Nero’s Golden Palace: What Is the Domus Aurea?

The "Domus Aurea" was a vast palatial complex built by Roman Emperor Nero, (in)famous for its opulence and splendor.

Apr 6, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
what is the domus aurea nero golden palace

 

The Domus Aurea, or the “Golden House,” was a large and extravagant palatial complex built by Emperor Nero in Rome in the mid-first century CE. Renowned for its opulence and splendor, the Domus Aurea covered a vast area, including gardens, pavilions, fountains, pools, and even an artificial lake. The Palace’s many rooms were covered in gold and decorated with precious stones and gems. A marvel of Roman engineering, the Domus Aurea was designed to showcase emperor Nero’s wealth, power and prestige.

 

Unsurprisingly, Nero’s extravagant palace was used by his enemies as the ultimate evidence of the emperor’s megalomania. It did not help that Nero embarked on the ambitious project following the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, and that he used a large area of the devastated area to build the “Golden House”. The Palace’s fate mirrored that of its builder. Following Nero’s suicide, the Domus Area was destroyed by the Flavian emperors, and many of its parts were incorporated into other buildings, most notably the Colosseum. Today, visitors can still see some of the Palace’s remains, including the stunning frescoes that once adorned its walls.

 

The Domus Aurea Was Built Immediately After the Great Fire of Rome

hubert fire rome emperor nero
The Fire of Rome, Robert Hubert, 1771, Musée d’art moderne André Malraux, Le Havre

 

The Domus Aurea, Nero’s “Golden Palace” was built immediately after one of the greatest calamities that struck ancient Rome. In 64 CE, the Great Fire of Rome destroyed a significant part of the city, including the aristocratic residences on Palatine Hill. Emperor Nero, who ruled the Roman Empire at that time, saw this as an opportunity to embark on an ambitious building project. To construct a majestic palace that would reflect his wealth, power and prestige. The emperor’s zeal, however, was seen by some as the evidence of his guilt, of his involvement in the Great Fire of Rome. While Nero did not start the fire, he undoubtedly profited from it, claiming large parts of the devastated city to realize his dream project. 

 

Emperor Nero Constructed a Vast Palatial Complex

domus aurea reconstruction
Visual reconstruction of the Domus Aurea, built after the Fire of Rome in 64 CE, by Josep R. Casals, via behance.net

 

The Domus Aurea was not a palace, but a palatial complex. In fact, Nero’s “Golden House” was one of the largest and most opulent palaces ever built in Rome, covering an area of more than 300 acres (1.2 km2). Even the lower estimates, 100 acres (0.40 km2), suggest that the Domus Aurea was majestic, outshining the more famous Hadrian’s Villa. Covering Rome’s Palatine, Caelian, and Esquiline Hills, it was the place to behold. According to ancient sources, Nero’s palatial complex was a “countryside in the city,” built in a park-like setting with gardens, pavilions, groves of trees, vineyards, pools, and fountains. The Domus Aurea even had an artificial lake, its water supplied by the Arcus Neroniani, built to divert water from Aqua Claudia, one of Rome’s eight aqueducts.

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The Domus Aurea Was Designed to Inspire Awe and Wonder

domus aurea sala achille
Domus Aurea, Ceiling decoration of the Hall of Achilles; detail of the fresco from the Room of the Little Birds, ca. 64-68 CE, via Rome Archaeological Park

 

The “Golden House” was a palace complex unlike any other. Some of its three hundred rooms were covered in gold and decorated with mother-of-pearl, precious gems, ivory ceilings, and special devices that diffused perfumes. The highlight was the circular revolving dining room, with a ceiling from which panels opened to shower dinner guests with gifts. The floors were covered by mosaics and marble, while walls and ceilings were decorated by lavish frescoes and golden leaves (thus the name). The Domus Aurea was a symbol of Nero’s immense power in any sense of the word. It was probably the most lavish structure the Romans had ever built—a place designed to inspire awe and wonder in all who saw it. 

 

Nero’s “Golden House” Was Short-Lived

marble portrait emperor nero
Marble Bust of Nero, Rome, 1st century CE, restored in the 17th century

Despite its grandeur, the Domus Aurea did not last for long. Emperor Nero had many enemies, including the Senate of Rome, who despised the absolutist emperor. The great extent of the destruction and the sight of Nero’s grandiose palace — the Domus Aurea — built so soon after the Great Fire of Rome fanned the flames of rumor, which Nero’s enemies readily embraced.

 

The senators considered the Domus Aurea a waste of money and an ultimate illustration of the emperor’s megalomania. It did not help that Nero commissioned a giant bronze statue of himself – the Colossus Neronis – which was placed at the entrance to his grand palace. Thus, soon after Nero’s death in 68 CE, the Flavian emperors demolished the palatial complex, identified with the controversial emperor. However, due to its enormous size, parts of the palace (most notably many of its sculptures and decorations) were transferred to other places in Rome. Emperor Hadrian moved the Colossus to the new amphitheater, built on the site of the artificial lake – the Colosseum.

 

The Domus Aurea Has Survived Until the Present Day

emperor nero domus aurea golden palace interior
The interior of Nero’s Domus Aurea, mid-first century CE

 

While Nero’s enemies tried to erase all traces of his reign, they ultimately failed. To start with, Nero was hated by the senators but not by the people. It seems that emperor Nero intended for the Domus Aurea, or at least some parts, to be open to the citizens of Rome, with the emperor playing the role of the protector and the patron of the arts. Furthermore, Nero’s Golden Palace was a vast complex, and as such, it was impossible to destroy it completely. Parts of the palace were filled with dirt and rubble, which helped to preserve some of its frescoes and decorations. Following the Domus Aurea rediscovery in the 15th century, the Palace’s stunning frescoes inspired countless artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo, along with many architects and engineers. The Domus Aurea’s lasting impact on art and architecture has persisted up to the present day.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.