The Golden House of Nero After years of fighting and civil wars, order was finally established throughout the Roman empire during the first century AD with the rule of Augustus. Peace and prosperity followed with the reign of Augustus and with the emperors that came into control after him, and it was during this time that Roman architecture began to move away from the traditional Hellenistic and Greek influences and generate its own style. It was also during this time that Rome was subjected to numerous horrendous fires that destroyed much of the city when it was under the control of the emperor Nero. Considered a tyrant and self-centered even for an aristocrat at the time, Nero became very unpopular towards the end of his reign, but not before he was able to commission the construction of a marvelous villa for himself stretching over two hundred acres in the center of Rome where the fires had destroyed most of the original buildings. Commonly called The Golden House of Nero, it was originally given the more formal name of Domus Aurea, and was and still is considered one of the most extravagant projects ever ordered by a Roman emperor to be created. The most significant and majestic feature of the Domus Aurea is the Esquiline wing, or the main palace, located about two hundred meters northeast of the Coliseum, formally known as the Flavian Amphitheater.
After the fires of 104 AD, Trajan had his engineers fill in the Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea so as to secure the elevated terrace for his Baths. By covering the Esquiline wing with earth, it was free from pillaging, fires, considerable wearing from weather, and other harmful effects over the years. Unfortunately, only a sizable fragment remains of the palace, and the original extent of the scores of rooms that have been recovered is unknown. Much can be extrapolated from these remaining bits of the structure, though, and like a puzzle, archeologist and architects have been able to piece together the scraps and come to fairly detailed conclusions. One major point that has been looked at closely but has not been completely decided upon is the original number of stories the palace contained. There are no indications of a second story beyond the two narrow staircases back in the upper north service area of the wing.
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Because of the building code at the time and of how the vaults preclude throughout the supposition that there were once wooden stairs, it is highly unlikely that a grand staircase was constructed that does not remain today. Although the Romans were not inclined to building massive interior staircases, the complete lack of convenient access argues against a congruent upper level. Also, the rooms along the south facade and surrounding the five-sided courtyard and the octagonal chamber were considered the more important rooms and decorated richly with gilded and painted stucco, marble paneling, and perhaps even mosaic. If these rooms were in the mere basement of the palace, they would have been ornamented in the same fashion as the service rooms and corridors to the north. Not only that, but a full upper story would have cut down drastically on the amount of sunlight reaching the five-sided court and octagonal chamber and its surrounding rooms. It is generally assumed that the narrow staircases in the rear led to more service rooms or summer quarters, but this is not for certain and there is a possibility that at one point a massive staircase was in fact built, leading to a grand upper level.
Another assumption that has been made about the Esquiline wing has to do with the original middle feature of the palace. Naturally people have postulated that Neros architect, Severus, intended the five-sided court to serve as the center point of the wing, but it is possible that the octagonal chamber was actually intended to be the original north-south axis. Some indications of this theory are seen in the orientation and location of the slanted, oblique wall at 5, and the symmetry between the rooms 1-2 and 3-4. It is possible that the octagonal room was created to be the axis point for two five-sided courts, one of which was either never created or destroyed by Trajan. If this is true, then the oblique wall, which is not accessible today, would have been the northwest boundary to a second polygonal court very similar, if not a duplicate, to number 6. The symmetry between the rooms 1-2 and 3-4 further prove that two parallel five-sided courts may once have existed, together creating a wing more than three hundred meters long.
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Since the two courts would not have been completely parallel to each other, it is likely that the octagonal room and its dependencies were built first and the rest of the palace was designed to centralize around that particular focal point instead of the five-sided court to the west. The plan of the Esquiline wing itself as we have it is peculiar and haphazard looking, while at the same time orderly and clearly outlined. At first glance, many of the rooms seem to have been put together nonchalantly and without much attention to detail, but once the plan is broken down and looked at more closely, four major groups of space are evident, each defined by a localized, self-contained symmetry created from the axis of a principal polygon or rectangle. Three of these spaces have axes running north-south (through numbers 6, 7, and 8), while the fourth is aligned east and west (through numbers 9 and 10).
By designing the plan in this way, Severus managed to attain straightforward equality of right and left. He also added curves in each room and set them all on axes, and increased the usage of symmetrical, balanced spaces.
The center of each symmetrical group was planned with a main focal point: a larger, barrel-vaulted room or rooms, opened to the main space with wider windows and doors. Severus used this approach to draw the viewers eyes to the central axis of symmetry in each group and provide a sort of visual climax while at the same time giving the axis its necessary finalization. It is obvious when studying the plan that Severus took time and care in the design of these four main spaces and not so much with the way that they connected and formed together. Between each of the four groups lies rooms and corridors so strangely and oddly constructed that Nero and his court probably never even set foot in them, instead keeping to the main, intentionally planned rooms that Severus created with the touch of royalty they were intended for.
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Perhaps the most fascinating and structurally remarkable feature of the Esquiline wing is the octagonal atrium or salon located between the east corridor and the south facade. This amazing structure, which is also the most important Neronian design known, has a center pavilion with the lower half octagonal in shape and the upper portion partly roofed by a vaulted dome. Each of the eight lower sides of the octagon are opened by way of large, square doorways, five of which lead into radial side rooms. The walls of the radial rooms were assumed to be covered with marbles while mosaic may have been applied to the central pavilion.
The octagonal chamber and its dependencies was fairly cutoff from the rest of the palace and there is no connection whatsoever with the rooms to the north. Both the center octagonal chamber and the five radial rooms were superbly lit by sunlight cascading through several openings, the most distinct being the large oculus in the dome roof of the center chamber. The radial rooms were showered in sunlight that came through the openings of a clearstory system inserted between the exterior surface of the vault and the upper parts of each radial chamber. The central vault, though basically dome shaped, is not a true hemisphere due to its octagonal base, the difference in length between its radius and rise, and the broad octagon opening in the roof.
Instead, the vault is composed of two horizontal zones, the lower of which consists of eight panels that rise from the straight sides of the octagon and turn inward as they narrow in width. The upper portion of the room creates the second horizontal zone, and it is here that the straight lines of the lower half disappear and meld into smooth, circular spaces creating the dome effect. The narrowing of the inward extensions of the piers, the fact that the compression factor is impressively utilized throughout the structure, and the use of concrete combine to provide the octagonal chamber with extreme stability and a rigid structure. The structural aspect of the octagonal chamber is not the only important element in the design of these rooms; the architectural planning and the use of space is also original and exceptional. Each of the radial rooms end in a niche-like form; the northern most chamber even contained a water-show cascade, and the rooms large openings into the central vault connect them smoothly together creating a large, main volume of space.
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Also, the dome itself is visually appealing as it rests on thin verticals giving the viewer an optical allusion of weightlessness. All of these elements added together on a sunny spring day, when light flows into each of the rooms, provides a breathtaking view and gives the present day viewer a glimpse into the past of what the octagonal chamber of the palace might have looked like during Neros time. The actual palace of the Domus Aurea may have been the largest and most impressive structure on the two hundred acres that made up Neros villa, but it was certainly not the only luxurious feature that was constructed. Neros massive plot of land in the middle of Rome extended southward to the temple of Claudius on the Caelian hill, eastward to the present via Meru lana, where the gardens of Maecenas began, westward to the Palatine and the V elia, and to the north, landscape gardens might have reached as far as to the Forum of Augustus. Throughout this immense range of space many gardens, pastures, and meadows dotted the landscape, and in the center of Rome, many illustrious casinos and small buildings and baths surrounded an artificial lake. Between the main palace and the Palatine and near the Sacra Via stood a vestibule large enough to hold the one hundred and twenty foot high colossus statue of Nero, and it was so expansive that it had a triple portico a mile long.
Though none of these structures and features survived to this day, it is assumed that they were just as stunning and extraordinary as the palace they surrounded. Neros rule over the Roman empire ended abruptly with his death in 68 AD, and it was shortly after when much of his Golden House was destroyed by fires and then completely vanquished by Trajan rule. The artificial lake was filled in and covered by the Flavian Amphitheater, the colossus head was changed to that of the God, Helios, the palace was covered with earth, the meadows and gardens were opened to the public, and the colonnades of the former vestibule was used to store machinery of the Amphitheater. Shortly after 104 AD, the Domus Aurea practically became a fabled myth, and it was not until too long ago when it became a fact once again. The Golden House of Nero was and still is a grand achievement on a architectural, structural, and landscape design scale and will always be hailed as one of the most prominent creations of the early Roman empire.
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