When I first moved to Rome I lived near the Colosseum and walked through the Colle Oppio park, passing by the ruins of Trajan’s bathhouse, a few times a day. Shortly after, a section of Nero’s “Golden House”, the Domus Aurea, was opened in the park – then closed and reopened numerous times. In the 18 years since, I’ve never been able to coordinate a visit, so when we were invited by Through Eternity Tours on a private, small, walking tour of the site, I accepted without hesitation.
A brief history lesson:
Before the Colosseum was built, the area from the Palatine Hill all the way up the Oppian hill, almost to Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline hill, was residential and considered the countryside. The big fire of Rome in 64 AD burned this area down and Emperor Nero, taking advantage of a law that gave him the right to reclaim the land, took possession of this vast area and decided to build an enormous palace. It stretched from the Palatine hill, over the Celian and Oppian hills, all the way to the Esquiline hill. No one knows for sure how big it was, but estimates are between 100-300 acres.
Nero also commissioned a 35 meter tall, bronze statue of himself at the entrance, called the Colossus Neronis, made to look like a Greek god of the sun, which was so, uh, colossal, that later on in the middle ages people started calling Flavian’s Ampitheater, built after Nero’s death by Vespasian in the middle of what was an artificial lake, the Colosseum.
The Domus Aurea
Needless to say, it was a not only large, but also amazingly adorned. So much gold leaf that it was called the “Golden House”. Precious stones, ivory, frescoed walls, mosaics – you name it.
After Nero’s death, on the section of the palace on the Oppian hill, where a large part of the palace was, both Titus and Trajan built large bathhouses, filling in the palace with earth that was probably dug out of what is now Trajan’s Forum. For a long time people thought the ruins of the Domus Aurea were just part of the baths of Trajan, but later it was realised that they were part of something much larger. And since it was all buried, the frescoes were preserved until they were discovered in the 15th century.
The story goes that a young Roman fell into what he thought was a cave (grotta in Italian) and he discovered the fresco paintings. Soon after, lots of artists, now considered some of the best artists of the Renaissance, would shimmy down by rope and study the frescoes by candlelight. This style, later to be called “grotesque”, which comes from the term “grottesche”, or “cave-like”, was a huge inspiration to the renaissance masters.
All visitors wanting to tour the Golden House have to do it with a guide by appointment. Since we went with Through Eternity, our tickets and appointment were all sorted and we entered, put on our hard hats, and got a tour by the site’s employee, with our Through Eternity guide present to add detail, context, and explanations that went beyond the expertise of the staff that lead you around.
The visit is well done – there’s a few videos that help show you where you are and what you’re looking at. There’s a virtual reality headset that literally puts you in the 2000 year old house, spins you around, takes you outside to feel the sun on your face and see the grass blowing next to you. It is so incredibly well done that you really feel like you’re there.
Our Guide and guides in general
The best, and in my opinion, essential part, was Enrica, the tour guide who works with Through Eternity. The amount they show you in the actual Domus Aurea is interesting, and they do a good job explaining what it was and what it looked like and what challenges they face in maintaining it and uncovering more of the art within, but to really have it click, you need someone like Enrica who can frame the visit around a bigger discussion of history and the Roman Empire in general.
After the tour, which lasts about an hour and a half, Through Eternity takes you to the most amazing rooftop terrace overlooking the Colosseum for an aperitivo and drink and further discussion about what you’ve seen and the history of Rome.
Before we had begun our tour, Enrica had brought us to the front of the Colosseum and gave us an overview of the entire area, explaining the changes the area saw from the Roman Republic through the Julius/Agustus line to Nero and up to the middle ages. This helped a lot when we then went into the Domus Aurea because with all things historic, context is everything.
Afterward, on the terrace, we continued our discussion about history, and about the challenges tour guides currently face. To be a licensed guide in Rome is no easy task. It takes a hell of a lot of knowledge and passion, and to be good at it also requires tireless people skills. Unfortunately, many companies and platforms have tried to capitalise on experiences by making any old Joe a tour guide and selling his time.
There’s a big difference though between someone who wants to make a few bucks by leading tourists around, and someone whose entire life is history and being a professional guide.
The Domus Aurea is a one of a kind archeological site, and Enrica is a one of a kind guide. I strongly recommend the combo to everyone. And, of course, organising it all with Through Eternity means you get to do this at the end:
Cross-Pollinate blog readers receive a 10% discount on all Through Eternity tours. Does not include the Underground Colosseum or Early Entrance Vatican tours. Use the promo code: BEEHIVE on their site when making a booking.