Alexandra Bruzzese

Archaeologists unearth secret chamber in Rome’s Domus Aurea

Archaeologists have stumbled across a hidden room in Nero’s Domus Aurea that hasn’t received a visitor in over 2000 years.

Archaeologists uncover a secret room at Domus Aurea
Sphinx Room, Domus Aurea, Rome. Photo courtesy of Parco archeologico del Colosseo

The team was carrying out restoration work at the ancient site when they noticed an opening in one of the walls; further sleuthing led them to the mysterious chamber, rich in Roman frescoes. Mythical figures like centaurs, the pagan god Pan, and sphinxes adorn the space, which has been aptly dubbed “Sala delle Sfinge,” or the “Sphinx Room.” Garlands, flowers, fruits, birds, underwater creatures (both real and imaginary) and architectural motifs also greeted archaeologists. Officials share that the “fairly well preserved” find illustrates “the atmosphere of the 60s of the first Century AD in Rome.”

Detail on the roof of the Sphinx Room at Domus Aurea
Figurine with panther image discovered in the Sphinx Room. Photo courtesy of Parco archeologico del Colosseo.

The room’s decoration proves similar to other rooms of the Domus, leading experts to believe that it’s most likely the work of the “A” workshop, which operated between 65 and 68 AD. The workshop’s artists often used white backgrounds (an additional feature of the Sphinx Room) and small figures to create the illusion of light in small, dim rooms.

In its heyday, the Domus Aurea was a sprawling, sumptuous palace commissioned by emperor Nero in 64 AD. Following his death, his successor Vespasian destroyed the “Golden House”, building the Colosseum on top of the lake adjacent to the Domus. Decades later, Emperor Trajan used the Aurea’s ruins as the foundation for his eponymous bath complex. During the Renaissance, artists like Raphael managed to sneak underground into the site by rope, gazing at the magnificent frescoes that would influence their future masterpieces.

Archaeologists find hidden chamer at Rome's Domus Aurea
The main entrance to the Domus Transitoria, Roman Emperor Nero’s first palace, destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. – The Domus Transitoria was replaced by his Domus Aurea (or Golden House). Photo by: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Experts say only a fraction of the Domus is visible today, with most of it lying untouched beneath the modern city. As for the future of the Sphinx Room, much of it is and will remain underground; archaeologists fear that excavating the space could threaten the stability of the Domus.