Interpretation of the Domus Aurea



Historians examining the relevant literary and archaeological evidence regarding Nero’s Domus Aurea have come up with a range of modern interpretations of the building complex. It is clear from archaeological evidence that the Domus Aurea was built in various stages by different architects using various architectural styles. The rooms inside the Esquiline Wing are so fundamentally different from each other that it is clear that separate minds were at work in their design. The most vigorous stage of construction on the site occurred after the Great Fire of A.D. 64. Nero’s architects Severus and Celer took advantage of newly available land to attempt one of the great architectural experiments of ancient Rome. Ball writes in The Domus Aurea and the Roman Architectural Revolution that Severus and Celer must have been excited to “have Nero’s enthusiasm and resources behind them and blank slate nearly as big as the city itself” (Ball, 221). We may consider the Domus Aurea was the emperor’s personal residence, a monument to promote his legacy, as well as at various times a place of public spectacle.     
The most classical interpretation of the Domus Aurea is that the building was a sprawling mansion designed by Nero for his extravagant personal uses – mostly likely held in the minds of the Roman elite of the period as a clear misappropriation of the Imperial treasury. Suetonius’ famous comment pertaining to Nero’s reign supports this viewpoint:“Rome is fast becoming a palace! Move to Veii, citizens, lest Veii too become a palace,” (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 39.2).  The fact that the gold leaf, inlaid pearls, and inset jewels of the complex were removed less than a decade after Nero’s death is an indication that wealthy and poor Romans were well aware of the expenses of building the Domus Aurea. Moreover, the apparent quip by Nero that “at last I am living a human being” adds weight to the argument that Domus Aurea was primarily a personal residence.

The complexity, grandeur, and sheer size of the Domus Aurea certainly imply the project had foremost importance to the legacy of Nero. L. Ball’s interpretation that the project was related to his “grandiose notion of himself” is based partially on the fact that he was devoted to construction from the earliest part of his reign. Certainly, Nero appeared concerned with his own image to the Roman public; the statue of Nero rising over a hundred feet into the air attests to this fact.   

Finally, the Domus was at various times used to host Imperial events as well as banquets and festivities; the archaeologist Wallace-Hadrill was cited as saving of Nero, “[he] gave the best parties ever.” Some historians view Nero’s Domus Aurea as part of a ploy to win the support of the Roman public, to be understood along with the public spectacles organized by Nero: the grain dole, the coinage giveaways, the gladiatorial events. One may even find references that Nero opened the private gardens of the Domus Aurea to the public during the Great Fire of A.D. 64 for citizens to watch Rome burn. Certainly Domus Aurea may have played a social function in Roman public life.
The Domus Aurea most likely served a combination of the aforementioned purposes – an extravagant palace catering to the emperor’s desires and wishes, a monument dedicated to the legacy of his reign, as well as an occasional role in Roman social life.