The Basilica di San Clemente is a multilayered architectural gem – a 12th-century basilica built over a 4th-century church, which in turn, conceals a 2nd-century pagan temple and 1st-century Roman house. This medieval church is more than a historic religious site as it also provides a scintillating insight into Rome's past.
In 1857, the Prior of San Clemente began excavations under the basilica where he uncovered not only the 4th-century church below, but also the foundations of 2nd-century and 1st-century buildings. Visitors to the basilica can descend downstairs to the earlier church, which was damaged by Norman invaders in 1084 but still contains some faded 11th-century frescoes of St Clement. On the next level down are the 1st-century Roman house and the 2nd-century pagan temple, which was dedicated to the god Mithras with an altar depicting him slaying a bull and stone seating where the all-male cult members would gather.
Back above ground, San Clemente is a functioning church which celebrates Mass from Monday to Saturday at 8am and 6.30pm, and on Sundays at 9am, 11am and 6.30pm. The beautiful medieval church features intricate frescoes and a 12th-century mosaic among its attractions. The apse mosaic is of the Cross as the ‘Tree of Life' or Triunfo Della Croce (Triumph of the Cross), and shows Jesus on a cross that transforms into a tree. The mosaic is resplendent with saturated colours depicting small scenes of everyday life. The stunning frescoes, dating from Renaissance times, can be found in the Chapel of St Catherine near the entrance of the church.
Admission to the church is free and entry to the excavations is €5 for adults and €3.5 for students under 26. Photography is not allowed in the excavated areas. To visit the Basilica di San Clemente, the closest Metro stop is Colosseo and then it's an eight-minute walk around the Colosseum and down Via di San Giovanni in Laterano to the site.