Today we are going to take a look a look at opulence at its best. Roman rulers knew how to display extravagance, but none did it better than Emperor Nero and his master project.
The Domus Aurea was a large landscaped portico villa built by Nero in the heart of Ancient Rome. After the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 had cleared away the aristocratic dwellings on the slopes of the Palatine Hill this literally became the Golden House.
Finished in the year AD 66, the 80-hectare estate was Emperor Nero’s most self-indulgent act of overindulgence. To visualize the size of palace just visualize the space the Statue of Liberty’s base (1 hectare) then times it by 80.
The Domus Aurea complex covered parts of the slopes of the Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian Hills, with a man-made lake in the marshy bottom lands. Suetonius describes the complex as “ruinously prodigal” as it included groves of trees, pastures with flocks, vineyards and an artificial lake, rus in urbe or “countryside in the city”.
Before his suicide in AD 68, Nero was able to witness the extensive gold leaf that gave the villa its name and the extravagant elements of its decor. This included stuccoed ceilings faced with semi-precious stones and ivory veneers, frescoed walls, and major group of rooms having decorations coordinated into different themes for each.
Suetonius claims this of Nero and the Domus Aurea:
When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.
Needless to say the Domus Aurea would be considered the Versailles of Ancient Rome, and was just about as popular with the people. For those not familiar with the peoples’ opinion of Versailles, they weren’t pleased about it.
The Golden House was designed as a place of entertainment, as shown by the presence of 300 rooms without any sleeping quarter. Nero’s own palace remained on the Quirinal Hill. No kitchens or latrines have been discovered either.
Nero commissioned the roughly 32.5 m high bronze statue of himself, the Colossus Neronis, as the sun god Sol. The statue was placed just outside the main palace entrance at the Terminus of the Via Appia in a large atrium of porticoes that divided the city from the private villa.
Rooms sheathed in dazzling polished white marble were given richly varied floor plans, shaped with niches that concentrated or dispersed the daylight. There were pools in the floors and fountains splashing in the corridors.
After Nero’s death, the Golden House was a severe embarrassment to his successors. It was stripped of its marble, its jewels and its ivory within a decade. Soon after Nero’s death, the palace and grounds were filled with earth and built over.
The Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site in AD 79. In the middle of the palace grounds, on the site of the lake, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre (aka Colosseum) which could be re-flooded at will.
The Baths of Trajan and the Temple of Venus and Roma were also built on the site. Within 40 years, the Golden House was completely obliterated, buried beneath new construction, but ironically this ensured the wall’s paintings were protected from dampness.
At the end of the 15th Century a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside, finding himself in a strange grotta filled with painted figures. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down to see the Fourth Style Frescoes that were uncovered thus electrifying the early Renaissance, which was just arriving in Rome.
Today the Domus Aurea is located under the park on the Oppian Hill, just across from the Colosseum. So when it rains it really does pour, as water soaks through the palace’s ancient roof.
Channels have been dug that will allow about half of the rainwater to drain off. The project addresses the problem of the park’s weight on top of the structure by rebuilding the surface of the park to directly connect it to the Domus, thus decreasing the weight by about 70%.
The likely remains of Nero’s rotating banquet hall and its underlying mechanism were unveiled by archaeologists on September 29, 2009.
You can visit the restoration’s official website to track its progress at archeoroma.beniculturali.it/cantieredomusaurea/en/. Hopefully, the restoration means the Domus Aurea will again be open to the public.
The name Domus Aurea has in modern times come to signify wealth and luxury. Commercial uses of the name have grown, ranging from luxury hotels to fine wines using the same name to market themselves to a segment of consumers that are aware of the historical significance and indication of affluence that goes with the name.
As one of the most decadent palaces in history, it was also one of the most important archaeological finds of the modern era. The guided visits can be booked here.
We here at Rome Across Europe hope you will get a chance to see the Domus Aurea for yourself. The sooner, the better. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Palmer, Alasdair (1999-07-11). “Nero’s pleasure dome”. London Sunday Times.