The Oldest Church in Rome Still Stands Strong After 1,699 Years

Written by Alanna Davis
Updated: October 9, 2023
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Rome has a deep Christian history that dates back centuries. Experts believe that the Christian religion was initially brought to Rome in the first century AD. However, it wasn’t as popular in ancient times as it is now. During this time, many people were persecuted for their beliefs. Those who practiced Christianity openly lost their rights, and some individuals lost their lives. Those who opposed Christianity destroyed ancient Christian texts and completely outlawed group worship. It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine issued the Edit of Milan in 313 that the persecution of Christians ended. Constantine granted them freedom to practice their religion. Shortly after, construction began on many churches and cathedrals to accommodate the Christian population.

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran is the Oldest Church in Rome

Lateran basilica (Archbasilica cathedral of Most Holy Savior and of Saints John Baptist and John Evangelist in the Lateran) in Rome, Italy

The grand bronze doors once belonged to the ancient Senate House.

©Mistervlad/Shutterstock.com

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran is short for Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran. This is the official seat of the Pope, making it not only the head of all Roman churches but also the mother church of the whole world. It is the highest-ranking church in the world, even surpassing St. Peter’s Basilica.

Since this church was founded in the year 324, it is roughly 17 centuries old. Currently, it is the oldest standing church in the entire world. Originally, this building was a mansion belonging to the Laterani family. However, it was seized by the government when suspicions arose that members of the family were conspiring against the state. Many years later, Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, took possession of the property. He later donated it to the Roman Church, and officials quickly began converting it into a beautiful basilica. Shortly thereafter, Pope Sylvester I performed a dedicated and it became the official residence of the papacy until 1308.

History and Significance

Mosaic in the apse of chapel of St Venantius of Lateran Baptistery of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran. Rome, Italy

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran is one of the four major Basilicas in Rome.

©Dima Moroz/Shutterstock.com

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran enjoyed many years of success and growth after its founding. However, a few centuries later, the Avignon Papacy began. This was a period of time between 1309 and 1376 during which seven popes resided in Avignon, France rather than Rome. It was during this time period that The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran became somewhat neglected. Two fires destroyed sections of the building, and by the time the Avignon Papacy had come to a conclusion, it was in a state of disrepair. When the Pope returned to Rome, officials deemed The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran unfit to be his residence. Shortly after, construction began on the Vatican, which has been the official papal residence ever since.

It wouldn’t be until Pope Sixtus V came into power that reconstruction of the church would begin. Instead of restoring the original building, he elected to rebuild an entirely new church. This is but one of his achievements, as he became known as the “Rebuilder of Rome.” Since this time period, The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran has gone through countless restorations and additions in order to maintain its integrity and original beauty.

Local Geography

Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in abandoned park of religious miniatures in Częstochowa Poland - Złota Góra - Golden Mountain

Entry to The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran is free and no ticket purchase is required.

©Urbex Travel/Shutterstock.com

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran is located in the heart of Rome, making it a convenient destination to add to your travel itinerary. Some other popular attractions nearby are The Arch of Constantine, The Colosseum, and The Baths of Caracalla. Other popular tourist destinations are slightly further away, although still within a 30-minute drive. If you don’t mind taking a detour, you can also visit the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon.

The locals claim that the best food in Rome is located around the Trastevere, which is only a 15-minute trip from The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran. After a long day of sightseeing, treat yourself to some traditional Italian cuisine, such as carbonara or cacio e pepe. If you’re interested in grabbing some dessert afterwards, keep a lookout for one of the many authentic gelato spots in the area.

Modern Day

The papal archbasilica (or basilica) of St John in the Lateran, in Rome,, Italy, lit in the dark night. This is the main church or basilica of Cathoiic world, the bishop's seat of the Pope.

There are 12 statues of the apostles lining the walls of the basilica.

©Thoom/Shutterstock.com

If you’re thinking of visiting this gorgeous church, it’s best to prepare for a few things before you go. Because The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran is such an important piece of history, security is very tight. Stringent checks ensure guests don’t bring aerosol cans or glass bottles into the church. Due to this, long lines form and the wait to enter the building may be quite long. It’s good to plan ahead and budget some extra time.

If you want to attend The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran at a quieter time, try to book your travel around the holidays in November or December. In the event that you’re traveling during peak tourist season, try to arrive at the church when the doors open at 9 a.m. For individuals who are interested in learning about the in-depth history, tours are available in many forms. Several companies offer guided group tours, which is a fine option if you’re feeling social. However, if you’re feeling more introverted, it’s best to rent an audio guidebook from the information booth and set off alone.

Whether you’re interested in Christian history, appreciate ancient architecture, or simply like to immerse yourself in different cultures, be sure to include The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in your itinerary. It is a church unlike any other and is sure to be a bucket list destination for many.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Mistervlad/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Alanna is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering insects, animals, and travel. In addition to writing, she spends her time tutoring English and exploring the east end of Long Island. Prior to receiving her Bachelor's in Economics from Stony Brook University, Alanna spent much of her time studying entomology and insect biology.

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