Armed figure with panther, detail of one of the frescoes in the 'Sphinx Room' of Domus Aurea.

The secret 'Sphinx Room'

A hidden room has been discovered inside Emperor Nero's magnificent palace in Rome, the fabled Domus Aurea (Golden Palace). Archaeologists working on the restoration of the palace complex, built between AD 64 and 68 and now buried under the present-day Colle Oppio in front of the Colosseum, unexpectedly came across an opening leading to a rectangular room covered with faint but vivid wall paintings. Only the fairly well-preserved barrel vault of the airless space was clearly visible because it was almost completely filled with earth and rubble that needs to be excavated before its full splendour can be seen.

The use of flashlights revealed images of creatures, mythical and natural, pictured within red-edged squares and yellow-ochre and golden bands punctuated by a series of floral motifs on a white background, which helped to lighten dark inner rooms. Each square contains delicate paintings of wild beasts, including panthers and birds, and mythological beings, such as centaurs, and the god of Nature, Pan. Around them are friezes of aquatic creatures and thin green, red and yellow garlands. Fragments of painted architectural elements create a trompe l'oeil effect surmounted by a gilded patera, a ceremonial plate hung with a garland. Next to it stands a sphinx over what looks like a baetyl

(a sacred conical stone used in special rituals); the secret chamber has now been aptly named the 'Sphinx Room'.
The subject matter and the style of the paintings are similar to those in the other rooms already excavated within the huge palace complex that included a grand dining-room. Here, the eccentric Emperor Nero (AD 37–68) entertained his guests under a rotating star-studded dome.

After Nero died, his successors tried to destroy all traces of his existence. Emperor Trajan (AD 53–117) had the Domus Aurea covered over with earth and monumental public baths built over it. Then Emperor Vespasian (AD 9–79) built the Colosseum on the park and over the ornamental lake fronting Nero's palace. Over the centuries, the site was abandoned and, today, only a small number of its grand halls and corridors have been excavated from under the hillside that covers it. The team of architects and archaeologists working on the Domus Aurea to secure it from seepage from the gardens and ruins that stand on top of it, will continue to excavate and to restore of this section of the palace.

It is thought that the newly discovered room might even date to an older structure built at the time of the Emperor Claudius (10 BC–AD 54) and later incorporated into the palace. The quest continues to reveal all the elements of an incomparable stage set built for a megalomaniac emperor who was also a gifted patron of the arts.


Dalu Jones