This is one of the great cathedrals of Rome. It is known as the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, a cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome. It is the oldest of the four Papal Basilicas of Rome, ranking above all other churches in the Catholic church, including St. Peter's Basilica, with the designation of the title Archbasilica. The structure has quite a lot of history attached to it: it stands over the ruins of a fort of the imperial bodyguard established by Septimius Severus in 193, and the rest of the site had been occupied by the palace of the gens Laterani, hence the name, during the early Roman Empire. Constantine took it over later upon marrying Fausta, but he later granted it to the Bishop of Rome, possibly during the pontificate of the Pope Miltiades, hosting the synod of bishops which declared Donatism as heresy in 313. It eventually became the residence of Pope St. Sylvester I, and the cathedral of Rome. He also presided over the official dedication of the basilica and the adjacent Lateran Palace in 324.
Such was its wealth and renown, due in large part to donations made by popes and other benefactors that it was known even in its early years as the Basilica Aurea, which unfortunately drew the attention of attacking armies, including the Vandals, who stripped it of all its treasures. It was restored in 460 by Pope Leo I, and again at the behest of Pope Hadrian, but it was nearly destroyed entirely during an earthquake in 897, reportedly collapsing "from the altar to the doors," to the degree that it was even difficult to reconstruct the lines of the old building. Reconstruction efforts commenced on a new church which lasted until 1308 when it was destroyed by fire, then rebuilt by Pope Clement V and John XXII. This structure was burned also, in 1360, and was rebuilt by Pope Urban V. It has retained its ancient form despite the destructions, although few traces remain of the original structure. It is divided by rows of columns and aisles, featuring a peristyle surrounded by colonnades with fountains in the middle in the facing courtyard, which is a conventional Late Antique format also used at St. Peter's Basilica.
There were several reconstructions before Pope Sixtus V's major renovations which gave it much of the appearance it has now. The original Lateran palace was also demolished and replaced by a new one. Another of its interesting features: The obelisk which stands there now is known as the Lateran Obelisk, the largest standing one in the world, estimated to weigh 455 tons, commissioned by pharaoh Thutmose III and situated before the great temple of Karnak in Thebes. Constantius II had it shipped to Rome where it was set up in the Circus Maximus in 357. At some point it was broken and buried under the Circus, but it was rediscovered and re-erected in the 16th century. Renovation on the interior began under Francesco Borromini, commissioned by Pope Innocent X, when the 12 niches were created and filled with statues of the apostles. Clement XII actually initiated a competition for the fašade: the winner was Alessandro Galilei, who completed it in 1735. All remnants of the traditional basilica architecture were at that time removed.
It was occupied by every pope from Miltiades until the reign of French Pope Clement V who transferred the official seat of the Catholic church to Avignon in 1309 during the schism, and as such, several popes are interred here. There are six extent papal tombs, including those of Alexander III, Sergius IV, Clement XII Corsini, martin V, Innocent III and Leo XIII, the last pope not to be entombed in St. Peter's Basilica. Reportedly a dozen additional papal tombs were constructed beginning in the 10th c. but they were destroyed in the two fires of the 14th c. Their remains were collected and reburied in a polyandrum. There may also have been several other popes whose tombs are unknown. John X (914-928) was the first pope to be buried within the walls of Rome, possibly because of rumors that he was murdered by Theodora. Other important nearby features include the Lateran Baptistry, where legend states that Constantine I was baptized (although this is almost certainly untrue, though he may indeed have patronized and embellished the structure) and the Scala Sancta, whose white marble steps Jesus Christ is said to have graced upon his ascent to the praetorium of the Palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, brought to Rome reportedly by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. This site is one of the most important in Rome, and is probably the major pilgrimage site in the city other than the Vatican.
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