Squeezing into claustrophobic tunnels on their stomachs, archaeologists have mapped a hidden world of Roman ruins lying beneath the world’s first cathedral. The experts employed potholing techniques and laser instruments as they squirmed their way through shafts and chambers 30 feet beneath the 17th century Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
The present-day Basilica stands on the ruins of a 4th century church founded by the Emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Basilica was in turn built on top of a huge barracks that housed a detachment of elite Roman Imperial Cavalry.
Beneath the barracks, archeologists explored yet another layer of Roman ruins – sumptuous villas decorated with extravagant frescoes, some of them marked with graffiti left by Roman soldiers and military engineers.
The legionaries recorded their names and units as they dismantled the villas, carting off marble and other materials to be re-used in the construction of the barracks. Among the graffiti was a sketch of an ostrich hunt, which probably took place in the nearby Colosseum, where gladiators were matched against wild animals as well as each other. One of the unfortunate birds appears to have had its head chopped off with a sword. The Emperor Commodus, the famous Emperor-villain in the movie “Gladiator,” is reputed to have fought in the Colosseum and to have pitted himself against ostriches and other animals. The graffiti might be a depiction of him in action.
“Some of the areas we explored were very difficult to access; dark passageways where you’re working on your stomach,” said Professor Ian Haynes, the co-director of the five-year research effort, The Lateran Project. “Getting the laser scanners into position in such narrow, confined spaces is complicated. In some places, it was necessary to rotate the teams on a half-hourly basis because otherwise it just becomes stifling.”
Using laser instruments and ground-penetrating radar, the team produced 3D digital reconstructions of what the early basilica and the cavalry barracks would have looked like. Both were large complexes that sat atop the Caelian Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills and would have dominated the ancient city.
The barracks, known as the Castra Nova or New Fort, accommodated hundreds of cavalry soldiers and their horses. They were built under the rule of the Emperor Septimius Severus. An identical barracks was located a short distance away, a deliberate arrangement by which the Imperial Cavalry were split in two so they could not plot against the Emperor as one unit.
“It’s a reflection of imperial security paranoia,” said Professor Haynes, who works on the project with Italian archeologists with the support of the British School at Rome.
Although it was the first cathedral in the world, St. John Lateran Basilica was later eclipsed as the most important church in Rome by St. Peter’s Basilica, which is located at the Vatican on the opposite side of the Tiber.