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Constantine must have given it to the Church in the time of Miltiades, not later than about 311, for we find a council against the Donatists meeting within its walls as early as 313.From that time onwards it was always the centre of Christian life within the city; the residence of the popes and the cathedral of Rome. 692) seem to point in this direction, and it is also probable on other grounds.When the popes returned to Rome from their long absence at Avignon they found the city deserted and the churches almost in ruins.Great works were begun at the Lateran by Martin V and his successors.Some few remains of the original buildings may still be traced in the city walls outside the Gate of St.John, and a large hall decorated with paintings was uncovered in the eighteenth century within the basilica itself, behind the Lancellotti Chapel.The porticoes of the atrium were decorated with frescoes, probably not dating further back than the twelfth century, which commemorated the Roman fleet under Vespasian, the taking of Jerusalem, the Baptism of the Emperor Constantine and his "Donation" to the Church.Inside the basilica the columns no doubt ran, as in all other basilicas of the same date, the whole length of the church from east to west, but at one of the rebuildings, probably that which was carried out by Clement V, the feature of a transverse nave was introduced, imitated no doubt from the one which had been, long before this, added at S. It was probably at this time also that the church was enlarged.
A great many donations from the popes and other benefactors to the basilica are recorded in the "Liber Pontificalis", and its splendour at an early period was such that it became known as the "Basilica Aurea", or Golden Church.It owes its unsavoury name to the anthem sung at the ceremony of the papal enthronization, "De stercore erigeus pauperem".From the fifth century there were seven oratories surrounding the basilica.This second church lasted for four hundred years and was then burnt down.
It was rebuilt by Clement V and John XXII, only to be burnt down once more in 1360, but again rebuilt by Urban V .A few traces of older buildings also came to light during the excavations made in 1880, when the work of extending the apse was in progress, but nothing was then discovered of real value or importance.