Adventure in History: Basilica of San Clemente al Laterno

This post is by guest-blogger Heather R. Darsie, who went to see the Basilica of San Clemete al Laterno (the lucky duck) and will tell us all about it. Smile

During my visit to Italy back in November 2015, my Travel Buddy and I had our longest stop in the Eternal City, Rome. Rome was different from every other city I’d visited in France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica… This is my long-winded way of saying that, as far as I can tell, there is no other place on earth like Rome.

One of the many, many sites I had the pleasure of visiting was the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterno, located just east of the Flavian Amphitheater, which is better known by its nickname of the Colosseum.

Basilica Roma_San_Clemente

Going to the Basilica that day, I had no idea what was in store. My Travel Buddy had graciously planned all the details and done the research, telling me some details about the Basilica. I had no true concept of what it would feel like to be inside the building and still cannot fully comprehend what I was stepping into.

An intelligent, well-spoken Italian woman gave our tour, which started in the newest part of the Basilica.** There is a grand foyer through which we did not enter, as mostly tours enter from a side door. I did have an opportunity to briefly step into the foyer which, much like what must be all churches in Italy, was beautifully decorated.


The new part of the Basilica was constructed in the 11th century, with Pope Clement XI having restoration work done in the 17th and 18th century. He added a new façade, as well, and his armorial bearings can be found on the new, painted ceiling in the same room as the Byzantine-style 12th century mosaic above the altar.  


After viewing the range of up to six hundred years’ worth of decorative style in the main portion of the new Basilica, we went down the stairs to the old, or first, Basilica. This Basilica of San Clemente is confirmed to have existed as early as 392 and was effectively in the basement of the new basilica. Interestingly, there is what appears to be graffiti on a portion of a fresco in the old Basilica, which is the earliest example of the Vulgar/Vulgate language. The words are not appropriate for polite company, so I shall not repeat them here. It does appear to possibly be the oldest example of profanity. The old Basilica is almost as large as the new, with structural arches from both the original structure and new ones added for stability.

Excavation of the building began in the 1950s, with the Dominicans and local archaeology students conducting the work. Our tour guide told us that one of the friars there could not sleep because he heard the sound of running water. Continuously vexed by the sound, excavations were begun. The first excavations seem to have been started during the 1800s but could not be completed due to the running water filling the lower parts of the building, but more meaningful excavation was possible beginning in the mid-1900s.

After viewing the old Basilica, we went down another set of narrow steps to the mithraeum, a temple that had been dedicated to the cult of Mithras.


This building likely dated from after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C. E. One can still view a portion of the altar and benches where the cult’s feasts were held.

We went down a final level and wandered through what was likely an old, Roman mint, past an alleyway, and into the second floor of what was either a house or apartment building. These buildings may have been from after the Great Fire, as well, or before. There was a grate in the corner through which I could hear the sound of running water. They were unable to drain the first floor of the building, so it remained submerged.

After leaving the subterranean faults where people had wandered for a thousand years, I did not quite know what to think. Going down through all the layers of the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterno was like seeing an ancient cliff face cut open, exposing the many layers of rock and fossils, except I walked through the development of architecture, technology, language, and someone’s house. How different are any of us, at our core, from anyone who has walked in any of those buildings?


** The purpose of this post is to discuss the author’s impression of the place and is not meant as a piece of research. As such, there may be some errors in the historical information posited herein. The author encourages readers to follow-up with their own research if they are interested in the factual history.

4 thoughts on “Adventure in History: Basilica of San Clemente al Laterno

  1. There are major errors of fact in this posting. In particular, the “vulgar language” is not directed at St. Clement’s mother, as you state. I understand that people make mistakes, but that mistake is so egregious I would ask that it be removed. Thank you.

    1. I will contact the author of the piece and ask her if she wants to modify it or provide sources …

  2. When the guide was giving us the tour, she said that the graffiti, “traite fili de le pute”, was an insult directed at St Clement. While I do have a decent working knowledge of both Latin and Italian, I do not speak the Vulgar language (Vulgate). The letter “i” at the end of an Italian word does make the word plural, with “figli” being Italian for “sons”. Fodor’s says that the graffiti translates as, “Go on, you sons of harlots, pull!” Thus, I misinterpreted “fili” and mistook “harlot” for “whore” and ascribed it to St. Clement based on the information I was given during the tour. In light of the new information, I will edit the article accordingly. Thank you for bringing it it my attention.

    1. I am afraid the information is incorrect. The quotation is next to the image of Sisinnius, who is yelling it at his servants, who are named in the fresco. The word ‘pute’ is not to be taken literally. It is a curse, but he is yelling at his servants, calling them what would be in English, ‘SOBs’, to get them to arrest St. Clement. This is in no way meant to literally impugn their parentage in the same way that ‘SOB’ is not meant to impugn one’s parentage. The passage is detailed in the Golden Legend, which may be found here in English: A good description of the Fresco may be found here:

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