Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House ☆☆

The octagonal room was once a banqueting hall, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Rome, Italy (Photo by Andy Montgomery)
The octagonal room was once a banqueting hall

The Domus Aurea—Nero's personal pleasure palace across from the Colosseum—offers a rare glimpse into the privileged world of a Roman emperor

The building of Nero's Golden House

In AD 64, Rome was swept by a disastrous fire—although, contrary to the gossips of the time, it has never been proved that Nero himself set the fire, much less played his lute while it burned.

(Lute? Yes, fiddles weren't invented yet, so that old phrase "he fiddled while Rome burned" is at least anachronistic—however, the deluded emperor did fancy himself quite the lutist.)

In fact, most reliable ancient historians, like Tacitus, say Nero wasn't even in Rome at the time of the fire, but rather was spending a spell in his hometown, the seaside city of Antium (World War II buffs will know it as Anzio).

When Nero returned to the fire-ravaged Rome, he set about an ambitious relief and rebuilding program—shelters for the homeless, food for the displaced masses, and new housing plans that were better able to withstand fire. He even paid for out of his own pocket. (That bit rarely makes it into the popular "Nero was a jerk" version of history.)

Since he was bankrolling the reconstruction effort, however, Nero saved the best of the newly-available (if slightly charred) real estate for himself. The emperor appropriated about three-fourths of the burned-out historic core—more than 200 acres—to create, in just four years, one of the most sumptuous palaces in history.

It sprawled from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline Hill, with a private artificial lake created in between. Its rooms were slathered in frescoes and stuccoes, with entire rooms laminated in gold leaf (hence the nickname Domus Aurea, or "Golden House").

It was a party palace par excellence for an emperor who would go down in history as one of the most hated leaders of all time.

The un-building of the Golden House

Subsequent emperors, seeking to distance themselves from their unpopular predecessor, destroyed much of the golden palace by using its vast network of rooms and walls as a foundation for new construction.

Trajan installed a baths complex over much of it in AD 98–117. Domitian built his own palace atop the Palatine section of the Golden House. Vespasian even filled in the palace's artificial lake to erect his huge Flavian Amphitheater for the people.

Some 50 years later, Hadrian raised a temple to Venus and Rome over the palace's vestibule, first removing from it Nero's famed "Colossus," a 35-meter-tall (115 feet) golden statue of Nero as the Sun King. Hadrian used 24 elephants to drag the statue down to its new home next to the Flavian Amphitheater, and soon that enormous sports complex garnered its eternal, world-famous nickname: "The Colosseum."

Before long, the fabulous Golden House had become merely underground foundations for the growing city of Rome.

Visiting the Domus Aurea

Calling it a "party palace" is not just hyperbole. That's exactly what the Domus Aurea was. There were no bedrooms, no living quarters (Nero actually lived in another palace on the Quirinal Hill). Just rooms for lavish entertaining. Oddly, archaeologist have yet to find even the few functional rooms you'd think would be necessary even in a pleasure palace of banqueting halls (kitchens, bathrooms, etc.)

Of its original estimated 300 rooms, 30 have been opened to the public [though, again, these are currently closed], decorated with some of the sculptures, mosaics, and frescoes that have survived 2,000 years.

Sixteenth-century proto-archaeologists first rediscovered the Golden House—after construction crews in the area started digging up marvelous statues like the Vatican's Laocoön—by chopping through the roof and lowering themselves down on ropes.

Since the chambers they explored were—from their point of view—underground, they called them grottoes, and Renaissance painter Raphael, studying the fanciful and intricate frescoes of curlicues and ivy trails featuring fantastic creatures, christened the decorations grotteschi, which became anglicized as "grotesques."

The fact that these designs often featured leering masks, monsters, and other hideous creatures led the word in English to evolve eventually into an adjective describing anything horrible or disgusting.

The best bits on view are the Hall of Hector and Andromache, once illustrated with scenes from Homer's Iliad; the Hall of Achilles, with a gigantic shell decoration; and the Hall of the Gilded Vault, depicting satyrs raping nymphs, plus Cupid driving a chariot pulled by panthers.

The most spectacular sight is the Octagonal Hall,Nero's banquet room, where the menu included casseroles of flamingo tongues and other rare dishes, and the floor is said to have rotated slowly, like dining on a giant lazy Susan, with flower petals raining down from the oculus above.

This Aula Ottagona was also an engineering tour de force for the era—its vast empty space cleverly buttressed by piers within the walls and by adjoining rooms; the vault beginning as an octagon but ending as a perfect circle around the open oculus at its top—that influenced architecture right down to today.

When Nero moved in, he shouted, "At last I can start living like a human being!"

He didn't have long to enjoy it. Beset by rebel governors, deserted by the prefect of his own Praetorian Guard, and declared a public enemy by the Senate and sentenced to death by public beating, Nero fled to his countryside villa just outside of Rome where, spewing poetry and bemoaning his fate, he killed himself in June of AD 68.

Photo gallery
  • The octagonal room was once a banqueting hall, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Andy Montgomery)
  • Statue of a muse in the newly reopened Domus Aurea, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Howard Hudson)
  • Ancient Roman frescoes, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra)
  • A patterned floor, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by sébastien amiet;l)
  • Frescoes and stucco decorations, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Andy Montgomery)
  • Ancient Roman frescoes in room 78, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Jennifer Mei)
  • A painted hall, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by sébastien amiet;l)
  • The octagonal room was once a banqueting hall, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Tyler Bell)
  • A hall, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Matthias Kabel)
  • A hall, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by Davide Mauro)
  • The exterior, Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House, Italy (Photo by sébastien amiet;l)
Domus Aurea—Nero's Golden House tours
 
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Tips

How long does Nero's Golden House take?

The required tours (in English, Italian, and Spanish) last 75 minutes and depart every 15 minutes.

You must book a tour in advance.

Is the Domus Aurea open?

They just don't build lavish ancient imperial palaces like they used to.

Nero's fabulous and fabled Golden House finally reopened in 1999 after a 15-year restoration—then closed in 2005 to address structural problems, then reopened in 2007, then closed and opened again in 2008. It closed yet again in 2010 when when a 100-square-meter (1,076-square-foot) section of the roof simply collapsed, then reopened again in 2014.

All that to let you know that I am not 100% confident it will be open when you happen to visit.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).