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Domus Aureafree

Domus Aureafree

  • Larry Ball

Summary

The Domus Aurea (Golden House) was the opulent residence of the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 ce), set in a vast park in Rome. Ancient literary sources on the Domus Aurea are abundant, albeit not wholly reliable or fair to Nero. Both Suetonius (Ner. 31) and Tacitus (Ann. 15.38–40 and 42) describe the construction. The first phase started in c. 60 ce. This was called the Domus Transitoria, which was interrupted by the great fire of 64 ce. “Domus Aurea” refers to the second phase, after the fire. Given its enormous scale, the Domus Aurea may not have been fully completed in just four years, but at least part of it was finished, most likely the core of the residence, on the Palatine Hill, near the forum, and Nero did move in. The palatine core is largely unknown to us, but the vast parklands created to the east of the forum area include a fine villa on the Esquiline Hill that bespeaks a spectacular new standard both for architectural design in vaulted Roman concrete and in decoration. After Nero, systematic obliteration of the Domus Aurea began with Vespasian (r. 69–79 ce), who sought to erase Nero’s memory. The Esquiline Villa was the last standing element of the Domus Aurea, buried under the Baths of Trajan after another urban conflagration in 104 ce.

Subjects

  • Latin Literature
  • Roman History and Historiography
  • Roman Material Culture

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography updated to reflect contemporary scholarship. Images added.

Setting of the Domus Aurea

The Domus Aurea (Golden House) was the vast and elaborate residence Nero built in Rome, primarily between the great fire of 64 ce and the end of his reign in 68 ce. Although the Domus Aurea can be called a palace, it was also much more (Figure 1). The actual palace overlooked the forum from the Palatine Hill. Remnants on the Palatine demonstrate the opulence of Nero’s constructions there, but we know little of the architectural design, in any phase. Probably it expanded upon the palace of Tiberius and Caligula, but also the Domus Aurea encompassed an enormous open park, an artificial rustic setting for several luxurious buildings. These included a huge entrance vestibule by the forum, an artificial lake where the Colosseum stands today, a huge nymphaeum (elaborate fountain) made from the terrace for the temple to Claudius on the Caelian—which Nero left unfinished—and the sumptuous Esquiline Villa, famous now as the only substantial component still standing.

Figure 1. Rome: Schematic city map with key features of the Domus Aurea highlighted. Tan: Forum. Grey: Domus Aurea Parklands. Green: Palace of Tiberius & Caligula. Light blue: Artificial lake. Yellow: Nymphaeum. Red: Esquiline Villa.

Source: Author.

Luxuria

The cultural context of the palace, indeed its key goal, was luxuria.1 In Roman parlance, Luxuria was more than just comfort; it was also a lifestyle choice, focused on conspicuously expressing one’s refinement, wealth, and taste. Luxuria required a statement that needed to be noticed. Luxuria was Nero’s life goal, with the Domus Aurea its most overt expression. This is illustrated by his famous quip, upon moving into the Domus Aurea, that now, finally, he could begin to live like a human being (Suet. Ner. 31). Early in his reign, however, Nero’s luxuriant inclinations were restrained by Seneca (his tutor) and his mother, the younger Agrippina. Tired of their resistance, Nero had Agrippina murdered and forced Seneca to suicide (Suet. Ner. 34 and 35).

Figure 2. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: West Block in Neronian phase 1 (Domus Transitoria). Walls in blue are from the Domus Transitoria project itself. Salmon: Atrium group. Green: Garden court with fountain. Tan: Rectangular group.

Source: Author.

Phase 1: The Domus Transitoria

With a free hand at that point (60–62 ce), Nero set out to create a palace to exceed all others in scale, luxuria and setting. This was the Domus Transitoria (house of passage, Suet. Ner. 31), mentioned, but not described, in several ancient sources. Nero’s initial intention for the Domus Transitoria was to link together his already considerable dwellings. The core was the residence of Tiberius and Caligula on the Palatine. This was literally palatial, based on grand Hellenistic palaces such as the royal palace at Vergina. These defined a well-established type: square in design, with the main rooms facing into a large colonnaded central courtyard. The most distant property Nero wanted to link with the Domus Transitoria was the Gardens of Maecenas, a villa two kilometers northeast of the Palatine, by the Servian city walls.

Long before Nero, suburban villas were the most conspicuous venue for expressing luxuria, which the Gardens of Maecenas already did for Nero (Tac. Ann., 15.42). If the Domus Transitoria linked all of his holdings, Nero could transition from his urban palace by the forum to his rural gardens without ever leaving his own property, which would give the Domus Transitoria luxuria superior to other patricians, who had to make extended journeys to get to their rural villas.

Some existing properties were seized for the Domus Transitoria, including using military equipment to eliminate structures that stood in the way (Suet. Ner. 38), while others were of quality sufficient for Nero’s use. However, we do not know how far the Domus Transitoria project progressed before the great fire of 64 ce. Tacitus (Ann. 15.38–40) says the Domus Transitoria suffered fire damage, including the Palatine component, although remnants there are too scant for us to detect fire damage. Suetonius (Ner. 31) says that the Domus Transitoria was rebuilt as the Domus Aurea, demonstrating some continuity between the two projects.

Fortuitously, the most peripheral component, the Esquiline Villa, retains good evidence of the whole architectural sequence, including the Domus Transitoria phase.2 The villa is terraced into the Esquiline, c. 400 meters northeast of the Palatine. Some remnants of pre-Domus Transitoria architecture can also be readily identified in the Esquiline Villa, including the uncolored walls in Figure 2, mostly dark corridors and service rooms in areas Nero would never go.

The Domus Transitoria phase components are substantial. All evidence for this phase is found in the West Block, comprising approximately a third of the rooms of the Esquiline Villa overall (Figure 2). The designs of the Domus Transitoria rooms conform to fairly conventional motifs found in luxury villas. This demonstrates that this suite was intended to be a suburban villa, despite the urban setting. This is at odds with the residence on the Palatine, whose palatial design is equally obvious. Conventional villa design features are easy to define from well preserved villas in the Campagna. Luxury villas weren’t as consistent in design as atrium houses, but most had key standard elements. Most common is the compluviate atrium with flanking rooms on either side, or the appearance of such rooms in the form of doors painted in fresco. Atriums in villas are usually at the center of a three-part axial group. The main axis has a tablinum-like inner room at one end of the atrium, the atrium in the middle, and a lovely vista of a garden or the landscape at the other.

Figure 3. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Reconstruction of Room 44 in Neronian phase 2 (Domus Transitoria). North-south transverse section, looking east into Room 45. The windows high on the north side (left) light the rooms to the north and force the compluvium roof at a level below the windows.

Source: Author.

In the later Domus Aurea phase, the Domus Transitoria design was obscured by clever modifications, so the design elements most famous today actually date to the Domus Aurea, but the Domus Transitoria villa layout can be reconstructed confidently.3 The villa core is distinctive, including the conventional atrium group of three main elements, in line from east to west (Figure 2, salmon). The innermost room (45) was similar in size and design to a typical tablinum and was covered by wooden trusses.4 The middle room (44) was a large compluviate atrium with three rooms flanking it on each side. This too had wooden roofing, as reconstructed in Figure 3, at a level below the window high on the north side wall, but above the colonnades at each end of the room. The outer space was a large garden courtyard (20). This provided a vista for Rooms 45 and 44, with its long axis and an elaborate central fountain aligned with the atrium group. Later the garden had a colonnade on three sides, but this was not part of the original Domus Transitoria design.5

Figure 4. Oplontis / Torre Annunziata: Imperial Villa. Schematic plan with key groups highlighted. Salmon: Atrium group. Green: Garden. Tan: Rectangular group. Blue: Piscina (pool).

Source: Author, after Jashemski, with her room numbers.

Also original to the Domus Transitoria phase is the rectangular group of rooms on the south flank of the West Court (Rooms 22–36). This design echoes a distinctive feature in the grandest villa known from the Campagna, at Oplontis, possibly belonging to the family of Nero’s third wife Poppeia. Figure 4 is a schematic diagram of its plan, with its highlighting matching Figure 2: the core atrium groups are in salmon and the rectangular groups are in tan. These rectangular groups are set between similar open areas. In the Esquiline Villa, these are the garden (20) to the north, with the atrium group opening onto it on a cross-axis, and to the south a now unknown vista. Similarly, at Oplontis, they are a garden to the west (again with the atrium suite opening onto it at a cross-axis) and a large swimming pool to the east. In both groups, rooms open out to either side of these long slender rectangles. Each group has one large room the full width of the rectangle, opening at both ends and defining a transverse axis of symmetry (respectively 29 and 69). Other rooms open to one side or the other, some in addorsed pairs, all decorated with niches, statues, etc. Not all luxury villas have a group like this, but their appearance in both the villa at Oplontis and the Esquiline Villa makes clear that this is a conventional feature of villa design.

These features reveal Nero’s intention for a villa in the Domus Transitoria phase, predating the Domus Aurea, before the great fire of 64 ce. The fire opened up broad areas of urban terrain that Nero could exploit for his villa project, but the project itself already existed. The patrician luxury villa elements in the Domus Transitoria are distinctly ordinary, however. When the project resumed after the great fire, Nero’s goals moved far beyond that.

Phase 2: The Domus Aurea

The great fire gave Nero’s palatial ambitions an incomparable opportunity (Tac. Ann. 15.38–40, Suet. Ner. 38). Details of the fire itself are debatable, but of little consequence here. The fire reached the area of the Esquiline Villa, but its well-preserved remains do not indicate that fire damage precipitated the design changes between the two Neronian phases. The simple urge to aggrandize and innovate—both well documented goals for Nero—would adequately explain the changes.

Although the Domus Aurea is treated scathingly by ancient authors, it was certainly spectacular and remarkably novel (Tac. Ann., 15.42, Suet. Ner. 31). Both spectacle and novelty are most obvious in the overall setting; with much of the city reduced to rubble, Nero seized vast swathes to create a rustic parkland, including fields and forests, fake peasant villages, the huge nymphaeum and artificial lake. The extent of this park remains unclear—Figure 1 shows the minimum—but it certainly occupied the whole valley between the Esquiline and Caelian hills, reaching as far north and east as Nero’s Garden of Maecenas, and to the crowns of the Esquiline and Caelian hills. The artificial lake lay between this and the forum, where the Colosseum stands today.6 Facing the lake was the huge atrium (probably an open-air colonnade) with a golden statue of Nero in it, either 100 or 120 feet tall.7 The main palatial residence remained on the Palatine, but the only specific feature named in ancient sources was a round dining hall set over a mechanism that allowed it to rotate in time with the heavens (Suet. Ner. 38). Remains of this room have been discovered in situ, on the northeast flank of the Palatine (Figure 1), proving that Suetonius was describing a real feature.8 Suetonius also notes a triple colonnade a mile long, which must have been in the parklands.

No source mentions the Esquiline Villa, which must be regarded as peripheral. That is ironic; the Esquiline Villa is important both because it is the only well-preserved component of Nero’s Domus Aurea today and because it is, probably, the greatest contributor to the superior luxuria of the Domus Aurea. The scale and expense of the Domus Aurea were unremarkable for a luxury villa (Tac. Ann., 15.42); Nero’s superiority consisted of rus in urbe: bringing a scenic rural setting into the city, accessible from his palatine palace in minutes.

The Esquiline Villa

Architecturally, the Esquiline Villa makes crucial contributions to our understanding of the evolution of design in vaulted Roman concrete.9 The history of Domus Aurea studies contributes some confusion at this point, but it is easily sorted out. Traditionally, it had been presumed that the Esquiline Villa was all designed at once, as a single design exercise, and that every feature of it comes from just one architectural vision. This is largely correct, but not entirely. It has always been clear that this was merely an assumption, pending a detailed study of the villa itself, and a few brief studies made clear that a more complex masonry history was likely.10

Fortunately, comprehensive study has proved two key things.11 First, there is considerable complexity in the masonry of the Esquiline Villa, revealing not only the Domus Transitoria phase in Nero’s own project, but also contributions from earlier structures, some of which even contributed a few rooms to the ultimate Polygonal Exedra design.12

Second, and much more important, the architectural design components that contribute significantly to the evolution of vaulted concrete design, do come from just one phase, just one design. That is Neronian Phase 2, the Domus Aurea. In contrast, the pre-Neronian and Domus Transitoria rooms reused in the Domus Aurea were heavily revised. Their original designs were essentially obliterated, replaced by a much more radical design in the Domus Aurea phase. The Neronian Phase 2, Domus Aurea design is so cohesive that generations of scholars failed to notice that dissimilar earlier designs had been repurposed.13 Hence, to a large degree, architectural interpretations based on the presumption of just one design phase were fortuitously correct to do so. Earlier components were exploited, but they did not define the design or the vision of Nero’s architects in the Domus Aurea phase.

There is, therefore, a single design persona for the Esquiline Villa.14 The architects, Severus and Celer, were nothing shy of visionary, redefining the design language of fine architecture in the Roman culture.15 Tacitus (Ann., 15.42) calls them both engineers and architects, but no source indicates how they shared or divided up the work.

Figure 5. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa in Neronian phase 2 (Domus Aurea): Schematic plan indicating symmetrical suites with axial vistas.

Source: Author.

One signature feature, forming most of the exterior, is suites of rooms side-by-side, each symmetrically centered on an especially large hall. Each suite opened onto a vista, such as a garden, parklands or a waterwork, as indicated on Figure 5. Five of these suites form the sides of a distinctive polygonal exedra that divides the Esquiline Villa into two major blocks. Room 80 is the most important room, centered at the inner end of the polygonal exedra and looking outward along its main axis. This is the famous sala della volta dorata (Hall of the gilded vault), much of whose elaborate ceiling decoration remains today (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Room 80 (Sala della Volta Dorata / Hall of the Gilded Vault) in Neronian phase 2 (Domus Aurea): Vault decoration, consisting of relief-stucco frames and figural frescoes.

Source: Author.

The Domus Transitoria atrium group was completely revised, possibly to fire-proof it; the wooden roofs in Rooms 44 and 45 were replaced with concrete barrel vaults, founded on thickened side walls (Figure 7 and 8). The lighting was also revised, so successfully that only detailed study of the masonry has revealed that there was a different earlier design at the core of this suite.16

Figure 7. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Reconstruction of Room 44 in Neronian phase 2 (Domus Aurea). North-south transverse section, looking east into Room 45 (viz., Figure 3). By adding the vault at such a low level, the Vault Haunch Clerestory motif appears above it in the existing high-level window at the upper left.

Source: Author.

Figure 8. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: West Block in Neronian phase 2 (Domus Aurea). Walls in solid black were added in the Domus Aurea project (viz., Figure 2).

Source: Author.

The most revolutionary and spectacular design in the Domus Aurea is the Octagon Suite (Figure 911). This is another symmetrical suite, east of the polygonal exedra, where there are no remains from the Domus Transitoria. It is unclear whether work on the Domus Transitoria had simply not proceeded that far east, or perhaps fire damage opened an opportunity, but in any case, the East Block was essentially a clean slate. The Octagon Suite does have a vista to the south, but few of its rooms point in that direction, due to its elaborate layout. Its basic design starts out like the atrium group in the Domus Transitoria phase. The tablinum-like inner space is Room 124. The atrium is replaced by Room 128, a domed octagon forty Roman feet across. Its dome springs from the octagonal plan, but gradually smooths out to a round oculus at the crown (Figure 10 and 11), functioning as a light source like the compluvium. The dome would have been challenging to execute in stone, but for concrete it was simply a matter of creating the wooden formwork. The underside of this dome was covered in glass mosaics, whose design is now lost.

Figure 9. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: East Block in Neronian phase 2 (Domus Aurea). Walls in solid black were built in the Domus Aurea project.

Source: Author.

Figure 10. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Octagon Suite: West-east transverse section through Rooms 122, 128, and 126, and elevation looking north.

Source: Author.

Like an atrium, the octagon is flanked by three rooms on each side (121–123 and 125–127), but Rooms 122–126 radiate around five sides of the octagon, obscuring the atrium analogy. Three of these are simple rectangles (Figure 10), but two are elaborate cruciform designs (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Octagon Suite: Southwest-northeast diagonal section through Room 125, with half of Room 128 to the left, and perspectival view to northwest.

Source: Author.

Rooms 122–126 have clever skylighting, called the vault haunch clerestory, an idea discovered when Room 44’s atrium roof was replaced with a vault (compare Figures 3 and 7).17 The vault haunch clerestory motif consists of the lunette of one room’s barrel vault opening onto the flank of a transverse vault of a second room. Figures 10 and 11 show the vaults of Rooms 122, 125 and 126 opening onto the haunches of the dome of Room 128, so daylight over the dome shines into the ends of the radiating rooms. In Room 128, a viewer under the dome cannot see this lighting system because of the solid masonry overhead, yet skylight is also obviously glowing into the surrounding rooms. Given the spectacular original decoration in these rooms, the visual impact must have been extraordinary.

The East Block also had a second story (Figure 12 and 13), an oddly slight, unvaulted structure, apparently intended as a suite of diaetae (breezy garden pavilions).18 Its wide triangular balcony surrounding Room 128’s dome provided an excellent view to the south. There were also small courtyards with complex waterworks in them, triangular balconies with views to the east and west, and a north-facing colonnade with an elaborate decorative pool in front of it. The view to the north proves the Domus Aurea continued farther in that direction. The pool also provided water for a large, noisy cascade that plunged into the Octagon Suite below.

Figure 12. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: East Block: Reconstructed plan of the upper story. Grey: Interior. Tan: Open to the sky. Blue: Waterworks.

Source: Author, after Fabbrini, 1982.

Figure 13. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Axonometric reconstruction of the known components, looking northwest. There was originally more to the north (background) and east (right) that cannot currently be reconstructed.

Source: Author.

Figure 14. Neronian pavement on the Palatine, most likely from the Domus Transitoria.

Source: Author.

Decoration

The decoration in the Domus Aurea was spectacular. The scant remnants from the Palatine indicate that a higher standard prevailed there (Figure 14), but the Esquiline Villa certainly bespeaks luxuria too.19 Even the utilitarian areas had fine frescoes, but the truly spectacular decoration was in the grand rooms occupied by Nero. Each larger segment (West Block, Polygonal Exedra and East Block) had its own decoration type, within which each component suite had its own design essence. Premier rooms (Rooms 29 and 80 and the Octagon Suite) were decorated with fine marble revetment up to the springing level of their vaults. Lesser rooms had revetment dadoes with frescoes above them, commonly enhanced with relief stucco architectural motifs (Figure 15). The vaults had mythological frescoes in elaborate grids of painted relief stucco framing. According to the elder Pliny (HN. 36.4.37) the artist was Famullus. We know virtually nothing about him, however, including his name, which is corrupt in manuscripts.20 Given the scale of the project and the peripheral setting of the Esquiline Villa, it is likely Famullus worked on the Palatine, while teams of skilled subordinates from his studio executed the various suites in the Esquiline Villa. The intention to give each component a distinctive essence can even be seen in the discrete use of specific pigments in each area.21 The recent suggestion, that less skilled apprentices executed the simpler schemes in the service corridors, can be discounted, however, in so far as the painters’ technical skill is excellent there too, even if the schemes are simpler and made with fewer, cheaper pigments.22

Figure 15. Domus Aurea: Esquiline Villa: Relief stucco and Pompeian fourth style frescoes in Room 119. South is to the upper right. Below the frescoes there was stone revetment, spoliated in antiquity. The apse at the left is part of a small remnant of pre-Neronian masonry retained in the East Block / Polygonal Exedra. A tiny fragment of its simple original frescoes appears at the top of the conch, where the much more elaborate Neronian scheme that was applied over it has fallen away.

Source: Author.

Aftermath

The decoration in the Esquiline Villa raises a curious issue, the possibility of post-Neronian reuse of the building before it was buried in the substructures of the Baths of Trajan after 104 ce. In both Neronian phases, Rooms 44 and 45 were separated from each other by a colonnade, as reconstructed in Figures 3 and 7. The foundations for these columns remain in situ, even though a later wall replaced the colonnade. The later wall, however, is not Neronian. Neronian masonry is easily recognizable and quite consistent in technique.23 This wall is clearly different, with a highly distinctive fabric type popular with the Flavians and never used by Nero.24 This wall is one of many indications of post-Neronian reuse in the Esquiline Villa, but it is unique in so far as the splendid decoration from Room 44 runs onto its anomalous fabric. All other post-Neronian modifications were obviously for lowly purposes, such as storage or, commonly, slave housing. But Room 44 demonstrates that someone later than Nero intended to continue using the Esquiline Villa for aristocratic luxurious activities. Fortunately, ancient sources give some idea as to who that might be. During the brief civil war of 68–69 ce, the second pretender, Otho, set aside fifty million sesterces to continue work on the Domus Aurea (Suet. Oth. 7). We know no more than that—we don’t know where the work was focused, or whether it was even started, let alone completed. Nevertheless, we do have this ancient reference to some, brief, continued top-quality work in the Domus Aurea, so it is interesting to find masonry evidence that must be for precisely such a thing.

Whether or not the wall in Room 44 is specifically the work of Otho, aristocratic reuse is certainly true, which then raises the question of whether or not the Flavians too used the building, while calling it something else. There are diaphanous late antique references to a Mica Aurea and the Domus Titi. The exact purpose and nature of the Mica Aurea is unstated and its only link to the Domus Aurea is the fact that “Aurea” appears in both. It may not have been a palace; it may not have been Neronian; indeed it may never have existed. The Domus Titi is a more substantial matter, albeit not actually described or discussed in the sources. During Vespasian's reign, however, Titus had to have lived someplace and that place would indeed have been called the Domus Titi. The Flavian family had its own holdings in Rome, of course, but if we must set Titus in a palace, then the Palatine would be the best candidate. Probably Vespasian lived there when he stayed in the city at all (Cassius Dio [Cass. Dio 65], says he stayed outside the city, in the Gardens of Sallust, whenever he could). In any case, there would have been ample room for Titus on the Palatine, perhaps dividing the former palaces of Tiberius and Caligula between the two of them. The Flavians could live comfortably in the pre-Neronian palaces that had been incorporated into the Domus Aurea without actually inhabiting any Neronian parts. It was their explicit purpose to shun the latter, but since the ancient sources tell us nothing about the Domus Titi, it might also be someplace other than the Palatine; one suggestion has been the east half of the Esquiline Villa.25 Much of the rationale for this comes from Pliny’s passage concerning the famous Laöcoön, (Plin. N.H., 36.4.37), which he says was in the Palace of Titus. In modern times, the Laöcoön was discovered on the Esquiline Hill, near, but not in the Esquiline Villa, suggesting that the palace of Titus that Pliny mentions might have been in that area.26 It is a tantalizing coincidence, but insufficient to place Titus in the Esquiline Villa.

In sum, Nero’s Domus Aurea was intended to be revolutionary and, in its use of concrete, it certainly succeeded. Crucially, none of the key design features of the entire Esquiline Villa are based on any Greek paradigm. The architectural revolution belongs to Nero, consisting exclusively of dramatic vaulted interior spaces and striking effects in lighting, all achieved, easily, via the strength and flexibility of Roman concrete. The evolution of Roman architecture in the wake of Nero consisted to a large degree of this new aesthetic, culminating in the grand, elaborate designs of Hadrian, including the Pantheon and his villa near Tivoli.

Primary Texts:

Tacitus, Annals 15. 38–43

Suetonius, Nero 16, 31, 37–38

Suetonius, Otho 7

Pliny HN 35.33.1, 35.37.120

Links to Digital Materials

Bibliography

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  • Villedieu, Françoise. “Une construction néronienne mise au jour sur le site de la Vigna Barberini: la cenatio rotunda de la Domus Aurea?” In Neronia Electronica, Clermont-Ferrand, France: Société Internationale d’études néroniennes, 2011.
  • Warden, P. Gregory. “The Domus Aurea Reconsidered.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 40, no. 4 (1981): 271–278.
  • Zander, Giuseppe. “La Domus Aurea: Nuovi problemi architettonici.” Bollettino del Centro di Studi per la Storia dell’ Architettura 12 (1958): 47–64.

Notes