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Underground  chamber at Nero’s Palace dubbed ‘Sphinx Room’

Enchanting Hidden 'Sphinx' Chamber Discovered At Nero’s Golden Palace


Rome continues to be a rich source of archaeological discoveries. Archaeologists have just announced the discovery of a spectacular underground chamber that was once part of the Domus Aurea palace built by the notorious Emperor Nero. The 2000 year-old room is expected to help experts to better understand the Domus Aurea that once dominated the heart of the city when it was at the zenith of its power, as well as the art of the period.

Restoration project uncovers room by chance after 2000 years

The find was made by Italian archaeologists who were working at the Colosseum archaeological park. This is a heritage park in the heart of the ancient city that contains some of the most famous Roman remains such as the Colosseum, the site of gladiatorial games. There is also the Arch of Constantine and the Forum, at the site.

The experts were working on a restoration project chanced upon the chamber when they spotted an opening in the wall. To their amazement, they had stumbled upon a 15 feet (5 m) high underground chamber. The long-forgotten room, which was built in a barrel vault design with an arched roof, was once connected to the massive Domus Aurea.

The underground chamber has an arched roof and is highly decorated

The underground chamber has an arched roof and is highly decorated. (Ufficio Stampa Parco Archeologico del Colosseo)

Nero’s Domus Aurea

This was a vast palace that was built by the depraved Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) who killed his mother and many others. It was built in the aftermath of the great fire of 64 AD, that some at the time believe was deliberately set by the Emperor.

The Domus Aurea was the largest palace ever seen in the city and allegedly had revolving dining rooms and extensive gardens. The palace was adorned with statues and works of art and it became known as the ‘Golden House’.

After the fall of Nero in 68 AD the palace was partially demolished, and it was later built over by Trajan and remained concealed until it was re-discovered by archaeologists.

Roman frescoes

The underground chamber was ‘decorated with colorful animal frescoes’ according to the Independent. Among the paintings on the walls were those of panthers and birds. In one fresco a panther is shown attacking an armed man, and this may be a depiction from the Roman Games when men regularly fought wild animals.

Fresco of an armed man being attacked by a panther

Fresco of an armed man being attacked by a panther. (Ufficio Stampa Parco Archeologico del Colosseo)

The Independent also reports that  the ‘frescoes also feature garlands of flowers, leaves and fruit in line with architectural motifs of the time’. Many of these frescoes are similar to the style of painting found at Pompeii.

In particular, there are many mythological images painted on the walls. There are many vivid images of centaurs, who are shown as armed. There are also representations of mythical sea creatures. One fresco shows a full-length portrait of the rural god, Pan. All of the images are remarkably well-preserved and their original colors are still vivid and bright.

Armed centaur fresco

Armed centaur fresco. (Ufficio Stampa Parco Archeologico del Colosseo)

The chamber has one particularly fine example of a Sphinx, in a crouching position. This was the winged mythical beast that was very popular in classical art. This image so impressed the restoration team that they agreed to call the chamber the ‘Sphinx Room’.

Immense artistic and archaeological value

The Telegraph quotes Prof. Alfonsina Russo, the director of the archaeological park as stating that the room has “immense artistic and archaeological value”. The frescoes were probably painted by local master craftsmen.  According to Alessandro D’Alessio, curator of the Domus Aurea, the frescoes “were probably painted by imperial Roman craftsmen between 65 AD and 68 AD”, reports the Telegraph.

Much of the chamber is still concealed by dirt and debris and it appears that the chamber was deliberately filled in at one point and this helped to preserve the paintings. There are hopes that the chamber can be cleaned and fully restored within twelve months. However, more work may not be possible because it may destabilize the site and the palace.

The room of the Sphinx is providing new insights into the famous Domus Aurea of Nero. The frescoes found are masterpieces of Roman art and the chamber once restored will undoubtedly become a major tourist attraction. There are almost certainly more masterpieces of Roman art to be found here and the room may even reveal more about the reign of Nero, once the chamber has been stabilized. 

Top image: Underground  chamber at Nero’s Palace dubbed ‘Sphinx Room’            Source: Ufficio Stampa Parco Archeologico del Colosseo

By Ed Whelan

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My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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