Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known to history as just Nero, was not the best of Roman Emperors. In fact, on most lists of Roman Emperors, he would rank somewhere near the bottom.
In no small part, this is due to how he reacted after the greatest fire ever to engulf Rome and what he built in its aftermath.
Learn more about the Domus Aurea, or Nero’s Golden House, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
My audiobook recommendation today is The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City by Stephen Dando-Collins.
In the year 64, on the night of July 19, a fire began beneath the stands of Rome’s great stadium, the Circus Maximus. The fire would spread over the coming days to engulf much of the city of Rome. From this calamity, one of the ancient world’s most devastating events, legends grew: that Nero had been responsible for the fire, and fiddled while Rome burned and that Nero blamed the Christians of Rome, burning them alive in punishment, making them the first recorded martyrs to the Christian faith at Rome.
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Nero came to power at the age of 16, which is almost always a bad sign. His stepfather, the Emperor Claudius, was believed to have been poisoned by Nero’s mother, Agrippina.
Five years later, Nero had his own mother killed because he didn’t want her to overshadow him. Again, killing your own mother is not a good thing.
For 10 years he was pretty much a disappointment and very unpopular, especially with the upper class and the Roman senate.
Nero thought himself a great singer and actor, and actors were looked down on by Roman society. It was felt that Nero’s acting ambitions were undignified for the Emperor.
10 years into his reign, and at the ripe old age of 26, came the event which defined his reign as emperor. The Great Fire of Rome.
During Nero’s reign, Rome was the largest city in the world. Less than 100 years earlier it became the first city in human history to have a population of over 1,000,000 people.
It was crowded, dirty, and dangerous. It was also the center of the western world.
On the evening of July 19, in the year 64, a fire started underneath the stands in the Circus Maximum, Rome’s great chariot racing stadium.
Fires were a common problem in Rome and all ancient cities. Fires were used for cooking everywhere, construction was shoddy, and firefighting techniques were poor at best.
There had been big fires in Rome before, but this fire was far greater than any other which had affected the city.
Over the course of six nights, the city burned. It was estimated that as much as ? of the city was destroyed. Of the 14 districts in the city of Rome, three were completely destroyed and 7 suffered heavy damage.
According to popular legend, Nero set the fire, or he at least did nothing to prevent it. You’ve probably heard the old adage that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”
This comes from some historical accounts that Nero played the lyre during the fire or from others that he sang songs during the fire. Just to get technical, the fiddle, aka the violin, didn’t exist back then, so he wasn’t actually fiddling.
There isn’t a lot of hard evidence to connect Nero to the fire. Even if he wanted to burn Rome to the ground, there is no guarantee that starting a fire in one spot would have spread as far as it did. Moreover, Nero probably wasn’t even in Rome when the fire started.
However, these stories about Nero starting the fire make sense in the context of what happened after the fire.
Even if he didn’t start the fire (hat tip to Billy Joel) he certainly took advantage of it.
For starters, he took the opportunity to deflect criticism from himself and put the blame for the fire onto a small, little known religious sect called Christians. This was the first great persecution of Christians in history, and the first time they as a group made the pages of history.
He also saw that a great deal of Rome was now destroyed and ripe for redevelopment.
Specifically, Nero wanted a palace. A really, really big palace.
Nero demolished an enormous part of the city which burned to build his extravagant palace.
The palace became known as the Domus Aurea, or the Golden House.
The palace complex was over 300 acres in area. The primary building had over 300 rooms, none of which were sleeping quarters.
The palace covered parts of three of the seven hills of Rome.
Most Roman villas had mosaics, but they would always be installed on the floor. Nero, had them installed on the ceiling, which might not sound like a big deal, but it was at the time.
The palace got its name from the extensive use of gold leaf which was used. Where there wasn’t gold, there were frescos, precious gems, and other decorations.
The portico was three stories high and a mile long.
He had a rotating dome installed in his main dining room that displayed the heavens. It would be turned by slaves pulling on ropes.
He had vineyards and gardens build, and remember this was all in the middle of Rome.
He had a massive lake constructed which was big enough for battleships to float in it.
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature was the 120-foot tall golden statue of himself which Nero had erected inside the vestibule. It was taller than the Colossus of Rhodes, which was one of the wonders of the Ancient world.
In terms of square footage, it was the largest building ever built in antiquity.
When he finally moved in, he was quoted as having said that he could now finally live as a human being.
The Domus Aurea was never technically completed, although it came close.
For the size of the project, an astonishing amount was done in a short amount of time.
However, four years after the fire the senate and everyone turned on him and Nero ended up killing himself. Here I’ll reference my episode on the year of the four emperors who followed him.
When Emperor Vespasian came to power a year later, he decided to get rid of the extremely unpopular building.
Most of it was torn down.
The giant 120-foot statue of Nero, known as the Colossus of Nero. It was moved by a team of elephants and the head was changed to represent the sun god instead of Nero.
Vespasian built a huge amphitheater built next to the statue, the Flavian Amphitheater. It became known by the Colossus which stood by it and today is known as the Colosseum.
A whole bunch of public works projects in addition to the colosseum were built on the site, including the Baths of Trajan, and the Temple of Venus and Rome.
Over time, the Domus Aurea was forgotten and what was left fell into ruin.
That was until the 15th Century.
A young man walking around the Esquiline Hill fell into a hole. In the hole wasn’t dirt and rock. Rather he found paintings and frescos. He had found the buried ruins of the Domus Aurea.
The condition of the artwork was unlike anything which had been seen at the time and would be seen until the ruins of Pompeii were excavated centuries later.
Word spread of this discovery and eventually artists of the period were coming to visit. Painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo paid visits to view the artwork, and it was in part responsible for the creation of the style of Italian Renaissance art.
Today, it is still possible to explore the reaming part of Nero’s Palace. It isn’t a very popular tourist attraction because most of the tour is underground.
Mold has been growing on some of the artwork and there was a collapse of one of the ceilings in 2010.
It has been closed for periods as archeologists work on shorting up the walls and trying to lessen the load of the park which currently sits on top of it. However, it has recently reopened to the public.
It still has the very best examples of original Roman art that you can find in Rome itself.