I descended 60 feet below Rome’s surface into a mysterious past I knew little about…
The ancient Basilica of San Clemente, named after Rome’s third pope, hardly drew my attention as I passed by on my walk from the Colosseum. I soon discovered that I had approached the basilica from the side by mistake, missing the grand entrance fronted by a small courtyard with palm trees.
I had previously read about the basilica’s three levels of fascinating history, one church on top of another. The present 12th-century basilica was erected on the site of a previous church which had been buried for centuries underneath the level of the city streets.
Inside the basilica, adorned with 12th century mosaics, I noticed the 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 a cool earthiness, grew stronger as I began my journey from the sacristy down a flight of stairs and into the depths of San Clemente
The 4th-century church was actually the upper room of a second-century Roman mansion directly below it, owned by Titus Flavius Clemens, one of the first Roman senators to convert to Christianity. His house was used for secret Christian worship until Christianity was legalized in 313 AD. under Emperor Constantine. I discovered a similar floor plan as the 12th-century basilica above. Rows of stout columns stood as support among faded frescoes on the old stone walls. Bits of mosaic flooring can still be seen. One of the better-preserved wall frescoes depicts The Legend of St. Alexis, a 3rd century Syrian who denied his wealth to live and care for the poor.
The smell of dank earthiness increased, creating a growing sense of another time. I descended an even older set of steps to the bottom level of the basilica. Here I found a second-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 particularly among the Roman soldiers but was eventually eradicated by Roman Christians.
Across from the temple were some ancient columns and the remains of the mansion owned by Titus Flavius.
I could hear the sound of rushing water close by. Following the remains of a corridor, I passed a room thought to have been used as a Mithras school. At the end, I found a small room with a spring in the corner under the floor. Looking down I could see water bubbling which I learned is part of the Cloaca Maxima, the main sewer system of ancient Rome.
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 emperors. A time when there was no middle class, only slaves, and freedmen. Dangerous times…..