Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano ★★

The Mithraeum at the lowest level of San Clemente, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Rome, Italy (Photo by Allie Caulfield)
The Mithraeum at the lowest level of San Clemente

A few blocks from the Colosseum is the best place in Rome to see the layer-cake effect of its history in action: church piled atop church piled atop pagan temple

Nowhere else in this city is the layering effect of Rome's history more evident than in this 12th-century church built atop a 4th-century church built atop a late–2nd century pagan temple.

This situation is far from unique in Rome—almost the entire city is built directly on top of the ancient one—but what's special about San Clemente is that you can actually clamber down into those lower levels to explore Rome's sandwich of history.

San Clemente's upper church—The 12th to 15th centuries

Even without that, the upper church—built in 1108 and run by the convent of Irish Dominican monks who rediscovered the lower levels in the 19th century—is beautiful enough to stand out on its own.

It features a pre-Cosmatesque pavement, ornate marble choir (a 6th– to 9th-century piece that came from the lower church), recently restored frescoes of the Life of St. Catherine (1228) by Masolino and his young disciple Masaccio in the first chapel on your right as you enter.

A 12th-century mosaic fills the apse with a Triumph of the Cross. This mosaic shows a crucified Christ in the center with the Tree of Life growing in twisting vine tendrils all around, loaded with medieval symbolism.

Christ and the Apostles pose as sheep along the bottom, the Rivers of Paradise flow from the base of the cross from which the faithful, represented by stags, drink, doves flutter about, and the Hand of God reaches down from the canopy of the Heavens.

San Clemente's lower church—The 4th century

Off the right aisle is a postcard-lined passageway and the entrance down to the lower church, built in the 4th century and largely demolished by Barbarian sackings in 1084.

It preserves a few crude frescoes from the Paleo-Christian era, including the Life of St. Clement on the wall before you enter the nave and the Story of St. Alexis on the left wall of the nave itself.

After you've had your fill of this Dark Ages church, you can descend another flight of stairs to...

San Clemente's Mithraic temple and Roman palazzo—The 1st to 2nd centuries

The altars of both later churches are placed directly above a Mithraeum with an altar of a pagan Temple to Mithras from the AD late 2nd century. Peer through the grating and you'll see that the altar itself depicts the god sacrificing a bull.

As part of their rituals, Mithraic priests would also sacrifice bulls until the blood flowed into troughs, which followers would then scoop out with their arms to bathe in. Sounds nasty, but back in the day it was a hugely popular cult—certainly it had far more acolytes in the first few centuries AD than another of the many nascent cults swirling around Imperial Rome: Christianity.

Next to this temple are the buried remains of an intact Roman palazzo of the AD 1st century. As you wander in and out of the brick vaulted rooms of Flauvius Clemens' grand palazzo, you'll hear the sound of rushing water from the ancient pipes and aqueducts between the walls. In one room you can even take a drink from the sweet spring water gushing out of an ancient pipeline to be routed along a small aqueduct set into the wall.

Photo gallery
  • The Mithraeum at the lowest level of San Clemente, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Allie Caulfield)
  • A sketch showing San Clemente
  • The nave and ceiling, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by juandesant)
  • , Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Dnalor 01)
  • The apse, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by GFDL)
  • The mosaics in the apse, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Dnalor 01)
  • The facade and courtyard, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Dudva)
  • The frescoed ceiling (1228) by Masolino and Masaccio in the Santa Caterina Chapel, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Pierfelice Licitra)
  • The lower church (middle level), Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Palickap)
  • The pavement in the lower church (middle level), Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Palickap)
  • The 9C
  • Late 11C fresco in the lower church (middle level), Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Late 11C fresco in the lower church (middle level) showing a miracle in which a jealous pagan named Sisinnio orders his three slaves to drag St. Clement through the streets, but he miraculously changes into a column., Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • , Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo )
  • A 6C fresco in the lower church (middle level), showing either a Madonna and Child or the Empress Theodora, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The altar to Mithras in the Mithraeum at the lowest level of San Clemente, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Dnalor 01)
  • Rooms of 1C Roman buildings in the lowest level, Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano, Italy (Photo by Valerio B. Cosentino)
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Tips

How long does San Clemente take?

I'd plan to spend at least 45–60 minutes here, possibly a bit longer if you're into this kind of thing. There's just so much to see, contemplate, sketch, etc.—and so many nooks, crannies, and levels to discover.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).