Basilica di Santo Stefano Protomartire a Via Latina is a ruined 5th century basilica in the Parco Archeologico delle Tombe di Via Latina, which is to the east of the Via dell’Arco di Travertino just before its junction with the Appia Nuova. This is in the Tuscolano quarter.
The park includes an original stretch of the Via Latina and several ancient Roman tombs as well.
The basilica was built within the layout of a pre-existing ancient Roman villa in the 5th century, during the pontificate of St Leo the Great (440-61). Interestingly, a mausoleum was co-opted and converted into a devotional crypt.
According to an epigraph discovered in the ruins, the work was sponsored by a lady of the noble (but not patrician) family of the Anicii named Demetrias who was a correspondent of the pope. The villa and mausoleum might have belonged to the family earlier.
Unlike many of the suburban basilicas, this one had no set of catacombs attached (at least, none has been found).
The history of the cult of St Stephen at Rome in this period is obscure, and especially it is very unclear as to how this church related to the more famous San Stefano Rotondo al Celio.
The edifice is recorded as having been restored by Pope Leo III (795-815), who repaired the roof. Pope Leo IV (847-55) provided liturgical items, so obviously it was then the policy to keep this church while most of the other suburban shrines and catacombs were being abandoned.
However, the building then falls into oblivion and it is not certain when it was abandoned or why.
The ruins were re-discovered in 1857 by Leonardo Fortunati, a teacher and amateur archaeologist who discovered them and the tombs while tracing the route of the Via Latina. He dug there in the following year under the authority of the Papal government, and there was a subsequent serious excavation after 1900.
Unfortunately those responsible for these excavations rebuilt some stretches of walling, using ancient material from elsewhere and being too careful to match the fabric. This has obscured the evidence somewhat -it didn't help that no proper write-up of this restorative activity was done.
The church had a nave with central nave of nine bays with side aisles. There was no transept, but a semi-circular apse as wide as the central nave and a colonnaded narthex the same width as the church.
On the far side of the far right hand corner of the church, and abutting the apse, was evidence of what is taken to have been a baptistery on a square plan, although substantial remains only of the left hand side wall were traced (the church wall at the front was party). A short length of the opposite wall is shown in the archaeological plan, but this seems uncertain.
On the opposite side of the apse, and not abutting the church nave, was a long transverse rectangular room which might have been a sacristy.
The actual walls of the church were built in a style known as opus listatum, which involves laying bricks and tufo stone blocks in alternate layers. It would have given the exterior of the church an attractive red-and-whitish striped effect. Most of the walls had alternate courses of single rows of stone blocks and thin bricks, except the left hand side wall which has one row of bricks in between courses of two rows of stone blocks. This is a hint that the church might have undergone more than one building campaign.
However, bear in mind that the high exterior walls now extant were substantially heightened in the late 19th century. Mid 19th century engravings show these walls as little more than foundations, with only the apse existing to any height. You can see original material above ground in the right hand side wall.
The narthex had an open portal occupying its whole width, with six columns. It incorporated three ancient walls running closely parallel, the outer two belonging perhaps to a courtyard or portico of the earlier villa and the inner one to an outbuilding. The outermost wall provided the base for the entrance colonnade, the innermost one the actual façade of the nave and the middle one (rather oddly) divided the narthex into two narrow zones. This middle wall is a puzzle, and it might have been that simply the top of it was left embedded in the narthex floor when the church was in use.
The arcades had eight columns on either side, and four engaged piers at the ends. Broken columns have been re-erected, together with four others intact and re-united with their Corinthian capitals. It is known that there were arcades, as stones from the arch archivolts were found. Unfortunately, there is no full confidence that the various column bases are in the same places as when excavated -the archaeologists removed them temporarily to facilitate excavation.
The mid 19th century archaeologists found evidence that the central nave floor, with some marble paving surviving, was originally at a lower level than those of the side aisles. This discrepancy was rectified later, perhaps in the 9th century restoration by Pope Leo III.
In the middle of the central nave in the fourth bay were found scanty traces of what the archaeologists surmised was a nave altar on a square plan. This is dubious.
The original fabric of the sanctuary apse survives to some height, and displays three relieving arches in the brickwork.
The apse contains the surviving remains of the original brick high altar, which contains a small compartment in its core. This was almost certainly a reliquary, as it has two peep-holes or fenestellae confessionis. One is at the front, and one at the back.
The sanctuary was partly enclosed by a screen wall with a central entrance which ran across the mouth of the apse. In front of this was a choir enclosure or schola cantorum, occupying the last three and a half bays of the central nave and taking slightly over a third of its width. Also, two screen walls ran from the side walls to the seventh column in each arcade and it is not clear what these were for. Perhaps they were to do with a pair of ambones (pulpits or lecterns).
The archaeologists found a small fan-shaped basin in situ in the presumed baptistery. There are some doubts about this being a 5th century font, as it seems unsuited to the full immersion required for baptism back then.
Before the church was built, the site of the schola cantorum was occupied by a 1st century (?) mausoleum with a portico, a transverse rectangular antechamber and a square main chamber with an apse. The major axis of the church was carefully chosen to pass through the axis of symmetry of this edifice.
This structure was carefully preserved as a crypt when the church was built, and provided with stairs from the schola. It is uncertain whether the original intention was to enshrine something here, or whether this was a privileged burial place. If the former, the reasonable guess would be something was kept here to do with St Stephen -such as relics of his. If the latter, it seems that the Anicii family asserted burial rights as part of their benefaction.
A pair of small square mausolea with entrances facing each other was also found, under the apse screen wall and aligned with the mausoleum just mentioned. These were partly demolished and buried when the church was erected.
At present, entry to the archaeological park is free and there are guided tours to be had. For details of opening times and tours, see the park's web-page (link below).
The basilica is tucked away behind some trees to the south-east of the park, in the angle between two football fields.