Almost everybody who reads or writes about first-century Rome knows of the Domus Aurea, the gigantic, super-ornate, and multi-storey “Golden House” that Nero had built after the Great Fire consumed much of the city in A.D. 64.
Rumors have lingered for 2,000 years that the emperor deliberately started the fire to clear land for his cozy new domus, which he didn’t get to enjoy for very long since he was forced to commit suicide a mere four years after the fire.
Nevertheless, his final palace—which sprawled across three of Rome’s seven hills—set a new standard of opulence in a city already well known for it. In designing this structure, Nero’s architect and engineer (who are known by name: Severus and Celer) introduced several new concepts.
First, they began lining vaulted ceilings with colorful mosaics, which formerly were just for floors, allowing for bright patterns and tasteful (or, more likely, titillating) scenes on every surface of a room.
Second, they plastered some interior walls with gold and gemstones, because ordinary painted frescoes, even with their customary golden accents, could not possibly be grand enough for the master of the world.
Third, they created dining rooms with rooftops that could be slid open, so diners could look up into the stars. One dining room was circular with a revolving roof (powered by slaves, of course), giving guests an ever-changing view of the night sky.
Fourth, they transplanted forests and installed fields, vineyards, pastures with livestock, and an artificial lake in the heart of the metropolis. (If you’ve ever been to the Colosseum, you’ve stood on the spot of Nero’s fake lake, which Emperor Vespasian later drained to build his amphitheater. Vespasian, a frugal man who rose to power a year after Nero’s death, declined to live in the Domus Aurea. Much of it was converted into the public Baths of Titus and, early in the next century, of Trajan.)
The most delicious comment made (in public at least) about the Domus Aurea is credited to Nero. Upon dedicating his new palace, he reportedly said: “Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being.”
Some archeologists believe the Domus Aurea contained no sleeping quarters, which suggests its 300 rooms were intended for heavy-duty partying, not as a real residence. However, one scholar (Sir Banister Fletcher, writing in A History of Architecture) describes it as “less a palace than a series of pavilions and a long wing comprising living and reception rooms,” which rings true to me.
If anybody reading this post has the definitive answer… or just additional information about that, please leave a comment here!
My next post (see Where else did he live?) will answer this related question: Where did Nero live before the Great Fire of A.D. 64?
—text copyright © Martha Marks—