San Clemente is a small church in the
Lateran area of Rome. There are several amazing
things about this site that make it stand
out from the zillion other magnificent churches of Rome.
First and foremost is the fact that the charming 18th century facade on street level is only the tip
of an archeological iceberg. The church was built
on top of a fourth century church which, in turn, is
built upon the ruins of a second century Roman temple
dedicated to the cult of Mithras.
Mithraism was a cult composed mostly of soldiers and was dedicated to male fertility. It is beleived to have been imported from Persia and rivalled christianity for its popularity.
All of these layers of Roman history are totally accesible to visitors thanks to the efforts of the Irish Dominican monks that live there. They arrived in the 17th century, picked up shovels and started digging. When they found the subterranean chambers totally flooded by an undergound stream they routed the water around the foundation through sophisticated pumping stations embedded in the walls. As you descend into the depths of the church put your ear to the wall and you will hear the sound of rushing water. The stream is even visible through certain windows cut out of the rock. People throw coins into the river for luck or as an offering but it's anyone's guess as to which God is picking up the loose change. It could be Jesus.. Or it could be the deity in the Mithraic chamber below you.,
You can't go in this room but you can peer into the narrow hall lined on either side by stone steps and ending with the altar of the deity. It's hard to see what the deity actually looks like because it's dark and it's damp and you'll be cold and want to get a hot drink, but it appears to be a male figure in a fighting stance. It might be holding a sword but it might not be a sword. The over all effect of being there is disorientation. You will realize that all of the visions provided to you, (through movies, books etc..) of ancient Roman history are flimsy compared standing in that room. Take the tour once by yourself to experience it raw, directly through your senses, (I've left many interesting and bizarre details out that you can only uncover for yourself), and then take it with one of the Monks for another perspective on San Clemente's history.