San Clemente in Rome, Italy
Europe, Italy, Places to Visit in Italy, Read About Can't Miss Places, Rome

Rome Attractions—Church of St. Clement (Basilica di San Clemente)

Jon and I were watching Cash Cab—the game show that takes place in the back of Ben Bailey’s New York City cab—when a question popped up that went something like this:

“Worn in the French Revolution these slouchy caps with a flipped-over top resemble those worn by which small, blue cartoon characters who lived in mushroom-shaped homes?”

I yelled “Smurfs” excitedly at the television.

Then, I turned to Jon and said, “where else have we seen that cap?”

“In the basement of that church in Rome,” he replied.

“Yes,” I chuckled, “….that basement.”

For those of you who haven’t been to the wonderful excavation site below Basilica di San Clemente in Rome, Jon’s “basement” comment was the underestimation of the year. The current 12th century church stands atop the ruins of a 4th century Christian church, which sits atop a 2nd century Mithraic temple and even earlier Roman buildings from the 1st century. It was in the Mithraeum that we saw a depiction of a Phrygian cap that resembled those of revolutionaries and Smurfs.

About 300 yards from the Colosseum, stands this beautiful medieval church—an amazing Rome attraction. Mosaics in the nave show Christ’s crucifixion and the tree of life—they glitter in the light and captivate the eye. Chapels off to the side depict the lives of various saints. Their faded frescoes still bear the hallmarks of a master artist’s labors. Access to the 12th century part of the basilica is free. You have to pay (I think it’s around 10€) to go through the archaeological site, but I highly recommend it. In the mid-1800s, Father Joseph Mullooly started excavations after noticing a high moisture content and hearing a dripping noise (a source of water flows robustly in the 1st century level). It was in these initial excavations that the 4th century church was uncovered. Subsequent digs would unearth a Mithraeum dating from the 2nd century and another level from the early Imperial era.

As one descends deeper and deeper beneath the current basilica, the layers of time peel away. The sense of transporting through the past was very real. It is powerful to me to recognize that people had been worshipping on this spot to one god or another for 2000 years.

Interesting History Tidbits 

12th Century Level

  • The church was dedicated to the 4th pope, Clement, who presided over his Christian community when Romans still persecuted Christ’s followers. There are not a lot of primary sources on St. Clement, but he was probably a contemporary of saints Peter and Paul and was an author of letter to the Corinthians. He was banished to the Crimea in the reign of Trajan and his successful missionary work during his exile angered the Romans who drowned him by tying an anchor to Clement and throwing him into the Black Sea. Look for symbols of a man with an anchor to know who he is. St. Clement may or may not have actually been martyred this way, as legend states, but he has been venerated as a martyr since the late 4th century. 
  • In the back of the church (near where you enter) is the chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The frescoes there are by early Renaissance painter Masolino (and perhaps his famous apprentice Masaccio). The murals tell the stories of: Catherine arguing before Emperor Maxentius why Christianity should be legalized, her subsequent imprisonment, Maxentius having his wife beheaded for being a Catherine sympathizer, and then the martyrdom of St. Catherine (who had been sentenced to be broken between two spiked wheels but angels interceded and she was beheaded instead).

4th Century Church

  • This area has some neat frescoes of a Madonna and Child (perhaps Empress Theodora?), the return of the remains of St. Clement, the Miracle of the Sea of Azov, various scenes from the Bible regarding Christ, the Legend of St. Alexis, St. Clement and Sisinnius, as well as the presumed burial place of St. Cyril in 869 CE. Saint Cyril was a linguist who is considered by some to be the father of Slavonic literature.
  • The 4th century church was built in the century when the Edict of Milan (313 CE) had been declared making persecution of Christians a forbidden activity. Although it was then formally forbidden to torture or kill Christians, surely they must have been nervous to practice their religion openly. Their church had lots of frescoes and incorporated pagan symbols, too, showing how religions often absorb parts of old theology as they grow.

2nd Century Mithraeum

  • According to the Basilica di San Clemente guidebook*, “Mithras was a god born of a rock to be the bearer of salvation (life and fertility) to the world. Later, at the command of the God Apollo conveyed by a raven, Mithras set out to trap and spill the blood of the being that possessed life to the full, a Bull from the region of the Moon. In a desperate fight he manages to slay the bull, while a scorpion (personification of evil), a hound and snake join in. From the blood of this bull all plants and all animal life and all that is good came into being, but the scorpion’s sly spilling of some of the most vital blood brought evil also into the world. When the fight was over Mithras and Apollo quarrelled, but they soon made peace, celebrating the great victory with a banquet. Then Apollo, the God of the Sun, took Mithras off to the Heavens in a chariot.” This story is represented on an altar in the triclinium with benches on either side and a small statue of Mithras towards the back. The Mithraeum has several rooms where followers would dine, learn, and worship.
  • Only men could be initiates of Mithraism. There were seven stages of initiation into the religion which took the man from darkness to light.
  • Mithras and his helpers are often depicted wearing a Phrygian cap. The cap had been portrayed throughout antiquity by various groups and was shown in Mithraism, as well as on the “Magi/Three Wise Men.” Various revolutionaries have also donned the cap throughout the 2nd millennium.
  • Mithraism was outlawed in 395 CE as the persecuted (Christians) became a growing, more powerful group.

First Century Area

  • This area had been destroyed by the Neronian Fire of 64 CE. There is an area called the “public area” to designate that it’s not part of the Mithraeum, but archaeologists aren’t in consensus of what these rooms were used for.
  • Listen for the sound of rushing water in one of 1st century Roman rooms. It was the sound of dripping water that caused 19th century Father Mullooly to start the excavations in the first place. The channel leads to the Tiber River.

I’ve been both on my own and once with a tour offered from The Tour Guy. History-hopping across eras can be confusing for professional historians let alone laypersons, so I appreciated that our guide, Michele, took us to the oldest section of the church first and worked his way upstairs to the current church dating from the early 12th century. (If you go without a guide, I recommend doing the same.) Michele was able to place into context the altar and other structures we saw and explain what scholars commonly believe regarding Mithraism. I enjoyed having someone point out the important parts of the excavation, as there aren’t really signs and the site is deceptively vast and dimly-lit. If you do go alone, I highly urge buying a guidebook to help orient you through the labyrinth.

For those who can’t travel to Rome to see the excavation in person, I hope you enjoyed this virtual voyage to the Eternal City and through the layers of time that Basilica di San Clemente affords.

*Leonard Boyle O.P., A Short Guide to St. Clement’s, (Rome: Collegio San Clemente, 1989), 65-66.

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