Nero’s Golden House

A house whose size and elegance these details should be sufficient to relate: Its courtyard was so large that a 120-foot colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there; it was so spacious that it had a mile-long triple portico; also there was a pool of water like a sea, that was surrounded by buildings which gave it the appearance of cities; and besides that, various rural tracts of land with vineyards, cornfields, pastures, and forests, teeming with every kind of animal both wild and domesticated. In other parts of the house, everything was covered in gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl; dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens; there were baths, flowing with seawater and with the sulfur springs of the Albula; when he dedicated this house, that had been completed in this manner, he approved of it only so much as to say that he could finally begin to live like a human being.  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars

An intriguing piece appeared in this month’s “Archaeology Magazine” on Nero’s Domus Aurea or “Golden House” that has been undergoing a painstaking and extended renovation.  After the tyrant Nero’s death the Roman Senate had this sprawling city-within-the-city filled with earth and buried so that the dictator’s memory too would be submerged (but never forgotten).  Spanning the area between the Palatine and Esquiline hills in Rome (where the Colosseum stands today) – the scale of the structure and its contents are difficult to fathom.  On a side note, the Flavian Amphitheatre took its colloquial name, the Colosseum from the hundred foot tall statue of the “Colossus”  as the stature of Nero on the grounds of his Golden House was known.

The Domus Aurea stood for four years after completion before it was buried in 69CE following the Emperor’s death.  And it slept peacefully underground until the Renaissance when a boy fell through the roof into the halls below in the 15th century.  A generation of some of the great artists of the period including Raphael heard of the chance discovery and had themselves lowered by rope into the palace through holes drilled in the roof (contributing greatly to the subsequent damage that archeologists today are trying mightily to undo).  While its difficult to say how these glimpses of the ancient world influenced them one can begin to imagine as we look at the stunning Domus Aurea today.

I couldn’t help but think, as I read the article, that as these Renaissance pioneers were rediscovering an ancient world in the West that had been lo200px-Constantine_XI_Palaiologos_miniaturest for so many centuries, in Constantinople at that same
approximate time the very last Caesar, the Emperor Constantine XI (see contemporary image at right) was battling Mehmed the Conqueror to prevent the fall of Constantinople that would finally and forever extinguish what remained of the Roman Empire.  I am fascinated by this contrast, artists in the West re-learning, rediscovering their patrimony and in the East, a flickering light finally extinguished.  Incidentally, the Fall of the East that ensued when Mehmed breached the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople made the Renaissance possible, flooding Italy with scholars, artists and philosophers and the contents of the world’s greatest libraries from Constantinople that had kept the flame of ancient Greece, Rome and Persia alive while the rest of Europe had wallowed in centuries of darkness and comparative ignorance.

Here is a link to the article on the Domus Aurea in Archeology Magazine:

http://www.archaeology.org/issues/187-1509/features/3562-golden-house-of-an-emperor

And for those interested in learning a bit more about the Last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, who will appear prominently in my next novel (now being researched), please see this fair summary in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_XI_Palaiologos

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