British archaeologists explore hidden world of Roman ruins beneath the world’s first cathedral

Squeezing into claustrophobic tunnels on their stomachs, British archaeologists have mapped a hidden world of Roman ruins lying beneath the world’s first cathedral.

The British experts employed potholing techniques and laser instruments as they squirmed their way through shafts and chambers 30ft beneath the 17th century Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome.

The present-day basilica stands on the ruins of a 4th century AD basilica which was 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.

A reconstruction of the interior of the fourth century AD basilica of St John Lateran, later absorbed into the present-day basilicaCredit:
The Lateran Project

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, a debauched megalomaniac, is reputed to have fought in the Colosseum and to have pitted himself against ostriches and other animals. The graffiti may be a depiction of him in action.

A reconstruction of a Roman villa, the remains of which have been explored by archaeologists beneath the basilicaCredit:
The Lateran Project

“Some of the areas we explored were very difficult to access – dark passageways where you’re working on your stomach,” said Prof 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 which sat on top of the Caelian Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, and would have dominated the ancient city.

A reconstruction of the imperial Roman cavalry barracks which would have been home to hundreds of soldiers and their mountsCredit:
The Lateran Project

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 Prof Haynes, from Newcastle University, who worked on the project with Italian and Dutch archeologists and with the support of the British School at Rome, an arts and humanities institute.

Although it was the first cathedral in the world, St John Lateran Basilica was later eclipsed as the fulcrum of Christianity by St Peter’s Basilica, on the opposite side of the Tiber.

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