Nero’s first home as emperor was the “Domus Transitoria” which gained its name by virtue of linking the imperial properties on the Esquiline hill (Fagutal-Oppius on image below) which Augustus had inherited from Maecenas with the traditional site on the Palatine hill (hence the root of the word “palace”).
The great fire of Rome in 64AD burned a large part of the palace and gave way to a yet greater plan to construct the “Domus Aurea” (Nero’s Golden House) over a huge area of the city utilizing land bought up by the emperor after the fire. The extension was so great (approximately 50 hectares) that a common jibe of the time was that the Roman citizens would have to move to the nearby Etruscan city of Veii in order to make room for the emperor’s villa. Had it been completed it would have covered a full 1/3 of the city.
It is important to consider the palace not only in context of Nero’s evident love of exhibition but also in terms of his political agenda, including his propaganda portraying himself as Nero the sun-god/Mithras and his intensions to transform Roman culture towards an oriental model of rule which focused around the ruler’s central figure.
Much of the palace is now lost to us largely because it was incomplete at the time of Nero’s death and then dismantled or built over by later emperors who chose to return the city to its citizens. The central point of the palace was a large lake (Stagnum) which emperor Vespasian later drained and used as foundation for the famous amphitheatre now known as the Colosseum (presumably because of Nero’s colossal statue which stood nearby).
However a section of the Domus Aurea has survived because emperor Trajan chose to build his thermal baths over it. Though several luxurious roman frescos have survived from the palace much of the marble and other precious cladding was removed in Roman times.
We have various accounts of the domus aurea, for example from Suetonius (Nero, 31) which allow us to reconstruct an image of what it must have been like.
The entrance to the palace was immediately opposite the via Sacra – the central, sacred, street which lead through the Forum. The vestibule (area immediately behind the front door) was on the ancient Fagutal hill and was of such a size as to enclose the emperor’s colossal statue representing him as sun-god. The statue was over 36 meters high (120 Roman feet) which in simple terms is about as high as a modern 8 floor building. Or putting it in terms of the Colosseum which was later built on the site: the statue was over ¾ of the height of the Colosseum.
Not far from the vestibule was a famous dining hall – the “coenatio rotunda” which was constructed so as to rotate rather like the heavens and the earth do: another allusion to Nero’s propagandistic transformation into Sun God.
As Suetonius put it:
‘The chief banqueting room was circular, and revolved perpetually night and day in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies.’
The dining room was approximately 15m in diameter and rested on a huge 5m diameter pillar. It’s wooden floor would have rested on stone spheres which rather like bearings would have both supported and rotated the room, possibly driven by water pressure.
From the descriptions the domus aurea we know that the best Roman architects and artists of the day were employed, including Severus and Famulus. The palace included three enormous porticos 1 mile long and a large lake surrounded by buildings “as large as cities”. It included villas, fields and vineyards, grasslands and woods complete with wild and domesticated animals.
Internally the rooms were sumptuous and full of artworks from all over the Roman world, particularly Greece. There were even ivory ceilings with moving panels through which petals and perfumes could be showered on the guests below. The baths were supplied with different types of water: sea water or from sulphuric springs.
Large portions of the palace were clad in gold, ivory panels, alabaster, marble, semiprecious stones, shells, gems, pearls, frescoes so that from the outside the palace would shine: like the sun-deity that he was!
Nero’s Golden House must have certainly been wondrous. The few remains which have been found since the 15th century have proved to be of great inspiration to Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo and many others. The famous Laocoon statue now held in the Vatican museum was found nearby and gives a lonely echo of the masses of art treasure which must have been amassed at the site until they were removed by Emperor Vespasian to his temple of Peace.