San Clemente: Man, Legend, Church

By Chris Petitt

San Clemente is one of the Roman tituli, the twenty-some late antique churches that continue to animate the modern landscape of Rome. This article examines St. Clement, the man and the legend, and the church dedicated to his memory.

In Rome fact and fiction have interbred for so long that it seems a futile mission to untangle one from the other. And yet, sometimes that’s possible.


The life history and the legend of Clement, the third (or was he the fourth?) bishop of Rome, tell different stories. Old San Clemente, the earliest church dedicated to his memory, tells another of its own.

So, who was this man; what is the legend; and how is this church connected to both versions of his story?


Clement: Apostolic Father

The volume of historical knowledge about Clement is slim. Here’s what his contemporaries knew (or at least believed): Clement was a man of influence in the early church, at Rome and abroad; he was a near successor to Peter as bishop, and he held that position for three years and died early in the reign of the emperor Trajan around the year 100. His judgement was estimable and his authority was recognized by Christian leaders beyond Rome. He wrote at least one work, the First Epistle of Clement, which was addressed to the Corinthians but circulated among Christian communities wherever they existed.

Clement is included among the Apostolic Fathers, a group of theologians who were associated with one or more of the original band of followers, the Apostles. Polycarp of Smyrna (c.69–155), Ignatius of Antioch (obit c.115), and Hermas of Rome (c.145) were his most influential peers. Iranaeus (c. 180), who preserved their eyewitness tradition into the next generation, wrote of Clement in Against All Heresies:

He not only saw the blessed Apostles but also conferred with them, and had their preaching ringing in his ears and their tradition before his eyes. He was not alone, for at that time there were still many others who had been taught by the apostles. 

The writings of these men spread from city to city in the far-flung social networks of the Christian community. Although their writings remained influential, the compilers of the New Testament perceived them as edifying but not inspired by the Holy Spirit and so excluded them from the sacred canon.

St Clement depicted in a mosaic from St. Sophia of Kyiv, 11th century – Wikimedia Commons

Two hundred years later, the bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c.265–339) came of age in the period of Diocletian antipathy and persecution of Christians, and he came to be a man of influence during the reign of Constantine and the legal recognition of Christianity. Around the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), he was among those who preserved the Apostolic tradition that Clement was venerated as “an avowed fellow worker of Paul, a companion in the fight,” as Eusebius wrote in his Church History. Clement’s writings are not in the New Testament but Clement the gospel worker is. Eusebius’ allusion is to the Apostle’s letter to the Philippians (4:3), where, along with others, Clement is remembered by Paul among those “who struggled at my side in promoting the gospel … and whose names are in the book of life.”

And that’s it. Clement was known as an associate of the apostles, later bishop of Rome, and an esteemed figure in the early church.

Clement: The martyr legend

Clement became more of a legendary character than a historical personage in the late fourth century. The first sign of this appears in St. Jerome’s profile of him in De viri illustribus (On Illustrious Men), written in the 390s.


There Jerome repeats the traditional information concerning Clement, but he intimates that details of the early Church history were less than crystal clear—”Clement was the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter, if indeed the second was Linus and the third Anacletus, although most of the Latins think that Clement was second after the Apostle.” Jerome adds the new piece of information that Clement is memorialized in the form of a church—”a church preserves the memory of his name to this day.”

Then by the early fifth century, Clement had a new status: martyr.

The oldest preserved reference to Clement as a martyr appears in a letter of Pope Zosimus (417–418), who attended a conference “in the basilica of Clement … who hallowed the church with his martyrdom.” Repeated broadcasting of this new status through liturgy and other media made Clement’s martyr identity conventional knowledge in the fifth century.

The transformation of Clement into a martyr was part of the broader restatement of Christian dogma and the history of the early (pre-Constantinian) Church that began in the fourth century.

The early history of the early Church ended with the Council of Nicaea in 325. Constantine convened the Council, the assemblage of bishops and clergy from across the Christian world, an attempt to establish consensus on essential dogma. Subsequently, the definitions of orthodoxy influenced the development of Church institutions and the hierarchy of offices, and created rivalries among episcopal sees in jostling for influence within the beyond the ecclesiastical matters.

Apse mosaic from current church; late antique motifs were reproduced from now lost apse mosaic of Old San Clemente – Image courtesy Chris Petitt

At the same time, popular devotion centered on the veneration of martyrs, especially their relics, was widespread and often took forms that evaded clerical control. Episcopal control of this phenomenon was expressed throughout Latin Christendom and is especially vivid in several letters of St. Augustine that report on events in North Africa.

Martyrs were ascribed a heightened significance after the Edict of Milan established legal toleration of Christianity and Constantine’s dynasty became patrons of Christian cult devotion. In this milieu, martyrdom was no longer available to the Christians living in the Roman Empire. Martyrs of the past times were seen as heroic and now operated as intercessors between God and the living generation of faithful. Obsequious veneration of a martyr’s cult, especially of their relics, was widespread in popular devotion. Constantine and his successors created a parallel form of patronage through cult sites, memorial basilicas like St. Peter’s in Rome and more modest churches, to channel that fervor to support the imperial regime.

Apostolic Fathers and Martyrdom

The exalted status of martyrs was present in the early Church. Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp were both martyred. Their accounts balance each other, and together demonstrate the belief that martyrdom is not to be provoked and not to be evaded. In the letters of Ignatius, the contemplation of his martyrdom is recorded as he is brought to Rome for trial. There is no account of his actual death, only contemplation of its significance and his willingness to endure it.

The martyrdom of Polycarp is recorded in the form of a letter that was distributed to neighboring Christian communities. In the case of Polycarp, martyrdom is not sought out but is accepted when it is imposed. The key scene is a confession of faith in the midst of the ordeal, patient endurance of torment, and the sanctification of the body whose remains are venerated as relics.

No source before the fifth century refers to Clement as a martyr, but he, too, understood the significance of martyrdom. In his letter to the Corinthians he addresses the idea of martyrdom and ties it to Jewish precursors who had experienced persecution, from both outsiders and other Jews. He was a witness to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul and others of his contemporaries:

Now, let’s put aside those from the past and set before our eyes the heroes of our own time and the examples the Apostles have set for our own generation. Peter suffered not just one or two but many hardships, and so proving himself as a witness, earned the place of glory due to him. Paul, amidst strife, showed us how to win the prize of patient endurance; seven times he was imprisoned, stoned, and driven from city to city. He preached in the East and the West, and he won the renown which his faith had earned. He taught the right manner of life to the whole world, and when he had given testimony before the authorities, his earthly career ended and he was taken up into the holy place as the model of patient endurance.

Facsimile of the Epistle of Clement, from the Codex Alexandrinus – Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Posthumous martyrdom

Pope Damasus (366–384) erected a set of hagiographical billboards in the suburban cemeteries and catacombs of Rome to assert papal direction over the cult of saints. These metrical, monumental inscriptions broadcast the deeds of Roman martyrs. Damasus composed approximately 60 of these epitaphs, but he didn’t compose one for the hometown hero, presumably because he was not known as a martyr.

A new literary form that flourished in fifth and sixth-century Rome communicated the new role of martyr cults in popular devotional practices. The Gesta Martyrum is a collection of martyr stories set in Rome. They explained the past through the contemporary lens of Christian community life with its focus on martyr veneration. The writers of these stories were likely clerics associated with the church or monastery dedicated to a particular cult, in part to promote the site on the pilgrim circuit.

The martyr story, called a passio in Latin (passion in English), of Clement dates from the fifth century. There are two central themes of the legend as presented in the legend, his association with Rome’s ruling class and his martyrdom. In the passio, Clement’s pastoral care for a senator’s wife and the eventual conversion of that senator (who is depicted as being part of the inner circle of the emperor) leads to Clement’s prosecution, exile to Crimea, and eventual martyrdom there. The narrative accounts for the absence of Clement’s relics in Rome by the remoteness of his place of martyrdom, his death by drowning, the corporal relics being accessible and later resistant to translation from his tomb.

Hypothesis and conjecture

The late antique passio has had a lingering effect on the reasoning and imagination of modern scholars. There has been much conjecture concerning the putative relationship between Clement and contemporary imperial family members Titus Flavius Clemens (known as Clemens) and Flavia Domitilla, who were said to be admirers of Judaism and subsequently were identified as Christians. This belief found seed in the work of both Roman and Christian writers.

The valediction of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:22) is the starting point of such arguments: “Give my greetings to every holy one in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send you their greetings; all the holy ones send you their greetings, especially those of Caesar’s household.” The members of Caesar’s household referred to are thought by some to be both family members of the emperor and the body of slaves and others who served them.

These members of the imperial household were among the sebomenoi, or God-fearers, gentiles who were attracted to Jewish beliefs and practices. This was a diverse group whose members differed by social status, gender and legal status as free or not free, and included members of the elite class. God-fearers are discussed in Jewish, Christian and other writers in antiquity. Some of these converted to Judaism, some became Christians, and others continued with pluralistic religious practices.

Alexamenos graffiti from imperial palace mocking Christianity: Greek inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god” – Image courtesy Chris Petitt
Several of these people have become associated with Clement. Titus Flavius Clemens was a cousin of the emperor Domitian (81–96). Clemens served as consul in 95; the emperor had him executed soon after he left office. The Roman historian Cassius Dio reports that the cause was his interest in Judaism and neglect of the Roman religion, especially the cult of the emperor. Clemens’ wife Flavia Domitilla, another relative of the emperor accused of involvement in Jewish practices, was sent into exile. Other Romans were punished for the same offense. “Some lost their lives, others at least their fortunes,” Dio writes.

Citing Bruttius, a Roman historian whose work is preserved only as quoted by others, Eusebius tells a similar story. In this version, Flavia Domitilla, the niece of Clemens, is identified as a Christian, and he is exiled during a spate of persecution in which many other Christians were martyred. Important details differ from Dio’s version: Clemens’ murder is not attributed to religious belief, and Domitilla, now presented as his niece instead of his wife, is identified as a Christian. Later her reputation as a Christian associated her with the catacomb on the Via Ardeatina.

More creative reasoning posited St. Clement as a freed slave of Clemens, and Clemens himself as the owner of property used as a primitive church located where later San Clemente came to stand. These theories continue to be repeated in popular history, guidebooks and pilgrim literature, but scholars no longer accept them as viable.

11th-century fresco in the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome: Saints Cyril and Methodius bring Saint Clement’s relics to Rome – Wikimedia Commons


The putative relics of St. Clement were brought to Rome by the brothers Cyril and Methodius in 868. This event had at least as much to do with rivalry for missionary zones of influence between the churches of Rome and Constantinople as it did concern for Clement. The relics were placed in the of San Clemente with those of Ignatius of Antioch. Until that time, the legend of Clement made the church a kind of relic.

Old San Clement

Archaeology has clarified the history of Old San Clemente. Pope Siricius (384–399) inaugurated the church in the late fourth century. A reconstruction of the dedicatory inscription and other finds pertaining to the original church adorn the staircase that descends from the current church and the narthex of the excavated lower church. For convenience, I will refer to the lower church as Old San Clemente. The present church was built atop Old San Clemente in the early eleventh century.

Excavation has dispelled the possibility that the church predated this period or has any connection to Clement and his family home, as legend would have it. Yet, it does have a connection to the milieu of the early Church in Rome. Archaeologists have identified the destruction level of the Great Fire of 64 AD that levelled much of the city. The fire was blamed on the Christians and was the catalyst for the first persecution of Christians in the city. As quoted above, Clement tells us he was a witness to this event, and the Roman historian Tacitus produced a vivid account of it:

To stifle the rumor that he himself had set the fire, Nero, knowing they were already hated in Rome, blamed the Christians, and applied the most savage forms of torture to their punishment. Christus, the founder of the cult, had been put to death by Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea during the reign of Tiberius. The pernicious superstition was suppressed for a time only to break out again not only in Judea but also in Rome, to where so many nasty things are brought as to a sewer.  Then those who were arrested confessed to being Christians, and those few informed on others and many were convicted not so much on the charge of burning the city, but for being haters of the human race … Having been condemned, they were mocked on their way to oblivion. Some were dressed in animal skins and tormented by dogs; others were crucified or set a fire and as the sunlight waned were made torches to light the streets.

The builders of Old San Clemente adapted two first-century buildings for the construction of the church. The buildings stood east-west of each other and were separated by an alley. The body of Old San Clemente occupied the building to the east; the apse and two flanking rooms (possibly sacristies) across the alley and occupied a portion of the building to the west. The church is located on the modern Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, the modern road that runs between the homonymous cathedral of Rome and the Colosseum.

Three aisles comprised the form of Old San Clemente. Two rows of columns separated the nave from the side aisles. The side aisles communicated with the nave via nine arched openings. A window was placed atop each of these archways. From the entrance at the eastern end of the church, five archways provided entry to the nave via the narthex, and broad openings providing access to the side aisles at either end of this antechamber. As with the present church, an atrium extended eastward from the façade.

Anastasis, nine-century fresco in Old San Clemente – Image courtesy Chris Petitt

Appearance of Old San Clemente

The appearance of Old San Clemente is better attested by material than by documentary evidence.

The Liber Pontificalis provides details on the gifts of liturgical objects made from precious material (gold, silver, marble, silk, books) given to churches by popes and emperors throughout the early Middle Ages. Old San Clemente is rarely mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis; the church is not even mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis’ sixth-century life of Clement. Gifts to the church are not recorded until the pontificate of Hadrian (772–795)— who rebuilt the roof of the church “which was about to collapse and in ruins”– and the economic recovery of Rome funded, in part, by the Carolingians.

Compared to the recorded take of other churches, the gifts to Old San Clemente were paltry and few. The Liber Pontificalis‘ gift catalogue for San Clemente gives little sense, as it does for other churches, of the glitter of golden adornment and mosaic tesserae within the gleam of burning lamps and the play of sunlight through the clerestory windows.

The Liber Pontificalis does tell us that Gregory IV (828–844) made a gift of “a gold interwoven cloth with lions and a fringe of eightfold weave.” Leo IV (847–855) made a larger donation: six fine bowels, three with the same design adorned with crosses; two with the likeness of palms, and one chased, or Saxon, in all four pounds; a fine gold carved diadem, without jewels, which hangs over the high altar, with a gold cross in the middle with five glass jewels fixed in the cross, and four again of glass, which hang loose, weighing three pounds; and a  silver handbasin, one pair, with the likeness of a man’s head with a vine, and another representation, weighing three pounds.

Not all gifts made to San Clemente were recorded by early medieval biographers, and the church had other, non-papal, patrons responsible for its endowment. Several artifacts dating from the early sixth century remain in the lower church and others were recycled to adorn the upper church.

Several carved marble columns and slabs were commissioned by Mercurius, a priest of San Clemente. He was later elected pope as John II (533–535) and other sculpted marble liturgical furniture, some bearing his papal monogram, was donated by him as pope.

Incidentally, John II was the first pope known to have adopted a new name when chosen for that office. He seems to have believed that his given Mercurius was inappropriate for the office. Both the papal monogram and his given name Mercurius are inscribed on these marble furnishings, which indicates these donations spanned different parts of his career.

Spolia from Old San Clemente appears elsewhere in the upper church, much of it again from the patronage of John II. Much if not all the schola cantorum was reused from the same structure from the earlier church. The original choir area was larger, so some of its panels were used elsewhere, such as the chancel and the altar canopy.

The ancient decoration of the church was also maintained by the reuse of pictorial motifs where the original object no longer exists. This is most true in the case of apse mosaic. No image of the original mosaic survives, but scholars have surmised from the use of imagery known from late antique artworks that apse mosaic in the present church and is a kind of copy of the now lost mosaic of Old San Clemente.

Deal of apse mosaic with late antique motif – Image courtesy Chris Petitt

Other signs of patronage are preserved. An inscription records the gift of books to San Clemente by Pope Zacharias (741–752).

Frescoes of Old San Clemente

Frescoes from the sixth, ninth and eleventh centuries survive in the lower church. The earliest fresco depicts the Madonna with Baby Jesus. Some scholars believe that this image is an adaptation of a portrait of Theodora, wife of the emperor Justinian (527–565). A companion portrait of Justinian is thought to once have been nearby, in an iconographic arrangement like that found at San Vitale in Ravenna, but has left no trace.

Justinian was a contemporary of John II and likely acted as a patron for the marble work that adorned the church as part of the renewed imperial endowment of Rome on the eve of the Byzantine reconquest of Italy.

Ninth-century frescoes commemorate contemporary personages like Pope Leo IV (847–855) and his liturgical reform of the Feast of the Assumption. The traditional procession from Sant’Adriano in the Forum to Santa Maria Maggiore perhaps passed the Lateran and paused at San Clemente on its return to the Forum. The other Marian processions set out at dawn, but the Assumption was a nighttime event. Leo inaugurated the carrying of the icon called Madonna del Rosario, the oldest known icon of Mary in Italy.

Fresco portrait of Pope Leo IV in Old San Clemente – Image courtesy Chris Petitt

Another ninth-century fresco depicts the translation of the relics of Clement by Cyril and Clement. These and other frescoes of this period show the continuing “Byzantine” influence in Roman art.

Eleventh-century fresco of scene from the passio of Clement – Image courtesy Chris Petitt

All are preserved in fragments and indicate the total loss of other work, in some cases due to the construction of the eleventh-century church that replaced Old San Clemente.

Eleventh-century frescoes commissioned by the family of Beno de Rapizia depict scenes from the passio of Clement, and from another popular saint, Sant’Alessio, whose church on the Aventine Hill was at the peak of its renown in the late tenth and early eleventh century. Captions on these frescoes preserve some of the earliest evidence of the Italian language alongside Latin. Graffiti found in the catacomb of Comodilla is a somewhat earlier specimen of proto-Italian found in Rome.

History of the site

The archeological record of the San Clemente site begins in the first-century anno domini. The design of Old San Clemente was an adaptation of two buildings constructed after the conflagration of 64 AD that consumed structures in this area and a good amount of other areas of the city. Archeologists have identified the destruction layer from that event at this site. Scholarly opinion holds that it is likely that the site was included within the precincts of the Domus Aurea, the grand palace built by the emperor Nero (54–68) on land levelled by the catastrophe.

The emperors of the Flavian dynasty (69–96) and their immediate successors developed undid Nero’s megalomaniac design and constructed several public buildings in this area, among them the Flavian Ampitheater (the Colosseum) and its adjacent ludi, or gladiatorial training grounds, and the bath complexes of Titus and later of Trajan.

Archeologists have surmised that the buildings that preceded Old San Clemente had a public (they were imperial property) and industrial character. Circumstantial evidence associates the site with the imperial mint of Rome. First, there is the chronology of change in the Roman landscape. Until a fire in 80 AD destroyed the buildings, the mint was located on Capitoline Hill. Subsequently, the site was used for other buildings and the mint was relocated to the area where San Clemente now stands, as attested by late antique regional catalogues of Roman buildings.

Several inscriptions affirm the hypothesis that a mint was built on this site, including dedications by employees of the imperial mint, which were found near the façade of the church – they have been dated to the year 115, during the reign of Trajan. Another inscription found nearby refers to the procurator Monetae et ludi magni, the official responsible for the maintenance of those structures.

The stout material design of the eastern building associates it with the mint. The building appears on a fragment of the third-century incised marble map of the city. The original purpose of the western building is unknown, but its proximity to the Colosseum might associate it with the ludi. Brick stamps date the building to the 90s, during the reign of Domitian, the last of the Flavian dynasty and a contemporary of Clement.

Chris Petitt (M.Phil.—Medieval History) is preparing an anthology of eyewitness writing about Rome from antiquity to the present day. Contact him at [email protected] or via Twitter @realchrispetitt

Top Image: Image courtesy Chris Petitt