Domus Aurea Underground Tour
– with Colosseum and Roman Forum
TOURING THE DOMUS AUREA: GENERAL OVERVIEW
Experience Neros’ Domus Aurea as it comes back to life after being covered for thousands of years. With an expert tour guide, we will descend into the rooms and corridors of Nero’s palace, a magnificent villa that occupied no less than 1/4 of the area of the ancient city of Rome! The function of the massive architectural complex was to communicate Nero’s glory, as well as Rome’s. It is preserved mostly thanks to the decision of the ancient Roman senate to doom Nero to the so-called damnatio memoriae, a banishment from memory, and the complex was for the most part expunged by being filled in and covered with earth. The Domus Aurea (Latin for ‘Golden House’) was rediscovered during the Renaissance, apparently because a man walking on the Oppian Hill fell through a hole that led to the forgotten ancient building. It was mostly mistaken for Trajan’s Baths, which were built on top of Nero’s house. Today, the Domus Aurea is finally open to the public, and it is already one of the not-to-be-missed sites of Rome. While it would be a breathtaking experience in itself, a visit to Nero’s underground palace is made even more memorable by the latest available technology, that of enhanced reality. With the aid of 3D glasses for augmented reality, combined with a detailed reconstruction created by amazing graphic designers, you will have a 360-degree experience of Nero’s Golden House that will leave you speechless. But this is not all. Our Domus Aurea Tour continues on to cover all the highlights of the ancient city. This is an intense 5-hour long tour with a 30-40 minute break. So the whole tour is comprised of a visit to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill and the Domus Aurea. All admission tickets and entry fees for the sites on the itinerary are included in the price. You don’t have to worry about a thing. To summarize, the sites visited are:
- Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House)
- Golden Vault Room in Virtual Reality
- Colosseum (first and second levels)
- Roman Forum
- Palatine Hill
HUSBAND OF HIS STEPSISTER, MURDERER OF HIS MOTHER
Nero was the fifth and last emperor of the Julio-Claudia dynasty that began in 27 B.C. with Emperor Augustus, and continued with the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero himself. Nero’s real name was actually Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, son of Gnaeus Ahenobarbus and the notorious Julia Agrippina. In a complicated sequence of events, Gnaeus dies and Agrippina marries, in a second incestuous marriage, her uncle, who was the emperor Claudius. Claudius, in turn, adopts Agrippina’s son. Following this second marriage, the young Lucius changes his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Agrippina’s plan was likely that of slowly taking power into her own hands, behind the screen of Nero’s rule, while propelling her son forward. Such an audacious plan seems to actually have materialized when, first, Nero marries his own adoptive sister Octavia — daughter of his adoptive father, the emperor — and then, in the following year, the emperor himself dies, allegedly poisoned by Agrippina. Nero then locked Britannicus, the actual son of the emperor, in the imperial palace, and appeared on a terrace before the crowds, promising 15,000 sesterces to the soldiers. After being acclaimed emperor and crowned by the senate, Nero becomes emperor to the detriment of Britannicus, his adoptive brother and heir-designate of the empire since birth. Britannicus was just six month away from reaching manhood in the Roman legal system: a clue, if not hard evidence, that Claudius’ death was part of Agrippina’s plot to favor Nero’s election. Still, Romans were enthusiastic about Nero, as poet Lucan testifies in his book, The Civil War.
Quod si non aliam uenturo fata Neroni / inuenere uiam […] / iam nihil, o superi, querimur; scelera ipsa nefasque / hac mercede placent… (Lucan, The Civil War, Book I)
Still, if Fate could fine no other way to prepare the advent of Nero, let us complain no more against the gods, because even such crimes and wrongdoing are not too high a price to pay.
In 55 A.D., Nero’s brother Britannicus suddenly dies during a banquet, the victim of poisoning. Apparently, Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was not particularly happy about Nero’s handling of the situation. To Agrippina, Britannicus was more useful alive than dead, as she intended to resort to him in case Nero were unwilling to be maneuvered, as he was starting to show soon after his election. Shortly after the proclamation, Nero started to distance himself from Agrippina. He sent her away from the imperial palace, and, instead, heeded his teachers and mentors, such as Burro, and the famous orator and philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
NERO: THE EMPEROR POET
Meanwhile, Nero started developing an interest in art, especially acting and singing—activities that were not considered sufficiently masculine for an emperor. In fact, Nero had not only an unrestrained passion for art, but also for Greek culture. During his empire, for the first time, the Roman emperors started behaving more as Hellenistic monarchs than Roman emperors — we should not forget that the very word emperor originally defined a military office. Furthermore, Nero is not particularly interested in concealing his love for art, music, poetry, acting, and singing. Nero’s mother, Agrippina becomes more and more disappointed with her son’s behavior and with her loss of power. To rid himself of the psychological pressure from Agrippina, Nero plans to have her ship sink in the middle of the sea. Agrippina, however, miraculously survives the sea voyage, and Nero has her killed by sword. He then dedicates himself to cultivating his artistic talents. Shortly after this, one of his mentors, Burro, dies, and Nero divorces Octavia. Even Seneca starts distancing himself from him. By the year 62 A.D., Nero, who had been elected by the Senate, begins having the senatorial class and many important figures in the political body rebel against him for his extravaganza and conduct. Nero seeks refuge and approval among the common people, and among the actors and artists, a group to which he waned to belong. In 64, for the first time, Nero performs in front of an audience, singing and playing the lyre. In the same year, he starts building the Domus Aurea, the Golden House. But at this point, the whole senate is against him. Nero, suspecting Seneca and Antonia (one of Nero’s sisters) of plotting against him, has them put to death, as well as governors and generals. Loved by the people, but hated by the senators who declare him “public enemy,” Nero tries to flee from Rome, but is overtaken by rebellious soldiers. He ends his life by suicide, with the help of a slave. The senate condemns him to the damnatio memoriae. He is damned to be forever forgotten.
THE AGE OF NERO
Nero’s policy has been seen as philo-senatorial in its initial intentions and in its first years. At his election, a great enthusiasm pervaded all of Rome’s groups. His inaugural speech was inscribed on golden slabs that were to be solemnly preserved and read out loud at the annual election of consuls. Everyone considered the new course to be a return to the golden age.
“Potes hoc, Caesar, audacter praedicare: omnia, quae in fidem tutelamque tuam venerunt, tuta haberi, nihil per te neque vi neque clam adimi rei publicae. Rarissimam laudem et nulli adhuc principum concessam concupisti innocentiam. (L. Seneca, De Clementia, Book I)
You, Caesar, can confidently say that all that came into your responsibility is secure, and that the government neither openly nor secretly suffered any damage at your hands. You have sought-after a glory that is rare and that has not been obtained by any prince before you, the glory of innocence.
Common people did not love him any less than men of letters and senators. During his reign, he did all that was in his power to authorize himself as the restorer of the golden age, a man of divine ancestry who would make Rome great again. Not that it wasn’t already great. But the present, as we know, always looks less appealing when compared to a glorious past. A whole doctrine of salvation was ingrained in Nero’s ideology and ruling. No aspect of Roman public life could escape it. This was a process that had already begun with the foundation of the empire, when Emperor Augustus took power in 26 BC, but it kept growing to the point of paroxysm under Nero’s reign. Particularly, there was a sense of expectation that pervaded society. The idea of a god-like monarch that would bring glory and stability to the empire had its application in every aspect of life, whether social or private, but it found particularly fertile soil in urban planning and architecture. It is in this perspective that Nero built his magnificent — to use a euphemism — Golden House, the Domus Aurea. Augustus, on his deathbed was said to have declared:
“I found a city of bricks, I left a city made of marble.”
Starting with Augustus, and during the time of the Julio-Claudia dynasty, Rome grew to the size of more than one million people, an incredible number. New buildings, temples, public and private edifices, streets, baths, and whatnot were built, and built in the way that the capital of the greatest empire of the world should be built. Furthermore, people from all over started coming to Rome, not as visitors to tour Rome, but to relocate permanently. New ideas, new styles, new cults — not to speak of the followers of Christ — changed the face of Rome. People needed a ruler and felt the need to be part of a greater scheme — possibly a divine one. Something that the Roman Senate, a dim weakened vestige of the Republic era, could not provide. A deified monarch, instead, could. Nero was determined to shape himself and his city in this way. Suetonius wrote of him:
“Multis rebus ac locis vetere appellatione detracta novam indixit ex suo nomine, mensem quoque Aprilem Neroneum appellavit; destinaverat et Romam Neropolim nuncupare.” (Suetonius, Vita Neronis, 55)
“Nero changed the name of many things and places, removing the old one and giving them a new name derived from his own name. He called the month of April Neroneum. He even considered calling Rome Neropolis.”
NERO’S GOLDEN HOUSE
Nero was neither the first nor the last emperor to covet a magnificent palace. Nero himself, however, did not lodge in the extraordinary and huge pavilions that we are going to explore during this virtual tour of the Domus Aurea. The complex comprises tens of rooms, corridors, halls, nympheums and much else. Yet, no toilets or kitchens were found here, which make archeologists think that the emperor himself did not live here. The astonishing luxury and the superlative decorations that Nero created in the Domus Aurea had an ideological and political purpose. Pretty much to show off his power — to friends and allies — if he had any left at this point — but most importantly to his enemies, and the enemies of Rome.
Imperial palaces and villas always had an end that transcended the practical need of a comfortable lodging. Augustus built his house on the top of the Palatine Hill, after buying an estate from a wealthy senator. He built his house near a hut that is still preserved, which is thought to be the house of Romulus, the founder of Rome. It is also close to the altar of the Roma Quadrata (Squared Rome), where, according to the legend, Romulus had started the inaugural ceremony for the foundation of Rome. So, his ambition, quite patent, was that of being seen and remembered as the new Romulus, the new founder of Rome. Many of Augustus’ successors built their imperial palaces on the top of the Palatine Hill, and especially Emperor Domitian, the son of Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty who erected the Colosseum. Domitian built such a massive residence on the Palatine hill that people started to refer to the residence using the name of the hill, and we still nowadays use the word “palace” from palatine, precisely in reference to Domitian’s edifice on the Palatine Hill. Martial in his eighth satire wrote that:
“Haec, Auguste, tamen, quae vertice sidera pulsat / Par domus est caelo: sed minor est domino” (Martial, Epigrams, VIII, 36)
“This Palace, oh Augustus, touches the stars with the top. It is equal to heaven, but less than its lord.”
But more on this later, as Domitian (81-96 A.D.) came after Nero (54-68 A.D.). Soon after Augustus, Tiberius, and then Caligula, started to build residences that should be considered palaces, rather than great houses. Tiberius’s was particularly renowned for its library, but it has never been found. Actually, the whole edifice is still underground, now almost completely covered by the gardens of the Farneses, a powerful Renaissance family that did not mind having their houses built on the Palatine, as the Ancient Romans had. From the Farnese gardens, on the top of the Palatine Hill, there is one of the best aerial views of Rome and the Roman Forum, including the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus. The only “problem” with these buildings was that the Palatine Hill was not really an integral part of the city. The Roman Forum was the center of the public life and common people could not afford to live on the Palatine. So the imperial palaces remained detached from the life of the city, like temples on top of a sacred hill. Once elected, Nero decided to build his first imperial palace in such a way to connect the Palatine Hill and the Esquiline, cutting through the valley where the Colosseum now stands, then a popular neighborhood.
THE DOMUS AUREA: A HOUSE AS BIG AS A CITY
Soon after Nero had started the construction of his first house, the Domus Transitoria, a great part of Rome was devastated by a terrible fire in 64 A.D., including his residence. Some suggest that Nero himself was responsible for the fire, as he had already made plans to erect an even greater palace than the one he was building. Nero blamed the blaze on the Christians, a monotheistic cult that had just arrived in Rome, and ordered their persecution. He then bought and expropriated all the land that he needed for his new plans, destroying what the fire had left standing. In that same year he began the construction of the Domus Aurea of Nero, the Golden House, an imperial palace made of different pavilions and edifices, gardens and nympheums, whose area covered nearly 1/4 of the whole city of Rome. Of course, ancient Rome was not as big as it is today, but certainly not small either, as it lodged more than a million people.
“Roma domus fiet: Veios migrate, Quirites, si non et Veios occupat ista domus” (Suetonius, Vita Neronis, 39)
“Rome is just one house now: move to the city of Veio, Romans, unless the house does not occupy Veio as well.”
The purpose of the Domus Aurea was certainly that of showing Nero’s enemies and friends his limitless power. He would have certainly succeeded in his goal, had he not died on the very year the construction was completed in 68 A.D. The place was so magnificent that it even had an artificial lake built in the overlooking valley — where the Colosseum now stands — and a gigantic statue of himself portrayed as the god Apollo that it was taller than the famous colossus — such was the name given by the Romans to gigantic statues — the famous colossus of Rhodes. Nero’s statue was about 108 feet tall, higher than the Statue of Liberty. When Vespasian, years later, decided to build his amphitheater on top of Nero’s lake, the stagnum Neronis, the edifice came to be referred to as the Colosseum, for its vicinity to the colossus, Nero’s colossal statue.
NERO’S GOLDEN HOUSE AND THE GROTESQUE
After the fall of the Roman Empire, and the invasion of the barbarian tribes coming from the East, Rome passed from 1.5 million inhabitants to just 15-20 thousand people during the Middle Ages. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, and many other ancient buildings were destroyed, abandoned, pillaged, and, at times, as in the case of the Domus Aurea, buried underground and forgotten. Rediscovered during the Renaissance, Nero’s Golden Palace immediately became a not-to-be-missed destination for famous artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo, who wanted to learn the techniques and the styles of Imperial Rome. The very term Renaissance, which mean rebirth, refers precisely to the eagerness of the sixteenth century artists and intellectuals to return to the greatness of ancient times, when Rome was the light of the world in every field of art and knowledge, beyond military power.
In the late 15th century, Nero’s Golden House was still buried underground and it was accessible only through deep holes dug into the Oppian Hill (whose park may still be visited, actually you can see one of the holes in the top left corner of picture next to the title: Nero’s Palace and the Grotesque). Visiting the Domus Aurea underground was a speleological undertaking, an exciting and dangerous catabasis into the bowels of the earth, carried out with just a few torches throwing out flickering light on mural paintings and decorations whose colors, back then, were still vibrant. The emotional impact of these improvised tours of the Domus Aurea were so great that often the spirit of the adventure prevailed over the scientific description of the findings. But the importance of those descriptions changed the course of history of art and influenced artists of the caliber of Raphael, Giulio Romano, Michelangelo and the aesthetic taste of their patrons. These discoveries actually inaugurated the style that is now called grotesque style, which comes precisely from the grottoes of the Domus Aurea. Yes, to the first visitors of the Domus Aurea, Nero’s palace, completely filled as it was with debris, buried in the underground, appeared to them as caves and grottoes rather than rooms of imperial importance. Often, earth filled the rooms up to the ceiling. Archeologists still haven’t completely freed the spaces. Compared to the Renaissance artists’ previous knowledge of Roman art, these grotesque figures appeared to contradict the symmetry and proportional rationale of public architecture and decorations of the republican era. The pictorial style of the Domus Aurea features a negation of realistic space, conflates hybrid techniques, employs free perspective and overwhelming fantastical invention. We could maybe nowadays call it: surrealistic. It was an art that was as extravagant as the person who built it. And the mesmerizing effect was amplified by the jumping flames of torches and the darkness in which the Domus Aurea frescoes were immersed.
“Sono una specie di pitture licenziose e ridicole molto, fatte dagli antichi per ornamenti di vani […] per il che facevano in quelle tutte sconciature di mostri per stranezza della natura e per ghiribizzo degli artefici, i quali fanno in quelle cose senza alcuna regola, appiccicando a un sottilissimo filo un peso che non si può reggere, a un cavallo le gambe di foglie, a un uomo le fambe di gru, et infiniti passserotti, e chi più stranamente se gli immaginava, quello era tenuto più valente.” (G. Vasari, On Technique, 27)
“The grotesque is a sort of licentious and ridiculous style, which the ancients employed to decorate spaces […]. To this end they painted deformed monsters, made such by nature or by vagary of the artists, who make things without the following of any rule, for example hanging a great weight to the finest thread, or attaching to a man the legs of a crane, to a horse legs made of grass leaves, and endless little birds everywhere, and he who painted the most crazy and odd things, was considered the most skillful.”
ARTISTS OF THE DOMUS AUREA
Many Renaissance artists descended into the Domus Aurea underground. They were so excited to be there that they would mark the walls with their signatures and the date of their descent into the grottoes. The most ancient signature dates back to 1495. Artists as important as Pinturicchio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Vasari, and the Carracci brothers often visited the Domus Aurea and were lucky enough to see the magnificent frescoes of Nero’s golden palace at a time when the colors of the frescoes were still brilliant. They had the chance to admire the visionary masters who supervised the decoration of this magic place. Actually, one above all: Famulus, the painter. We only know of him because of what his friend Pliny the Elder (died in 79 A.D., during the destruction of Pompeii, as recounted in a letter by his nephew, Pliny the Younger) wrote of Famulus in his book Natural History. Famulus was famous in Nero’s time for having painted a Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, whose gaze followed the viewer wherever she or he might be. Hired by Nero to decorate his house, Famulus painted only a few hours a day, but never without solemnity. He wore the toga all the time. It would be as if a modern artist wore a necktie and an elegant jacket at all time. According to Pliny the Elder, Famulus’s character was as stern as he was extravagant in his pictorial style. He also had preferences for vibrant colors, as the frescoes in the Golden House prove. Besides Famulus, other three names must be mentioned in connection to the making of the Domus Aurea: the two architects, about whom we know nothing more than their names, Severus and Celer; and finally the sculptor who made the giant statue of Nero that used to stand in front of his house, right next to the nympheum, where later Vespasian would build the Colosseum. The sculptor’s name was Zenodoro.
FAMOUS ART WORK FOUND IN THE DOMUS AUREA
Nero built the Golden House to show off a magnificence that could not be rivaled in Rome or anywhere in the world. Nero was also, as we said, and art lover who wanted to be surrounded by the best artists of his time and collect the most precious works of art he could find. One of these art masterpieces that survived the Nero’s damnatio memoriae, the work of the centuries, and the plundering of the robbers, has survived and can be viewed in the Vatican Museums. We are talking about the Laocoön group, a Greek statue from the 1st century A.D., a work of Polydoros of Rhodes that was found on the Oppian Hill in the vicinity of the Domus Aurea. It was found on June 14, 1506 and immediately made a sensation among artists and art lovers in Rome. The Laocoön is indeed a stunning work of art that had no small impact on the work of Michelangelo and Bernini, and still inspires visitors from all over the world. The other amazing piece that testifies to the incredible wealth found in the Domus Aurea is a large monolithic porphyry basin, 13 meters in circumference, that probably decorated one of the nympheums or baths that abounded in Nero’s house. It, too, was transferred to the Vatican Museums.
COLOSSEUM, ROMAN FORUM, PALATINE HILL
Our Domus Aurea Tour does not just include a visit to Nero’s palace, but also a guided tour of the Colosseum and the archeological area that surrounds the amphitheater, that is the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. The admission tickets for all these sites are included in the tour price, so that you don’t have to worry about anything, except enjoying your Rome experience, and admiring the greatness of what was once the capital of the Roman Empire and the glorious past of a city that our guides will bring back to life for you. The Colosseum, otherwise known as the Flavian amphitheater because it was built by the first emperor of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian, in the short span of ten years, to be inaugurated by his son Titus in 80 A.D. It was constructed over Nero’s Golden Palace, and to be more precise on top of the gigantic nympheum, or artificial lake, that he had built in the valley between the Palatine Hill and the Oppian Hill. Nero’s palace, with his gardens, occupied almost 25% of ancient Rome. Vespasian was determined to return this space to the people and decided to build a proper amphitheater for gladiatorial games and for the venationes, the hunts, for which the Romans had an immoderate passion.
The Colosseum could host up to 80,000 people. During this Colosseum tour section you will visit the first two levels of the amphitheater, which overlook the arena floor and the underground area that is for most part still uncovered (although the Italian government is making plans to get it covered). We will end our ancient Rome tour with a visit to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The Palatine Hill was not only the very site of Rome’s foundation but also site of many wealthy houses belonging to senators and emperors (to know more about the Palatine Hill, see our complete guide to the Palatine Hill). The Roman Forum was the city center of the ancient capital, and the very place were all the most important public buildings were erected and public events were held, such as ceremonies, rituals, political rallies and the like. Your tour guide will lead you through the streets of the ancient Rome and tell you everything about the great men who walked these streets before you, some 2,000+ years ago. Our Domus Aurea Tour was designed to give you a thorough experience and understanding of ancient Rome. This is a breathtaking itinerary that covers almost 1,000 years of Roman history, from its foundation up to the creation of one of the greatest monuments of antiquity, the Flavian amphitheater, the Colosseum, and is comprised of a virtual tour inside Nero’s palace that will literally make you… fly.
DOMUS AUREA VIRTUAL TOUR
Once inside the Domus Aurea, we will join (but just for the time of the visit to the Golden House) another small group of maximum 24 people (including us!) to descend into the underground area of Nero’s palace (a bit like the first explorer and the great artists of the Renaissance that undertook speleological expeditions to admire the beauty of this incredible place).
During this section of the tour an official tour guide of the Domus Aurea will accompany us through the dark labyrinth of corridors and rooms that belonged to the palace of Nero. We will be able to explore many spaces on this itinerary, including the many branches of Nero’s cryptoporticus, with its frescoes, the nympheum of Polyphemus, where you will be able to admire one of the most ancient ceiling mosaics extant, the room of Achilles on Skyros, with stunning frescoes representing the famous warrior Achilles disguising himself as a girl to access the court of the king of Skyros, and seduce his beautiful daughter. We will see the famous octagonal room — which takes the name from its shape — where according to some, was placed the rotating floor that Suetonius speaks of in his Life of Nero; and we will visit the very heart of the Golden House, the so-called room of the golden vault, with its splendid golden decorations. Here, you will be provided with 3D glasses for an augmented reality experience that will make your jaw drop. This was the very entrance of Nero’s palace. You will be able to see 360-degrees around, in a detailed, perfect and emotional reconstruction, not just the space as it was at the time of Nero, but also as it was found when the first explorers ventured here more than 500 years ago. Thanks to your virtual reality glasses you will be also able to “travel” outside Nero’s palace and experience a view of Rome as it appeared during Nero’s age. You will admire the Golden House from outside in its hard-to-describe imposingness, luxury and wealth. This is an experience that you will remember with awe, no less than if you had traveled in time and walked in the Domus Aurea 2,000 years ago. Join our group tour of the Domus Aurea today, and explore the imperial palace of Nero, the Colosseum and the ancient city that was capital to one of the greatest empires in history.
IMPORTANT INFO ABOUT THIS TOUR
We will enter the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill in a small group of maximum 12 people (or less). However, we will join another group of 12 people (or less) during the Domus Aurea section of our itinerary.
Skip-the-line admission tickets for Domus Aurea, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill are included in the price of the tour!
The Domus Aurea, Colosseum and Roman Forum are not wheelchair friendly because of steep stairs and uneven ground. This is an intense tour and there is little opportunity to sit. We encourage those with mobility issues (with or without wheelchair) to consider a Private Tour instead, so that the tour guide can adapt the pace to their needs.
The tour is 5-hours long, but there’s a 30-40 minute break for a snack and for using the facilities.
Backpacks and large bags are not allowed inside the Colosseum. N.B. There is no cloakroom service at the Colosseum.
Please don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes. Bring a hat, sunscreen lotion, and water bottles that you will be able to refill in the fountains along the path.
Also, bring a sweater to wear in the Domus Aurea underground, because when we go down, it’s cold.
Meeting Time: Tour starts at 8:30am. Meeting time 8:15am.
Meeting Point: Central Location in Rome (Full details provided after booking)