The Domus Aurea: Gold, Ivory, and Luxury…Or Not

By: Ruth S.

I’ll admit, when we finally arrived at the Domus Aurea,  Nero’s “Golden Palace,” I was disappointed to not find any gold. Instead I found barren walls and looming tunnels filled with dirt. I couldn’t believe that this had once been the dream house of Nero. Time combined with nature’s whim had made the once glorious palace almost impossible to imagine. The gold, the gemstones, the mother-of-pearl, the ivory—even the marble that had covered almost every surface was gone, stripped hundreds of years ago to be used in buildings and monuments of other emperors. This had been a palace so huge that it encompassed vineyards, orchards, forests, and fields stocked with countless numbers of animals.

As the tour guide recounted the history of the 1,500-year-old palace, the current lack of extravagance began to make sense. It is widely known that Nero was not the most beloved (nor sane) emperor of Rome. He is not only responsible for the first state-sanctioned persecution of Christians, but he is also blamed for the fire of 64 A.D. that destroyed most of Rome. This notion was not helped when Nero built a lavish and wasteful supermansion among the ruins of what had previously been the heart of the city. However, his construction project was never completed. It stood for about four years, steadily growing until his death in 68 A.D. It was then that the palace was stripped and its remains filled with earth, preserving what had been and providing a new, flat surface for other monumental buildings. It was only in the late 15th century that the ancient halls were rediscovered when a boy accidentally fell through a hole in the ceiling, prompting excavations to begin.

The Domus Aurea has an incredible history, and I couldn’t believe I was standing in the halls where Nero once roamed. To be standing in its remains and not be able to visualize its former glory was unfortunate. However, thanks to technology, this issue was resolved during the virtual reality portion of the tour.  Each visitor sat on evenly spaced boxes in one of the larger rooms and put on a VR headset. The headset covered the eyes like a giant, boxy sleep mask and had small headphones that went over the ears. As soon as the interactive experience began it felt like I was the only person in the room. I looked up, and the hole where excavators had lowered themselves into the cavern had been repaired, and it seemed like sunlight was filtering into the room. The once-barren walls were luxuriously decorated with marble, ivory, and paintings filled with vibrant colors. Many of the rooms had once had open-air entrances, and this one was no exception. Although the block I was sitting on remained stationary, I felt as if I was moving forward as the VR tour took me out of the room, past a few marble columns, and out to a luscious garden with an incredible view of the city. Grass and flowers swayed around my feet, and I felt as if I could run my fingers through them. Being in this simulation was like floating outside on a perfect day. A voice narrated what was going on as the scenery around me changed. Everything clicked, and even though we were only shown what a part of the palace looked like, it became much easier to picture the rest. A sense of its former extravagance returned when picturing what had been, and I felt a sort of connection to the man we had been reading and hearing about during the last semester.

Many people have a certain horrified fascination with Nero. The way he is portrayed through media and historical accounts make him seem unhinged, and that appeals to the hidden (or not so hidden) crazy side in all of us. It seems ridiculous to burn down most of a city you’re in control of to build a personal megamansion, and yet, Nero did just that. This was a man with so much power that he was able to kill hundreds of Christians for his own entertainment, and that’s a terrifying thought. To be standing in the remains of a palace that he actually built made his character more tangible, a reminder of what an unrestrained ego can do.