After the Great Fire in 64 A.D., Emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) started building a palace of unprecedented size and beauty. He named it the Domus Aurea, which means the “golden house.”
Today, Nero’s Golden House is one of the most prestigious and fascinating monuments of ancient Rome. The remains can be visited on a modern and unique virtual-reality tour.
A brief history of the Domus Aurea
In 54 A.D., when Nero was seventeen years old, he became emperor of Rome. He was young, inexperienced, and eager to color outside the lines.
For instance, Nero dabbled in drama and loved poetry, singing, and music. As a singer, he also performed in public at some point. Although this was not appropriate for an emperor, he didn’t let it stop him. He was known for his exuberant and uninhibited lifestyle, which is reflected in the Golden House.
The rise of the Golden House
In the first years of his reign, Nero had the Domus Transitoria built. This part of the imperial palace was supposed to connect the area on the Palatine Hill with the imperial gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill.
After the Domus Transitoria was destroyed in the Great Fire, Nero had the Domus Aurea (the Golden House) built. Construction of the palace began after the fire in 64 A.D. and wasn’t completed until 68 A.D. when Emperor Nero took his own life.
Later emperors rebuilt the massive complex and used it as the basis for other projects, such as the construction of Trajan’s Baths.
What the Golden House would have looked like
It’s said that Nero was inspired by the splendor of the villas in Campania and that his goal was to build the largest and most beautiful palace in the empire.
There are many statements in historical writings describing his ostentatious lifestyle. The Golden House is said to have reflected his decadent taste and need for luxury. Nero designed it solely for his entertainment and named it after its facade, which was decorated with marble and gold leaf.
Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a Roman writer and governor) described the palace as follows:
“In the hall of the Golden House stood a massive statue of Nero, measuring over 35 meters in height. The whole complex was so enormous that it had three colonnades of 1.6 km long.
There was an artificial lake almost as big as the sea, surrounded by houses as large as cities. There were also mansions with fields, vineyards, plazas, meadows, and forests with wild and domestic animals of all kinds.
Some parts of the house were entirely gilded and decorated with gold, precious stones, and shells. In the dining rooms were movable ceilings of ivory, through which one could throw down flowers and spread perfume. The dome moved constantly by day and by night, like the universe. The baths in this room were filled with sea and sulfur water.
When Nero inaugurated the house, he expressed his great satisfaction, saying that he was finally living in a house worthy of a man.”
Impressive size and unique architecture
According to Elisabetta Segala, author of the book “Domus Aurea” published in 2005, the complex would have been a manifestation of power, as Nero aspired to a monarchy. This is very likely, as the entire complex of buildings stretched over an area on which the imposing building of the Colosseum would have fit 25 times.
The huge structure was less like a municipal palace and more like a vast estate. The Golden House is said to have had more than 300 rooms, which were reportedly decorated with precious ivory, ornate mosaics and frescoes, and large fountains.
Among the most architecturally spectacular aspects of the building were two dining halls that formed an octagonal hall, which was the center of the vast complex.
According to ancient writings, the domed ceiling had movable elements to throw flowers and perfume down on the guests. However, this hasn’t been proven archaeologically.
Location of the Golden House
Based on writings by the Roman historian Tacitus, it’s known that Emperor Nero had his palace built on an area of about 80 acres, which extended over the Palatine Hill, the entire valley of what is now the Colosseum, and parts of the surrounding hills of Caelio and Esquiline.
The present remains of Nero’s Golden House, have been buried under the Oppius Hill for nearly 2,000 years. The entrance to the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea is about 300 m northeast of the Colosseum (a 5-minute walk).
The end of the Domus Aurea
Nero had worked on the construction of his palace for only four years before his reign as emperor came to an end. He was declared an enemy of the state by the Senate and fled until he died in June 68 A.D.
Thus, the foundation of the Domus Aurea was built in a relatively short period and was only used by Nero for a limited time. Nero’s successor Otho completed the palace. However, subsequent emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Trajan had parts of Nero’s palace torn down to have their own palaces constructed on the site.
How the Colosseum got its name
In 72 A.D., Emperor Vespasian had the Colosseum built on the site of the artificial lake. According to the legend, the palace had an impressive entrance with a colonnade on the side of the Roman Forum. This is where the huge statue (over 35 meters high) of Nero stood.
Today, the ruins of the Colosseum, whose name comes from this “colossal” statue of Nero, are located there.
Baths of Trajan
In 104 A.D., a fire broke out in the residence building of the palace, damaging it considerably. Emperor Trajan then ordered the construction of the Baths of Trajan. Everything of value was removed from Nero’s magnificent Golden House and it became the base of the monumental baths.
The upper floor of the Domus Aurea was demolished and the lower floor was reinforced with walls. The basement was filled with earth, which is why it’s exceptionally well preserved to this day. This created a series of underground rooms with barrel vaults, which today are hidden under the earth of the hill.
The rediscovery of the Domus Aurea: an inspiration for the Renaissance
It took only forty years before the Domus Aurea was completely buried under newly constructed buildings. In the centuries that followed, Nero’s palace fell into oblivion and wasn’t rediscovered until the 15th century.
At the time of the Renaissance, rooms and corridors were found by coincidence under the Baths of Trajan. The rediscovery of the imperial palace inspired artists such as Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, Giulio Romano, Pinturicchio, and Raphael to descend into the vaults and illuminate the walls with torches.
They studied the ancient murals, frescoes, and decorations for inspiration. Their signatures in some places on the walls betrayed that they even copied frescoes.
Thus was born the “grotesque painting” of the Renaissance, a 16th-century genre that reinterprets the historical motifs of Roman wall decoration. It’s based on the so-called “grotesques” or wall decorations showing people, plants, animals, and mythical creatures.
Resumption of excavations
It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that further excavations took place. It’s said that academics became interested in the grotesque again after the frescoes of Pompeii were found.
In the years that followed, until the mid-19th century, about fifty rooms of the Domus Aurea were cleared. After that, at the beginning of the 20th century, the park Colle Oppio was constructed, containing the ruins of Trajan’s Baths and gardens.
In the 1950s, the excavations of the Domus Aurea resumed. It wasn’t until the 21st century that some of the halls were restored to the point where they could be opened to visitors. The extensive and costly excavation and restoration work on what remained of Nero’s palace is far from complete and continues to this day.
The current state of the Golden House
Today, about 20% of the original building remains on the Oppius Hill. The house was inhabited until it was destroyed by a fire in 104 A.D. After this, the remains were integrated into the foundations of the Baths of Trajan and partially filled with stuffing material. Thus, many rooms were preserved underground.
Although debris and damp earth destroyed many frescoes, the sand protected the walls from moisture and ensured that some colors of the grotesque murals were preserved in excellent condition.
After decades of restoration, some halls of the Domus Aurea were opened to visitors in 1999. Due to the dramatic deterioration and difficult preservation of the building, a few years later, in 2005, it was closed again. Moreover, in 2010 a colonnade collapsed, so for safety reasons the ruins couldn’t be visited for a long time.
Since 2008, the DAI Rome has been working intensively on the conservation of the halls upon request of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma (the Roman government antiquities service) and the Università La Sapienza. Therefore, in 2014, parts of the halls and frescoes could be reopened to visitors.
Today, you can admire the ancient architecture and art of the palace during a guided tour through thirty different rooms. The ruins of Trajan’s Baths still exist above these spaces and are often mistaken for remnants of the Domus Aurea.
Curiosities about the Domus Aurea and Nero
The Domus Aurea is considered one of the most extravagant works in the history of art and architecture in ancient Rome. The remains are enough to give you an idea of the magnificence of the palace.
Artists and architects
In ancient times it wasn’t common to sign works and, as a result, the names of many artists have been lost. The Domus Aurea is an exception to this rule. The painter of the many extraordinary paintings on the ceilings and walls of the Domus Aurea was named Fabullus. About 30,000 square feet of his art can still be seen today and some of his works have been restored.
The pictorial themes were mainly mythological scenes, still lifes, landscapes, and grotesques. In addition, wall decorations with marble panels and gold leaf can be admired.
Unlike many ancient buildings, we even know the names of the architects of Nero’s Golden House: Celere and Severo. They designed at least two of the main dining rooms under Nero’s supervision.
Rumors and stories about Nero
Since Nero began building his palace after the Great Fire in 64 AD, rumors circulated that he himself had started the fire to create more space. However, recent research by historians and archaeologists shows that this isn’t true.
Moreover, Nero made sure that Rome was rebuilt and in better condition than before the fire. It’s said that he had used the funds of the provinces for this purpose and had invested the money not only in urban renewal but mostly in his new palace. On the contrary, other historical sources report that the emperor proved to be a benefactor in the reconstruction of the city by opening his buildings to the homeless and reducing the price of grain.
The truth of all these stories about Nero is questionable, as they were all written at least 50 years after Nero’s death. The authors included Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all from the senatorial class. They likely wanted to cast Nero in a bad light and the impact of this slander is noticeable to this day.
Other historians, such as Lucanus, actually described Nero’s reign as a period of peace and prosperity. And Dio Chrysostomos even wrote after Nero’s death that the people wished he were still alive and would remain emperor forever.
A secret room in Nero’s palace
In May 2019, archaeologists accidentally discovered a new room of the Domus Aurea. It was located underground in a huge part of the building under the Colle Oppio, on the south side of the Esquiline hill.
Magnificent murals of the so-called Sphinx Hall show animals, gods, mythical creatures, and sword-wielding warriors. Since there have been repeated collapses in rooms of the palace in recent years, the hall has remained filled with earth for the time being to avoid endangering its stability. Parts of the park above the complex have now been removed to relieve the walls.
How Nero died
Nero dug his own grave by having senators prosecuted for lese majesty or (religious) conspiracies and, in some cases, ordered senators to commit suicide. Those who refused received confiscation of family assets or an undignified liquidation by soldiers.
As a result, the Senate declared him an enemy of the state and Nero fled. After all, enemies of the state were killed in a gruesome manner. Their necks were clamped and their naked bodies were beaten to death with rods. He was aware that if he stayed, a humiliating and painful death awaited him.
Despite his attempt to escape death, he was backed into a corner. When he was arrested on June 9 in 68 A.D., he decided (after hesitation) to put a dagger in his throat. His last words were Qualis artifex pereo (What an artist dies in me). The stab was probably not lethal so Epaphroditus, an old slave who remained loyal to him until the end, eventually gave him the fatal stab.
Entrance fees and opening hours
A visit to the Domus Aurea is only possible in small groups and with a professional guide. The special feature of this tour is that you can use VR glasses to see what Nero’s palace must have looked like in the past.
Since restoration work still takes place during the week, you can only visit the Domus Aurea on weekends. In other words, the Golden House of Nero can only be visited on Saturdays and Sundays.
|Type of ticket|
|Standard: full price|
|Reduced: children under 12 years|
|Free entrance: children under 6 years|
|Type of ticket||Base price*||Total price**|
|Standard: full price||€14.00||€22.00|
|Reduced: children under 12 years||€10.00||€18.00|
|Free entrance: children under 6 years||-||€2.00|
The special exhibition “Raffaello e la Domus Aurea” (until 10/01/21) costs an additional €6.00. The purchase of this ticket is mandatory for anyone who wants to visit the Domus Aurea. If you haven’t paid for the exhibition when booking online, you’ll have to pay the difference on the spot. You can also reserve your tickets by phone (+39 06 399 67 700).
The fact that you cannot visit the Golden House of Nero on your own, but only with a guided tour, is partly due to the dilapidation of the remains of the building.
The tour lasts one hour and is available in Italian, Spanish, French, and English. More info can be found on this website.
Virtual reality as part of the tour
A highlight of the tour is the use of virtual reality goggles that allow you to explore Nero’s extravagant residence in all its glory and get an idea of what it would have looked like at the time.
The tour takes you through a series of dark rooms and corridors, where it’s hard to imagine what the once-luminous building originally looked like. But during the tour, there are multiple videos about the history of the Domus Aurea that, along with the VR technology, let you experience a journey through time.
- For the virtual reality experience, you’ll have to wear Oculus Rift glasses. However, these aren’t recommended for people with epilepsy or serious eye conditions.
- It’s advised to wear comfortable shoes since you’ll be walking for an hour.
- Please, note that the Golden House is only partially (or not at all) accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.
- Keep in mind that the videos shown during the Spanish and French tours are in Italian or English.
- Inside the ruins, the temperature is always around 10 degrees Celsius with a humidity of 100%. Therefore, we recommend every visitor to bring a jacket or sweater at any time of the year.
- Make sure you’re on time. If you’re late, you may miss your booking and there’ll be no refund.
- The board of the museum can close the Domus Aurea to the public without notice. In this case, tickets will be fully refunded.
Nearby places of interest
Because of its convenient location, many tour operators combine a visit to the Roman Forum or the Coliseum with a visit to the Domus Aurea. The ruins are also surrounded by a park where you can picnic or take a walk.
Here is an overview of all the attractions that are near the Domus Aurea.
This was the epicenter of social, political, religious, and cultural life in ancient Rome. It was also the heart of the empire and the ruins found here are surprisingly interesting. It’s a must-see site and access is included in the entry ticket for the Colosseum.
From the Domus Aurea, it’s only a 10-minute walk to the Roman Forum.
Although it’s historically less important than the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill is also of great tourist interest. Here you find the ruins of the imperial residence and impressive views of the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus.
It’s only a 15-minute walk to the hill. The Palatine Museum, located on the Palatine Hill, is exactly 1 kilometer from Nero’s Golden House.
Arch of Constantine
Among the three Arches of Triumph that still exist in Rome, this is the best-preserved one. It was built in the early fourth century to commemorate the victory of Constantine I at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D.
The Arch of Constantine is located next to the Colosseum and just 700 meters from the Domus Aurea.
It’s also possible to visit the Imperial Forums, which are extensions of the Roman Forum, built by various emperors. To reach them just follow Via dei Fori Imperiali towards Piazza Venezia.
The entrance to the Imperial Forums is 2 km northwest of the Colosseum (a 25-minute walk).
This is the largest sports stadium in history. Most of the building is underground and there’s not much left to see above ground. However, through a virtual reality tour, you can discover what the circus used to look like.
The entrance to the Circus Maximus is located 700 m south of the Colosseum. From the Domus Aurea it’s only a 15-minute walk away (1.5 km).
The Ludus Magnus site comprises the barracks where gladiators trained for battles. The ruins are located on the east side of the Colosseum. You can appreciate them via views from the street.
From the Domus Aurea, it’s a 10-minute walk through the Oppio Park until you pass Piazza Colosseo and see the ruins of the Ludus Magnus.
Basilica of San Clemente
The Basilica of San Clemente is a church where you can stroll underground and visit an ancient Mitreo (a temple dedicated to the god Mitra), first-century ruins, and an old church that serves as a foundation for its current structure. It’s highly recommended to go there.
The Basilica of San Clemente is less than 1 kilometer from the Domus Aurea. Depending on the route you take, you can walk past the Colosseum and the Ludus Magnus, or take a nice walk through Oppio Park to get to the Basilica.