Nero's Golden House

For 2,000 years Nero's notorious Domus Aurea (Golden House) has been singled out as the most outstanding example of his megalomania. Built on the site of slums destroyed by the Great Fire of 64, it was gigantic, threatening to swallow up the whole of Rome. According to the famous squib: "Rome is becoming a house, migrate to Veii, Romans, unless the house takes over that as well".

It was extravagant almost beyond comprehension, its exterior covered with gold leaf and studded with jewels, had dining rooms with fretted ceilings made of ivory which showered rose petals and perfume. Nero's opinion of the finished structure said it all: "At last I can live like a human being!" The accusation is clear. Nero had created a Neverland for himself which shut out the rest of the world.

Not true, says modern scholarship. The Golden House wasn't a private residence, it was a museum and public park with a lake that introduced ordinary Romans to the seaside delights of resorts like Baiae, playground of the rich. The house itself, with its ostentatious 1,200 foot south facing façade, was an expanded version of a seaside villa like the one pictured above. It was meant to be eye catching, for this was the focus of the golden age of triumphant art.

The complex housed a treasure of statues "plundered" by Nero from Greece. The famous Laacoon Group was discovered in one of its rooms in 1509. This statue's realism and refinement had a profound influence on 16th century sculptors like Michaelangelo.

The murals inside the building, preserved by rubble and earth fill, inspired the artists of the Renaissance who broke through into the ruin through holes in the roof. One of these was Raphael who was clearly influenced by what he saw there when he decorated the Vatican, the site of the circus where Nero earned undying infamy by martyring the Christians.

A reconstruction of the famous Octagonal Room.

A reconstruction of the famous Octagonal Room.

Lucy Knipe