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Nero’s Golden House

Nero's Golden House

After Rome nearly burned to the ground in 64 CE, many citizens and senators became pessimistic about the future of their once great city. However, the energetic strength of mind that characterized the emperor, Nero, was not shaken by this tragedy. This strong willed emperor rebuilt much of Rome replacing damaged buildings and debris with studier structures designed to be more fire resistant. Not surprisingly, his swift and positive approach to the reconstruction of Rome quickly earned him the respect of the Roman Senate and citizenry. However, this respect immediately turned to outrage following the construction of Nero’s, so called “Golden House”. Built on prime real estate and perched atop one of the principle hills of Rome, this extravagant palace, called the Domus Aurea or Golden House, boasted a personal pool and vast gardens, as well as a towering statue of Nero himself as the Sun God Helios. The copious excesses displayed in the palace were seen by Romans as arrogant and uneconomical of the once praised emperor. Although, the Golden House was only in existence for forty some years after being replaced by a forum under Domitian, it influenced Roman architecture forever. What made the Golden House so divergent from Roman imperial norms that it was able to transform the perception of a once venerated emperor, into a despised villain who was now seen as someone who took advantage of the devastation of Rome?
The idea for the Domus Aurea arose from Nero’s yearning for a larger palace. He desired to join his palace on the Palatine, which he thought was too small, with the gorgeous and immense gardens on the Esquiline and the Oppius. Never before had an emperor built his palace in the center of Rome, simply because it was obnoxious and took up space for the citizens to live and work. Nero’s dream for his Golden house was put on hold due to the dense population living in the area, until the great fire of 64 CE. The thickly populated area on the Esquiline was devastated, and Nero could finally begin his construction of a palace that made him historically infamous. (5)
Nancy Ramage, a professor at Ithaca College, as well as many other scholars, believes the rumor that Nero may have contributed to the fire himself; or at least fiddled while Rome burned so he could make room for his enormous palace complex (9). Rome began to burn fiercely, with only one reprieve, for nine whole days. Out of the fourteen regions of Rome, only four survived untouched, seven were horribly devastated, and three quarters were completely destroyed and left in a pile of ashes.
When Nero began rebuilding, he resurrected the city with a austere and fire-safe building code; and of course, he turned to religious relief. Decorative efforts were made to propitiate the gods in his new buildings. During the rebuilding, the people responsible for the fire were suspected to have been part of a deviant Jewish sect, who hated humans and apparently foretold that the earth would soon be engulfed in flames. Whether this rumor is true or not, much unfortunate gossip began to spread throughout Rome about the starting of the fire. The most prevalent one was that Nero’s own agents had started the devastating fire, and that Roman soldiers were fanning the fires instead of trying to put them out. The fire was said to have continued only so Nero could rebuild Rome as “Neropolis.” Without a doubt, all of Nero’s good deeds were consumed by this unfavorable rumor and he has been a monster in history ever since. (6)
The location, extravagance, and overall mystique the imperial palace adorned itself with, affected the opinions of Roman citizens towards Nero. The emperor was viewed as taking advantage of the devastation that the horrible fire left behind; , or at least let it ravage the thickly populated quarter into devastation and rubble. The Domus Aurea played a significant role in Roman life and history; but there is much that is unknown about this palace. The extent of land that the palace covered is a controversial topic, and the dining hall and vast gardens as well as the overall grandeur appearance of Nero’s Golden House are all topics of speculation. With all the excavation and research gathered, the overall prevailing characteristic of the Golden House is wonder and awe.
According to Pliny, a respectable historian at the time, the palace was known as the Domus Aurea due to the façade on the main palace being completely gilded with gold, mother of pearl, and gemstones. Nero extended his plans to include an entire valley surrounding a lake, which Vespasian built the Colosseum on some sixteen years later. Towards the south, Nero’s implausible countryseat in the center of Rome stretched as far as the Temple of Claudius on the Caelian Hill, which Nero apparently nearly destroyed in carrying out his dream abode. On the east, the palace extended towards the gardens of Maecenas. Towards the western edge of the villa, its grounds extended to the Palatine Hill and the Velia Hill. On the north end, the landscape gardens are thought to have stretched as distant as the Forum of Augustus. In the valley flanked by the Esquiline, Palatine and Caelian hills, an artificial lake was built (11). Pliny asserts numerous times that the Domus Aurea enclosed the whole town of Rome. A pasquinade of Nero’s Rome once complained, “All Rome is transformed to a villa! Romans, flee to Veii!” (10)
Tactitus and Suetonias insisted the most amazing part of Nero’s palace was that Severus and Celer, Nero’s architects, created a splendid heavenly landscape including gardens, groves, pastures, herds, wild animals and artificial rural isolation. (10) Essentially, Nero had his own private paradise in the center of Rome. A researcher named Boethius emphasized that the Domus Aurea was more so a landscape garden that had a villa in it, and that the landscape was the main component. Furthermore, Boethius emphasized that the Golden House was planned to take advantage of the land it was built on. (2)
The Domus Aurea was also one of the first grand concrete buildings faced with brick, and in its planning and vaults, the octagon as well as the rows of sellaria (or reception room) show beginnings of the Baroque style which later contributed to Domitian’s palace planning. (10) One must wander what an average Roman citizen would think of such splendid luxurious living taking place on the ground that was once covered by hundreds of Roman homes and shops.
Nero was seen as a megalomaniac in ancient times as well as present day. One can make this assumption due to the colossal gilded statue of himself as the sun god Helios. The statue was placed in the vicinity of the main entrance and reception area of the Domus Aurea in the large atrium of porticoes that divided the Roman streets, from the concealed and blatantly private villa on the Palatine Hill. According to Pliny, the bronze statue reached about thirty meters in height. (9)
Of course, one of the most notable aspects of Nero’s Golden House was the miraculous, rotating ivory-veneered dining hall. Apparently, the ceiling sprinkled flowers and perfume on the seated guests below, and the floor was heated. Like the rest of Nero’s dream home, the walls were all lavishly decorated with delicate frescoes. In 15th century, Raphael and his friends crawled into the barely unearthed passageways of the Golden House. After jotting their names on the walls, they copied the faint frescoes they found there. Ironically, the delicate plants, cupids, animals and various motifs were later copied onto the walls of the Vatican. (9) One could say that Nero got the last laugh, in essence; because of the nature of this lavish and high-class life style his palace promoted in contrast with the modest values of Christianity (even though the Vatican is anything but modest).ac991416
“Rome is fast becoming a palace! Move to Veii, citizens, unless Veii too has become a Palace,” was a retort recounted by Suetonius. This account is indicative of what a reaction towards a highly visible private expenditure like the Golden House would be. While it is widely accepted by scholars that the Golden House covered a large part of Rome (80 hectares), a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Gregory Warden, thinks otherwise. In his essay, The Domus Aurea Reconsidered, he brings issues of topography and chronology to light within the Domus Aurea’s architecture. Warden also agrees with, Boethius, mentioned earlier, who emphasized that the Domus Aurea was more so a landscape garden, with the buildings being only components. Warden and Boethius both make these assumptions from the astonishing differences in architecture in the proposed map of the Domus Aurea. The most notable idiosyncrasy in the plan is the contrasting architectural styles of the eastern and western wings. The difference in these two sections is normally explained by the result of two architects, Severus and Celer, having different ideas for the palace. But, why would they not try to integrate their plans? (2) In sum, if Boethius and Warden are correct in their assumptions, the Domus Aurea would not have been so notable in history, and would not have made Romans despise Nero for the rest of history.
After Nero committed suicide at the age of thirty, Senators used to refer to emperors they disliked as “Worse than Nero,” and Christians saw him as the “Beast of Revelation,” and sometimes even the Antichrist himself (6). Certainly, Nero was not the Antichrist, but he may have been one of the worst Emperors ancient Rome ever sanctioned. In conclusion, Nero’s Domus Aurea made him go down in history as one of the legendary monsters, damned forever.

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