domus of Junius Bassus

In 1930, during work to build the Seminario Pontificio di Studi Orientali in Via Napoleone III, the remains of some ancient structures came to light. They included a hall with a basilica plan, with an apse on the short side, whose walls were decorated with extraordinary opus sectile panels. Unfortunately, as was customary at the time, the structures were completely demolished and only the opus sectile panels were saved, now divided between the Capitoline Museums and the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo. The building appears several times in Renaissance drawings, including a very accurate recording by Giuliano da Sangallo; in 1879 De Rossi described it as one of the buildings belonging to the Monastery of Sant’Antonio Abate, which occupied the whole area at the time. An inscription transcribed in Renaissance manuscripts ascribes the construction of the basilica to Junius Bassus, consul in AD 331; it was built above some shops of the first century AD, also partially brought to light by the excavations of the 1930s. Probably about 20 years later, the property was inherited by his son, also named Junius Bassus, who died a Christian in AD 359 when he held the post of praefectus urbi. In the fourth century, when Junius Bassus built his luxurious residence, this area must have been home to numerous domus (houses) belonging to high-ranking state officials: the remains of the domus of the Arippi and the Ulpi Vibi were found immediately next door. A short distance away, between the present-day Via Manin and Via Cavour, stood the domus of Neratius Cerealis, praefectus urbi in AD 352-353 and consul in 358. The large hall known as the Basilica of Junius Bassus, then, was not conceived as a place of worship, but as a large reception room in the luxurious residence of a state official. The splendid opus sectile decorations on the walls, perfectly in keeping with the taste typical of the aristocratic residences of the time, were on exquisitely pagan themes. Above a high base with geometric decorations subdivided by illusionistic architecture, preserved in Renaissance drawings, the spaces between the large windows that lit the room were decorated with panels with tigers attacking their prey and mythical scenes with Egyptianizing decorations.

The next owner of the domus, the Goth Valila, a senator with the Latinized name of Flavius ​​Theodosius, may have left his estate to the Church. During the papacy of Simplicius I, in the second half of the fifth century, the house was turned into the Church of Sant’Andrea in Catabarbara, whose ruins survived until the nineteenth century.