There are few emperors—of anywhere—as notorious as Nero. Rome’s fifth emperor, Nero is described by the ancient Roman historians as extravagant, tyrannical, cruel, and generally out-of-his mind. He has been accused of starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD to make room in the city for his palace, the Domus Aurea or Golden House, and blaming the conflagration on Christians who, as the story goes, were thrown to the lions as punishment. Whether or not Nero actually did start the great fire is impossible to say at this point, but he did build a big, dumb golden house. Now archaeologists in Rome say they have uncovered a mysterious hidden chamber beneath Nero’s Domus Aurea, with wall murals of mythical creatures like the sphinx and a group of centaurs (pack? herd? what’s a centaur party called?).
After Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, the Domus Aurea was torn down and other famous Roman landmarks like the coliseum were built in its stead. But some parts of Nero’s short-lived madman-cave still remain, like this mysterious chamber which has been untouched for two thousand years. Archaeologists with the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum discovered the hidden chamber during efforts to restore and preserve the Domus Aurea. In a statement, director of the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum Alfonsina Russo said:
“The discovery of this room is part of the scientific research strategy that the Park carries out every day together with the safety and restoration interventions. In the dark for almost 20 centuries, the Sala della Sfinge [Sphinx room] – as we have called it – tells us about the atmosphere of the years of the principality of Nero.”
The Domus Aurea held 300 rooms on over 300 acres and was a testament to a man truly full of himself. It’s not known what purpose this chamber served or if it served any specific purpose at all. The murals on the walls of the chamber depict both real and mythical creatures: centaurs, the sphinx, birds, sea creatures, and a duel between a man and a panther. The researchers say that the murals were originally gilded, which was very much Nero’s style.
Nero’s palaces, both the Domus Aurea and the earlier Domus Tranisitoria, were criticized by Nero’s rivals for their extreme opulence. Nero’s palaces made use of inlaid marble, frescoed walls and ceilings, and trimmings made of gold and precious gems. The Domus Aurea also contained lush artificial landscapes and a 90-foot-tall statue of Nero himself. It’s really no wonder the Romans demolished the thing after his death.
Was Nero really the absolutely insane villain he’s been depicted as? All we have to go on is what’s been written and it’s hard to get a good judge of character some 2,000 years later. There are some things that are certain though: anyone who commissions a 90-foot-tall statue of themselves in their own house is a complete and total loser.