One of the often hidden joys of ancient Rome can be found in the paleo-churches, those places where Christians worshipped before the time of Constantine. In some places the church dates back to the first and second centuries. Most of these paleo-churches are under an existing newer structure. In several cases these more modern buildings are basilicas.
When I found out that the catacombs were closed on Monday, and my attempts to get into the catacombs under St. Peter’s Basilica failed, I decided this was the best I could do to see remains of very early Christianity in Rome. I chose two churches based on the recommendation of the ministers I had lunch with on Monday, my eighth day in Rome. I started off on a long walk back to the area around the Coliseum. Just beyond I found the Basilica of San Clemente. The Basilica of San Clemente is not just another church in Rome, it is genuinely unique! It has magnificent frescoes and its twelfth-century mosaic of the cross as the tree of life is moving as Christian art. But here you can walk underground and visit a fourth-century basilica before exploring what was once a pagan Mithraic temple!
Mithraism was popular in the Roman Empire with many emperors. It had a special attraction for the military. It had seven sacraments, the same as the Catholic Church, baptism, and communion with bread and water. The baptism, however, was in the blood of a bull. There was a cross in Mithraism, an ancient phallic symbol which originated in Egypt, and the Egyptian cross (the ankh) still shows the original form which included the female symbol. Mithraism clearly had elements of Christianity in it, including the doctrine of bodily resurrection. But it was also a secret cult. You could only attend if you were baptized and initiated. The more Christianity grew in ancient Rome the more Mithraism passed away. Interesting, San Clemente’s paleo-church is built on top of a Mathraic temple. You can go down another level and see the temple as it was.
It was amazing to stand in this place and realize that the Christian Church was built upon a distinct faith and the culture and religions of the time. This is not to say the Christians did not have distinct doctrines and practices, which they did. It is to say that they did not “throw out everything non-Christian” the more the church grew and adapted to the culture around it. This observation will offend some fundamentalists but it is simply the truth of Christian history. And this was happening long before Constantine so you can’t blame him for how Christianity took over whole aspects of ancient culture and religion without compromising the faith in the process.
San Clemente is named after St. Clement of Rome, who died around 100 A.D. Clement of Rome (in Latin, Clemens Romanus), is listed from an early date as a Bishop of Rome. He was also the first apostolic father of the church. Few details are actually known about Clement's life but according to Tertullian, he was consecrated by Saint Peter. We have good reason to believe that he was a leading member of the church in Rome in the late 1st century so he must have known the apostles firsthand. Early church lists place him as the second or third bishop of Rome after Saint Peter, thus the claim that he was the second or third pope. St. Irenaeus (ca 130-200) says Clement was a contemporary of Peter and Paul. Origen actually identifies him with the fellow-laborer Paul mentions in Philippians 4:3. Clement wrote an epistle to the Christians in Corinth and we have this letter. It is one of the most prized of all ancient Christian letters that is not in the New Testament. Legends later arose about St. Clement but there is no real evidence that he is buried in this church. But other figures of the early church are buried here. It is a remarkable place. You truly get the feeling of sitting inside an early church and a sense of what it would have been like to gather for worship here.
From San Clemente I then went to Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of St. John and St. Paul). This is another of the ancient basilica churches in Rome, located on the Celian Hill near the Coliseum. The church was built in 398, by will of Senator Pammachius, over the home of two Roman soldiers, John and Paul, martyred under Julian the Apostate in 362. The church was thus called the Titulus Pammachii and is recorded as such in the acts of the synod held by Pope Symmachus in 499. The underground structure of this paleo-church is in phenomenal structural shape but I was not as moved by this place as San Clemente. Perhaps the antiquity of the first, and its being built over the Mithraic temple, is what moved me personally.
Following these two sights I saw the Constantine Gate and walked by the Coliseum again, now in the early evening. My legs were so tired that I finally took a cab. I had no energy left to walk back several miles to Piazza Farnese. I changed, ate my last Italian dinner with my new favorite waiter and crashed after packing my bag for home. I would leave on Tuesday, March 15, and fly through Paris and back to Chicago.
Tomorrow: Final Reflections on My Time in Rome