Nero appears to have been a grandiose builder, though few of the buildings he constructed survive. Early in his reign, he began building a gymnasium and a bath-house, which was used to stage the Neronia. Although one can find reconstructions, these are highly speculative and there is nothing left. There is even disagreement as to whether they baths and gymnasium formed a single complex or were separate buildings, partly because the limited sources are unclear. Nevertheless, a gymnasium was a Hellenistic ideal imported from the East and there is an association of gymnasia and bath houses. The building was in itself innovative, but not wildly so. Agrippa built the Laconicum Gymnasium in 25 BC, which seems to have associated a large public bath house with a gymnasium. The building was adorned with Greek statuary and may have been built as a public amenity to echo the grand private villas of the rich and powerful. It is possible to understand Nero’s building both as as a civic improvement echoing the work of Augustus and Agrippa and as making available the benefits of Greek culture to the wider Roman public.
More obviously regal was the his building of the Domus Transitoria. This building is also lost, destroyed in the great fire of Rome and buried under the Domus Aurea. It appears to have been a major construction designed to encompass some of the grand gardens in Rome (horti maecenatis) into the imperial palace.
The topography of the region is extremely complex, partly because of the repeated building over of the area in this period. Augustus, Tiberius, and Gaius had all built palatial structures or extended existing buildings.
In 64, a fire swept through much of Rome. Only four of the fourteen districts survived more or less intact, while seven were badly damaged and three destroyed. Nero had been away from the city when the fire broke out, and returned when it threatened his palace. He was not able to save the palace. It was at this point that he was moved to sing of the calamities that befell cities (Tacitus, Annales 15.38-39). After five days, the flames were put out by creating a large fire break. Almost immediately, a further fire broke out, and it is this second fire for which Nero was blamed. In part, it was because it was associated with the estate of Tigellinus, the praetorian prefect. In response to the fire, Nero spent money housing the displaced and rebuilding the city.
There were people who might benefit from a conflagration. Property would be left unguarded. there were opportunities for the organised to loot. Chaos allowed mischief (Dio, 62 16-17). But Rome was a city built chaotically, using a mix of materials, especially wood in upper stories. It was and is a hot city and without pressurised water or anything like a fire-brigade, it was a fire risk. There had been major fires: this was just one of the biggest.
Nero made the most of this opportunity. Rubble was cleared and used to fill the marshes at Ostia. The city was replanned with wider streets. Building regulations imposed an upper height limit on tenements. Wooden beams were restricted and each building was required to have its own wall to create the smallest of firebreaks. Water supplies were better regulated so that each district would have a substantial supply. Much of the vast sums required appear to have come from the emperor, though he may have required aristocratic contributions (Suetonius, Nero 16.1; Tacitus, Annales 15. 40–43).
The fire gave Nero room for the most extravagant of buildings, the Domus Aurea, the Golden House of Nero (see Italian reconstruction; BBC documentary). The site was rapidly remodeeled after AD 69 and formed the basis of buildings of Vespasian and Trajan. The remains are fragmentary and subject to on-going archaeological investigation and restoration. This was a huge construction that bridged the Palatine and Esquiline Hills. The vestibule was of sufficient size to accommodate a 120-foot-high statue of Nero. The palace was fronted by a triple colonnade stretching for a mile. Extensive gardens were attached to the house, including vineyards, woods and pastures, all stocked with appropriate animals and, around a pool, there were models of buildings. There were rooms of immense luxury: a dining room with an ivory ceiling, another that revolved somehow. His baths were filled with sea water and sulphur water. It was a dominating monument of conspicuous luxury. The building monumentalised Nero’s domination of the city of Rome. Here was a representation of the world within a city, all overseen by the towering presence of Nero (Suetonius, Nero 31; Tacitus, Annales 15. 42). Nero’s house was a public expression of his power, a palace of unbelievable opulence that marked imperial civilization.
The palace was later dismantled: its meanings too tyrannical for imperial Rome. The massive statue of the emperor which gave the name to the Colosseum was reworked into a statue of Sol. The Colosseum itself, built under Vespasian, became the grand democratic location of games and public celebrations, turning the palatial into the public, turning away from the ideologies of Neronian Rome.
But the Flavian remaking of the area draws attention to the ideologies embedded within the architecture. We may dismiss the palace is grandiosity and luxury, symbolic of how out of touch Nero was with the mood and needs of his people, but that is to put the story before the evidence: we supposedly know Nero was out of touch and so we see his buildings as reflecting his moral failings. But what if turn the question round? A great palace was not a private house. A gymnasium was a public amenity not just a gesture of cultural allegiance to the Greek world. Is it possible that Nero’s ideological construction of Rome’s greatness needed the great palaces and Greek-style buildings? Augustus is praised for his extensive monumental building programme. Why is Nero critiqued?