When most people think of luxury their initial thought might be linked to modern day conveniences. You may be better off to imagine the gilded ostentation and gluttony dripping across the Ancient city of Rome. One of the most bold displays of marble, murals, and waste ever seen is still shocking the standards of modern excess all these centuries later.
As Rome grew so did its ego, and with it, the cost of its buildings and homes with the addition of marble, stucco, gems, and murals. The push to innovate beyond one’s predecessor was extreme and to disappoint the Roman people’s sky high expectations could end your political ambitions entirely. Rome was a dramatic show, constant and unbeatable by most accounts.
On the other hand, too much cost at the expense of the Roman citizens, could lead to a worse outcome. The infamous emperor Nero built such a monument, a party property of his own, the Domus Aurea or “Golden House”. A majority of this feat of a house remains a mystery to us even today as it remains hidden underground and fragile.
Whatever you might imagine as extravagant- Nero saw as typical. We are talking about a guy who had his own planetarium. The full specs on this house are unfortunately not available but much is known from partial excavations (that continue on) and writings from the time. The gilded house was something no one had ever seen before, a new bar for luxury was created.
Nero was seen as a glutton and narcissist who had taken things too far. Romans were ashamed of it and eventually buried it to be built on top of and (hopefully) forgotten. What could be so shamefully luxurious you ask? Well, for starters the entire facade was gilded (as was his personal theatre) and he had just (allegedly) burned down his last palace project in the fire of 64 AD. It was also a 300 room party house within which no sleeping quarters, kitchens or bathrooms were located (Boethius, 1960).
If you were expecting a simmered down version of opulence walking in the door, guess again, Nero had a colossus of himself in the entrance hall that topped out at 119.5 ft tall. In fact he didn’t just build a house, he built a domus, similiar to an estate, to include groves, pastures, herds, wild animals and a man-made lake within the city. This guy created a country view, one of “suburban Renaissance villas”, amidst the bustling city (Boethius, 1960).
If you did get a party invite to a tyrant’s palatial estate that you couldn’t refuse, this would be a top 3 option for sure. In the dining room there was an ivory-plaqued ceiling “through which flowers could be scattered” and some of the palace’s ceilings were additionally equipped with tubing to allow perfume to be sprayed (Pliny, c.77). A rumor of the age claimed that Nero once dropped so many rose petals through the dining room ceiling it suffocated a political rival (Boethius, 1960).
There is another famed octagonal room which is said to have rotated by the use of animals positioned in the basement, also ingeniously mechanized by Nero’s architect and engineer Celer and Serverus (Pliny, c.77).
Every wall was encrusted with gems or mother-of-pearl, covered in marble or paintings. Whether they were indoor or outdoor is unknown but Nero also commissions two baths, one salt and the other sulfurous water (Boethius, 1960). In addition to his very own planetarium he could also summon artificial rain and thunder. If you are wondering what Nero thought about the elegance of his palatial estate, it is claimed that he regarded the residence as allowing him to “at last begin to live like a human being” (Boethius, 1960).
Eventually, following the suicide of Nero, the grand property was open to the public allowing them to see for themselves what lunacy looked like. If you are ever in Rome wondering where the great dream once stood, stand at the Colosseum and look down towards the dirt. Under many great structures in Rome lay the ruins of Nero’s insatiable dream. Although the golden vision only lasted about 40 years it changed Roman architecture as one of the first great buildings of brick-face concrete, such a humble beginning.
Boethius, Axel. The Golden House of Nero. Ann Arbor: International, 1960. Print.
Pliny, C. Secundus (c. 77). Natural History.