Domus Aurea | Explore the Unique Underground Golden House
Domus Aurea is a unique attraction in the heart of Rome, an archaeological dig that reveals many levels of recovery and restoration of the dreams of an extravagant emperor. Read on to find out more about its history and idiosyncrasies that make it one of the most exciting underground attractions in Rome.
What is Domus Aurea?
Domus Aurea, Latin for Golden House, is a palatial and landscaped complex built by Emperor Nero after a fire nearly wiped out much of the city centre of Rome. The name Domus Aurea epitomises how it shone like gold, with its natural lights reflecting off the fine marbles, rare stones and gold leaves on its walls.
Situated largely on the Oppian Hill in ancient Rome, it was constructed over a span of 4 years (64 - 68 AD) but is still said to be incomplete as the emperor Nero died shortly and the Domus outlived him only for a few years more.
It not only played host to many wild parties of one of Rome’s most infamous emperors but
was also adorned with the finest marble, exquisite wall paintings, gilded arcades, ornamentals fountains and gardens. This sumptuous palace consisted of a series of building with over 300 rooms, separated by gardens, vineyards, woods and an artificial lake where the Colosseum stands today.
Why Visit Domus Aurea?
- One of the most extravagant constructions in the history of Rome carried out by an infamous emperor, Nero Claudius.
- The buildings of this complex were decorated with precious stones, ivory, gold leaves and the finest wall paintings that greatly influences Renaissance artists.
- Domus Aurea was hidden underground for many centuries and since its rediscovery and reconstruction. Its peculiar history makes it a challenging monument for archaeologists and a treat for history enthusiasts.
- You can tour the Domus Aurea and experience a real cognitive journey of Nero’s palace with immersive Virtual Reality headsets, video stories and video mapping.
Plan Your Visit to Domus Aurea
The Domus Aurea has scheduled visits only on certain days of the week.
Two visits: 4.00 pm and 5.30 pm
Friday, Saturday and Sunday
9:15 am - 5:00 pm
Visits are held every 15 minutes
Address: Via Della Domus Aurea, 00184 Roma RM, Italy. [Find on map]
The Domus Aurea is located in the Parco del Colle Oppio (Oppian Hill park), just opposite to the Colosseum.
How to get there
By metro - The closest metro station is Colosseo and Domus Aurea is a 5-minute walk from this station.
By bus - Buses 51, 85 and 87 will drop you off at the Colosseo but stop from which Domus Aurea is a 5-minute walk, uphill.
By taxi - You can take a taxi to Domus Aurea which will drop you off at the park entrance and it is a 2-minute walk to the main door of the attraction.
Domus Aurea provides the following facilities on its premises:
- Accessible area for disabled persons
- Wear comfortable shoes or sandals for walking
- The temperature inside the Domus is usually 10 degrees Celsius with a humidity of 100%, Make sure to carry a sweater, jacket or a blanket for yourself and your kids at any time of the year.
- You are allowed to take photos inside the Domus but only without flash.
- Make sure to be on time for the tour that you have booked.
- You will have to wear Oculus Rift glasses for the VR experience. There are not recommended for people with epilepsy or any serious eye conditions.
Architectural Highlights of Nero’s Golden House
The West Wing is the best-conserved part of the entire Domus Aurea complex that reflects the luxury of this pleasure palace. This structure has two floors and at least 140 rooms with ceilings as high as 11 meters. The main entrance is through the Sacra, from the Forum and is surrounded by scenery of vast gardens spanning over 125 acres and extending into parklands and lakes.
The ground floor was dedicated mainly to banquet halls adorned with wall paintings. This one courtyard, in the West Wing, had not less than 50 banquet rooms.
Another pentagonal courtyard with 15 separate rooms was decorated with glass mosaics. One of these 15 rooms, is the ‘Golden Vault’ that had gilded ceilings, panels of marble and a striking picture of Zeus abducting Ganymede, from Greek mythology.
The Domus Aurea octagonal room has a concrete dome which was originally covered with glass mosaics. This dome and the use of concrete for vaulting in buildings went on to become common in Roman architecture.
Wall paintings (Frescoes)
Famulus, a Roman painter, spectacularly decorated Nero’s Golden House. He was known as the ‘floridly extravagant artist’. The Golden House is considered a ‘prison’ that contained all of his fabulous productions. The walls and ceilings of Domus Aurea were filled with frescoes. It is a mural painting technique that involves using water-based paint on wet plaster which in turn makes the painting an integral part of it. There are depictions of horses with leaflike legs and unholy hybrids of animals and humans prowling over unusual architectural features, painted in a vivid spectrum of ancient Technicolour.
Most parts of Nero’s Golden House remained buried and unknown until the Rennaisance. It was only then passionate artists like Pinturicchio, Giulio Romano, Ghirlandaio and Raffaello went underground to recreate the decorative motifs and also picked up the term ‘grotesque’. The term ‘grotesque painting’ is used even today for genres that are inspired by the 16th century and reinterpreted innovatively.
Domus Transitoria is the lesser-known original residence of Emperor Nero which was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome that burned most of the city in AD 64. The structure was gigantic in size and was an important building that connected Nero’s imperial holding in Palatine Hill and the Esquiline zone. Some parts of Domus Transitoria are preserved and accessible today.
Among these is the Nymphaeum of Polyphemus, found under the Baths of Livia, which stands to be a place of immeasurable value and magnificent beauty. The waterworks surrounding the structure and a triclinium (a couch for reclining) amidst porphyry columns and marble pilasters are all reminiscent of the emperor’s dream of leisure and amusement. The pictorial remains of Domus Transitoria including stucco decorations and parts of the marble flooring are conserved and displayed at the Palatine Museum.
The Colossus of Nero
The Colossus of Nero (Colossus Neronis) was a 98 feet bronze statue of the emperor, Nero Claudius, where he is depicted as the sun god. It was originally in a vestibule in the Domus Aurea but eventually, it was moved to the Flavian Amphitheatre which later became known as the Colosseum. The statue, designed by Greek architect Zenodorus, was originally placed at the main entrance of the Domus Aurea. Emperor Vespasian placed a solar crown on it and renamed the statue Colossus Solis, shortly after Nero’s death in AD 68.
Unfortunately, today only the base of the statue remains near the Colosseum and is believed to have been destroyed in one of the earthquakes in the 5th century.
A Brief History of Domus Aurea
54 AD - 68 AD
Nero Claudius Ceasar Augustus Germanicus was the fifth Roman Emperor and the last one of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He reigned from 54 AD until his death in 68 AD. Characterized as a tyrannical, rakish, and self-indulgent, he was resented by the Roman aristocracy but enjoyed popularity with the lower-class commoners and his army of personal bodyguards, the Praetorian Guard.
Its aftermath of an urban fire in AD 64 left almost two-thirds of the city completely destroyed. What was believed as either an accident or an alleged arson of Nero himself resulted in an opportunity that he took to construct his pleasure palace, the Golden House.
In AD 68, Nero is said to have committed suicide after the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy.
Domus Transitoria to Domus Aurea
60 AD - 64 AD
The Domus Transitoria was Nero’s first residence in Palatinebuilt probably in AD 60 and, as the name suggests, was used when the emperor was in transit between stately holdings in Palatine and Esquiline. Its main building is considered to be on the western side ofOppian Hill, under the Baths of Trajan. It also had a classic nymphaeum dedicated to the nymphs and a portico of four columns with plunging fountains at the bottom. Domus Transitoria was built so that Nero’s guests could lie down and admire the spectacle created by the unique architecture of this residence. It was, however, destroyed by the Great Fire in AD 64 and the Domus Aurea was built in its place.
64 AD - 68 AD
Nero Claudius seized huge chunks of land owned by the aristocrats, extending up to the western side of Oppian Hill for the construction of his Golden House. Celebrated Roman architects and engineers, Severus and Celer, and Famulus, a highly studied Roman painter, were in charge of the architecture and decorations. The nuclei of the palace were located on Palatine Hill and Oppian Hill. This new palace was famous for its exquisite decoration, coating of precious stones and gold leaves, wall paintings and coloured marble. Its complex included over 300 rooms, baths, and many banquet halls including a vestibule housing the famous Colossus Neronis, the colossal statue of Nero Claudius, bearing semblance to the sun god.
Post 68 AD
It is also probable that the Domus Aurea was never completed. Otho and Titus, later Roman rulers, possibly allotted money for the completion of the structure on the Oppian Hill that was inhabited by Emperor Vitellius in AD 69. Following the death of Nero, the palace was abandoned and destroyed to some extent in order to erase all existing memories of the tyrannical emperor. This process is called Damnatio memoriae in Lain which means ‘condemnation of memory’ or the exclusion of a person from official accounts. This was seen as a massive embarrassment to Nero’s successors as a symbol of debauchery. Within a decade, Domus Aurea was stripped of its precious stones, marble and ivory, the great lake was drained and the Colosseum was built on it in 70 AD.
Domus Aurea Rediscovery and Reconstruction
The story of Domus Aurea’s rediscovery dates back to a young Roman in the 15th century who falls into a cleft in Esquiline Hill and ends up in a cave-like structure filled with painted figures. Soon, many young artists flocked to this area and had themselves let down into the cave with ropes tied around them. The Fourth Style frescoes, from the ancient Roman mural paintings, were discovered here and had an electrifying influence on the early Renaissance that had just started in Rome as well as on the Neoclassicism movement of the 18th century. Although these paintings are faded now, they became a revelation of true antiquity.
The pavilion’s discovery induced the slow albeit inevitable process of decay and degeneration as it let moisture into the structure. Heavy rains, humidity and the trees in the parks above the discovery site are adding to the damage as the roots are slowly sinking into the ceilings, walls and frescoes. The excavation of the Golden House properly began only in the 18th century. Another room with frescoes was found in the 19th century which was decorated with a sphinx, centaurs and even panthers.
Domus Aurea Today
Presently, Domus Aurea is one of the most exciting underground attractions in Rome. However, visits are only possible in small groups. The West Wing is a highly visited place where you can tour the Octagonal Room, the Golden Vault and see the remains of frescoes and paintings on the ceilings. Visits to the Domus Aurea are now made even more interesting with VR headsets with narration that can show you reconstructions of how the place actually looked like in ancient Rome.
Continuous efforts of excavation and restoration are going on to this day in the Domus Aurea site due to which visitors are allowed only at the weekends and are required to wear helmets for safety purposes.
Frequently Asked Questions about Domus Aurea
Domus Aurea is a palatial complex built by Nero Claudius, the fifth emperor of the Roman empire, in AD 64.
Yes. It was buried and unknown for a long time until its rediscovery during the Rennaisance. Parts of the Domus Aurea are excavated and restored for visitors to explore the archaeological site. Excavation of the vast structure and reconstruction work is going on even today.
Yes. Domus Aurea is open during the weekends for visitors. It is shut during the week as excavation and restoration work is still in progress.
The Domus Aurea is located in the Parco del Colle Oppio (Oppian Hill park), in the city of Rome, Italy.
Domus Aurea is right opposite to the Colosseum. The Colosseum was built on an artificial lake that was originally part of Domus Aurea’s vast landscape.
No. Tickets to the Domus Aurea experience have to be booked separately according to your time and day of visit.
Visitors are allowed during the weekends from 9:15 am to 5 pm. There are visits scheduled every 15 minutes. There are two visits on Thursdays at 4 pm and 5:30 pm.
Nero Claudius Ceasar Augustus, the fifth emperor of the Roman empire, built the Domus Aurea as his pleasure palace. He was known to be a tyrannical, self-indulgent and rakish ruler who was despised by the aristocrats but popular among the lower classes.
After Nero’s death, Domus Aurea was stripped of its glamour and abandoned in order to erase all memories of the notorious emperor.
It is considered one of the most extravagant constructions in the history of Rome. It is also famous for its ‘grotesque’ paintings and frescoes that cover the ceilings and walls of the structure.
Domus Aurea was surrounded by a vast scenery of gardens and lakes spanning over 125 acres. After Nero’s death, the great lake was drained and the Colosseum was built on it in 70 AD.
There is no particular dress code. However, visitors are advised to wear comfortable shoes or sandals for walking and to carry a sweater or a jacket since the temperature inside the Domus can be as low as 10 degrees Celsius.
You can take the metro to the Colosseo station or the buses 51, 85 and 87. Domus Aurea is just a 5-minute walk from the landing point.
Currently, the Domus Aurea comprises tours of the pavilion on the Oppian Hill. Here you can see and admire the Nymphaeum, the Octagonal Hall, the convivium room and the Golden Vault. You can also walk through its massive corridors and see the frescoes and mosaics on the ceilings.