Beneath Rome’s Colosseum and surrounding area lie the ruins of one of the most spectacular and unusual palaces in history. This 2,000-year-old structure, often described as the Emperor Nero’s pleasure palace, lay hidden for hundreds of years. It was rediscovered in the 15th century when a young man fell through a hole in the ground and found himself in a richly decorated cave. Now, archaeologists excavating in the environs of the Colosseum have announced that they have discovered another hidden chamber, full of ancient artwork.
According to the statement, the chamber, nicknamed the “sphinx room,” was accidentally discovered as archaeologists were mounting scaffolding to complete renovations on a nearby room. Alfonsina Russo, director of the archaeological park of the Colosseum, noted in the press release that this chamber had “remained in darkness for almost 20 centuries” before it was unearthed.
Nero’s palace was known as the Domus Aurea or “Golden House,” so named because of the use of gold leaf throughout, and the jewels that adorned the ceilings inside. The palace was a vast, sprawling, 300-room complex that was carefully and intricately landscaped and covered in white marble. It was built over the remains of several aristocratic villas that had been destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. The Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that the palace was “ruinously prodigal” and included pastures, flocks of animals, vineyards, trees, and even an artificial lake, all of which were in the center of the city. According to another historian, Tacitus, Nero oversaw the engineering of the palace himself. Remarkably, the entire thing was constructed in only five years.
There were numerous innovations in the design of the building, but perhaps the most extraordinary was a mechanism, operated by slaves, that caused a domed ceiling to revolve and drop perfume and rose petals onto assembled party guests as they ate. If it sounds like this would obscure the smell of the food then that was the point. As Mark Bradley has written in Smell and the Ancient Senses, aristocratic Romans like to keep their guests in suspense about the contents of their meals. It was considered especially low-brow to be drawn to the smell of a meal cooking in the kitchen. The device wasn’t a resounding success—according to one story, likely influenced by the propaganda of his opponents, one dinner guest was asphyxiated.
The whole design was so ornate that Nero placed mosaics, which were previously found on floors, on the ceilings of the rooms. The technique would set a trend, especially in the design of Christian churches in Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople. If you have ever been awed by the mosaics at San Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, you have Nero’s decadent taste to thank. Which is somewhat ironic given Nero’s reputation as the Antichrist and persecutor of Christians.
The discovery of these new murals, as Russo stated, can tell us more about the cultural atmosphere of Nero’s age. Much of the room is still filled with dirt and debris, but in addition to the Sphinx, the room is also adorned with images of a centaur, Pan (the half-goat god), and a man armed with a sword being attacked by a panther. The murals are likely to be the work of an artist named Famulus, one of the few named and identifiable artists of antiquity. According to Pliny the Elder, the author of the Natural History, Famulus only went to paint at the Domus Aurea for a few hours a day and wore a toga (the sign that he was a citizen) even when painting on scaffolding. Pliny bemoans the fact that because Famulus spent so much time at the Golden House, very little of his artwork was to be found elsewhere.
Even though Nero has a reputation for a great deal of bad behavior—he executed his mother a mere five years into his reign and is rumored (perhaps unfairly) to have kicked one wife, Poppaea, to death—there is one reputation he truly earned: the consummate party planner. In 64 CE, shortly before the Great Fire of Rome, Nero threw a city-wide celebration around a reservoir. The centerpiece of the affair was a large floating raft covered in purple cloth and filled with male prostitutes. At one point in the party Nero, dressed as a bride, “married” a freed slave. As Ray Laurence has written, “The drama of this wedding was played out with a dowry, witnesses, a marriage bed and a torch-lit bridal procession.” It’s difficult to know if Nero intended the ceremony to be high performance art or merely shocking, but he certainly succeeded with the latter. The palace and its artwork became an inspiration for Michelangelo and Raphael and more notorious tourists like Casanova and the Marquis de Sade.
In 68 CE, after a revolt, Nero fled Rome and was declared a public enemy of the state. He committed suicide, unnecessarily, to avoid what he thought was a public execution at the hands of the Roman Senate (they were actually trying to work out a compromise). After his death the Golden House was stripped of its ivory, jewels and marble. The emperor Vespasian built an amphitheater, now better known as the Colosseum, over the artificial lake. And the Emperor Trajan buried much of the palace underneath the construction of the Baths of Trajan.
Arguably the most remarkable thing about this sprawling, decadent, and wildly over the top palace was that it included neither bedrooms, nor bathrooms. There wasn’t even a kitchen. In an interview in 1999 around the opening of the Domus Aurea to the public, the noted historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill noted that the palace was purely for entertaining, saying, “Nero gave the best parties, ever.” If you don’t mind doing your business in a chamber pot, that is.