The Domus Aurea was once the huge and ostentatious palace of Emperor Nero. The only way to get a glimpse of this ancient complex for yourself is to book onto a guided tour.
It’s never too crowded (the number of tickets is limited). The tour is really high-tech throughout (hello video projections and VR glasses), so you can imagine what the imperial palace would have looked like in all its pomp and splendour all those centuries ago.
The lighting could be better at times – it’s hard to take a decent photo. During the summer, you have to book your tickets well in advance. There’s no free time to explore the complex on your own after the guided tour.
Wear something with long sleeves or take layers to wrap up in – it can get a bit cold down in the underground passages. Make sure you buy your ticket in advance!
Last Modified: 26.06.2023 | Céline & Susi
Domus Aurea Tickets
Admission, Guided Tour in EN/IT, Duration: 1,5 hour
What comes to mind when you hear “Domus Aurea” or “Golden House”? I’m guessing you imagine a house adorned with glittering gold?
Well, it’s actually just the name given to the huge palace of Emperor Nero. Calling it an imperial palace just doesn’t do justice to the sheer size of the complex. In fact, it once covered the whole area between Palatine Hill and Esquiline Hill (Oppian Hill). It even had its own artificial lake. All that’s left of it now, though, is an underground excavation site. The remnants of windowless corridors and rooms that have been plunged almost fully into darkness and don’t have any of their original marble opulence left. Luckily, what does remain of the painted walls, mouldings and mosaics is enough to give you an idea of how elegant and palatial the Domus Aurea once was.
Not many people have heard of the Domus Aurea. Even though, it played an important part in the history of Rome’s top tourist attraction – the incredible Colosseum. Nero died long before the Colosseum was built. But it was built on the site of the lake in the grounds of the Domus Aurea after it was filled in.
Something else not many people realise is that Rome’s famous landmark was originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre. It only became known as the Colosseum thanks to the gigantic bronze Colossus of Nero at the entrance to the Domus Aurea. The emperor could never have imagined his legacy in his wildest dreams when he was still alive…
People seem to think that you have to head for Palatine Hill if you want to visit the Golden House. In actual fact, it’s Oppian Hill to the east of the Colosseum you need. You have to join a guided tour, and you have to wear a helmet.
When you arrive at the entrance to the Domus Aurea, you might think you’ve come to the wrong place. The walls don’t look like anything special at all. But just take two or three steps down and you’ll be hit with the grandeur of Ancient Rome. High ceilings, long corridors and painted walls. Sure, it’s all a bit dark, but you can still make out the patterns and colours on the walls.
The tour starts with a video projected onto a wall. This provides a general introduction to Emperor Nero, the Great Fire of Rome and the history and architecture of the building itself. A bit later on, virtual reality glasses will allow you to see through the walls and explore the palace grounds. Wow! Look at all the bright colours, the gold and the size of the complex. You can easily lose track of where you are and what time it is.
Emperor Nero may have been around thousands of years ago, but he still had flowing water, bathrooms and dining rooms in his palace. You can actually still see one of his banquet halls – the Octagonal Hall. It originally had a dome over it to let sunlight flood into the room, but you can just see a hole in the ceiling now. Without a tour guide, it would probably be very easy to get lost in the many, many passages. How did Nero manage to find his way around here? And how long did it take him to get from one room to the next?
You can still see scaffolding – that’s being used for the ongoing excavation work. Did you know that ‘Laocoön and His Sons’was discovered when digging for a vineyard on Oppian Hill was underway in the 16th century? The sculpture is currently on display at the Vatican Museums.
Domus Aurea A bit of history
In the summer of the year 64 A.D., the Great Fire of Rome broke out near Circus Maximus and took seven days to extinguish. Emperor Nero was blamed for starting the fire (even though we now know that he wasn’t even in Rome at the time). How come? Because he built his imperial palace – the Domus Aurea or Golden House – on the land that had been cleared by the fire.
The words “house” and “palace” really don’t do any justice to the sheer size of the complex, which spanned around 80 hectares in total. That’s the same as 115 football pitches! The Domus Aurea complex had its own vineyards, villas, fields, forests, avenues, statues, balconies, steps, bronze balustrades, pools and baths. And, of course, an artificial lake!
The Golden House was built with huge brick walls covered with gold leaf and opulent marble. Mouldings studded with colourful stones, gemstones and seashells added decoration to the ceilings.
We don’t often know the names of the architects from the days of Ancient Rome, but in this case we do know that Celere and Severo designed at least two of the main dining rooms under Nero’s supervision. Those dining rooms had ceilings with ivory plates that could be moved so that perfume and rose petals could be dropped down onto guests.
The Domus Aurea was built within a short space of time and used by the emperor for an even shorter space of time before being destroyed. Nero’s delusions of grandeur ended when he committed suicide in 68 A.D., after all.
Just 40 short years later, the Domus Aurea had been buried completely under new buildings. Many of the frescos on the wall were destroyed by rubble and damp soil. And yet buried sand saved the “grotesques” (decorations on the wall in the form of delicate, plant-like figures as well as people, animals and hybrid creatures) by protecting them against destructive moisture – much like the volcanic ash in Pompeii.
It was completely by chance that the rooms and corridors were discovered during the 15th century, when someone fell through a cleft in the hillside. The whole complex was buried way underground at this point. But artists like Raphael, Ghirlandaio and Giulio Romano loved these underground passages and would use torches to light up the walls and draw inspiration from the artwork on them. Basically, this was the birth of the grotesque painting of the Renaissance. This genre became even more popular in the 16th century, shedding new light on the themes at the heart of the wall decorations from Ancient Rome.
The site was left alone for a few centuries after that. It wasn’t until the frescos were discovered in Pompeii (at the end of the 18th century) that the academic interest in the grotesques was reignited. The excavation work on the Domus Aurea was resumed at this point.
Around 50 rooms were dug up in the first half of the 19th century. The Oppian Hill Park – home to the ruins of the Baths of Trajan and its gardens – was created at the start of the 20th century, but the structures underneath it were left alone.
Excavation work on the Domus Aurea was stopped until 1939 and 1954, respectively. In 1969, archaeologists in Rome explored the upper floor and made the vault watertight. The Golden House was opened to the public in the 21st century, and the restoration work is still ongoing.