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Twelfth-century apse mosaic (photo credit)

Seeing as San Clemente features in most of the larger guidebooks, this church isn’t technically much of a secret. Nevertheless, Rome has more monuments than any other city in the world, and an estimated 4 million tourists a year visit an attraction just metres away from San Clemente: the Colosseum. The crowds are just something you have to deal with if you want to see the top sights. I visited the Vatican once, on my first trip to Rome, and I have to say the sheer number of people piling through (of which I was one, obviously) took the shine off the experience. Everyone’s favourite don, Mary Beard, visited more recently and seemed to feel pretty similarly.

So let’s put it this way – any smaller attraction in Rome has pretty stiff competition. With the Forum, the Vatican, St Peter’s and the Pantheon taking up most tourists’ time, if you’re willing to go off the beaten path a little not only will you see something pretty spectacular that most visitors pass by, you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds and earn bragging rights once you get home. Rome is full of underplayed quirky sights which in most cities would be headline-grabbing attractions, and San Clemente is one of them.

So what is the Basilica San Clemente?

At street level, the Basilica di San Clemente is a fairly ordinary-seeming medieval Roman church – which even on its own is something quite extraordinary. As you walk in, although it’s not impressively old by Roman standards, the floor tiles are fancy marble mosaics from the 1100s, and there are pretty 15th century frescoes behind the altar (and as a place of worship, it’s free to enter).

What’s not obvious from the outside though is that the current church was built directly on top of an earlier church, dating to 392 CE. That in turn was built on top of a Roman house which dates as far back as the first century CE, and around 100 years after its first construction, it was used as a temple to the mysterious god Mithras whose followers used to undergo complex initiation rituals and congregate in shady underground temples.

Most impressively of all, these layered ancient structures still exist, one on top of the other, and you can visit them by taking a narrow staircase down from street level. As a tourist attraction, you do have to pay to visit the excavations: 10€ per ticket when I went in June 2016 with my old friend – and Ph.D in Roman history – Blanka.

So what’s below the ground?

To help preserve the early Christian setting -or perhaps for other reasons- you’re not allowed to take any photos below ground (that’s why the photos in this post have been taken by others). On the first level you reach from the staircase is the old church, containing the tomb of Pope Clement I and of St Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet and brought Christianity to the Slavs. For that reason, the church is a place of pilgrimage for Slavic people who leave behind tokens such as flowers to their saint. The walls are covered in faded frescoes, and the damp, cool air gives relief from the heat and sunshine of the street outside.

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The preserved Mithraeum (photo credit).

It gets better (and a little more claustrophobic) as you descend down another level to the Roman foundations of the building. You walk on Roman streets and you can see the Mithraeum – the temple dedicated to the god Mithras – which sits in a cave, above a subterranean river. There’s an altar, featuring Mithras knifing a bull, and a river rushes even further beneath you – and you’re already around 10 metres below street level. Here, it’s cold, close, and echoey. The rooms are tiny, tortuous, and small. In places there are small gaps in the stone floor where you can see and even touch the fast-flowing water beneath. People also throw coins in, which Blanka told me was popular in many Roman cults, and is also a practice which dates back to pre-Roman Celtic civilisations in Europe. Interesting that people still like to throw coins in water and make wishes.

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The very deepest level: the underground river, thought to have formed part of the Roman sewer (photo credit).

The quirky, less celebrated sights sometimes make for more meaningful experiences. Certainly it’s not remotely possible that I could ever see everything worth seeing in Rome in a handful of tourist trips (and our upcoming visit to the city will be my fourth). Even an Italian friend, who lived in Rome for 13 years, says there’s so much of the city she’s still yet to see. But as the Basilica di San Clemente is only five minutes’ walk from the Colosseum, I might just be going back.

The history part

If you’re interested in the history of temples to Mithras (and this temple to Mithras in Rome in particular) my good friend and travel companion Dr. Blanka Misic wrote the following for this blog post. The photo is also hers:

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Bull-slaying Mithras.

Mithras is a god of Indo-Iranian origin who becomes very popular throughout the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries A.D. Mithraism is often regarded as a mystery religion, since worshippers had to be initiated, and rituals were performed in dark, often underground, temples. The worshippers of Mithras, often called Mithraists, were exclusively male, and were often soldiers, slaves and/or government officials. The cult of Mithras had small, independent temples throughout the Roman Empire, often called “spelaeum” (meaning “cave” in Latin) or “mithraeum”, where each Mithraic community would perform its own rituals, often consisting of initiations and ritual meals.

The mithraeum below the church of San Clemente formed part of an ancient Roman courtyard-style house and dates to the late second century A.D. Once you enter the subterranean levels via the staircase through the sacristy, you will first see a free-standing cast of an altar to Mithras, dedicated by Gaius Arrius Claudianus, the Pater (“father”) and leader of the Mithraic congregation (IMG 1923). On the altar is the iconic scene of Mithras killing the bull – often interpreted as a symbol of life and renewal. If you proceed further down the subterranean levels, you will find yourself in the earlier Roman period, among the remains of a first century house. The central room of this house was transformed into a mithraeum sometime in the late second century A.D. You can see the room today through a gate – along the walls are benches where Mithraists would have partaken in the ritual communal meal, and at the far end is the original altar of Claudianus (IMG 1927). Above it is a niche through which rays of light would have illuminated the altar. The mithraeum was abandoned in the fourth century A.D., likely due to the official suppression of the cult and the rise of Christianity.