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.
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
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 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.
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…..