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Venturing into underground Rome: discovering the Domus Aurea

Published on January 22, 2019 by C. P.

Picture of the Domus Aurea by Howard Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

Many tourists visiting the Colosseum area walk by its entrance every single day, unaware that their exploration of Rome could include one more jewel.

They climb through the Colle Oppio city park looking for a place to sit in the shade… or a photo opportunity, and lo and behold, they’ve got one just under them!

We’re talking about the astounding Domus Aurea, one of Emperor Nero’s fabulous mansions in Rome, the most famous one, the biggest one and by far the most elusive. In fact, not many visitors to the city opt to visit it, because they simply ignore it’s there to begin with… just a few steps away from the entrance to the Colosseum itself.

The fire and the legend

The story goes that the Emperor Nero was the one to start the Great Fire that almost destroyed Rome for good in 64 AD. The reason for the despot’s crazy actions?

His intention to build a humungous mansion for himself! And right where the city was messier, from an urban planning point of view, filled as it was with hastily built what we now would call “apartment blocks” and with narrow alleys (in fact, that’s how the fire spread so fast and that’s why the ancient fire brigade at the time, the vigiles, was unable to stop it quickly).

Historians have pointed out numerous times how this explanation makes no sense, as Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time, and was quick, on the other hand, to bring help to the homeless and wounded when he did come back.

Be as it may, the emperor did end up with a new, shiny (in more ways than one: “Domus Aurea” means “Golden house” because its ceiling were decorated with gold!) mansion right on the area of the city that had just been cleared by the fire.

The location

Today, visitors enter the Domus Area from the Oppian Hill, the Colle Oppio mentioned above – one of Rome’s seven hills.

Actually, though, the mansion extended from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline Hill – we’re not using “humungous” for nothing! According to some historians, it extended for 1.2 square kilometers, roughly 300 acres, and it included vineyards, groves, even an artificial lake (the Colosseum, by the way, is built right over the latter).

Something that’s worth mentioning is that the Domus Aurea can never be fully excavated – the “modern” city lies above it, as well as some Roman landmarks like the Baths of Trajan. Its delicate status is part of the reason why what has been unearthed should be in your list of must-visits.

The visit

One other reason why you really should get to the Domus Aurea (and why we recommend it to our clients!) is that guides in the monument are not really in the tourism industry – it’s the very archaeologists working on the site who show you around.

This is also the reason why gaining access to the place is somehow more complicated than just entering a regular museum: you will need to book ahead because excavations are ongoing throughout the week. You can get tickets through this site (run by the same company who sells official tickets for the Colosseum).

Needless to say, you can combine your visit to Domus Aurea with one to the Forum/Palatine Hill and Colosseum itself, while close by you can enjoy the Basilica of St. John Lateran or the Basilica of St. Clement (even closer!). If you’re thinking of booking our managed accommodation at Casa Isabella, know that you’ll have everything within walking distance!

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