST AS THE razing of a church in 303 had been the signal for the beginning of the worst persecution of Christians ever known, so some twenty years later Constantine's foundation of the church of St John Lateran in Rome symbolized the dawn of a new era. The church was a basilica, and almost immediately in Rome and in the eastern provinces it was followed by other imperial foundations of the same basic plan. Indeed, in all the main centres of Christendom, the basilica seems rapidly to have supplanted the house-church and whatever other specialized buildings there may have been.

What, we may well ask, was the reason for this sudden emergence of a fully developed and suitable church plan? A number of answers to the question have been proposed in the past, of which two at present command most support. The first, and more popular, view is that the basilical church represents the final stage in an architectural evolution to which several earlier types of building, and notably the Roman civic basilica, made their contribution; the second, cogently argued by J. B. Ward-Perkins in a recent article ( Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. XXII, 1954, pp. 69-90) is that its form was inspired by the halls of audience in the imperial palaces which, particularly under Constantine, acted as a setting for the elaborate court ceremonial that was later partially absorbed into the Christian liturgy. As a corollary to the second theory, it is sometimes claimed that Constantine himself, either by precept, example, or both, imposed the basilical plan as something like a fixed standard on the newly liberated Church. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. But before discussing these and other, less likely answers to the problem of its origins, a reasonably broad definition must be

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