Roman history is filled with colorful characters, but few are so universally disliked as Nero. He is portrayed as cruel and debauched—a morally depraved man whose ego was more important than the citizens of Rome. The empire was appalled when he had his own mother put to death. If a man could be this brutal to family, how would he treat strangers? His contemporaries found many character defects with which to criticize him. After the Great Fire of 64 AD (CE), his critics accused Nero of starting the blaze to forward his own agenda. (It did conveniently clear the way for his new home.) A popular legend had Nero playing a fiddle while Rome burned. Although evidence doesn’t support his having caused the fire, he did himself no favors with the public when he built his Golden Palace (Domus Aurea) over a huge part of the leveled land.

Expanding between the Palatine and Esquiline hills, the Golden Palace was a mammoth complex. Its exact size is unknown. Archaeological exploration of the site is ongoing and many of the structures have been covered by the foundations of later buildings–such as the Colosseum. The palace was, however, magnificent with hundreds of sumptuously-decorated rooms. Although it was long closed to visitors, the Golden Palace is now available for touring at limited times. This is a great Rome attraction where you see the past (the palatial ruins) and…thanks to virtual reality…what the Domus Aurea would have looked like in its heyday.

The Domus Aurea guided tour is simply amazing. When our entry time arrived, our group was outfitted with hardhats. Since it’s a working archaeological site, safety is important. Our guide was engaging and informative; she had worked at the site and seemed to know every nook and cranny of the subterranean structure. As we descended underground she explained the various rooms we entered, pointing out frescoes, graffiti, and architectural details. The palace had been massive with ceilings soaring high above our heads (I would estimate at least 30 feet).

Our group saw the remains of a dining room that had once rotated under an oculus. Seutonius wrote that the room revolved day and night like the heavens. It was reported that flower petals showered the guests. Even though the mechanisms that had once powered the room were long gone, we could get the feeling of how extravagant dining in that place must have been.

We learned of how a 15th century Roman rediscovered the structure–by falling through a hole and plummeting through its roof! After Nero’s death, the people filled in the massive complex and built on top. Over time, weak spots emerged and the young man ended up crashing through the ceiling of the palace. He saw paintings of foreign images in the cavernous space (grotto). These figures (called grotesque) would later inspire artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael who also explored the Domus Aurea.

At one point, our guide was showing us an area not cleared away of debris. Rubble was tightly packed from floor to ceiling. I was surprised at how little stratification I saw between the layers of detritus. Generally, a massive area like this would have taken decades, if not centuries, to fill. One would expect to see distinct layers from slow accumulation over time. This was not so. The fill seemed deliberate, as if the structure had been covered in a short amount of time. I asked our guide, “How quickly was this filled in?” She gave me a look and replied that it was very quick. The Romans had attempted to erase the Golden Palace from existence. Oh how they must have hated Nero!

After surveying many more rooms, we sat down on upholstered boxes that held virtual reality goggles. This technology created an immersive experience that was stunning. The Domus Aurea came alive. As I swiveled my head around, I could see different aspects of the room as it would have looked in Nero’s day. Then the entire palace was re-created for us. The Golden Palace would have been magnificent. Virtual reality made details come alive—I felt as if I could reach out and feel water running from a fountain.

We finished our tour by exploring some of the remaining rooms open to the public. In all, I felt the experience was money well spent (it only cost 16€ a person at that time) and would like to see it a second time in the future. There was so much to see and learn that I think a return trip would help me further uncover this piece of history. It is truly a magnificent Rome attraction!

Logistics: you need to book your tickets in advance through the CoopCulture website. You select a day and time (at time of publishing this blog only available on Saturdays and Sundays), pay, and they email you confirmation of your reservation. At the archaeological site they will take care of everything. Make sure you have a print out of your confirmation or have access to your email. The CoopCulture website also has information on how to reach the site. I highly recommend wearing long pants and a jacket. It was fairly chilly down (I would estimate temperatures were in the 50s Fahrenheit) and I saw a lot of people rubbing their arms and legs for warmth.

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