Contact usInside the Domus Aurea: Emperor Nero’s Forgotten Residence in Rome

Inside the Domus Aurea: Emperor Nero’s Forgotten Residence in Rome

Nero’s residence, once Rome’s most opulent building and then buried and forgotten, was found by Renaissance artists 1500 years later. Explore the preserved halls built for the Roman Empire's most controversial ruler.

Angelo Zinna
Jun 18, 2024
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Two thousand years ago, a spectacular villa dominated the skyline of central Rome. Surrounded by vineyards, forests and a garden showcasing relics and treasures plundered in cities of the East, the white exteriors of the complex hid hundreds of rooms adorned with frescoes, marble, ivory and gold panels.

This marvel of antiquity lies beneath the bustling streets of modern Rome, steps away from the Colosseum. It is the Domus Aurea, or the "Golden House," once the opulent residence of Nero, the fifth Emperor of Rome between 54 and 68 CE.

Undiscovered for centuries, the Domus Aurea was built following a massive fire that destroyed much of the inner city in 64 CE — covering an area of up to 80 hectares, Nero’s extravagant residence was one of the most luxurious homes to ever be constructed at the time. After the Emperor’s death, the palatial structure was destroyed by Nero’s rivals, and then buried under the lush Colle Oppio to be rediscovered 1400 years later. Through the echoes of its halls and the stories of its preserved frescoes, we uncover the splendor of a residence that once dazzled ancient Rome and now fascinates the modern world with its enduring mysteries.

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Now hiding below ground, the Domus Aurea was one of the largest residences ever built. Pictured here are Ancient Roman gold aureus coins of Emperor Nero.

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Nero’s Rise to Power

Nero's ascent to power in 54 CE marked the start of an era that history books remember simultaneously as a period of cultural flourishing and tyrannical rule over the Eternal City. From the beginning, Nero’s goal as the ruler of the Empire was to transform Rome into the center of the world — a city of unmatched beauty, envied for its theaters, public works and monumental architecture. Nero’s ambitions, however, were overshadowed by the paranoia caused by his fear of conspiracy.

In ancient Rome, the emperor relied on the Senate for many of the most important activities in government. The Senate was responsible for electing magistrates, debating and passing laws, controlling public funds and deciding on religious matters, among other roles. The close relationship between the emperor and the senators made political clashes frequent and Nero’s dread of being ousted by his opponents turned clashes into death sentences.

In the fourteen years of Nero’s rule, the members of Rome’s Senate lived in fear of being declared the Emperor’s enemies and executed. This was often the case for those who didn’t play their cards well — people including Seneca, who was accused of conspiring against the emperor and forced to commit suicide. But terror ran through the family as well. The emperor's authority was limited by his mother Agrippina, an influential figure in imperial Rome who had long sought a position of power in the government by building ties with previous emperors. Clashes between Nero and Agrippina became more frequent over time until Nero started suspecting that his mother would be the cause of him losing the throne. In 59 CE, Agrippina was murdered by soldiers sent by the emperor, leaving the monopoly of power in the hands of Nero. It wouldn’t last long.

statue of Nero created by the sculptor Claudio Valenti
One of the few monuments to Emperor Nero standing in Anzio, near Rome.

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In 64 CE, a great fire broke out in Rome, lasting for six days and seven nights. It devastated much of the city.

Large swaths of the population were made homeless and entire districts lay in ruins. Initially, many believed that Nero himself had ignited the fire to create an opportunity for his architectural dreams, however, historians tend to reject the accusation. Nero was away on the day when the fire occurred, likely started in one of the warehouses of Circus Maximus, where wood was stored, and brought to the city by relentless winds blowing throughout the night. Nevertheless, an opportunity for reconstruction following the emperor’s vision opened up and a few years later the grandiose Domus Aurea appeared in the heart of the city.

Nero’s Golden Home

The construction of the Domus Aurea represented a watershed moment in Roman architectural history, both in terms of scale and innovation. Under the supervision of architects Severus and Clever, Nero’s luxurious residence grew over a vast piece of prime Roman real estate, with massive pavilions, thermal baths, a rooms for banquets like nothing that had ever been seen in the city before.

The Domus Aurea was divided into two sectors. On the western side, a rectangular garden embraced by a portico of columns led to the guest rooms. The eastern side revolved around an octagonal hall believed to have inspired the design of the Pantheon — the Sala Ottagona — covered by a dome that opened up to show the night sky. Most of the frescoes were painted by artist Fabullus, who decorated the walls of the palace with intricate patterns still partially visible. For the atrium of the palace, Nero commissioned a 37-meter-tall statue of himself to welcome guests entering the premises.

Remains of a dome and circular space inside the Domus Aurea palace in Rome
Little is left of the opulent decorations once adorning Nero’s forgotten residence, but touring the interior gives you a glimpse of the scale of this architectural project.

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The Domus Aurea, which took only four years to be built, introduced several architectural innovations to the Roman urban landscape, notably the extensive use of concrete to create vast, open interior spaces and domes. Nero sought inspiration in the palaces of ancient kings of Egypt, including temples, a library and Rome’s first museum in the enormous property.

Erasing Memory

Nero could enjoy his achievement only for a few years. Eventually, both senators and the population rebelled against his tyrannical rule, declaring the emperor a public enemy and forcing him to flee Rome to seek refuge in one of his countryside villas. In 68, seeing that his reign had collapsed, he ordered his loyal assistant Epaphroditus to help him end his life by stabbing him in the throat.

By the time of his death, Nero’s reputation was far from positive. Nero’s successors decided to erase the emperor’s legacy — Vespasian (69-79) began destroying Nero’s Domus Aura shortly after his passing. He ordered the draining of the lake and the demolition of the buildings, whose materials would be used to erect the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum. 

The giant statue of Nero was removed from the entrance of the Domus Aurea — 20 elephants are said to have been employed to move the monument — and the emperor's face was altered. The palace was stripped of every valuable object and the Colosseum replaced the artificial lake.

What was left of the Domus Aurea was quickly covered by soil and a few years later, Emperor Titus (79-81) commissioned architect Apollodorus of Damascus the construction of his Baths, followed by Emperor Trajan (98-117) who also had a bath complex built, still visible today on Colle Oppio. Within forty years, the Domus Aurea was completely buried under new buildings.

The rediscovery of the Domus Aurea and the “grotesques” that inspired Raphael

Forgotten for centuries, the Domus Aurea was discovered by accident in the late 15th century, when a Roman man accidentally stepped into a crevasse on Colle Oppio and fell into an opening, finding himself in a dusty, dark space that could not be mistaken for a cave. The little light that entered the room showed walls covered in well-preserved frescoes, suggesting that someone had been there before. 

The painted ceiling of Uffizi Gallery
Grotesques became popular among the European elites after the rediscovery of the Domus Aurea and adorn many prestigious palace in Italy, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

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As word of the finding spread, the mysterious hall started receiving a trail of visitors looking to study the ancient paintings adorning its walls. Young artists traveled to Rome and entered the underground structure with torches in hand to take a close look at the decorations. Prominent figures such as Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio and Raphael began to descend into the “caves,” to imitate the motifs.

The Renaissance artists going underground for their torchlight explorations initially believed that the frescoes belonged to the destroyed Baths of Titus, built in 80 CE. They were wrong — the paintings had been commissioned by Nero to adorn the opulent residence few knew had existed. The illustrations were named “grotesques” due to their location — Raphael found inspiration in the refined patterns carrying images of animals, plants and mythical figures, and readapted the designs in the 15th and 16th centuries to decorate the Vatican Palaces, Castel Sant’Angelo and Palazzo Madama, making them hugely influential in the art world up to this day. The dreamlike paintings of Nero’s palace are still visible in many of the rooms.

 Fragments of the Domus Aurea’s frescoes
Fragments of the Domus Aurea’s frescoes have been preserved for two millennia.

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Conservation work didn’t start immediately after the rediscovery of the Domus Aurea, but some of Rome's most precious sculptures emerged intact from the underground palace halls, including Laocoonte now exhibited at the Vatican Museums and the Galata Suicida found in the Capitoline Museums. Intensive restoration work began only in the 18th century when renewed interest in the grotesques led archeologists to uncover what remained of the palace. Pope Clement XIII authorized the first official excavations in the Domus Aurea, which led to the reopening of sixteen rooms that had avoided destruction. Fifty more rooms were discovered years later, although the fragile nature of the artworks didn’t allow for a public opening until 1999.

Visiting the Domus Aurea Today

Today, the Domus Aurea sits under the greenery of Colle Oppio, steps away from the Colosseum. The excavation and maintenance work continues — archeologists are yet to figure out the full extent of the surviving sections of the palace.

Visits are allowed seasonally during the opening dates. The sections that have been preserved were mostly rooms belonging to a villa used to host parties and celebrations — one of the few areas that continued to be used for a few decades after Nero’s death and believed to have contained up to 300 rooms.

Emptied of their marble and gold decorations, the dimly lit halls still carry many of their frescoes. Some of the most spectacular paintings can be admired in the Sala di Achille e Sciro (Hall of Achilles at Syrus), where a vaulted ceiling still carries fragments of Fabullus fine decorations. During the Covid lockdowns, with the city emptied of tourists, excavation efforts continued intensively, uncovering yet unknown artworks such as the sculpture of the Talia muse and a series of precious marble capitals. 

The centerpiece, however, is the Sala Ottagona (Octagonal Hall), flanked by courtyards and covered by a dome pierced by its oculus. The Sala Ottagona functioned as a banquet hall — according to historical sources, a system was built to have flower petals rain down from its sides a fill the room with pleasant smells for the Roman elite to enjoy. ||


Author
Angelo Zinna
Angelo Zinna, Florence-based writer/photographer, authored 'Un Altro Bicchiere di Arak,' contributes to Lonely Planet, BBC, New Lines, Condé Nast Traveler, and has explored Europe, Asia, Oceania, the Caucasus and Central Asia.