Domus of the Calendar

Excavations beneath the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore between 1965 and 1971 uncovered the remains of some ancient structures and their precious decorations. They tell the story of this area before the construction of the basilica. The difference in elevation still visible today between Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, in front of the basilica, and Piazza dell’Esquilino, extending behind the apse, was even more pronounced in the past and was underscored by a massive retaining wall built in the early imperial period. At the time, according to the sources, the Macellum Liviae – a large open-air market – lay a short distance away. The first scholars to study the structures beneath Santa Maria Maggiore thought that they belonged to the Macellum. More recently, they have generally been interpreted as the remains of a large aristocratic domus (house), whose first phase dates back to the first century AD, perhaps during the principate of Nero. In the second century AD, the house underwent extensive renovation work including the construction of a large peristyle, a colonnaded courtyard that was the focal point of houses at this time. Peristyles were often adorned with climbing plants, fountains, statues, valuable paintings and mosaics, and the other rooms of the house were arranged around them.

The decoration of the peristyle is now the most striking feature of these remains: in the last quarter of the second century, a whole wall was adorned with a series of large panels decorated with frescoes above a high plinth of marble slabs. The painted scenes, arranged in bands one above the other, show imaginary cities whose major public buildings are clearly identifiable (a temple, a portico, perhaps a theatre); scenes of agricultural life and work in the fields; finally in the upper register, of which only a few portions survive, we see signs of the zodiac or astronomical symbols. Next to each painted panel is a vertical band listing the days of each month and their festivals in white letters on a red background. This is a calendar, a decorative motif also mentioned by the writer Petronius, active in the first century AD (Satyricon 30, 3), and frequently attested in important private residences (on the Esquiline, an example is that of the domus in Via Graziosa). The paintings, then, were closely linked to the various months of the year: the scenes of city life may have represented official festivals and the country scenes seasonal tasks. Finally, the astronomical symbols may have alluded to the phases of the moon and the movements of the stars at various times of the year.

This decoration remained visible for only a short period. Already by the early years of the third century it had probably been covered by frescoes representing illusionistic architecture, with the spaces being subdivided by columns and coffered ceilings. At the same time, the house was also altered with the construction of new rooms. Traces of the last renovation of the decorations in these rooms, indicative of their owners’ interest in them, dates to the early fourth century. After this a period of impoverishment seems to begin, followed by the gradual abandonment of at least some parts of the building. This state of affairs continued until the whole area was purchased by Pope Sixtus III to begin construction of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, consecrated in AD 434.