Reconstructing the Capital: Nero’s New Palace

Nero’s architectural hubris attracted significant attention from litterateurs. Two voices that can usefully be compared with Tacitus’ account in the following chapters are those of Suetonius and Martial. See Suetonius, Nero 31.1–3:

Non in alia re tamen damnosior quam in aedificando domum a Palatio Esquilias usque fecit, quam primo transitoriam, mox incendio absumptam restitutamque auream nominavit. De cuius spatio atque cultu suffecerit haec rettulisse. Vestibulum eius fuit, in quo colossus CXX pedum staret ipsius effigie; tanta laxitas, ut porticus triplices miliarias haberet; item stagnum maris instar, circumsaeptum aedificiis ad urbium speciem; rura insuper arvis atque vinetis et pascuis silvisque varia, cum multitudine omnis generis pecudum ac ferarum. [2] In ceteris partibus cuncta auro lita, distincta gemmis unionumque conchis erant; cenationes laqueatae tabulis eburneis versatilibus, ut flores, fistulatis, ut unguenta desuper spargerentur; praecipua cenationum rotunda, quae perpetuo diebus ac noctibus vice mundi circumageretur; balineae marinis et albulis fluentes aquis. Eius modi domum cum absolutam dedicaret, hactenus comprobavit, ut se diceret quasi hominem tandem habitare coepisse. [3] Praeterea incohabat piscinam a Miseno ad Avernum lacum contectam porticibusque conclusam, quo quidquid totis Baiis calidarum aquarum esset converteretur; fossam ab Averno Ostiam usque, ut navibus nec tamen mari iretur, longitudinis per centum sexaginta milia, latitudinis, qua contrariae quinqueremes commearent. Quorum operum perficiendorum gratia quod ubique esset custodiae in Italiam deportari, etiam scelere convictos non nisi ad opus damnari praeceperat.

[There was nothing however in which he was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage, but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long. There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied with tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining-rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water. When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being. He also began a pool, extending from Misenum to the lake of Avernus, roofed over and enclosed in colonnades, into which he planned to turn all the hot springs in every part of Baiae; a canal from Avernus all the way to Ostia, to enable the journey to be made by ship yet not by sea; its length was to be a hundred and sixty miles and its breadth sufficient to allow ships with five banks of oars to pass each other. For the execution of these projects he had given orders that the prisoners all over the empire should be transported to Italy, and that those who were convicted even of capital crimes should be punished in no other way than by sentence to this work.]

And here is Martial, the second poem from his Liber De Spectaculis, a book of epigrams on the Flavian Amphitheatre (better known today as the Colosseum), which was begun by Vespasian and finished by Titus. In – deliberate – contrast to Nero’s Golden House, this imperial building project was specifically designed to make a significant contribution to the civic life of Rome, thus restoring architectural order at the centre of the city, and it was recognized and hailed as such by Martial:19

Hic ubi sidereus propius videt astra colossus

     et crescunt media pegmata celsa via,

invidiosa feri radiabant atria regis

     unaque iam tota stabat in urbe domus;

hic ubi conspicui venerabilis Amphitheatri5

     erigitur moles, stagna Neronis erant;

hic ubi miramur velocia munera thermas,

     abstulerat miseris tecta superbus ager.

Claudia diffusas ubi porticus explicat umbras,

    ultima pars aulae deficientis erat. 10

reddita Roma sibi est et sunt te preside, Caesar,

     deliciae populi, quae fuerant domini.

[Where the starry colossus sees the constellations at close range and lofty scaffolding rises in the middle of the road, once gleamed the odious halls of a cruel monarch, and in all Rome there stood a single house. Where rises before our eyes the august pile of the Amphitheatre, was once Nero’s lake. Where we admire the warm baths, a speedy gift, a haughty tract of land had robbed the poor of their dwellings. Where the Claudian colonnade unfolds its wide-spread shade, was the outermost part of the palace’s end. Rome has been restored to herself, and under your rule, Caesar, the pleasances that belonged to a master now belong to the people.]


19 Text and translation by D. R. Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1993).