Rogues Gallery Uncovered
Nero's Golden House Party - Emperor Nero
Rogues Gallery Uncovered
Bad behaviour in period costume
A non-judgmental excavation into the scandalous lives of history’s greatest libertines’ lotharios and complete bastards
This podcast contains adult themes and a touch of colourful language – if this is likely to offend crouch beneath a sturdy table until help arrives.
NERO’S GOLDEN HOUSE PARTY
EMPEROR Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
The following tale is written in the present tense of the period in which its set…. and as such, may contain attitudes and opinions of the protagonists and their times which would today be considered unacceptable.
as i am not a hard partying ancient roman these opinions are obviously not mine
Whose idea of a party was that?
What a waste of time.
I thought it would be like one of those old Bacchanalian do’s – before they got outlawed. Flowing rivers of wine and lots of juicy coupling, but no.
I’d have had more fun, hanging out with a bunch of Christians – and you know how dull they are.
I mean, you don’t get asked to one of Emperor Nero’s gatherings every day, especially not at The Golden House. I was well excited when I got the invite.
Do you remember four years ago during the Saturnalia when he threw a party for the whole city?
I had food poisoning so I missed it but I heard that he handed out gold pieces to every citizen, ordering them to spend it on nothing but pleasure.
There were boats full of prostitutes anchored in the reservoir, arranged in order of Age, Sex, and “Specialities.”
My mates spoke of nothing else for weeks afterwards – one of them could hardly walk.
At the end of the day, the Emperor put on a wedding dress and married some bloke called Pythagoras. Then the two of them vigorously consummated the nuptials for all to see.
That’s how you throw a party.
After that, everyone was calling Nero a "born entertainer" and I was determined not to miss out on the fun a second time.
I feel like a right fool now.
I tell you one thing though, that Domus Aurea is one hell of a place – it makes your villa look a bit shit.
It must have cost Nero a fortune.
Imagine the biggest palace you’ve ever seen and then cover the walls in gold.
It’s like a little city set in one hundred and twenty-five acres of land, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hills. All sprawled around this huge manmade lake.
To get there you have to walk through luscious private gardens full of fruit trees……pasture land full of farm animals…….vineyards full of grapes and wheat fields full of, ….well, wheat.... obviously.
There’s even a private zoo full of..... Jupiter knows what, but the creatures are from all over the empire.
They reckon Nero emptied the entire city's treasuries just to build it, and this just after the big fire.
That was his opportunity you see. He confiscated the land from the aristocrats who owned it and then got an army of builders to work night and day for four years to build it.
Apparently when his funhouse was finished Nero said, “Good, now I can at least begin to live like a human being!” Bear in mind that he's the Emperor of Rome and had hardly been spending his time before, living in an outhouse.
I wonder what a freedman who’d just seen everything he owned go up in flames would have said in reply? Nothing if he valued his life.
I thought the Emperor might be a bit flash when I rocked up the “mile-long colonnaded pathway” to the entrance and saw this 120-foot tall bronze statue of him looking down on me.
His “Colossus Neronis” is perched on a bloody great plinth that’s taller than two men on its own. I mean who needs a 120 ft statue of themselves?
Actually, it looks a bit like the sun god “Sol” so if the Senate ever want to reuse it, once Nero’s dead that might save them a few sesterces.
Anyway, the closer I get I realise that some of the walls aren’t just covered in gold but in precious stones too. I thought “This’ll be a good night” - like the time Caligula turned his palace into a brothel and then declared himself a god. I wish I’d been to that.
So, I walk In and the feast is in full swing. Everyone’s tucking into stuffed sow's wombs, peacock tongues, and roasted dormice.
As usual, you are expected to gorge yourself until you can’t eat any more then puke into one of the special bowls the host leaves lying around. After that, you can get stuck in again.
If it wasn't for those bowls the front of my toga would look like a mosaic floor. I always feel sorry for the poor slave who has to crawl around with a cloth, mopping up after those who fail to reach them.
Of course, at a normal feast, you might make your excuses and pop to the lavatory in order to throw up your ostrich eggs but the golden house doesn’t have any. Three hundred rooms and nowhere to have a crap.
There are huge baths where you can relax in water heated by underground springs and brought directly to the building by aqueduct. But in a palace full of drunk and food-stuffed people with no toilets, I’m not sure how much fun a dip in those would be.
With all the tinkling fountains and fragrant pools, I had to keep popping outside myself…apart from on a couple of occasions when I used an empty wine jug.
There are no bedrooms either - even Nero doesn’t sleep here. The whole place is dedicated to partying and not an inch of it is wasted – not even on kitchens. All the food is prepared elsewhere and carried in.
If I had to sum it up I'd say it’s basically a two-story palace of endless dining rooms, in a state of permanent celebration.
Most of the rooms have got inlaid ivory roofs which have sliding panels built into them. Every so often they open up and you get sprayed with perfume from little sprinklers or showered with falling rose petals.
I didn’t mind the floral smell but after a while, I couldn’t see what I was eating because it was covered in bloody plant life.
The bloke lying next to me said that at one party so many rose petals fell from the ceiling that some poor guy got smothered in them and suffocated. I’m not sure if I believe him though, he was a bit pissed.
But the best room in the house is the “Coenatio Rotunda,” the main banqueting hall. It’s this absolutely enormous circular building, covered by a huge dome.
The dome's wide open at the top - so as you sit there you can see the heavens.
The weirdest thing is that while you are eating you notice that the room is slowly rotating. It's turning constantly day and night. Apparently, the whole building mirrors the exact movement of the sun and the moon.
It brilliant but I’m not sure how it all works. The floor sits on these rolling stone balls so that's how it can physically. But as for what actually does the turning, your guess is as good as mine.
I assumed it was cranked by slaves although I did hear someone say that Nero had special canals built under the floor, so maybe the turning mechanism is powered by flowing water. Either way, it's bloody impressive.
So, I’m sat there trying not to get dizzy and marvelling at all the architecture. I thought, "It won't be long then the fun will start" but it was all bloody poets, musicians and actors, and I’m like “Where are the whores?”
I know lots of people who don’t live in Rome think we spend all our time having orgies. You and I both know that’s rubbish.
Group sex isn’t the done thing in houses of quality, although if I’m visiting a brothel and some extra girls or boys want to share my couch to join in the fun I don’t say no…who does?
But I thought because Nero was “artistic” that he’d at least be a little bit decadent. I should have stayed at home.
The Emperor stands in the centre of the room and instead of getting his kit off starts playing the bloody lyre..... for five hours. He thinks he’s some kind of heavenly musician who packs out amphitheatres. I don’t know much about art but I can tell you this …he shouldn’t give up his day job.
When it’s finally over I think “Right, now here we go” but he starts reciting poetry and he’s an even worse poet than he is a lyre player.
He's not daft though, he had all the doors locked so no one could leave. Talk about a captive audience.
I’ve heard that one woman forced herself to give birth just to avoid having to sit through one of Nero’s poetry recitals. Several otherwise hale and hearty men pretended to collapse and die so they would be carried out.
After a few more hours, I certainly felt like giving that a go I can tell you.
Suddenly the room begins filling up with pretty girls and boys who start mingling and flirting with the guests. The prostitutes…. at last.
In a daze, I selected one of each and was just settling into an alcove for some private time when Nero shouts. “The sun is setting, come and see how I illuminate my garden.”
I didn't really have much choice, so I tucked my men tu la away, fastened my tunic, and traipsed off outside.
At first, I think that the bundles of sack tied to wooden posts are some kind of rustic decoration. Then one of them starts sobbing and begging for mercy and I realise that they are actually Christians rolled in tar.
You know how much Nero hates Christians. He blames them for everything, which I think is bit unfair. Not that the Roman mob gives a toss. Give them a scapegoat to blame their shitty lives on and they're as happy as Pan.
Anyway, Nero claps his hands and all the “Torches” were lit. I'll be honest, the fires certainly brightened up the garden, - you could see to read if you wanted to. The screams of the men and women burning to death though kind of spoiled the effect for me, so I went back inside.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Nero’s got a cruel streak. He poisoned his aunt with a fatal laxative and kicked his pregnant second wife, Poppaea, to death just for complaining that he was home late from the races.
I believe that was one kicking that deep down he always regretted, and I’ll tell you why. When he married his third wife, Messalina – after forcing her husband to commit suicide mind you - he found a feminine looking lad named Sporus who also looked a bit like Poppaea and married him as well. That was the second time he’d done that, only this time Sporus wore the dress.
You've got to feel for the lad. Nero had him castrated before the wedding so he’d be even more like his ex-wife. That said, the big day was quite the public celebration…not sure how much Sporus enjoyed it though.
So, I go back inside and try and get my two companions to give me the seeing too which, by now, I so desperately need. Out of the blue one of them - the woman I think - starts going on about Nero’s party trick.
Apparently, if an evening isn’t as much fun as he thinks it should be he covers himself in animal skins and has himself locked in a metal cage. He then has Christian prisoners (obviously) tied to wooden stakes in front of the cage door.
Then he starts growling and snarling like some kind of wild animal and when he has worked himself up into a right old state one of his slaves unlocks his cage and out he bounds on all fours.
If you’re one of the Christians you might think this behaviour a little weird perhaps even a bit funny. Then he sinks his teeth into your nethers and savages your genitals till they’re nothing more than bloody scraps.
That wipes the smile off your face.
I guess he’s re-enacting how the law uses real wild beasts execute condemned prisoners. – Very artistic.
...Then he has you killed, – obviously.
Well by this time the mood was well and truly spoiled. Even a cartload of vestal virgins and a couple of gladiators couldn’t have got me warmed up.
I made my excuses and left.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful or anything but Nero really is a bit of a twat. He is, what’s the word? "A Narcissist.”
He has to be the absolute best at everything even though he’s clearly not. Everyone knows what he’s really like but they are too scared to tell him.
I know I am.
You know, he went to Greece last year to compete in the Olympics because, as he says, he’s such an “Amazing Athlete”
He awarded himself nearly two thousand, gold medals even though he was so bad at chariot racing he fell out at the first bend.
I’d give him the benefit of the doubt if he threw good orgy but he’s so up himself he can’t even do that.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s forced to commit suicide soon when the Senate finally has enough of him.
That’ll be one party I certainly want an invite to.
Outrageous as it is Much of Nero’s appalling reputation needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Most of our accounts of his arrogant and sadistic behaviour comes from roman historians, Suetonius and Tacitus - both writing over a generation after he died - and another called Cassius Dio whose work dates from even later.
All of them were trying to please their political masters and at the time in which they were writing it was in their best interests to malign the Julio-Claudian dynasty of which Nero was a part.
He was undoubtedly an arrogant braggart capable of extreme cruelty but so were many roman emperors.
There is evidence to suggest that while some in the elite classes found him objectionable a large proportion of ordinary citizens particularly from the provinces thought he was great.
Some ancient graffiti found in Athens proclaimed him a God.
I recently went to an exhibition at the British Museum that aimed to redress the balance a little bit and suggest that perhaps Nero was not the monster history has painted him.
We’ll never know for sure as very little writing written at the time Nero was alive or that supported him survives.
One thing is certain Nero most definitely did not fiddle while Rome Burned – for a start, fiddles hadn’t been invented and at the time Nero was 35 miles away in his palatial pre golden house villa.
As for the golden house it’s become a by word for ostentation since it was rediscovered in the 15th century.
Some little Sheppard lad fell through a hole in a hillside apparently and found himself in Nero’s dining room.
If you visit Rome, you can explore part of it today – in small groups only.
Lyre and poetry recitals are not encouraged.
Next time on Rogues Gallery Uncovered
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