Built for Emperor Nero after the great fire that devastated Rome in 64 AD, the Domus Aurea (the Golden House) was a huge, extravagant – and somewhat megalomaniacal – palace covering dozens of acres!
After falling into oblivion, the Domus Aurea was rediscovered in the 15th century and is now open to visit: an incredible invitation to discover 1st century AD Rome.
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Want to know more about the history of Rome? Captain Ulysses highly recommends this free guided tour of the city (in English). It’s up to you to choose how much you wish to tip the tour guide!
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Brief history of the Domus Aurea
The origins of the Domus Aurea
In 64 AD, a large part of Rome was destroyed in a huge fire. Emperor Nero seized the opportunity to requisition the land which had been previously occupied by Roman homes to build a sumptuous palace instead. Some may even have suggested that Nero himself was behind the fire…
In any case, Nero ordered the construction of a vast palatial complex extending over several dozen acres between the Palatine and the Esquiline. The construction work was entrusted to architects Severus and Celer, while the frescoes the palace were designed by famous painter Fabullus. The Domus Aurea, the Golden House, owes its name to its stucco and golden ornamentation.
The monumental complex includes a variety of rooms of all kinds, as well as thermal baths, an artificial lake and vast gardens, vineyards, pastures and woodland!
But the palace comprises no kitchens, no latrines… The Domus Aurea is a ceremonial palace dedicated to parties and entertainment, rather than a residence. In short, this monumental complex was apparently never intended to be inhabited!
The Golden House, an avant-garde palace
If the Domus Aurea has gone down in history as a legendary palace, it’s not simply because of its monumental dimensions. At the time of its construction, the Golden House had all the makings of a futuristic palace (by the standards of the time, of course!)
Archaeologists discovered the remains of countless innovations, both architectural and artistic:
- numerous vaults and domes, which were very rare in the 1st century AD.
- the ‘Cenatio rotunda’, a tower whose floor rotated on itself – using hydraulic power – to mimic the movement of the world
- countless wall frescoes, some of them in trompe l’oeil
- mosaics placed on vertical walls, while until the 1st century AD they were only found on the floor and not on the walls
The fall of the Domus Aurea
In 68, Nero committed suicide less than four years after the construction of his Golden House had begun. Otho, Nero’s successor, made sure that the construction work was completed.
But the inhabitants of Rome resented the fact that the immense site monopolised by the Domus Aurea was off limits to them. Little by little, the following Roman emperors opened the space to the public. Vespasian had the Flavian amphitheatre (later renamed the Colosseum) built on the site of the dried-up artificial lake, and Trajan had part of the Domus Aurea filled in to build baths…
The Domus Aurea gradually disappeared under new constructions and was slowly forgotten…
The rediscovery of Nero’s Golden House
In the 15th century, a young Roman fell down a hole and landed in what seemed to be a cave whose walls were covered with frescoes… The Domus Aurea awakened from its long sleep!
The most emblematic artists of the time – and of the following centuries – rushed to this strange cave to admire its frescoes, among whom Raphael and Michelangelo, and later the Marquis de Sade and Giacomo Casanova.
Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea) became a source of inspiration for the artists of the 15th and 16th centuries and gave rise to a new pictorial style: the “grotesque” (in reference to the cave, “grotto” in Italian).
The Domus Aurea today
The Domus Aurea is the subject of a vast program of excavations and restoration.
In 1999, Nero’s Golden House opened its doors to the public, but had to close in 2005 due to the numerous damages caused by visitors. It reopened in 2014.
Visiting the Domus Aurea
Due to the excavations, the Domus Aurea is only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. All visits are guided and a helmet (provided on site) must be worn inside at all times during the guided tour.
The tour is absolutely fascinating: the guides are archaeologists working on the excavation site during the week. Since 2017, virtual reality goggles even allow visitors to discover what Nero’s palace looked like in its heyday!
The Domus Aurea, a must-see in Rome?
The Domus Aurea is rarely listed as top tourist attraction in Rome. However, the visit is truly fascinating and Captain Ulysses highly recommends that you take some time to explore Nero’s somptuous palace.
The Golden House is located on Via della Domus Aurea, just a few steps from the Colosseum. The nearest metro stop is Colosseo. Sightseeing buses also stop nearby.
Unlimited access to public transport is included in the Omnia Card. Find out more here.
Visits only take place at weekends: during the rest of the week, the Domus Aurea is closed to the public so that the archaeologists can freely devote themselves to the excavations.
👉 Skip the lines: book your tickets and visits in advance!
Looking for tips and recommendations? Here are all the Captain’s suggestions!
🎟️ Activities: as for booking visits and tourist activities, Captain Ulysses recommends three websites: GetYourGuide, Tiqets and Civitatis. Guided tours, cruises, skip-the-line tickets, tourist activities… there’s plenty to choose from!
🎫 Citypass: if you are staying in Rome for several days, it may be worth investing in the Roma Pass or the Omnia Card . As well as entry to some of the capital’s most iconic sites, these passes include access to public transport.
🚐 Transfers: if you want to arrive in Rome serenely, you can book your transfer from the airport to the city centre in advance. A car will be waiting to take you to your accommodation in the city. Find out more: transfers in Rome.
🚌 Local transport: Rome has a comprehensive public transport system: metro, bus and tram. Access to public transport is included in the Roma Pass and the Omnia Card. If you wish, you can also opt for a hop-on hop-off bus tour which stops at all the top tourist attractions in Rome (audio guide included).
✈️ Flights and trains: to book your flights to Rome, Captain Ulysses warmly recommends Skyscanner. You’ll be able to compare countless offers to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can also compare prices over several months to find the cheapest flights possible.
As for trains, the Captain recommends Trainline to book your tickets.