A house lost from view for centuries, Nero’s golden palace, Domus Aurea, is an example of the elaborate and masterful architecture that flourished in the Roman ages.
Nero’s legacy is perhaps more infamous than most; his role in the legend of the fire of Rome that raged for several days from the 18th of July, 64 AD did not paint him in a good light, despite the fact that he did not, as suggested, play the fiddle whilst he watched Rome burn, and was actually in his Antium villa some 30 miles away. It did, however, give him the perfect opportunity to rebuild a mighty city on a scale and scope usually reserved for city founders.
He could annex a huge part of the city and set about building a replacement for his previous palace, Domus Transitoria (that burnt in the blaze), which he named Domus Aurea, meaning Golden House. It was never finished, but the plan was for it’s grounds to cover anything up to 120 hectares (300 acres), with lakes, gardens and woods – an isolated environment that would cover nearly a third of Rome. The palace itself, with extravagant domes and vaults, was a revolution to Roman architecture and were thanks to the architects Severus and Celer, who, with unlimited funds, could explore a new variety of design ideas, often incorporating complex geometry to attain plays of light. Despite the complex being short lived and unfinished, much was built and created in the four years before Nero’s fall, including the 100ft high statue of the emperor by Zenodotus, a huge park centred on an artificial lake that later was built upon and became the Flavian Amphitheatre (and then again, the “Colosseum”, after the colossal statue of Nero) and the octagonal room, which may be the incredible dining room described by Suetonius that “constantly revolved, day and night, like the heavens”.
In spite of all this opulence and finery, with baths that flowed with sea water and panels in the ceilings that could sprinkle guests with flowers or perfume, it is said that Nero’s only remark was that now he could finally live like a human being. It was this attitude, and the fact that his new palace took up so much prime property in the heart of their city for his own private desires, that turned people against him even more, particularly as the rumours that he had started the fire deliberately were being stirred up. (His deflection of blame to the Christians, did, in fact, cause the first major persecution of the religious group.) He was not endeared to the layman or the powerful ruling class, and in 68 AD the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy, causing him to flee and eventually commit suicide before capture.
His golden house died with him. Precious materials were stripped from the inside, the parkland was levelled in preparation for much needed buildings for the people, the lake was drained so the Flavian Amphitheatre could be built and two large public bath houses were built on the site, one by Titus, and the other by Trajan. The statue was remodelled as the sun god Sol and eventually moved away. By 128 AD there was little sign of the house above ground, but the vaults below were preserved for hundred of years, until the 15th century where they were rediscovered, to re-inspire Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael, and to ensure that Nero’s legacy, however infamous, did live on.