The most famous Neronian buildings are doubtlessly his palace complexes. His imperial predecessors and even some Republican senators had owned extravagant residences. The emperor Augustus may have lived on the Palatine Hill in a mixed lot of bought up aristocratic houses, but his home’s outer façade towards the Circus Maximus was, due to its integration into the area of the Temple of Apollo, together with its libraries and archives, of exemplary splendour. Augustus’ successors enlarged this residence, but a uniform complex did not emerge.
Besides extending the Domus Tiberiana, the construction of the Domus Transitoria was another major project, which Nero probably began around AD 60. According to Tacitus and Suetonius (Annals 15.39.1; Nero 31.1) it outshone every luxury building that had been constructed before.
All these efforts to create a ‘Neronian’ representative architecture culminated in the Domus Aurea. It was bigger and more luxurious by far than the Domus Transitoria, which had been destroyed by the fire. Tacitus describes the palace thus: “Nero meanwhile availed himself of his country’s desolation, and erected a mansion in which the jewels and gold, long familiar objects, quite vulgarised by our extravagance, were not so marvellous as the fields and lakes, with woods on one side to resemble a wilderness, and, on the other, open spaces and extensive views. The directors and contrivers of the work were Severus and Celer, who had the genius and the audacity to attempt by art even what nature had refused, and to fool away an emperor’s resources.” (Annals 15.42).
If Nero can be considered the initiator of the Domus Aurea, the design and construction management can be attributed to the ingenious architects Severus and Celer. They knew how to integrate parts of the building already in existence and undamaged by the fire into what was newly constructed, in order to create a high base (basis villae) for the principal floor, as was common for Roman mansions.
The question, however, remains whether all these Neronian buildings were innovative or megalomaniac (or both)? Quite apart from our ignorance about the details, it is difficult to find a suitable comparandum for the Domus Aurea in particular. For the Golden House clearly differs from all known types of villas or town houses. The base (basis villae) consisted of a close succession of chambers, where drinking parties were held. Similar particularities could have also characterized Nero’s country mansions, but while these offer some helpful comparative evidence, many details still elude us.