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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of The Domus Aurea in Rome

What is the Domus Aurea?

The Domus Aurea in Rome is the ruins of Emperor Nero’s luxurious suburban villa. It was built in the 1st century AD to rival the palaces of foreign kingdoms and can be experienced today in its original form with the assistance of augmented reality.

Domus Aurea ruins wall art and paintings

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Domus Aurea History

The Emperor Nero was a deeply divisive and complex character, and it’s no surprise that his reign continues to captivate us to this day. His turbulent 14-year rule helped establish the stereotype of the emperor drunk on his own power, and his reign was characterised by political murder, persecution and familial betrayal.

His reign began with promising signs after Nero had gained a reputation for his political generosity, allowing the senate a share in his power. Nero, who ascended to the throne at the tender age of 16, was deeply influenced by his mother, Agrippina, who, having murdered her own political rivals, aimed at ruling through her son. The ancient historian Tacitus claimed that in an effort to maintain this influence, one night Agrippina presented herself to her tipsy son, ‘dolled up and ready for incest’.

Nero eventually decided he needed to remove his interfering mother from the picture, and deliberated over the usual methods of poison or the dagger, but both were deemed too predictable. Instead, the emperor devised an elaborate plan to lure her onto a collapsable boat in the middle of a lake. Much to Nero’s disappointment, his mother survived the wreckage with only a wounded shoulder, so he despatched a group of men to finish the job. As they struck fatal blows, Agrippina stretched forth the womb that had borne her son and murderer, and shouted to the men, ‘strike me here’.

In AD 64, the year Nero celebrated a decade of his reign, an enormous fire enveloped the centre of Rome and destroyed two thirds of the city. Although the popular view has long been that Nero himself issued the fire and then ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, in order that he could carry out his favoured redesign of the city centre, historians largely reject this idea. Even though it may not have been caused by him, the fire of Rome did provide Nero with the opportunity to leave his mark.

ruins of a dome inside domus aurea

The emperor constructed a cluster of buildings called the Domus Aurea, or ‘Golden House’, a grand suburban villa to rival the royal palaces of foreign kingdoms. The villa housed a colossal statue in likeness to Nero, which gives its name to the Colosseum, since it stood a short distance from the amphitheatre. Being the same size as the Statue of Liberty, when the Emperor Hadrian later moved it to beside the Colosseum, it took no fewer than 24 elephants to help carry out the task!

The villa itself was a paragon of luxury. Amongst other features it housed a mile-long colonnade, a pond surrounded with buildings to resemble a seaside city, numerous private vineyards, and forests stocked with a variety of wild and domestic creatures. According to the Roman historian Suetonius: ‘The dining rooms had ceilings with ivory panels that swivelled aside so that pipes might shower petals and perfume on banqueters below, and the main dining room had a dome that revolved day and night like the heavens’.

Historians believe the villa was never actually completed, and, since its opulence was an embarrassment to his successors, the Domus Aurea was obliterated within 40 years of Nero’s death.

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