Ruin Lust: Guide to Nero's Golden House, Domus Aurea, a Hidden Gem in Rome Italy
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
the Golden Vault in Domus Aurea were you'll put on virtual reality goggles
Here's my guide to visiting Nero's Domus Aurea, or Golden House, in Rome. If you're a history or archaeology buff like me, you'll be smitten with this secret underground palace. I think it's a must see site in Rome. But, because it's only been reopen on a limited basis since 2007, the Golden House is still a hidden gem.
The Golden House was once the grandest building on earth. It's not your typical Roman tourist site, by any means. It's an excavation in progress, one of Rome's best archaeological sites.
Built by Emperor Nero between 64-68 AD in the heart of imperial Rome, the sprawling property covered up to 300 acres. The facade and walls were adorned with frescos, gold leaf, glass mosaics, pearls, and marble. In natural light, it had a golden hue.
But little of this wealth survived Nero's rule. As Nero's extravagance and tyranny spun out of control, rivals condemned both his reign and his emblematic palace. For a decade after his death, the palace was looted, destroyed, and filled in with brick. But the vivid frescos couldn't be pried off the walls.
Emperor Nero, a rare surviving bust in the Palantine Museum in Rome
A Biography of Emperor Nero: Who Was He Really?
Nero was born in 37 A.D. Thanks largely to the historian Suetonius, Nero went down in history as one of Rome's greatest villains. Nero is routinely portrayed as the most decadent and sexually deviant of all Roman emperors.
But it's unclear if this was really true or a caricature. Imperial Rome was a violent and decadent place, after all. Threats of death or usurpation were constant. It was common practice to vilify a deposed emperor. The worst stories may be sheer gossip.
Moreover, as we all know, history is written by the victors -- politicans who were motivated to smear Nero or hostile historians who didn't much fancy the emperors. At a minimum, Nero seemed like a reckless Trumpian-type wannabe rock star who failed to play the necessary political games to keep his crown.
After Nero's father died, his mother Agrippina married Emperor Claudius. She persuaded Claudius to name Nero his successor over his own son Britannicus. She also persuaded him to marry his daughter Octavia to Nero.
Claudius died in 54 A.D. It's suspected that an ambitious Agrippina fed him poisoned mushrooms. Nero took the throne at just 17. He was inexperienced in command and politics, but ruled an empire from Spain to Syria. Nero was placid for awhile and Agrippina effectively ruled Rome. But, ultimately, Nero rebuffed his mother’s attempts to control him.
Nero's mother Agrippina, the wife of Emperor Claudius
coin from Nero's rule showing both him and his mother Agrippina
Agrippina was displeased by the shift in power. She advocated for Britannicus as emperor. Nero allegedly had Britannicus poisoned. Then, Nero murdered Agrippina to get her out of the way. The Senate didn't even object much, having chaffed at a woman in power.
After murdering his mother, Nero's megalomania worsened. He spent lavishly, behaved inappropriately, and was increasingly tyrannical. He executed opponents and adversaries at whim. In 62, Nero divorced Octavia, offed her, then married his new love, Poppaea.
Nero's public reputation took a dive. It wasn't helped by Nero's love of theater. He appears to have missed his true calling. He would've been happier as an actor or artist than an emperor.
Nero began giving public poetry readings, acting in plays, and racing chariots. This pissed off and embarassed the Senate even further. No emperor should behave in such an unseemly and degrading fashion. The aristocrats hated him. But the common man loved Nero and his antics.
bust of Nero in the Capitoline Museum in Rome
In 64 AD, most of Rome was destroyed by a great fire. Nero's enemies whispered that Nero set the fire or "fiddled" (played an instrument) while Rome burned to make way for his planned palace. Most historians disagree with this sentiment. To try to quell the rumors, Nero blamed the Christians, who were then ruthlessly persecuted.
Promptly after the fire, Nero built the Golden House, his massive pleasure palace. It occupied three of Rome's fabled seven hills. The Domus Aurea was financed by increased taxes, theft, and sale of official positions. When Nero moved in, he grandiosely announced he could finally "live like a human."
But rebellion was brewing and soon erupted. Nero eventually fled Rome. The Senate condemned him to death for his misdeeds (and artsy temperament) and declared him a public enemy. Rather than face the Senate, Nero committed suicide, lamenting that a "great artist" had died. He was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors.
barrel vaulted ceiling in the Domus Aurea
After his death, the haughty Senate issued a "Damnatio memoriae," a Latin phrase meaning "to condemn his memory." Images and statuary of Nero were destroyed. Only a few pieces survive for posterity. Coins were the ultimate in propaganda and image branding, so coins bearing Nero's image were recalled, cancelled, or destroyed.
Domus Aurea: What Was the Golden House Really Like?
Nero's Golden House was a monument to Nero's ego and full of gimmicky inventions. It must have seemed almost Vegas-like to ordinary Romans, for its sheer size and golden bling. But the party palace was also a symbol of power for Nero. Surely, only an invincible man could produce such a lavish abode?
Sadly, The Golden House had a short life span. Its 200+ rooms were constructed in just 4 years. After Nero's death, in almost in a flash, it was pillaged, destroyed, and consigned to oblivion.
model of Nero's Domus Aurea
Nero's Domus Aurea Was An Architectural Revolution
The Golden House was a a revolutionary masterpiece, an architectural wonder at the time. The two masterminds were Severus (the architect) and Celer (the engineer). The Golden House wasn't a palace per se. Rather, it was a sprawling complex of pavilions, gardens, statuary, with an artificial lake in the center.
The principal entrance was along the via Sacra coming from the Forum. The main gateway was guarded by the Colossus Neronis, a 100 foot statue of Nero portrayed as the sun god with rock hard abs (instead of his real life prominent belly). The Colossus Neronis was inspired by the Colossus at Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Large areas of the Golden House were dedicated to banquet rooms. The west wing, for example, had one rectangular courtyard surrounded by no fewer than 50 banquet rooms. A showman, Nero loved to throw parties and lavishly entertain.
the Colossus of Nero, image source: Wikimedia
But the Donus Aurea wasn't just fun and games. It was a hugely significant structure for several reasons.
First, Domus Aurea represented a major architectural innovation. It marked one of first uses of concrete as the building material of choice for fine architecture. The concrete wasn't made with crushed stone anymore, but a much lighter mixture of pumice and tufa (a form of limestone) placed between parallel rows of brick.
Second, Nero's Golden House represented a breakthrough in design and aesthetics. It departed from "the tyranny of the rectangle." Concrete allowed Nero's architects to use myriad shapes -- prisms, cubes, octagons, and semi-cylinders.
They placed mosaics on the ceiling, not just the floor, which started a trend you can now see in Rome's churches. The most beautiful mosaics are in Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome's Monti neighborhood.
the Octagonal Room at Nero's Domus Aurea, with its niches and oculus
Domus Aurea's most significant room is the Octagonal Room, which you visit on the guided tour and is largely intact despite Trajan's rebuilding efforts.
The Octagonal Room was a place of entertainment. It was the exquisitely decorated main banqueting hall of the palace -- a backdrop for Nero to meet people, do business, and throw orgies. It had a sophisticated dome with an oculus, which no doubt inspired Hadrian's Pantheon.
The Octagonal Room had radiating alcoves of different shapes where guests reclined on couches while looking into a central space used for dining or entertainment. In one niche, a waterfall rushed over marble stairs, cooling the room. Natural light flooded in from the oculus (or eye), enhancing the effect of the glass mosaics.
The Octagonal Room also had a revolving or rotating floor, mimicking the movement of celestial bodies. Four spherical mechanisms beneath the floor rotated the structure.
a reconstruction of what the Octagonal Room might have looked like
A lattice work ceiling held hidden delights. On Nero's command, his guests would be showered with perfume and flower petals, which mixed with the spicy food on offer and possible body odor of the occupants.
Near the Octagonal Room was the Room of Achilles with marble and painted stucco walls. The ceiling depicts Achilles with shield and spear in hand, surrounded by the daughters of the ruler of Skyros. Achilles, who had been disguised as a girl, has just revealed his true identity to Odysseus.
Fourth, the Golden House was notable for its spectacular frescos that revolutionized the art world. They were created by the "floridly extravagant" painter Famulu. Legend holds that Famulus was virtually imprisoned in the palace, working at a feverish pace clad in a toga. His paintings were vibrant, fantastical, and became highly influential to Renaissance artists.
frescos in the Achilles Room of Domus Aurea
grotesque frescos in Domus Aurea
Nero was also a lover of Greek sculpture and known to acquire (and steal) statuary on his travels. If you've been to the Vatican Museums, you'll have seen the famous Laocoön sculpture. It was found in 1500 near the site of the Domus Aurea. It may well have part of Nero's collection.
Destruction of Nero's Golden House
After Nero’s death, his rivals wanted to obliterate his ostentatious palace. According to the historian Tacitus, the vile structure was "reared from the spoils of his countrymen." Emperors, especially Vespasian, wanted every symbol of Nero erased.
The Golden House was looted, filled in, and built over by Nero's successors in the Flavian Dynasty. Nero's artificial lake was drained. Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum, on its site.
The baths of Trajan and Titus and other forum temples were also built directly over the palace ruins. The foundation of Trajan's Baths is, in fact, interwoven with the walls of the Domus Aurea.
Only one thing remained from the palace -- the Colossus Neronis. Vespasian put a sun crown on the statue and renamed it Colossus Solis. Hadrian subsequently moved it, with the help of 24 elephants, to the Flavian Amphitheater. In an ironic turn of events, the Colossus Neronis became the source of the amphitheater's nickname, the Colosseum.
the Colossseum, or Flavian Amphitheater, which was deliberately built on the spot of Nero's artificial lake
Domus Aurea: Birthplace of the Grotesque
But the destruction of the Golden House wasn't quite as extensive as the Flavian emperors intended. In fact, much of the Golden House remained intact underground. Famulus' frescos were preserved for 14 centuries.
At the end of the 15th century, the Domus Aurea was discovered by accident when a young man fell into a crevice. To his surprise, he found himself surrounded by paintings.
At first, the palace ruins were thought to be caves or grottos. The richly decorated frescos inside were called "grotesques." They featured geometric forms, bright colors, monsters, and whimsical figures.
Soon, the subterranean ruins became popular. They were the first major well-preserved artistic discovery from antiquity. And the decorations were nothing like the classical themes of the Renaissance.
"grotesques" in the Villa Farnesina in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood, similar to ones Raphael created in the Vatican
Renaissance artists went spelunking into the buried palace to admire the ancient works. Raphael, Michelangelo, and Pinturicchio all visited the site. It inspired and revolutionized new forms of decorative art.
It was effectively the birthplace of the grotesque. In Rome, you can find grosteque style frescos everywhere -- in the Vatican, Castle Sant' Angelo, Palazzo Venezia, Villa Farnesina, and Villa D'Este in Tivoli.
Unfortunately, the holes created to allow viewing of the frescos exposed them to the elements. This caused damage, discoloration, and fungal/bacterial issues.
The Golden House wasn't properly excavated until the 18th century. A key preservation problem is the weight of a 19th century garden above it, which stresses the palace's supporting structures. The roots of trees have even snaked below and become tangled in the walls.
In 2019, archeologists discovered another frescoed room while repairing a vault. They found an opening and saw "a completely frescoed adjacent room" decorated with panthers, centaurs, and a sphinx.
The room was identified as the Sala della Sfinge, the Room of the Sphinx. It's currently un-excavated and not open to the public due to its lack of structural integrity. But you can see many of its fantastical frescoed images here.
the Room of the Sphinx in the Domus Aurea [Credit: Parco archeologico del Colosseo]
armed figure attacked by panther [Credit: Parco archeologico del Colosseo]
Tour of the Domus Aurea, Nero's Golden House
Taking a tour of the Domus Aurea was a highlight of my last Rome visit. What an underrated destination! I mean, how often can you enter a 2,000 year old underground palace that's a working archeological site?
The site was opened to the public on a limited basis for the first time in 1999. But it was closed and reopened multiple times due to the ruins' collapses and instability. It was finally re-opened to tourists in 2014. At the time, it caused a stir tantamount to the opening of the Colosseum underground.
Today, the Esquiline Wing of the Golden House is virtually all that remains. It's being constantly excavated by Parco Archeologico del Colosseo. But it still hints at the sumptuousness of the former palace.
tourists in the Octagonal Room of Domus Aurea
Technology enhances the tour. At the beginning, introductory information and slides are projected onto the walls.
In the Golden Vault, you don virtual reality goggles. You see how Nero's palace appeared to him all its glory. The bare walls and rubble magically transform into a richly decorated chamber with a gilded ceiling and a view of lush gardens. You can see for yourself here.
You'll be led through the Golden Vault, the Crytoporticus (a long hidden passage), and eventually to the remarkable Octagonal Room. Your guide will point out details of the frescos, still beautiful in their faded glory.
barrel vaulted hallway of Domus Aurea, Wikipedia user: Pufacz (CC BY-SA)
Visiting Nero's Domus Aurea is a uniquely enriching experience. Don't miss it on your next visit to Rome.
Practical information and Tips for Visiting Nero's Golden House, Domus Aurea, in Rome
Address: Via della Domus Aurea, 1, 00184 Rome. Enter the gates, walk up the hill, make the first left, and you'll find the site entrance. It's not very well sign posted.
Hours: You may visit on Saturdays and Sundays on a scheduled tour with an authorized guide from the site, between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm, last admission at 3:45. A reservation is required.
Entry fee: 14 euros, with a 2 euro fee for pre-booking. Buy tickets or reserve here. Often, tickets are bought up by tourist companies, so you may have to visit that way. Domus Aurea doesn't take the Roma Pass. A portion of your entry fee goes to preservation and conversation of the site.
Pro tip: The guided tour lasts approximately 1:20. Groups of 25 people leave every 15 minutes. You'll need to wear a hard hat. It's also quite cold and damp underground, so make sure you're properly dressed. Our guide said it was 40 degrees colder than the normal outdoor temperature.
Here are my other guide to some of Rome's important and must see sites: