Domus Aurea
Overall plan of Domus Aurea
Domus Aurea is located in Rome
Domus Aurea
Domus Aurea
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LocationRegione III Isis et Serapis
Coordinates41°53′29″N 12°29′43″E / 41.89139°N 12.49528°E / 41.89139; 12.49528
TypeRoman villa
BuilderNero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Foundedc. 64–68 AD

The Domus Aurea (Latin, "Golden House") was a vast landscaped complex built by the Emperor Nero largely on the Oppian Hill in the heart of ancient Rome after the great fire in 64 AD had destroyed a large part of the city.[1]

It replaced and extended his Domus Transitoria that he had built as his first palace complex on the site.[2][3]


Construction began after the great fire of 64 and was nearly completed before Nero's death in 68, a remarkably short time for such an enormous project.[4] Nero took great interest in every detail of the project, according to Tacitus,[5] and oversaw the engineer-architects, Celer and Severus, who were also responsible for the attempted navigable canal with which Nero hoped to link Misenum with Lake Avernus.[6][7]

Emperor Otho[8] and possibly Titus allotted money to finish at least the structure on the Oppian Hill; this continued to be inhabited, notably by emperor Vitellius in 69 but only after falling ill,[9] until it was destroyed in a fire under Trajan in 104.[10]

A symbol of decadence that caused severe embarrassment to Nero's successors, the Domus Aurea was stripped of its marble, jewels, and ivory within a decade.[11] Although the Oppian villa continued to be inhabited for some years, soon after Nero's death other parts of the palace and grounds, encompassing 2.6 km2 (c. 1 mi2), were filled with earth and built over: the Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site, probably the private baths, in 79 AD.[12][13] On the site of the lake, in the middle of the palace grounds, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, which could be flooded at will,[14] with the Colossus of Nero beside it.[1] The Baths of Trajan,[1][15] and the Temple of Venus and Roma were also built on the site. Within 40 years, the palace was obliterated. Paradoxically, this ensured the wall paintings' survival by protecting them from moisture.[16][12][17]


When a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside at the end of the 15th century, he found himself in a strange cave or grotto filled with painted figures.[11] Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves.[18] The Fourth Style frescoes that were uncovered then have faded now, but the effect of these freshly rediscovered grotesque[19] decorations (Italian: grotteschi) was electrifying in the early Renaissance, which was just arriving in Rome.

When Raphael and Michelangelo crawled underground and were let down shafts to study them, the paintings were a revelation of the true world of antiquity.[20] Beside the graffiti signatures of later tourists like Casanova and the Marquis de Sade scratched into a fresco inches apart (British Archaeology June 1999),[21] are the autographs of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Martin van Heemskerck, and Filippino Lippi.[22]

The frescoes' effect on Renaissance artists was instant and profound (it can be seen most obviously in Raphael's decoration for the loggias in the Vatican), and the white walls, delicate swags, and bands of frieze—framed reserves containing figures or landscapes—have returned at intervals ever since, notably in late 18th century Neoclassicism,[23] making Famulus one of the most influential painters in the history of art.

20th century to present

Discovery of the pavilion led to the arrival of moisture starting the slow, inevitable process of decay; humidity sometimes reaches 90% inside the Domus.[20] Heavy rain was blamed for the collapse of a chunk of ceiling.[24] The presence of trees in the park above was causing further damage.[25][13]

The weight of earth on the Domus was also causing a problem.[12][26] Increasing concerns about the condition of the building resulted in its closing at the end of 2005 for further restoration work.[27] The complex was partially reopened in 2007, but closed in 2008 because of safety concerns.[20]

On March 30, 2010, 60 square metres (650 square feet) of the vault of a gallery collapsed.[17]

The Domus reopened in 2014.[28]


Plan of Pavilion on the Oppian
Overlay of Trajan's baths on the Oppian Hill
Nero's Nymphaeum on the east side of the Temple of Claudius, plan by Lanciani

Suetonius claims this of Nero and the Domus Aurea:

When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he had at last begun to live like a human being.[29]

The Domus Aurea complex covered parts of the slopes of the Palatine, Oppian, and Caelian hills,[25] with an artificial lake in the marshy valley. The area of the estate can only be approximated, as much of it has not been excavated. Some scholars place it at more than 300 acres (1.2 km2),[30] while others estimate its size to have been less than 100 acres (0.40 km2).[31] Suetonius describes the complex as "ruinously prodigal" as it included groves of trees, pastures with flocks, vineyards, and an artificial lake—rus in urbe, "countryside in the city".[32][33] Nero's main residence remained the imperial palaces of the Palatine, while the pavilion on the Oppian was used when he preferred to remain in the horti, and the buildings with vestibulum and stagnum were used for feasts, where he received the people of Rome.[34]

To supply his lake in the valley between the Palatine, Oppian, and Caelian, Nero diverted water from the Aqua Claudia by a specially built branch aqueduct known as the Arcus Neroniani.[35] This extended 2 km west from the Claudia to the southern side of the Caelian Hill.

He also built a nymphaeum on the eastern side of the Caelian, visible across the valley from the pavilion, and against the eastern wall of the unfinished Temple of Claudius.[36][37] The nymphaeum was made up of tiered columns and semicircular and rectangular niches; it would have contained a large sculptural group at the centre. Archaeological excavations confirm that the water cascaded from the top of the nymphaeum down into 4 basins. The aqueduct fed the nymphaeum and ultimately the lake.[38]

Nero also commissioned from the Greek Zenodorus a colossal 35.5 m (120 RF) high bronze statue of him, the Colossus Neronis.[29][11] Pliny the Elder, however, puts its height at only 30.3 m (106.5 RF).[39] The statue was placed just outside the main palace entrance at the terminus of the Via Appia[29] in a large atrium of porticoes that divided the city from the private villa.[40] This statue may have represented Nero as the sun god Sol, as Pliny saw some resemblance.[41] This idea is widely accepted among scholars,[42] but some are convinced that Nero was not identified with Sol while he was alive.[43] The face of the statue was modified shortly after Nero's death during Vespasian’s reign to make it truly a statue of Sol.[13][43] Hadrian moved it, with the help of the architect Decrianus and 24 elephants,[44] to a position next to the Flavian Amphitheater. This building took the name "Colosseum" in the Middle Ages, after the statue nearby, or, as some historians believe, because of the sheer size of the building.[32]

Palace on the Palatine

Opus sectile from the Domus Aurea
Sala della Sfinge (Sphinx Hall), discovered in 2018
Fresco of sea-horses in the Sala della Sfinge

The main part of the palace was probably on the Palatine Hill and a large and brilliantly decorated set of rooms has been located in the central part of the hill under the Palace of Domitian. This site was excavated in 1721 when considerable damage was done during the excavations. The lower floors contained sunken gardens, two pavilions and an art gallery.

In one of these rooms is a rich marble floor found under the oval fountain room of Domitian's Cenatio Iovis, and a rich nymphaeum with marble columns and bronze capitals. Today one corner of the nymphaeum has been rebuilt.

The cryptoporticus of Nero that connected the palace with the nearby Domus Tiberiana was also part of the complex. It is 130 m long with mosaic floors and elaborate stucco ceiling decoration with vegetal elements and cupids. It lies beneath the Horti Farnesiani along one side of the Domus Tiberiana.[45]

The possible remains of Nero's rotating banquet hall and its underlying mechanism were unveiled by archaeologists on September 29, 2009.[46]

Today, one of the best-preserved parts of the palace is the block of 50 communal toilets which would have been used by slaves and workers in Nero's time.[47]

Pavilion on the Oppian Hill

Reconstruction of the "golden vault" by Vincenzo Brenna
Octagonal Room
Statue of a muse in the newly reopened Domus Aurea
The style of wall paintings in Domus Aurea inspired both Raphael's Vatican Stanze and 18th-century Neoclassicism.[7]

The Golden House building (pavilion) on the Oppian Hill (part of the Esquiline Hill) was extended from Nero's earlier Domus Transitoria and designed mainly as a place of entertainment, as shown by the presence of 300 rooms with few sleeping quarters.[11]

Rooms sheathed in dazzling polished white marble with paintings above had richly varied floor plans, complete with niches and exedras that concentrated or dispersed the daylight.[48] There were pools in the floors and fountains splashing in the corridors.

The building plan is divided into two parts: the western one is simple and classic in design, characterised by perpendicular axes and built around a large rectangular courtyard, which opened towards the valley and the lake. The eastern part is of a much richer design[49][50] with two of the principal dining rooms flanking an octagonal court, surmounted by a dome with a giant central oculus to let in light.[1] It was an early use of Roman concrete construction.

It also had an upper floor on the same level as the hill against which it rested (to the north).[51] The surviving parts of this floor are preserved only to a height of 30/60 cm, and the thickness of the walls was also reduced to 40/50 cm so that it was a much less monumental body than the lower floor.[52]

During renovation works at the end of 2018, experts discovered a barrel-vaulted room (room 72) richly decorated with panthers, centaurs, the god Pan, and a sphinx, believed to have been built between 65 and 68 AD. The frescoes were of similar style to those in the cryptoporticus (room 92) which allows attribution to the so-called "A" workshop. [53]

The octagonal room

The octagonal room was a masterpiece of Roman architecture and overlooked a xystus a track to watch gymnastic competitions, and the immense park. The lower part of the dome follows a pattern of octagonal segments (like Brunelleschi 's dome of S. Maria del Fiore in Florence), while the upper part assumes a circular shape.

This domed room was a triclinium, where the emperor manifested himself as divine, through the effects of light that the dome filtered, assimilating himself to the god Apollo. It was built on the model of the cenatio praecipua rotunda (dining room whose ceiling constantly revolved like the heavens) which Carandini and Fraioli position in the pavilion. The ceiling of the octagonal hall could probably rotate by means of a mechanism created by Celer and Severus and similar to a millstone which, hooked to the uncovered tracks along the edge of the central opening, was moved by slaves. Perfume was sprayed and rose petals were dropped on the assembled diners. According to some accounts, perhaps embellished by Nero's political enemies, on one occasion such quantities of rose petals were dropped that one unlucky guest was asphyxiated (a similar story is told of the emperor Elagabalus).[11]

On the sides of the octagonal room there were two apartments: the "room of Achilles in Skyros" and the "room of Hector and Andromache", judged from their paintings. The side spaces served both as passageways and as buttress elements for the dome; These spaces were accessed through large openings surmounted by brick courses. This was probably one of the models from which the famous dome of the Pantheon drew inspiration: it is in fact an early example of the use of the cementitious technique, which had been developed by the Romans from the second century BC for the development of large and articulated interior spaces.


The extensive gold leaf that gave the palace its name was not the only extravagant element of its decor: stuccoed ceilings were faced with semi-precious stones and ivory veneers, while the walls were frescoed, coordinating the decoration into different themes in each major group of rooms.[54] Pliny the Elder watched it being built and mentions it in his Naturalis Historia.[55]

One innovation was destined to have an enormous influence on the art of the future: Nero placed mosaics, previously restricted to floors, in the vaulted ceilings. Only fragments have survived,[56] but that technique was to be copied extensively, eventually ending up as a fundamental feature of Christian art: the apse mosaics that decorate so many churches in Rome, Ravenna, Sicily, and Constantinople.

Frescoes covered every surface that was not more richly finished. The main artist was Famulus (or Fabulus, or Amulius according to some sources).[21][13] Fresco technique, working on damp plaster, demands a speedy and sure touch: Famulus and assistants from his studio covered a spectacular amount of wall area with frescoes. Pliny, in his Natural History, recounts how Famulus went for only a few hours each day to the Golden House, to work while the light was best. He wrote:

More recently, lived Amulius, a grave and serious personage, but a painter in the florid style. By this artist there was a Minerva, which had the appearance of always looking at the spectators, from whatever point it was viewed. He only painted a few hours each day, and then with the greatest gravity, for he always kept the toga on, even when in the midst of his implements. The Golden Palace of Nero was the prison-house of this artist's productions, and hence it is that there are so few of them to be seen elsewhere.[57]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Roth (1993)
  2. ^ Andrea Carandini, Le case del potere nell'antica Roma, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2010, ISBN 978-88-420-9422-7 p 251
  3. ^ Filippo Coarelli, Roma, Bari & Roma, Laterza, 2012 p 228
  4. ^ De la Croix, Horst; Tansey, Richard G.; Kirkpatrick, Diane (1991). Gardner's Art Through the Ages (9th ed.). Thomson/Wadsworth. p. 225. ISBN 0-15-503769-2.
  5. ^ Annals XV 42
  6. ^ Warden 1981:272.
  7. ^ a b "Emperor Nero's Golden Palace had a room with a rotating ceiling that dropped perfume and rose petals down on its inhabitants - Page 2 of 2". The Vintage News. 2016-09-18. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  8. ^ Suetonius, Otho 7.1
  9. ^ Cassius Dio, LXV, 4.1.
  10. ^ Filippo Coarelli (2014). Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide. University of California Press. p. 182.
  11. ^ a b c d e "The Domus Aurea: Nero's pleasure palace in Rome". Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  12. ^ a b c Rome, Wanted in (2017-07-03). "Domus Aurea: A mad emperor's dream in 3D". Wanted in Rome. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  13. ^ a b c d "Golden House of an Emperor - Archaeology Magazine". Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  14. ^ Br; Specktor, on; May 13, Senior Writer |; ET, 2019 06:42am (13 May 2019). "Archaeologists Discovered a Hidden Chamber in Roman Emperor Nero's Underground Palace". Live Science. Retrieved 2019-05-14.((cite web)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Smithsonian magazine, October 2020
  16. ^ "Secret 'Room of the Sphinx' discovered 2,000 years later in Nero's Golden Palace". The Japan Times Online. 2019-05-11. ISSN 0447-5763. Archived from the original on 2019-05-14. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  17. ^ a b theintrepidguide (2016-09-23). "Domus Aurea Rome: Visit Rome's Secret Hidden Palace". The Intrepid Guide. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  18. ^ "The Mysterious Hidden Ruins Near the Colosseum | Rome Blog". Roma Experience. 2018-05-22. Archived from the original on 2019-05-14. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  19. ^ Because of their underground origin, these works were referred to as grotteschi, ("belonging to caves") and their strangeness changed the meaning of the word.
  20. ^ a b c "Nero's buried golden palace to open to the public - in hard hats". Reuters. 2014-10-24. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  21. ^ a b "The buried pleasure palace loved by Michelangelo and Raphael | Art | Agenda". Phaidon. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  22. ^ Mueller, Tom (April 1997). "Underground Rome". The Atlantic. 279 (4): 48–53. Retrieved 20 January 2011.
  23. ^ Turney, Alexandra (2017-03-18). "The Domus Aurea in Rome: 5 Reasons to Visit Nero's Palace". HuffPost. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  24. ^ Romey (see sources)
  25. ^ a b Donati, Silvia (2014-06-19). "Rome's Domus Aurea Needs Four-Year Restoration". ITALY Magazine. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  26. ^ Cox, Cheryl (2016-02-01). "The Underground World of the Domus Aurea". planet gusto. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  27. ^ "Domus Aurea". World Monuments Fund. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  28. ^ "Rome's Domus Aurea Reopens after Six-Year Restoration". artnet News. 2014-10-27. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  29. ^ a b c Suetonius Life of Nero, 31
  30. ^ Roth: 227
  31. ^ Warden 1981:271
  32. ^ a b M, Dattatreya; al (2016-03-21). "Domus Aurea In Its Full Glory Shown Via Superb 3D Animations". Realm of History. Archived from the original on 2019-05-14. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  33. ^ McKay, Alexander G., 1924-2007. (1998). Houses, villas, and palaces in the Roman world (Johns Hopkins paperbacks ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801859042. OCLC 38079340.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  34. ^ A. Carandini, The houses of power in ancient Rome, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2010, ISBN 978-88-420-9422-7 p250
  35. ^ "Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project". Retrieved 2020-10-20.
  36. ^ Lanciani, The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1897 p351
  37. ^ Richardson, 1992; p. 119
  38. ^ Andrea Carandini (2017). Atlas of Ancient Rome. Princeton University Press. p. 347.
  39. ^ Pliny xxxiv.39
  40. ^ Boethius 1960:110
  41. ^ Pliny xxxiv.46
  42. ^ Claridge 1998: 271
  43. ^ a b Boethius 1960:111
  44. ^ Spartianus Hadrian xix
  45. ^ "The Neronian Cryptoporticus".
  46. ^ Marta Falconi (AP): Nero's Rotating Hall Unveiled in Rome by Marta Falconi, September 29, 2009, USA Today
  47. ^ Rome, Wanted in (2019-04-13). "Nero's first palace opens to the public in Rome". Wanted in Rome. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  48. ^ Scaiola, Serena. "Domus Aurea - A Stunning Tour of Emperor Nero's Underground Golden House in Rome - La Gazzetta Italiana". Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  49. ^ A. Carandini, The houses of power in ancient Rome, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2010, ISBN 978-88-420-9422-7 p287
  50. ^ Filippo Coarelli, Guida archeologica di Roma, Verona, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1984 p229
  51. ^ Fabiola Fraioli, Regione III. Isis et Serapis, in Andrea Carandini (a cura di), Atlante di Roma antica, Milano, Mondatori Electa, 2012, pp. 307-322, ISBN 978-88-370-8510-0.p313
  52. ^ A. Carandini, The houses of power in ancient Rome, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2010, ISBN 978-88-420-9422-7 p288
  53. ^ "Sphinx Room at Nero's Domus Aurea re-emerges after 2,000 yrs - English". 2019-05-08. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  54. ^ Ball: 21
  55. ^ Pliny xxxvi.111
  56. ^ "The East Block".
  57. ^ Pliny Chap xxxvii, p.6272


Media related to Domus Aurea at Wikimedia Commons

Preceded by
Domus Augustana
Landmarks of Rome
Domus Aurea
Succeeded by
Domus Transitoria