San Clemente - History and Facts | History Hit

San Clemente

Rome, Lazio, Italy

San Clemente is a church built atop a series of fourth and third century ruins.

Antara Bate

24 Nov 2020

About San Clemente

San Clemente is a beautifully frescoed twelfth century historic basilica in Rome. However, whilst interesting in its own right, it is what lies underneath San Clemente which is a highlight to historians.

When San Clemente was excavated in the 19th century, it was discovered to have been built over both a 4th century church and a 3rd century Temple of Mithras.

San Clemente history

The Basilica of San Clemente is situated above the Colosseum, on a road that rises gradually to St John Lateran from the valley between the Coelian Hill on the south and the Oppian Hill on the north.

During the second century AD, the site on which the church now stands was occupied by a Roman mansion owned by Titus Flavius Clemens, one of the first Roman senators to convert to Christianity. The house was used for Christian clandestine worship, since being Christian at the time was forbidden.

Approximately a century later, a temple dedicated to Mithras, an all seeing Protector of the Truth, was built on the same site. It would remain in use for the performance of rites of initiation until the late third century.

On the second floor of the mansion a large room was built, which would later become a basilica commissioned by Pope Siricius after the end of Christian persecution in 313 AD.

It is believed that the church was badly damaged during the Norman sack of Rome in 1084. It was thus abandoned and buried under the level of the streets of the city. Years later, a new church, commissioned by Pope Paschal II, was erected on the same site and finished in 1108. It is the same that still stands today.

In 1857, Fr Joseph Mullooly, the then Prior of San Clemente, began excavations under the present basilica, uncovering the historic buildings.

Later excavations, notably those conducted in 1912-1914 by Fr Louis Nolan showed that underneath this third layer of buildings there was a fourth stratum comprising of buildings destroyed in the fire of Nero in 64 A.D.

San Clemente today

Steps lead down to the 4th-century basilica inferiore, mostly destroyed by Norman invaders in 1084, but with some faded 11th-century frescoes illustrating the life of St Clement, a 1st-century bishop who became the fourth pope in 88 AD. On the next level down there is a 1st-century Roman house and a dark 2nd-century temple to Mithras, with an altar showing the god slaying a bull. Beneath it all, the sound of a subterranean river flowing through a Republic-era drain can be heard.

The former site is extremely well preserved and lined with faded frescos, whilst only one of the rooms of the Ancient Roman Temple of Mithras remains.

Getting to San Clemente

San Clemente is easily accessible by public transport. The nearest metro station is Colosseo. Buses 85, 87, 117, 186, 810 and 850 also pass nearby.