Following the reign
of Augustus came a succession of four emperors descending from the Julio-Claudian
line: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Each of these emperors tried
to imitate the popular qualities of Augustus while also carving out a
niche of originality and innovation. This tendency was reflected in legislation,
imperial endeavors, and, key to our focus, in building programs.
There was no
more visible way for an emperor to publicize his strength and good will
to the Roman people than by erecting impressive buildings that glorified
himself and improved the quality of Romans' lives. Emperors typically
sponsored the building of new aqueducts, temples, markets, theaters, granaries,
and fora. They also built lavish palaces for their own living quarters
and employed the most distinguished architects and artists in all the
that caught the eyes of all was the Domus Aurea, called
the Golden House according to some ancient writers because parts were
overlaid in gold leaf and embedded with gems and rare seashells. Construction
was started on Nero's new palace after the great fire of Rome. Some say
he allowed the fire to spread so he would have the land for this magnificent
structure. The story is unsubstantiated but we do know that so many buildings
burned that a large parcel of land was cleared. Nero's first home, the
Domus Transitora, was one of those destroyed. This house was certainly
no humble abode. As its name implies, it created a passage between the
Palatine and Esquiline Hills.
But now Nero
had an excuse to build a newer and grander structure. He began his new
palace immediately and continued to enhance it until his death four years
later in 68 A.D. It too spanned the Esquiline and Palatine Hills but also
occupied most of the Caelian Hill as well. It even replaced the Temple
of Claudius the God, which Nero demolished.
very little of the Domus Aurea exists today because later emperors replaced
parts of the structure with their own buildings. However, comments from
ancient historians and archaeological evidence allow us to visualize the
Celer, the best architects of the day, designed the complex, which was
described by Suetonius:
|A huge statue
of Nero, 120 feet high, stood in the entrance hall; and the pillared
arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than
a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities and
by a landscape garden consisting of plowed fields, vineyards, pastures
and woodlands. Here every variety of domestic and wild animal roamed
about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with
precious stones and mother of pearl. All the dining rooms had ceilings
of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a
rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, fall on his
guests. The main dining room was circular, and its roof revolved
slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulfur
water, was always on tap in the baths.
The gemstones, perfumes,
and rotating ceiling have long since disappeared, but archaeologists have
uncovered an octagonal room with smaller rooms radiating from it. The
roof was a dome with a huge hole or "oculus" in the center to let in light.
Slits in the sides of the room also let in light, but they were positioned
behind supports that subtly hid the light source from the visitor to the
grand paintings, fountains, ceiling decorations, and elaborate
furnishings. Suetonius says:
|When the palace
had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated
it and condescended to remark, "Good, now I can at last begin to
live like a human being."
Romans were indeed
impressed with this manse, but did not approve of it. Nero's lifestyle
made his house an easy target for criticism. The Domus Aurea became a
symbol of the decadence that motivated Nero's immoral acts. The artificial
lake, the rotating ceiling, the misting unguents, and the 120foot
tall statue of Nero himself all reminded the Romans of the outlandish
extravagance of Nero's regime.
historian Tacitus wrote that Nero had transgressed the sacred boundaries
of nature by building out of the ashes of a burned city a country villa
complete with artificial lakes, transplanted vineyards, and imported animals.
suicide in 68 A.D., the artificial lake was drained. The resulting amphitheater
would later be called the Colosseum, not because of its size but
because of the colossal 120foot statue that stood outside. This statue
that had represented Nero was renamed Helios in honor of the god of the
sun lest Nero receive posthumous honor.