Today we visited the Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea, a massive palace complex that Nero built after the fire of 64 AD. Access to the Domus Aurea is a bit more limited than other monuments in the city (you have to get a special form of permission to see it, to my understanding). It’s all underground, so while it was ~95 degrees outside when we went in, it was quite a bit colder in the Domus Aurea, to the point where some people in our group were shivering! We also talked about the Coliseum some today, although we didn’t see it up close.

Background and history of the location

The Esquiline hill

  • Esquiline hill
  • Has finger-like ridges. These ridges got named over time.
  • The ridge that overlooks the Coliseum is called the Appian.

The Julio-Claudians and conspicuous consumption

  • Recall, the Palatine hill was where wealthy aristocrats lived.
  • Augustus, concerned with the appearance of “first among equals” = princeps, lived in a modest dwelling on the Palatine.
  • The following Julio-Claudians are much less careful.
  • Tiberius – Livia’s son by another marriage, succeeds Augustus.
  • Smaller palace built by Tiberius, but he spent much of his time in a lavish house by the bay of Naples; Capri.
  • Tiberius was succeeded by Caligula, a capricious and violent leader.
  • Then Claudius. Claudius had a scholarly bent, but was lead astray by the women in his life.
  • Finally Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudians.

The Domus Transitorium

  • Lavish palace on the Palatine built by Nero.
  • But destroyed in the massive fire of 64 AD.

The Domus Aurea

  • 2/3 of the city of Rome is burned to the ground in the fire of 64.
  • Gives Nero the opportunity to build a house fit for an emperor
  • A massive structure that spans three different hills; the Domus Aurea has parts on not only the Palatine hill, but also the Caelium and the Esquiline, and the valley between the three.
  • Tremendous extravagance.

Flavians and the Coliseum

  • After the Flavian dynasty comes to power, Vespasian wants to make a clear break from the Julio-Claudians.
  • One way he does this is in his art style: rather than following the Classicizing style adopted by Augustus and the other Julio-Claudians, Vespasian adopts a veristic style in his portraiture.
  • However, more to the point, Vespasian also dismantles the parts of the Domus Aurea on the Caelian and the Palatine, and immediately starts construction of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Coliseum).
  • Actively gives a part of the land that Nero made imperial back to the people.
  • Changes the large statue of Nero (the Colossus) to have features of the sun god, Sol. Keeps it standing, however.
  • Coliseum = “place of the Colossus,” the Flavian Amphitheater next to this particular Colossus.
  • Therefore, the word “Coliseum” should not be used to refer to amphitheaters in general.
  • Vespasian does not completely sever associations with Augustus.
  • Essentially, he tries to elide the period between Augustus and himself, and present himself as the true successor.
    • For example, he restores some monuments of Augustus.

The Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea: background and rooms

Chronology and construction

  • The Esquiline wing, along with the rest of the Domus Aurea, was constructed in the time following the fire of 64 AD.
    • Below the Domus Aurea are houses from before the fire of 64 (or before Nero destroyed more to make room for the massive palace).
  • Built by two architects named Celer and Severus.
  • 81 AD: by this point the other two wings had been torn down by the Flavians. The Flavians did make some use of the Esquiline wing. However, in this year, the wing was damaged in a fire.
  • In 104 AD, the wing was further damaged by fire. The space is completely abandoned.
  • The space was discovered in 1500s by a person digging a well.

The Baths of Trajan

  • Rather than level the top of the Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea, the architects for the Baths of Trajan built spanning walls and barrel vaults within the structure to use it as a foundation, and then filled it in with dirt. (The lateral support of the dirt strengthens the arched vaults).
  • This is how the Domus Aurea comes down to us preserved.

General background

  • Ceilings in Domus Aurea: 100–125 feet high.
  • The preserved Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea has 142 rooms… and this is only one wing!
  • There are no kitchens, latrines, or bedrooms on the wing.
  • The Esquiline wing was used purely for entertainment.
    • Dinner parties
    • Strolling along the portico to get a view of the valley.
    • Conversations among guests about the artwork in the Domus Aurea.
  • For an example of this artwork aside from the frescos, there is a Laocoon statue found in this wing. Conserved first by Michaelangelo. It was left in the wing and buried when the structure was filled in because it was broken. There was also a large, heavy marble basin left for the same reasons.
  • The fact that the people at the time of Trajan left perfectly good material rather than recycling it shows how readily available things like marble were at this point in time. Why reuse and recarve when you can just get a new block to start with? “Just throw it away, we’ve got more!” This didn’t last.
  • Porticus on the edge of the Domus Aurea: overlooking valley.

The Owl Room

  • A dining area
  • Opus sectile floor and walls
  • Curving vault on ceiling that would have been covered in stucco and painted.

Garden space

  • Walls here put in by baths of Trajan
  • To get a better appreciation of the size, you have to imagine the space with the walls and vaults removed.
  • There was a nice ornamental water feature in the center.

The Room of Odysseus and Polyphemus

  • Yet another dining room
  • Also a view of the same garden from above.
    • Originally, there were smaller gardens on either side of the room.
    • Rectangular recesses: originally open at the back, views of the side-gardens.
  • Ceiling: pumice stones. Natural, like in a cave (grotto is Italian for cave); the space is constructed intentionally to have a similar natural environment to a real cave.
    • But the similarity is artificial. The patterning is too regular, and there are mosaics breaking the immersion.
  • Here, the mosaics are primarily constructed from glass rather than stones.
  • Center mosaic: Odysseus and Polyphemus
  • Appropriate context for the content of this mosaic… in a cave, dining.
  • Why the odd green tones?
    • Not an image of the characters in the story… but an image of bronze sculptures of the characters in the story! (Now lost to us, it seems). A level deeper.

The Room of the Golden Vault

  • Stucco creates frames, then scenes are painted within the frames.
  • Very inspirational in terms of later art: several vaults in Europe are almost direct copies of the design.

A service corridor

  • How can we tell? No marble, only frescos.
  • Windows at angles to provide light inside the Domus Aurea.
  • There is an arch intersecting the corridor bearing an aqueduct channel.

The Room of Achilles on Skyros

  • Skyros: Achilles dressed like a girl, sent there by Thetis to avoid the Trojan war. Evidently got one of the real girls there pregnant… Achilles has a son after all!
  • This is the sort of image that would have spurred conversation at dinner parties.
    • Discussion of different versions of the story, the art inspired by it, the ethicality of actions taken by various parties in the story, the role of destiny, and so on.

The Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea: architecture

Radial symmetry

  • Series of centerpoints, and each of these centerpoints have their own symmetry.
  • One of the reasons why Celer and Severus (the two architects of the Domus Aurea) are considered to be revolutionary.
  • At this early stage in the development of the idea, odd intersections are caused when putting the radial symmetry together, as in the picture below.

The Octagonal Room

  • Eight openings (not walls per se)
  • 36-foot oculus, large dome
  • Celer and Severus create this architectural feat, confident in the abilities of Roman concrete. A large dome, structurally compromised by the big oculus, is supported by just piers (rather than full walls).
  • A major point of evolution for Roman architecture.
    • Roman architectural engineering really figures out the abilities of concrete with arched and domed architecture.

Roman interior design

  • The Romans have a philosophy of interior decoration.
  • Greek architects: mostly focused on the exterior, not interior.
  • Not so for Romans, who did pay attention to the interior, perhaps even more than the exterior. There are 4 principles of Roman interior design.
    • Light. The oculus was originally completely open to the sky. Light concentrated into beam. The location of the beam’s termination changes over the course of the year.
    • Void: emptiness.
      • The Greeks were constrained by the post and lintel architectural form.
      • Using vaults and concrete, the Romans were freed from the constraint of interior supports.
      • Romans push the envelope.
    • Color
      • Paintings
      • Mosaics
      • Opus sectile
      • Statues
    • Sound
      • Water: there was a large fountain in this octagonal room that would have been fed by the aqueduct intersecting the service corridor, mentioned above.
  • The Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea is the first time we have these things coming together in a truly revolutionary way.
    • “First preserved” = first instance we know of.

The Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea: art

Famalus and 4th style

  • Famalus: an artist in the “employ” of Nero
  • An aristocrat who painted murals: unusual.
  • It is possible that Nero locked Famalus in the Domus Aurea until he was done.
  • Inspires an art style that is now called 4th style.
  • 4th style: emphasizes the flatness of the wall so that you know it is there.
  • Loves miniature decorative details
    • Tiny floral motives
    • Small animals
  • Uses delicate architectural details (which wouldn’t work structurally in real life) to frame sections of the wall.
  • 4th-style sometimes inserts “picture windows”
    • “Windows of three-dimensionality”

The Domus Aurea’s influence on Renaissance artists

  • Italians in the Rennaissance recreated some arch paintings in the manner found in the Domus Aurea.
  • Also cf. the above comments regarding European vaulted architecture copying the vault in the Room of the Golden Vault.
  • Raphael: after an encounter with the Domus Aurea, introduces the “grotesque” style into Renaissance painting.
    • Grotesque literally means “cave-like” – things in the grotesque style are ultimately derived from the style of the Domus Aurea.
    • “Like that found in the grotto” = the cavern like space of the Domus Aurea.

The Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea: conservation issues

The Domus Aurea in particular

  • The physical floor plan of the Esquiline wing covers the approximate ground of 3 soccer fields.
  • The preserved frescos (just the preserved ones) cover approximately 6 soccer fields.
  • Leads to the biggest problem for the conservation of the Domus Aurea:
    • Algae, other growth
    • Salt deposits form on wall. Facing the walls with a sealant does not prevent moisture from behind the wall, and may in fact even make this particular issue even worse.
  • Now multiply these considerations by 6 soccer fields! It is a constant battle to keep the frescos preserved.
  • This is a losing battle. Over time, the frescos become less and less visible.
  • Water also leads to stability issues with concrete.
  • Eventually it will just be gone.

Conservation in general

  • Conservation is a big issue. Whenever something is excavated and exposed to the elements, it must be preserved. Much of the time, there is no way to do this in a way that guarantees the ultimate survival of the excavated sites and/or pieces.
  • For this reason, it is not uncommon to leave thing unexcavated, respecting budgetary and feasibility constraints.
  • It is interesting to consider the abilities of future technology. In some ways, it might in fact be better to leave things preserved underground – the way they have been for a couple millennia – and have our better-equipped descendants excavate once future technology makes better or even full preservation possible, and enables a much higher degree of partial (and necessarily incomplete) preservation in the form of digital images, three-dimensional renders/scans, compositional analysis, and so on.

The Coliseum


  • Vespasian begins the project seemingly immediately after he takes power in 69 AD.
  • The funding came largely from the wealth of Judea flowing into Rome.
    • Probably also many Judean slaves forced to work on construction.
  • The amphitheater remains in use until 6th century AD.
    • For a time after, the Coliseum becomes a church on account of all the Christians who had been martyred in the space over the years.
  • Later, in the middle ages, it becomes a fortified palace.
  • Part of the outer wall collapses due to an earthquake, and more of it was quarried by popes to use for building projects. Thus, only part of the original fully elliptical walls now remain.
  • As with all ancient monuments, conservation of the Coliseum is a challenge. Thousands of people go through it every year as it is a popular tourist location, and since it is right next to a major road, exhaust from cars soaks into the travertine, discoloring it.

Architecture and construction

  • Outside: three superimposed levels of arches with engaged columns.
  • Different orders on the levels. Cf. the theater of Marcellus discussed before.
  • “Attic level:” fourth level. No arches, but rectangular windows between engaged pillars
    • Pillars are flat (as in rectangular prisms), unlike columns which are round (as in cylinders).
    • Composite capitals: mixed orders.
  • The entire facade is made out of travertine and tufa. Primarily travertine.
  • The inside structure depends upon barrel vaults constructed from concrete.
  • All about moving in and out efficiently: 81 separate entrances!
    • “Vomitoria:” the stadium releases its crowd, metaphor.
  • It is thought that people were assigned specific entrances to use so that the crowd entered the stadium in a relatively uniform manner.
  • We too use the same sort of multiple entrances/exits, and passages that allow for movement through and around large amphitheaters for sports and the like. The Coliseum was full of these internal passageways, made possible by all the barrel vaults.
  • Sand inside the arena: easy cleanup of blood and suchlike. This was an important priority given what went on inside the arena.

The awning

  • At the very top: provision for an awning.
  • Opening in center, canvas around edges.
  • Not everyone was shielded all the time: over the course of the day, people would receive some shade and some sun. Cf. oculus.
  • The awning was rigged much like sails. We are not sure exactly how it worked, but we do know that it was actually operated by trained sailors from Rome’s navy. We’ll talk more about the specific naval base that these guys would have been drawn from on our Campania trip.

Seating arrangement

  • Imperial box, Vestal Virgins: best view. Then, in order of viewing priority (i.e., height = distance from the base of the arena):
    • Senators
    • Knights/equestrians; the noble classes of Rome
    • Free, non-aristocratic Romans
    • Slaves, the very poor, women
  • The primary seating arrangement was thus based on social status, but there was also patriarchal gendering. All women sat at the top (discounting the Vestal Virgins).