I was lucky enough to be in Rome at the weekend, and visited the “Domus Aurea”, Nero’s “Golden House”, which is carved out underneath the Caelian Hill. Suetonius has this marvellous description of what it was once like, from his life of Nero in The Twelve Caesars:
“His wastefulness showed most of all in the architectural projects. He built a palace, stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which he called ‘The Passageway’; and when it burned down soon afterwards, rebuilt it under the new name of ‘The Golden House’. The following details will give some notion of its size and magnificence. A huge statue of himself, 120 feet high, stood in the entrace hall; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands – where every variety of domestic and wild animals roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and nacre. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. The main dining-room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulphur water, was always on tap in the baths. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark: ‘Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!’.”
It would be lovely, if implausible, to think that this was what Nero’s tutor Seneca was thinking of, when he issued his famous injunction at the end of his treatise De Ira (On Anger) that we should learn to “cultivate our humanity” (colamus humanitatem).