Sunday, November 15, 2015

Upcoming presentations: Ice cores and dendochronology correlate climate change to human conflict in the ancient world

A history resource article by  © 2015

I received an announcement of two upcoming presentations from researchers at the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) that sound really fascinating.  On Monday, November 16, 2015 Francis Ludlow will present information he has gleaned from the study of tree-ring growth in Ireland and ice core samples then compared to Irish chroniclers' records of severe frosts, droughts, dried rivers and discolored sunsets that shows how short term climate change appears to be a driver of historical conflict and violence using medieval Ireland as an example.

Eric Ellman of the YCEI, explains:

Bloody battles, slave and cattle raids, burning of crops and settlements, and the killings of secular and ecclesiastical elites feature prominently in Ludlow’s review of 1200 years of Irish chroniclers’ accounting of yearly events.  When mapped against tree ring and ice core records he has begun to see a recurring link to between periods of climatic stress and extreme weather, and an increased reporting of violence and conflict [see Figure 1 for one example]. The pathways connecting climate to violence are undoubtedly complex, with cultural and political factors playing a large role and mediating any influence of weather and climate. But the Irish chronicles make abundantly clear how conflict and violence can be triggered by the consequences of extreme weather, with the Annalsof Connacht reporting in 1465 CE howExceeding great frost and snow and stormy weather [occurred] this year, so that no herb grew in the ground and no leaf budded on a tree until the feast of St. Brendan [16th May], but a man, if he were the stronger, would forcibly carry away the food from the priest in church…”. As Ludlow remarks, “it is time to take climatic pressures seriously as a recurring factor in human history.”

Figure 1. Deaths recorded in conflict in the medieval Irish Annals of Ulster, for the years 728 to 748 CE. A notable jump in the death in conflict of members of Irish societal elites coincides with severely depressed Irish oak tree-ring growth in 738 CE, signifying severe drought conditions. 738 CE was also the year of the historically pivotal battle of Áth Senaig (Co. Kildare) that helped re-write the Irish political landscape for centuries to come. (F. Ludlow).

On Tuesday, November 17, 2015 Joseph Manning will present his studies of volcanic eruptions that indicate they triggered revolt and suppressed interstate conflict in Hellenistic Egypt.  

"Manning always suspected that shocks lay behind the problems that the Ptolemaic kings faced in the 3rd century BCE," Ellman observes.  

'We always knew that the Nile deeply effects Egyptian civilization in every way.  But in terms of social dynamics,' Manning says, 'it wasn’t so easy to see.'

Ellman continues, "Until Manning met Ludlow through the YCEI and Whitney Humanities-funded Climate History Initiative.  Ludlow showed him how sulfate levels in ice cores recorded some of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history.  'To my astonishment,' Manning says, 'dozens of them aligned with Egypt’s years of greatest hardship.' 

"The observation complemented historical references to failures of Nile flooding that Manning had collected in a shoebox over his career. Further investigation with atmospheric scientists Bill Boos and Trude Storelvmo suggest a linkage between high-latitude eruptions and Nile flow."

"New precision regarding dates of climate disturbance -- along with other technological advances including the ability to now read charred papyrus records – reveals untold chapters of Egypt’s history.  The 'Revolt of the Shepherds,' the only revolt in Roman Egypt, appears linked to an eruption in AD 168, subsequent cooling and a devastating plague."

"'The new chronology of volcanism,' says Manning, 'opens our eyes to a past we’ve been pretty blind to.' Combined with written archives from the Greco-Roman period, he says, fresh understanding of climate’s history helps to explain food crises, social unrest, political bargaining, and major wars through a new lens."

I wished I lived closer to Yale so I could hear these presentations.  Hopefully, I can obtain a transcript of each of them and share it with you in a future post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: Vespasian: Rome's Executioner by Robert Fabbri

A history resource article by  © 2015

I didn't realize it but I guess I started this series about one of Rome's "good" emperors with book 2 of the series.  However, the story, woven around the downfall of the infamous Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, stood on its own quite nicely.

There is no indication in history that Vespasian and his brother Sabinus conspired with the Lady Antonia, Tiberius' sister-in-law, to overthrow Sejanus to protect the reign of Tiberius.  However, a successful conspiracy is one in which the participants remain anonymous so Fabbri takes advantage of the lack of documentation to creatively spin this tale.

Sejanus was born into the equestrian class in 20 BCE at Volsinii in Etruria.  Sejanus' grandfather had improved the family's social standing by marrying a sister of the wife of Gaius Maecenas, one of the Emperor Augustus' closest political allies.  Sejanus' father, Lucius Seius Strabo, also married well and his uncle Quintus Junius Blaesus distinguished himself as a military commander and became proconsul of Africa in 21 CE.  Junius subsequently earned triumphal honors by crushing the rebellion of Tacfarinas, a Numidian deserter from the Roman Army who led a coalition of rebels against the forces of Rome in north Africa for 10 years.

It is thought Strabo eventually came to the notice of Augustus through his connection to Maecenas. Anyway, sometime after 2 BCE, Strabo, Sejanus' father, was appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

We know little of Sejanus' early career until, according to Tacitus, Sejanus accompanies Gaius Caesar, adopted grandson of Augustus, to Armenia in 1 BCE.  Gaius Caesar dies from wounds supposedly received in a campaign in Artagira, Armenia in 4 CE.  Tacitus suggests there may have been foul play involved in the death of Gaius, orchestrated by Augustus' wife Livia to facilitate the accession of her own son Tiberius to the throne of the Roman principate.  However, Tacitus does not point an accusing finger at Sejanus.  But when Tiberius is crowned emperor in 14 CE, Sejanus is immediately appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard as a colleague of his father.

A young Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in the 1976 production of
"I, Claudius".  Image courtesy of the British Broadcasting Company.
© 1976
Then when Sejanus' father is appointed to the governorship of Egypt in 15 CE, Sejanus assumes sole command of the Praetorians.  He centralizes the guards into a single garrison on the outskirts of Rome, personally appoints the centurions and tribunes and increases the number of cohorts from nine to twelve, resulting in a force of 12,000 soldiers now loyal to him.

Sejanus then conspires with the wife of Drusus, Tiberius' son, to have Drusus poisoned.  But when Sejanus asks permission to marry Drusus' widow, Tiberius ominously warns Sejanus not to overstep his bounds.  So Sejanus sets about sowing unrest between Tiberius and the senate.  Tiberius, already deeply depressed over the loss of his son, finally retreats to Campania in 26 CE then the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus to essentially rule Rome in Tiberius' absence.  Sejanus then sets about eliminating anyone he deems a threat that includes many of the elite.

A bronze statue of the Roman emperor Tiberius (not Augustus)
with head veiled (capite velato) preparing to perform a
religious rite found in Herculaneum 37 CE.  Photographed at
the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014.
While matters were going thus with Sejanus, many of the other prominent men perished, among them Gaius Fufius Geminus. This man, having been accused of maiestas against Tiberius, took his will into the senate-chamber and read it, showing that he had left his inheritance in equal portions to his children and to the emperor. Upon being charged with cowardice, he went home before a vote was taken; then, when he learned that the quaestor had arrived to look after his execution, he wounded himself, and showing the wound to the official, exclaimed: “Report to the senate that it is thus one dies who is a man.” Likewise his wife, Mutilia Prisca, against whom some complaint had been lodged, entered the senate chamber and there stabbed herself with a dagger, which she had brought in secretly. - Cassius Dio, History of Rome, 58.4
Sejanus was so great a person by reason both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power, that, to put it briefly, he himself seemed to be emperor and Tiberius a kind of island potentate, inasmuch as the latter spent his time on the island of Capreae. - Cassius Dio, History of Rome, 58.5

Sejanus is wielding this immense power when Fabbri's story begins in Thrace where Vespasian is completing his appointment as tribune.  The plot involves Sejanus' funding of a rebellion in Thrace as a strategy to weaken the empire and redirect the attention of the legions from politics in Rome to the provinces. The groundwork for these clandestine activities may have been laid in Book 1 but I had to simply accept them as described as I had not read book 1 and have not found any references to them in the ancient sources.

A portrait bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
Photographed near the Forum Romanun
in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Fabbri's pacing of the story is good and the characters thoughtfully fleshed out.  The only thing I found a bit distracting was Vespasian's use of colloquial language such as referring to "me mates".  I realize Vespasian was born into a rather undistinguished family of tax farmers and debt collectors in a little village northeast of Rome but I think he would have tried to speak in a more educated manner in the presence of military legates and a Thracian queen.

The constant bickering between Vespasian and his brother Sabinus also grew tiresome, especially since I know the two Flavian brothers were actually quite close and during the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian entrusted the care of his youngest son Domitian to Sabinus during a very dangerous period.  But, soon the action kicked into high gear and there wasn't much time for the siblings to snipe at each other any more.

Vespasian's relationship to Antonia's slave Caenis was also more out in the open than it was portrayed in Lindsey Davis' book, "The Course of Honor".  Their little trysts did provide the opening for the development of another strong female character, however, so I can understand why Fabbri plotted the story in this way.

Vespasian is portrayed as being a childhood friend of Caligula's and, although there is no evidence of this in the ancient sources, the plot device worked well to provide an inside source in Tiberius' household on Capri to enable the band of rescuers access to the emperor.

Fabbri developed Tiberius' character as described by his detractors, Suetonius and Tacitus - a sinister demented pervert.  I personally think Suetonius and Tacitus' accounts of Tiberius' behavior in his last years are full of discrepancies and represent more character assassination than fact (See my article "Sexual innuendo and character assassination in the ancient world".)

But, from a dramatic standpoint, such a character definitely adds a heightened level of suspense to the narrative.

Fabbri appears to have intentionally changed one aspect of history.  Early in his career Vespasian obtained a post as a minor magistrate in the vigintivirate.  In the book, Vespasian becomes a tresviri capitales, one of three magistrates charged with managing prisons and the execution of criminals. This places him in a key position to be informed of the Senate proceedings surrounding the treason of Sejanus (since he is not a senator himself) and to witness both the execution of Sejanus and his eldest son as well as the tragic execution of Sejanus' young children (and provide the title for the book). Scholars, however, think Vespasian served as a quattuorviri viis in urbe purgandis - one of four magistrates charged with road maintenance within the city of Rome.  He was so unsuccessful in this position it is said the emperor Caligula publicly stuffed fistfuls of muck down Vespasian's toga because the streets were so filthy.

All in all, though, the novel followed the history of the fall of Sejanus quite closely including the dramatic climax and the fates of key characters.  I will definitely add the first book of the series and the sequel to this novel to my "to read" stack!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction by Karen Radner

A history resource article by  © 2015

Years ago I somehow acquired the idea that the Assyrians were a fierce and brutal warrior society whose military had conquered much of the ancient Near East that lay between the kingdoms of Ur and the mighty Hittite Empire of Anatolia.  This idea was reinforced when I visited such museums as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago and the British Museum in London and viewed the awesome reliefs and monumental winged Lammasu, an Asssyrian protective deity usually depicted with the body of a lion or ox, the head of a human and the wings of a raptor, that once adorned the palaces of Assyrian kings like Ashurnasirpal II.

Recently, though, Oxford Press sent me a review copy of a small book by Karen Radner entitled Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction and I finally had a chance to explore this culture in greater depth.  What I discovered was the Assyrians had a very sophisticated culture, enjoying fine wines, a fresh water supply, indoor toilets and a well-functioning sewage system.  Sounds rather Roman doesn't it?  But the Assyrian culture was founded in the 3rd millenium BCE although it didn't reach its apex until the 1st millenium BCE.

The Lamassu a human-headed winged bull figure from the palace of
King Sargon II in his capital city of Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) stands
16 ft tall and weighs 40 tons.  Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch © 2009
I learned the Assyrians enacted consumer protection for the buyers of their goods and even offered extended warranties although we usually don't think of these extending to the sales of human beings (slave sales were subject to a 100-day guarantee against epilepsy and mental instability!)

They were rather protective of some of their inventions, though.  Assyrians invented the foldable parasol but its use was restricted to royalty on pain of death!

The Assyrians were not all that brutal in the conduct of warfare either, although they were highly skilled in the use of chariots and clearly embraced nuanced deployments of chariot, cavalry, archers, slingers and infantry.  The Assyrians were more interested in obtaining human resources from their conquered lands than in wholesale slaughter.  Skilled craftsman and educated scholars would be sorted out and relocated to the Assyrian heartland, initially centered on the religious capital of Assur.  Although slaves were sometimes taken, most conquered laborers were often relocated to areas needing colonization.

Babylonian city under seige by the Assyrians Nimrud Palace 728 BCE
Photographed at the British Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2006

"It has been calculated on the basis of references in the royal inscriptions that  4,400,000 + or - 900,000 people were relocated from the mid-9th to the mid-7th century BC, of which 85% were settled in central Assyria - a gigantic number, especially in a world whose population was a small fraction of today's.  For all of these people resettlement was meant to provide a better future while at the same time benefitting the empire.  Of course, their relocation was at the same time an effective way of minimizing the risk of rebellion against the central authority." - Karen Radner, Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction

These conquered colonists were well provisioned and reliefs depict them without fetters.  An 8th century BCE letter from an official to King Tiglath-Pileser III, details the provisions allocated to a group of settlers from western Syria:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has written to me: 'Prepare them for their journey!' I shall give them their food supplies, clothes, a waterskin, a pair of shoes and oil.  I do not have my donkeys yet, but once they are available, I will dispatch my convoy."

Deportation of conquered Iraqi people after defeat by Tilgeth Pileser III of
Assyria Nimrud Palace 728 BCE.  Photographed at the British Museum by
Mary Harrsch © 2006
Once the new colonists reached their destination, the king provided further support:

"As for the Arameans about whom the king my lord has said: 'They are to have wives!' We found numerous suitable women but their fathers refuse to give them in marriage, claiming: 'We will not consent unless they can pay the bride price.'  Let them be paid so that the Arameans can get married."

Obviously the king wanted the colony to be a successful community of thriving families.

Although the above passage makes women appear to be chattel this was not necessarily the case, either.  Assyrian women were allowed to engage in business and I read that if the male head-of-household ended up fathering a child with a slave, the husband could not choose to adopt the child without his wife's consent.  So women obviously had some rights.

From the text, it appears average Assyrians were primarily monogamous although traders gone from home for extended periods sometimes took a secondary wife in one of the cities along their trade route.  However, such secondary wives never took precedent over the first wife.

Knowledge was revered in Assyria, so much so that by the 9th century BCE Assyrian King Assurbanipal II is depicted in reliefs in the North Palace in Nineveh with a writing stylus tucked into his belt, instead of the more usual knife.  The Assyrian's great library was already in existence in the 13th century BCE, almost a thousand years before the Great Library of Alexandria.  Radner tells us that when King Tukulti-Ninurta I sacked Babylon in the 13th century BCE, he records that  he brought back library tablets to add to his holdings.  Scholars estimate that the library collection probably extended all the way back to the 14th century BCE under the reign of King Assur-Uballit I.

A statue of Assyrian king Assurbanipal II outside the entrance
to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, California.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2006

So obviously I found Radner's little tome brimming with information punctuated by actual quotations from translated cuneiform tablets of the period.  She also included some black-and-white images, diagrams of excavated structures, maps, a timeline, a recommended reading list and index.  I must admit I struggled a bit with Assyrian names and the fact that Assyrian archaeological sites like Nimrud had a totally different name in antiquity (ancient Kalhu).  Organizationally, I would have found it easier to follow a more linear presentation of material about the administration and achievements of specific rulers, but, I still found the book to be a welcome addition to my resource library.

Although this is the first book of this series I have ever seen here in the states, Oxford produces a number of them on a variety of topics.  They kindly sent me another one on Roman Britain that I look forward to reading as well.

To learn more about ancient Mesopotamia, I suggest the Great Courses lecture series:

Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

Or the following books:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

How did the ancients colorfast their textiles?

A history resource article by  © 2015

Today, I received an email about a new exhibition of Indian textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  As I read through the article and admired photographs of the beautiful clothing and fabrics on display I was particularly intrigued by a statement that a young Frenchman, Antoine de Beaulieu, an employee of the French Compagnie des Indes had committed industrial espionage to learn the secrets of Indian dyeing techniques.  He discovered the Indians used metallic salts, called mordants, that, when combined with dyes, formed an insoluble compound on natural fibers making textiles both colorful and colorfast.

French "Indienne", "Le Grand Corail", a printed or painted textile in the manner of Indian productions, which used mordants to fix the dyes.  Photographed at the Musée du textile de Wesserling, Alsace, France by Rémi Stosskopf.  Image released
to the public domain.
The article mentioned that the use of mordants was known in the Mediterranean world (and apparently India) in ancient times but had been lost to Europe for centuries.  Naturally, this made me curious to learn more about it.

Many of us who study ancient history have read about the production of the highly valued purple dye from snail shells and how it was sought after for imperial robes and senatorial toga stripes.  But I hadn't really considered what had to be done to make such colorful garments colorfast.  Considering fullers' use of strong chemical baths incorporating urine, colorfastness of dyed fabrics had to have been important.

The fullonica (laundry) of Greek freedman Stephanos in
Pompeii, Italy.  Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2005
So, I began my research into the history of mordants (sometimes spelled mordents).  I discovered that some of the ancient recipes for mordants were found in a stash of papyri recovered in 1828 (presumably by grave robbers) from burial sites near Thebes in central Egypt.  The scrolls, tentatively dated to the late 3rd or early 4th century CE (Greco-Roman Period), were written in Greek.  The sheets of papyri were in excellent condition, probably originally placed in sealed containers as part of a funerary offering gift for use in the afterlife.

Initially, the recipes were thought to be "alchemical" in nature - recipes used for the magical transformation of metals.  A portion of the original sheets were sent to the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Leyden in 1929 and the balance were shipped off to the Swedish Royal Academy of Antiquities in 1932.  Since the papers at the University of Leyden had been catalogued as alchemical, they did not draw much attention from chemical historians until the papyri were finally translated into Latin in 1885.  The papyri at the Swedish Royal Academy of Antiquities languished until they were finally translated in 1913 and associated with the Leyden scrolls by Austrian chemist and historian Edmund von Lippmann.  In 1924, Englishman John Maxson Stillman published "Story of Early Chemistry" combining informaton from both sets of documents.  This text remains one of the most widely studied books on classical chemistry.

"As a reading of these translations quickly reveals, neither papyrus contains the mystical symbolism and allegorical indirection so typical of the true alchemical literature. Rather they consist largely of simple, short recipes. In the case of the Leyden papyrus these focus primarily on the preparation of various metal alloys – many of which are intended to imitate the appearance of either gold or silver – for use in making jewelry, in gilding, or in metallic writing, while a few others deal instead with dyes of various sorts. The contents of the Stockholm papyrus have the same form, but focus more on dyeing and the imitation of various precious stones and gems. " - William Jensen, The Leyden and Stockholm papyri: Greco-Egyptian chemical documents from the early 4th century AD

As it turns out, though, these papyri aren't the oldest references to dyeing and the imitation of gemstones, either.  In 1925 British Assyriologist R. Campbell Thompson and German Assyriologist H. Zimmern each independently published translations of several cuneiform tablets dating from the 7th century BCE containing practical recipes for the preparation of colored glasses.

Cuneiform tablet from Assyrian trading post Anatolia,
circa 1875-1840 B.C. Photographed at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art by Mary Harrsch © 2005
We also have a reference in Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historiae, written two centuries before the Leyden and Stocklholm papyri, describing the commercial production of counterfeit gems and precious stones using dyes in the 1st century CE:

"Nay, even more than this, there are books in existence, the authors of which I forbear to name, which give instructions how to stain crystal in such a way as to imitate smaragdus and other transparent stones, how to make sardonyx of sarda, and other gems in a similar manner. Indeed, there is no other kind of fraud practiced by which larger profits are made." - Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historiae

But, Pliny was most amazed by Egyptian dyeing processes that used mordants to obtain color variations in textiles using the same dye solution:

"In Egypt garments are dyed according to a remarkable process. They are first cleaned, then soaked, not in dye, but in various substances that absorb dye. These substances do not at first show in the materials, but when the materials have been dipped into the dyeing tun, they can be removed, after being stirred about, completely dyed. The most wonderful thing about this is that, although the tun contains only one kind of dye, the materials suddenly appear dyed different colors, according to the nature of the dye-absorbing substances used, and these colors are not only resistant to washing, but materials so dyed actually wear better." - Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historiae

A fresco from the Fullonica of  Verania Hypsaeus in Pompeii
 depicting the cleaning of fabric 1st century CE.
Unfortunately, counterfeiting gems must have been a relatively successful and problematic activity across the Roman Empire because the emperor Diocletian issued an edict  around 290 CE ordering the destruction of all documents relating to the manufacture and imitation of gold and silver to prevent the debasement of currency and the funding of insurrections.  This information was included in the same compendiums as the use of mordants and dyes in the textile industry.  So these valuable processes were lost to the west in what must have become a Roman book burning.

So, what did the ancients use to produce these marvelous results?  According to William B. Jensen of the University of Cincinnati,  105 materials of mineral origin, 88 of plant origin, and 16 of animal origin were included in recipes contained in The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. Among the most frequently cited in the mineral category are alum, copper, crystal, and gold (though often as a color rather than as a material), whereas alkanet, archil and especially vinegar are the winners in the plant category, and urine and wool in the animal category.

If you're into recreation of textiles processed with these ancient methods, the recipes are available in English in "The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri: Greco-Egyptian Chemical Documents From the early 4th Century AD" by William B. Jensen.

The Fabric of India exhibit will be on display from October 3, 2015 - January 10, 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Caley, E., & Jensen, W. (2008). The Leyden and Stockholm papyri: Greco-Egyptian chemical documents from the early 4th century AD. Cinncinatti, Ohio: University of Cinncinatti.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Was Nero's Domus Aurea as big as the ancient sources claim?

A history resource article by  © 2015

I really enjoyed reading the article about the restoration of Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurea, in the September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine.  I especially appreciated the pictures as both times I have attempted to tour the Domus Aurea I have been thwarted.  In 2005, there was a sign at the entrance saying the site would open in the afternoon but when I went back to the entrance at the designated time, no one was around.  The second time I returned to Rome in 2009 I was told the Domus Aurea was deemed unsafe to visit and closed for repairs.

High vaulted ceilings of the Domus Aurea must have given a feeling of insignificance
to visitors.  Photographed by Mauro Orlando © 2015.  Reproduced with permission
via cc by-nc-nd 2.0.

According to the article, the structure suffered extensive damage from vineyards that were planted atop Nero's buried  palace in the 18th century.  A large public park was also built over the site in 1871 and enlarged by Benito Mussolini in the mid 20th century.  All of the plants and trees' roots have broken the ancient mortar between the stones of Trajan's baths sitting atop the palace and chemical compounds released by the roots have seeped down into underlying structures as well.

Just the sheer weight of all the plants is placing a strain on the palace's structures even though the innovative flat arches and brick-faced concrete support structures are among some of the strongest of the ancient world.  The article mentioned a laurel tree that weighed over 30,000 pounds when it was removed and I remember standing by one about that size when I was there.

I was under the impression that most of the beautiful frescoes that inspired the artists of the Renaissance had crumbled from the walls but I see by the pictures in the article some are actually still intact!

Delicate floral patterns and mythological beings on a white background seen in frescoes of the Domus Aurea inspired decor throughout the Roman Empire including the Temple of Isis in Pompeii.  Photographed by Francois Spilliaert © 2011.
Reproduced with permission via cc by-NC 2.0.

I think there are a lot of misimpressions about the Domus Aurea that architectural researchers hope to clear up once they have an opportunity to explore the remains more thoroughly.  The construction of the Domus Aurea is one of the key events leading to the downfall of the Roman emperor Nero.  The size of the structure alone was used to accuse Nero of causing the great fire of 64 CE so he could build a spacious new palace and "live like a human being".  But was the structural portion of his original Domus Aurea really that big?

In his 1981 journal article "The Domus Aurea Reconsidered", P. Gregory Warden points out that the Domus Aurea was essentially a landscape park in which the architectural components were subordinated to a greater landscape design.  Although earlier scholarship tried to estimate an overall size of 80 hectares of land, Warden suggests the complex covered a much smaller area about half that size.  He also points out that architectural remains in the Esquiline wing, essentially the only extant portion of the palace, indicate it is not even entirely Neronian.  He claims the eastern section is Flavian in date.

Furthermore, much of the Domus Aurea was actually rebuilt over Nero's original palace, the Domus Transitoria as shown in the Archaeology article.  I originally read this in a book and was surprised since it appears to contradict claims that he cleared the center of Rome for his own use, contrary to ancient propaganda.  The expansive gardens, animal menagerie and artificial lake adjacent to the palace did consume quite a bit of property but they were open to the public sort of like Central Park in New York.

In his 1960 text, "The Golden House of Nero", scholar Axel Boethius distinguished between peristyle and portico villas and described the Domus Aurea as the portico type.  Warden summarizes Boethius' views:

"Lavish portico villas of the 1st century A.D., with spectacular views of the mountains or seacoast, are commonly shown in Campanian paintings.  They had also been built by emperors before Nero, although, of course, never in Rome.  Nero, however, did much more than import a landscape villa into the heart of Rome; the audacity of his design, or at least the design of his planners, Severus and Celer, was that he imported the landscape as well.  He took advantage of the devastations of the great fire of 64, combined new land with Imperial possessions, probably usurping some private holdings and public monuments as well, turned them all into a large park.  The entire complex, as Boethius noted, was much more than a villa, or architecturally perhaps much less; it was a landscape park in which the villa was but a component.  Buildings, perhaps more correctly termed "pavilions," would have been scattered about, and the individual sections would have been linked conceptually rather than physically." - P. Gergory Warden, The Domus Aurea Reconsidered

With this type of arrangement, determining the size of the actual Domus Aurea has proved challenging.  Warden says there has been too much reliance on a topographical study by C.C. Van Essen published in 1954.  Since that time, whenever a new structure was found within the area described by Van Essen as the Domus Aurea, structures have been accepted as such based on topography alone.

"However, if we examine these fragments of what is purported to be the Domus Aurea, we find a confusing diversity of construction techniques and architectural styles." Warden says.

One such example is the nymphaeum found at the intersection of the Vile del Monte Oppio and the Via delle Terme di Traiano.  Although designated as part of the Domus Aurea, the nymphaeum is not aligned with the Domus Aurea and none of the brickwork appears to be Neronian.

"The nymphaeum is roofed with an elaborate system of groin vaults," Warden explains, "In the entire Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea there are only two groin vaults, considered the earliest existing examples of their kind, and they are found in the eastern part of the building, a section whose date, as we shall see, is problematical'.

I realize most of us are not architects, so, what is a groin vault?  In his excellent lecture, "Construction Revolution - Arches and Concrete", part of the Great Courses series Understanding Greek and Roman Technology: From Catapult to the Pantheon, Professor Stephen Ressler of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, explains that a groin vault is the shape formed when two barrel vaults intersect.  He then demonstrates how the Romans used concrete poured over a wooden frame to create a groin vault.  (Professor Ressler uses models throughout his course to demonstrate construction processes and I find them quite helpful to understand various Roman engineering techniques.)

Groin vaults were used extensively in the construction of Trajan's Market particularly the aulus portion but were not characteristic of Neronian architecture or the western portion of the Domus Aurea.  Warden also notes that all three of the brickstamps found at the nymphaeum are Trajanic in date.

Warden contends that nothing north of the Esquiline wing can be safely attributed to the Golden House.  Apparently buildings to the east of the site of the artificial lake have been found to be from a later date as well.

Lavishly decorated vaulted ceiling in the Domus Aurea circa 1999.  Photographed by Jacqueline Poggi © 1999.
Reproduced with permission via cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Warden admits there are many Neronian-era structures on the Palatine but thinks they should probably be attributed to the Domus Transitoria although a cryptoporticus linking them may have been built in conjunction with the Domus Aurea.

In 2009, Roman archaeologists excavating the Domus Aurea found remains of what they think may have been Nero's famous rotating dining room on the Palatine Hill.

"The rotating dining room had a diameter of more than 50ft and rested upon a 13ft-wide pillar and four spherical mechanisms that rotated the structure.  
The mechanism was a feat of Roman engineering, and moved thanks to the spheres beneath the wooden floor of the room, kept in constant movement by water being forced against them. Quite how this worked is still being researched. 
Experts believe the dining room could be up to 60m long, but have so far uncovered several supporting pillars, one 4m in diameter, as well as a perimeter wall. 
Archaeologist Maria Antonietta Tomei told how it was the circular shape of the building and the stone spheres that led the team to believe they had found the rotating dining room."  - Nick Pisa and Claire Bates, Roman Emperor Nero's legendary rotating dining room uncovered by archaeologists, The Daily Mail, September 30, 2009.

But, If you read Suetonius' biography of Nero, his distinction between structures within the Domus Transitoria and the subsequent Domus Aurea is a bit hazy.

"There was nothing more ruinously wasteful however than his project to build a palace extending from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he first called ‘The Passageway’, but after it had burned down shortly after completion and been re-built, ‘The Golden House’. The following details will give a good idea of its size and splendour...Inside there was gold everywhere, with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining rooms whose ceilings were of fretted ivory, with rotating panels that could rain down flowers, and concealed sprinklers to shower the guests with perfume. The main banqueting hall was circular with a revolving dome, rotating day and night to mirror the heavens." - Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Nero, Book Six: XXXI 

Furthermore, Warden says literary sources point to Neronian builders focusing their efforts on areas other than the Palatine.

"There are also undoubtedly remains of Neronian structures to the south, on the edges of the Caelian in the area of the Temple of the Deified Claudius," Warden writes, "These Neronian works ...are considered to have been more like facades and porticoes with elaborate hydraulic works than buildings proper."

So, according to Warden, an analysis of the topology would indicate the Domus Aurea was centered on the artificial lake and hugged the slopes of the surrounding hills where structures there were hardly more than theatrical facades for elaborate landscape effects.

View of the Colosseum, once Nero's artificial lake, from the Domus Aurea.  Photographed by Jean-Pierre Dalbera © 2011
Reproduced with permission via cc by 2.0.

Then Warden tackles issues with differences in construction and the chronology of extant remains.

He points out that the most obvious differences in the remains on the Esquiline are the fact that the western section of the complex is primarily rectilinear with a porticoed southern facade and relatively traditional while the eastern half of the complex is structurally complex with its octagonal room with flat arches and a domed concrete ceiling with oculus, groin-vaulted subsidiary rooms and an apsed nymphaeum.

Innovative flat arches and concrete domed ceiling with oculus of the spacious
octagonal reception room of the Domus Aurea.  Photographed by Jacqueline Poggi © 1999.Reproduced with permission via cc by-nc-nd 2.0

The two sections are also fused awkwardly and there is a distinctive difference in mortar color from one section to the next.

"Some of the brickwork of the Esquiline wing is very similar to brickwork in the Colosseum," Warden observes. " least some of the brickwork of the Esquiline wing is probably Flavian in date.  The crucial question is whether the later brickwork represents minor alterations or an entire building phase."

The degree of decoration may also point to later construction in the eastern section.

"...the concrete dome of the octagonal room still shows signs of the planks of the wooden armature onto which it was cast.  Further, there is no evidence that the concrete of the dome was ever stuccoed or revetted.  While this eastern section may never have been finished, the western section was not only completed but also fully decorated, and it was also extensively restored in later, probably Flavian times."

Although Nero dedicated the Domus Aurea before his death, it, like many buildings in antiquity that were dedicated before completion, may not, in fact, have been completed.  Suetonius, in his biography of Otho, mentions that Otho put aside 50 million sesterces for the completion of the Domus Aurea.  This would indicate that it was not finished at the time of Nero's death.

Detail of a fresco in the Domus Aurea.  Photographed by Francois Spilliaert © 2011.
Reproduced with permission via cc by-NC 2.0

Cassius Dio recounted that Galeria, the wife of Vitellius, found the place too gloomy for her taste and that Vespasian preferred the Horti Sallustiani instead.    Pliny the Elder notes that the famous sculpture of the Laocoon, reported found in either the Termae Traiani or the Domus Aurea, resided in the palace of Titus.  Since this structure has never been identified, some scholars think the eastern part of the Domus Aurea may have been identified as the Domus Titi.

The Trojan Priest Laocoon and his sons attacked by sea snakes because Laocoon had tried to warn
the Trojan citizens of the danger of bringing in the wooden horse.  This sculptural group was found
"in the palace of Titus" in the general area of the Domus Aurea in 1506.  Photographed by
Mary Harrsch at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City © 2005

Warden points to one more literary source indicating a portion of the Domus Aurea was, in fact, Flavian.

"The complex spatial planning of the eastern half would accord well with our view of Flavian architecture, and in support of a Flavian date there is one more piece of evidence. Eusebius, writing at the beginning of the 4th century A.D., mentions in a long list of Flavian monuments a certain Mica Aurea, the remains of which have not been identified. It has been suggested by A.M. Colini, on the basis of the name, that the Mica Aurea could have been a pavilion or a section of the Domus Aurea which was restored under Domitian."

As an architectural historian, Warden raises the question that if the eastern section of the Esquiline wing of the Domus Aurea is not the work of Nero's famous architects, Severus and Celer, but is instead the work of Domitian's architect, Rabirius, historians should perhaps not view the original Domus Aurea as the revolutionary structure marking the turning point of Roman architectural engineering when concrete replaced opus quadratum as the material of choice "to express newer and freer definitions of interior space".

As a student of Roman politics, I think this entire discussion makes me wonder if most of the hype around Nero's lavish lifestyle was just one more example of imperial Roman propaganda used to villify yet another deposed emperor!


Warden, P. (1981). The Domus Aurea Reconsidered. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 40(4), 271-278. Retrieved September 7, 2015, from

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