Beneath the vaulted ceiling of an ancient palace, a team of archeologists are hard at work restoring the delicate ruins. Suddenly, their lamps shine into a forgotten corner, and it reveals an incredible treasure for the first time in thousands of years. A beautiful chamber half-buried in dirt and debris, it’s a secret that an emperor tried to hide. And now it has finally seen the light of day.
Every year, millions of tourists marvel at the ancient wonders of Rome’s Parco archeologico del Colosseo – or the Colosseum Archeological Park. But beneath the Italian capital’s most iconic ruin is another even older structure. More than 2,000 years ago, Emperor Nero’s grand Domus Aurea palace was destroyed – its rooms and chambers buried by those who sought to forget him.
Experts from the park began uncovering and restoring the Domus Aurea in the early 21st century. The team started slowly patching up the crumbling ceilings and walls, but even then the chamber remained hidden for a number of years. And it wasn’t until 2018 that the experts stumbled across this incredible sight: the legacy of one of Rome’s most controversial emperors.
Nero was born in 37 A.D. in Antium in the modern-day Italian region of Lazio. He was the only child of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus – a descendant of Roman emperors. But just three years later his father died and his mother Agrippina was caught up in a scandal and banished. Stripped of his inheritance, the young boy was sent to live with relatives in exile instead.
Then, in 49 A.D. Agrippina became the fourth wife of Claudius: the emperor of Rome. And before long, she had persuaded her new husband to adopt Nero and bring him to court. Four years later, at the age of just 16, the young man cemented his role in the empire’s most powerful family by marrying his step-sister Claudia Octavia.
During these early years, Nero showed plenty of political promise – speaking out on behalf of struggling communities across the empire. And when Claudius died in 54 A.D., it seemed natural that his adopted son should take his place. However, some sources claim that the emperor was beginning to favor his biological child, and that Agrippina had poisoned him before he could change his mind.
Whatever the truth, Nero was crowned emperor after Claudius’ death and reigned for almost 14 years. At first, it seemed as if Agrippina intended to rule Rome through her son – wielding an unusual amount of power and influence at court. However, the young man evidently grew tired of his domineering mother, so in 57 A.D. he banished her from the royal palace.
But even expelling his mother wasn’t enough for Nero, and two years later he had her killed. Today, this callous act of matricide feeds into the emperor’s modern reputation as a cruel and tyrannical leader. However, there is some evidence to suggest that he was actually a popular ruler among the common people.
Throughout his reign, Nero angered the upper classes by performing as a poet and an actor – professions that were deemed unsuitable for a man of his stature. Moreover, he raised taxes in order to pay for a series of ambitious and extravagant construction projects. But while his populist approach may have irked the rich and influential, it may well have won him support from the empire’s poor.
Roman sources such as Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Tacitus nevertheless describe Nero as a corrupt and impulsive leader who terrorized the empire with his tyrannical behavior. And when a fire devastated the city of Rome in 64 A.D., it was swiftly followed by rumors that Nero himself was to blame. Keen to clear the way for a great palace, his detractors claimed, the emperor had intentionally started the blaze.
In fact, Tacitus went even further and claimed that Nero had tried to blame the fire on the Christians – burning to death those who stood accused. However, modern scholars have since cast doubt on the reliability of the sources alleging the emperor’s more brutal acts. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Nero had many enemies, and it was a rebellion that ultimately ousted him from power.
By the end of his life, Nero was reduced to a shadow of his former self and hid from his enemies in a villa outside the Roman capital. Declared an enemy of the empire, he persuaded one of his followers to end his life rather than face execution. And in June 68 A.D. he died – the last emperor of the once-great Julio-Claudian dynasty of Rome.
With the end of the imperial bloodline, the Roman Empire was thrown into disarray. And the year after Nero’s death, no less than four emperors vied for ultimate control. Meanwhile, the dead leader’s enemies moved quickly to wipe all trace of his excesses from the face of the city and paved the way for a new Rome.
Clearly, however, the Roman elites had their work cut out for them. In the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero had begun construction on a grand palace known as the Domus Aurea – or Golden House. And for the next four years, the emperor had watched closely as the sprawling complex began to take shape.
By the time that Nero’s fortunes had changed, the Domus Aurea was almost complete. According to some estimates, it covered more than 300 acres and spread out across the slopes of three of Rome’s seven hills. And all around the great palace, records tell us, were vast grounds equipped with vineyards, woodlands and a lake.
Boasting some 300 rooms, the Domus Aurea was designed as a venue for entertaining, and no expense was spared in its extravagant decor. Throughout the palace, walls and floors were lined with polished marble, while some of the corridors had fountains and pools running through them. And for what might have been the first time in history, mosaics were installed in the building’s ceilings rather than the floors.
Elsewhere, gold leaf and semi-precious stones gleamed from every surface, while the ceilings were covered in layers of ivory veneer. And in each room, delicate frescoes were painted on to the damp plaster – creating fantastical scenes throughout the palace. Meanwhile, in the principal dining room, an elaborate mechanism by Nero’s engineer-architects Severus and Celer took center stage.
According to records, this device rotated the ceiling of the principal dining room – raining roses and perfume down onto the guests below. However, one story tells of a tragic turn of events in which the mechanism malfunctioned and suffocated one unlucky diner with an excess of petals from above.
After Nero’s death, his enemies were embarrassed by the opulence of the Domus Aurea and soon removed the valuable decorations. But that was not enough, and it was decided to simply fill in and build over the land occupied by the former emperor’s great palace. Just over a decade later, in 81 A.D., work subsequently began on the Baths of Titus on the same site.
Meanwhile, in the grounds of the Domus Aurea, Vespasian – who had ultimately emerged victorious from the Year of the Four Emperors conflict – constructed the Flavian Amphitheatre. And today, that grand structure is known as the Colosseum, perhaps after the vast statue of Nero that was looted from the palace and erected nearby.
In 104 A.D. work began on the Baths of Trajan, which were also constructed on the land where Nero’s palace once stood. And within four decades of the emperor’s death, barely any trace of the Domus Aurea remained. But all that changed in the 15th century when a Roman fell through a gap in the hillside into the ruins of the forgotten complex below.
Following its inadvertent discovery, the Domus Aurea soon became a popular attraction for the young and adventurous of Rome. Over the years, artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael ventured underground to explore the ruins, where they found inspiration in the frescoes buried beneath the city. Meanwhile, famous Italians like the Marquis de Sade and Casanova left their signatures scrawled on the painted walls.
Interestingly, the years spent underground had helped to preserve the opulent decor of the Domus Aurea. But as curious visitors began to uncover its chambers and corridors, the seal was broken and the ruins quickly began to decay. Eventually, the site was closed off in 2005 so that extensive restoration work could begin.
As they worked to reveal the ruins of Nero’s palace in all their glory, archeologists stumbled across a number of incredible finds. In 2009, for example, they uncovered what is believed to be the remains of the emperor’s dining hall – complete with its rotating mechanism. Then nine years later the team made another startling discovery.
By 2018 much of the Domus Aurea had been made accessible to the public. Even the section located on Palatine Hill had been opened, and this was actually the first time that the public had been able to see this part of the palace for thousands of years. Meanwhile, on the Oppian Hill, archeologists were busy restoring a chamber known simply as Room 72.
Archeologists had uncovered some 50 percent of the sprawling complex hidden beneath Rome by this point. So they knew that there were likely still many treasures waiting to be discovered. Nevertheless, it must have been a shock when they stumbled across an opening that had previously been overlooked.
According to reports, workers had ascended to a platform in Room 72 in order to carry out restoration work to the vaulted ceiling. But when they switched on their lamps, the light illuminated the corner – thus revealing a secret chamber on the other side of the opening. And when they looked through the gap, they were amazed by what they saw.
“We came across a large opening positioned in the northern corner of the covering of the room,” leading Domus Aurea official Alessandro D’Alessio told reporters in May 2019. He added, “Lit up by the artificial light, there suddenly appeared the entire barrel vault of a completely frescoed adjacent room.”
On closer inspection, the archeologists discovered a rectangular chamber still partially buried beneath tons of earth. But while much of the room remained hidden, the walls and ceiling that were visible were completely covered in intricate designs. Painted thousands of years ago, these frescoes had remained remarkably well preserved despite their impressive age.
Featuring red and ochre figures against a white background often augmented with flashes of gold, the frescoes dazzled the archeologists when they peered into the room. In one, a man is shown fighting a panther – armed to the teeth with a sword, shield and quiver of arrows. Meanwhile, in another, a bird sits on a delicately painted green and yellow branch.
As well as creatures from the real world, it seems, the artists responsible for decorating this hidden chamber also took inspiration from the fantastical realm. For example, some frescoes depict herds of frolicking centaurs, some of which are carrying instruments for making music. While others show the aquatic hippocampus – a type of legendary seahorse common in Greek and Roman mythology.
In fact, although the Romans had their own pantheon of mythical creatures and deities, they were heavily influenced by Ancient Greek mythology. And the figures painted inside this hidden chamber were no exception. In one panel, for instance, the god Pan is depicted with horns and the legs of a goat.
Meanwhile, in another fresco, a sphinx can be seen above what appears to be a sacred stone known as a Baetylus. In fact, archeologists were so struck by this particular artwork that they dubbed the chamber the entire chamber the Sphinx Room.
Alongside the depictions of creatures and gods, archeologists discovered intricate illustrations of flowers, vegetables, trees and fruit. And other work also included contemporary architectural patterns. Elsewhere, unidentified human figures pose elegantly amongst the delicate designs. For those working on the restoration of the Domus Aurea, it was an incredible sight.
“It is an exceptional and thrilling find,” Colosseum Archeological Park head Alfonsina Russo told reporters in May 2019. “It is the fruit of our strategy that focuses on conservation and scientific research.” Keen to preserve the beauty of the Sphinx Room for future generations, experts had moved to begin restoration work earlier that year.
Unfortunately, however, it seems unlikely that the majority of the chamber – which remains buried underground – will ever see the light of day. According to experts, the entire complex is unstable, and any attempts to excavate further could lead to a devastating collapse. Nevertheless, the team announced their discovery to the international press in May 2019.
But the Sphinx Room is not the only part of the Domus Aurea to have been decorated with frescoes such as these. In a section of the palace known today as the Cryptoporticus 92, paintings of a similar style can also be found. And as a result, experts have been able to establish the source of the work inside the newly discovered chamber.
Both the Sphinx Room and Cryptoporticus 92 were apparently created by an establishment known as “A Workshop” at some point between 65 and 68 A.D. As such, they might only have been on display for a matter of months before Nero died and his enemies set about burying his grand palace. But now, they are being given a second chance to shine.
Although some of the Domus Aurea is currently open to the public, officials have yet to fully cash in on the magnificence of their most recent discovery. However, some lucky visitors on guided tours have been able to catch a glimpse of the secret chamber in all its frescoed glory. In videos released by the Colosseum Archeological Park, small groups can be seen ascending a scaffolding tower and carefully climbing out into the rubble-filled room.
For the experts striving to bring the palace back to life, the discovery represents a fascinating insight into the man who ordered its construction. As such, it sheds light on one of the most controversial emperors of Rome. In a statement released in May 2019, Russo explained its significance. He said, “In the darkness for almost 20 centuries, the Sphinx Room… tells us about the atmosphere from the years of the principality of Nero.”