Rome’s Fascinating Basilica of San Clemente Reveals 2,000 Years of History

I descended 60 feet below Rome’s surface into a mysterious past I knew little about…

Standing outside of the ancient Basilica of San Clemente, named after Rome’s third pope, hardly drew my attention. I had approached it from the side by mistake and missed the grander entrance fronted by a small courtyard with palm trees.

basilica_san_clemente_in_rome

photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Located just a short distance from the Colosseum, I knew it embodied three levels of ancient church history.  Harboring this thought, I stepped inside the 12th century Basilica.

High above me was a vaulted ceiling with a dazzling mosaic in the apse depicting Christ on the Cross surrounded by doves. I walked across the uneven tile floor as it dipped and swayed through the centuries of visiting pilgrims and worshipers. A faint smell of incense, mingled with the cool and earthy surroundings, grew stronger as I began my journey into the depths of San Clemente

450px-interior_of_san_clemente_rome

photo credit Wikimedia Commons

I soon found the stairs to the lower church built in the 4th century when Christianity became legalized under Emporer Constantine. I discovered an almost identical floor plan as the Basilica above. Rows of stout columns stood to support it. Faded frescoes lined the old stone walls. One of the better preserved depicted The Legend of St. Alexis, a 3rd century Syrian who denied his wealth to live and care for the poor.

The Legend of St. Alexis, San Clemente, Rome

The Legend of St. Alexis

The smell of earthiness increased, creating a growing sense of another time. I descended an even older set of steps to the bottom level. Here I found a first-century pagan temple of Mithras inside a cave-like room. The altar depicted a carving of the god Mithras slaying a bull. Long low stone benches for seating ran along two sides of the room. During the first centuries, the Persian cult of Mithras grew in popularity among the Roman soldiers. It was eventually stamped out by the Roman Christians.

Across from the temple were some ancient columns and an open area believed to have been the home of a wealthy nobleman. It is thought he may have been a believer of “The Way,” a term Christians called themselves at the time and used his house as a meeting place for the small surrounding Christian community.

mithreum_san_clemente

photo credit Wikimedia Commons

I could hear the sound of rushing water close by. Following the remains of a first-century Roman street, I passed a room once used as a Mithras school. At the end of the road, I found a small room with a spring in the corner under the floor. Looking down I could see water bubbling out of it.

As I retraced my steps, I began to pull together all that my senses had collected. Images started to form of another time long ago. Before Christianity was legal. While paganism flourished. Beginning with the reign of unstable emporers. A time when there was no middle class, only slaves, and freedmen. Dangerous times…..

San Clemete Apse

Basilica of San Clemente Apse



Categories: History

20 replies

  1. Thank you, dear Susan, for sharing this ancient place with us–such breathtaking architecture. It’s especially intriguing to be learning history about “The Way”. We have it so easy in N.A. when it comes to freedom of religion etc; we must not take it for granted.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    Like

  2. I believe this is the most amazing place I have ever been. Thanks for taking me back there!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Stiggerink's Blog and commented:
    Old Rome never gets old, does it?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice to meet you! I share your article on my blog, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The layers of history under the streets of Roma are fascinating! There is still so much still undiscovered too.

    Like

  6. Great post and photos Susan! Love it! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Isn’t Rome, and all of Italy, amazing—layers and layers of history—I love it!
    thank you for sharing!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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