The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the cathedral of Rome. It was built during Constantine’s reign and was consecrated by Pope Saint Sylvester I in 324 AD. That church and the adjoining palace were destroyed during the “Babylonian Captivity”, or Avignon Papacy. The current structure Pope Innocent X commissioned in 1646.
One of Rome¹s most imposing churches, the Lateran¹s towering facade is crowned with 15 colossal statues of Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and 12 doctors of the Church. Beneath its high altar rest the remains of the small wooden table on which tradition holds St. Peter himself celebrated Mass. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, containing the papal throne (Cathedra Romana), it ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church, even above St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
The basilica itself stands over the remains of the Castra Nova equitum singularium, the ‘new fort’ of the imperial cavalry bodyguard. The fort had been established by Septimius Severus in AD 193, but following the victory over Maxentius (whom the Equites singulares augusti had fought for) at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge by Constantine I the guard were abolished and the fort demolished. Substantial remains of the fort lie directly beneath the basilica nave. The rest of the Basilica site was occupied during the early Roman Empire by the palace of the gens Laterani. The Laterani served as administrators for several emperors; Sextius Lateranus was the first plebeian to attain the rank of consul. One of the Laterani, Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus, became famous for being accused by Nero of conspiracy against the emperor. The accusation resulted in the confiscation and redistribution of his properties.
The Lateran Palace fell into the hands of the emperor when Constantine I married his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. Known by that time as the “Domus Faustae” or “House of Fausta,” the Lateran Palace was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine. The actual date of the gift is unknown but scholars believe it had to have been during the pontificate of Pope Miltiades, in time to host a synod of bishops in 313 that was convened to challenge the Donatist schism, declaring Donatism as heresy. The palace basilica was converted and extended, eventually becoming the cathedral of Rome, the seat of the popes as bishops of Rome.
Every pope from Miltiades occupied the Lateran Palace until the reign of the French Pope Clement V, who in 1309 decided to transfer the official seat of the Catholic Church to Avignon, a papal fief that was an enclave within France. How and why that happened is a, some say very, long story I will spare you at the moment.
During the Avignon papacy, the Lateran Palace and the basilica began to decline. Two destructive fires ravaged the Lateran Palace and the basilica, in 1307 and again in 1361. In both cases, the Avignon papacy sent money to their bishops in Rome to cover the costs of reconstruction and maintenance. Despite the action, the Lateran Palace and the basilica lost their former splendor.
When the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Bishop of Rome again resided in Rome, the Lateran Palace and the basilica were deemed inadequate considering the accumulated damage. The popes took up residency at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and later at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Eventually, the Palace of the Vatican was built (adjacent to the Basilica of St. Peter, that already existed at the Vatican since the time of Constantine), and the papacy moved in; the papacy remains there today.
This feast was later made a universal celebration in honor of the basilica in reflection of the basilica’s primacy in the world as mother church. The words: “Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput” are incised in the main door, meaning “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.”. This feast was established as a sign of love for and union with the See of Saint Peter for the entire Universal Church.
The square in front of the Lateran Palace has a red-granite obelisk, the largest in the world, commissioned by Pharaoh Thuthmose III and completed by his grandson Thutmose IV in Karnak, and placed in the Circus Maximus before being re-erected in its current place. Truly, suggestive of, to me, King of Kings.