Domus Aurea, Rome

Between the 9th and 15th of January 2007, a geophysical survey was undertaken at the site of Nero’s Domus Aurea. The survey represented part of a preliminary phase of investigation, implementing two non-destructive techniques of archaeological prospection to investigate the depth and possible nature of the rubble fill above the architectural remains of the Domus. For the geophysical survey the methods of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and resistance tomography were applied. Both of these techniques allow archaeological deposits and features to be located at depth from the modern ground surface. Work was undertaken by the Archaeological Prospection Services of Southampton (APSS) and The British School at Rome (BSR) on behalf of the Sopraintendenza Archeologica di Roma.

The Domus Aurea is situated in the centre of Rome in an area known as the Colle Oppio, which forms part of the Esquiline hill. Compared to the surrounding areas, most of which were almost continuously inhabited through to modern times, the Colle Oppio was abandoned following an intensive period of Roman occupation, thus leaving the site and its remains relatively undisturbed (Caruso and Volpe 1992:6).
Work on the Domus Aurea was begun in the aftermath of the fire of AD 64 on land previously occupied by three Imperial properties; the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatine, the Gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline hill, and the unfinished Domus Transitoria which had been intended to connect the two (Ball 2003: 2). The extent of the damage caused to these structures allowed Nero and his architects a free hand in redesigning the imperial palace complex, now no longer constrained by earlier surrounding architecture (Griffin 1984: 128, Ball 2003: 3). The Domus Aurea was therefore created much larger, more complex and more ornate than any aspect of the previous buildings.
The Domus not just an imperial residence but also an extensive artificial parkland that extended from the Palatine to the Caelian and Esquiline hills and the valley between them, the area which is now occupied by the Colosseum (Ball 2003: 4, Caruso
and Volpe 1992: 12). The largest architectural component was on the Palatine, whilst on the southern slopes of the Esquiline hill, a rural luxury villa was built (Ball 2003: 4). This residence is the only well preserved fragment of the Domus Aurea and the main focus of the current survey.
Recent excavations have revealed that structure consisted of two floors, each displaying east-west symmetry that was interrupted by two open trapezoidal courts. The two courts framed the central complex of rooms around an octagonal court which extended to the upper story. (Griffin 1984: 141, Ball 2003: 4).
The life of the Domus Aurea was short. After Nero, the villa was buried within the substructures of the Baths of Trajan following another devastating fire in AD 104. The walls and vaults of the villa were subsequently incorporated by Trajan’s engineers to supplement their own foundations (Ball 2003: 9).

The survey undertaken at the Domus Aurea was initiated with the aim of deducing the depth and nature of the material overlying the structure. The material may be related to a variety of sources including the collapse or the standing walls associated with the Trajanic baths, collapsed material from the Domus Aurea, the gradual infilling of the area over time and any modern debris associated with the park. Since resistance tomography was used at a depth of 4 to 5 metres, it was likely that some elements of the underlying archaeology could also be identified.

The geophysical survey was successful in locating a significant number of changes in sub surface layers relating to archaeological deposits at the site. The undulating nature of the overburden and deposits covering the Domus was clearly illustrated, with shallower overburden located to the northern side of the survey area and deeper overburden situated along the south part of the area, possibly relating to the erosion of deposits from the terrace, and repairs made to the terrace wall and subsequent backfilling. In general the archaeological deposits at the site appear to be situated between 1.2m and 4m below the modern ground surface, although this varies considerably, with significant structural evidence visible in the eastern half of the survey, corresponding with the ground plan of the Domus. The survey also indicates the significant build up of paving, hard standing and modern infrastructure such as pipelines, over the entire surface of the park.


Ball E.F. (2003), The Domus Aurea and the Roman Architectural Revolution, Cambridge University Press.

Caruso G. and Volpe R. (1992), Colle Oppio, Comune di Roma Assessorato alla Cultura, Fratelli Palombi Editori.

Griffin M.T. (1984), Nero: The End of a Dynasty, Butler and Tanner Ltd, Somerset.

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