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P.zza Santa Croce
In Gerusalemme, 10
The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem stands on an ancient Roman necropolis upon which an imperial residence called Sessorium was built in the 3rd century. The residence encircled by the Aurelian Wall included the Public Baths, the Castrensian Amphitheatre and the Varius Circus. In the 4th century the residence was given to Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena. Helena transformed the Hall of Justice into a Christian church to house the Relics of the Passion of Jesus Christ that she had brought back from Mount Calvary.
The Basilica was completely restructured in the 10th century by Pope Lucius II who added three naves and a romanesque campanile; in 1700 Pope Benedict XIV rebuilt it in the baroque style, as we find it today. The Basilica contains many works of art including medieval frescoes, a cosmatesque floor (12th century), and the story of the Invention and Exultation of the Cross by Antoniazzo Romano (14th century).
The Relics of the Passion of Jesus comprise three fragments from the Cross, a Nail from the crucifixion, two Thorns from the Crown and a piece of the Title of the Cross. The authenticity of the relics has been the subject of various studies down through the centuries. Nowadays, it has been confirmed by historical and scientific studies. Documentation of the veneration of fragments of the Cross and Nail first dates back to the 4th century. The Title of the Cross relic – the wooden plaque with part of the Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum inscription on it – concealed to protect if from thieves, was discovered in 1492. The two Thorns were not found by Helena herself; they were donated in the centuries that followed. The Crown of Thorns was venerated and held in Constantinople.
In the middle of the 3rd century, the threat posed by Barbarian incursions made it necessary to strengthen Rome's internal defences. Emperor Aurelian ordered the construction of a new fortified boundary wall, built between 271 and 275AD.
The section of the Aurelian Wall that encloses the Holy Cross site is one of the most well preserved of all of Rome's boundary wall.
The remains of the Varius Circus, commissioned by Emperor Heliogabalus (218-222), were uncovered in the northeastern section of the Basilica.
Other buried rooms have been found just behind the current Via Eleniana, a road that retraces an old Roman path. They belong to the cistern whose waters surfaced there and fed the public baths and which undoubtedly belonged to Constantine's mother.
Next to the Basilica and Monastery are the remains of the Castrensian Amphitheatre, located at the site’s highest point and which was included by Aurelian (270-275) inside the Eternal City's defensive wall.
Its name derives from ‘Castrum’ which in Late Antiquity similarly had the meaning of an imperial residence. It was equipped for courtly spectacles and military exercises.
The remains of the Amphitheatre followed the same fate as those of the Monastery, namely they were used as construction materials for the new buildings in the middle of the 1700s.