Immediately to your left as you enter the Roman Forum is the fascinating sight of a church built inside a Roman temple. The church of San Lorenzo in Miranda was built inside the pillars of the 2nd century Temple of Antonino and Faustina.
This is not unique in Rome: there are several other examples of the phenomenon, including the church of San Nicola in Carcere, but this is the clearest example. The original church was erected inside the temple in the 7th century, but the building you can see here was completed at the beginning of the 17th.
Particularly notable is the depth of the excavation of the Forum. The steps in front of the church go up from the original Forum level (or at least the level decided by the excavators of the site at the end of the 18th century) to the base of the pillars of the temple. However the door into the church is a good 10 feet above the base of the pillars and appears to be stuck high up in the wall. This is because when the church was built the bottom 20 feet of the temple and its steps were buried under the ground. The church was created when the Forum was just the “Campo Vaccino” – a “cow field” with the tops of monuments sticking out of it. You can see the church halfway down the line of buildings in this 17th Century painting.
In the painting you can also see that the Arch of Septimus Severus in the foreground is half-submerged in the ground. This is because all archaeological sites are subject to subsidence, but it was particularly acute in Rome due to the annual flooding of the city by the very silty Tiber, something that only stopped when the river walls of Lungotevere were built in 1876. The flooding is one reason cited for Julius Caesar to move the Senate to higher ground on the other side of the Capitoline Hill – a move that made him more vulnerable to his eventual assassination.
Just visible at the tops of the temple’s pillars are deep, diagonal cuts in the marble that were made by ropes in the middle ages as people tried to pull the columns down using teams of horses, presumably before the 7th century church was started.
As well as erecting churches within temples to take advantage of their strength, throughout the early Christian period in Rome the city reused and recycled thousands of temple pillars, often inside the new churches that were being built (particularly impressive is the collection of mismatching pillars in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere). However the massive columns in the temple of Antonino and Faustina proved too tough, and though the ropes scored deep into the marble, the columns never fell.
The church is still occasionally used for mass, but for obvious reasons access is not via the door that is now high up on a wall, but from the street outside the Forum complex. A ticket to the Forum is not required to enter the church.
Nearest Metro: Colosseo, Line B
Image licence: Wikimedia Commons