This Golden House became the passing wonder of Rome. Its buildings alone covered 900,000 square feet, and yet were but a small part of a mile-square villa that overflowed from the Palatine upon the neighboring hills. A great park surrounded the palace, with gardens, meadows, fish ponds, game preserves, aviaries, vineyards, streams, fountains, waterfalls, lakes, imperial galleys, pleasure houses, summerhouses, flower houses, and porticoes 3000 feet long. An angry wit scratched a representative comment on a wall: “Rome has become the habitation of one man. It is time, citizens, to emigrate to Veii- unless, indeed, Veii itself is to be comprised in Nero’s home.”
The interior of the palace gleamed with marble, bronze, and gold, with the gilded metal of countless Corinthian capitals, and with thousands of statues, reliefs, paintings, and objects of art bought or looted from the classic world; among them was the Laocoon. Some of the walls were inlaid with mother-of-pearl and various costly gems. The ceiling of the banquet hall was covered with ivory flowers from which, at a nod of the emperor, a perfumed spray would fall upon his guests. The dining room had a spherical ceiling of ivory painted to represent the sky and the stars, which was kept in constant slow rotation by hidden machines. A suite of rooms provided hot baths, cold baths, tepid baths, salt-water baths, and sulphur baths. When the Roman architects Celer and Severus had nearly finished the immense structure and Nero moved in, he remarked, “At last I am lodged.” A generation later this Roman Versailles, too costly and dangerous to maintain amid surrounding poverty, had fallen into neglect. Over its ruins Vespasian built the Colosseum, Titus and Trajan their enormous public baths.
Domitian shared Nero’s architectural madness. For him Rabirius raised the domus Flavia, not quite as elephantine as Nero’s museum, but yielding little to it in gaudy splendor and decoration. One wing alone contained a vast basilica, probably the court where the Emperor tried cases of final appeal; the same wing enclosed a peristylium covering 30,000 square feet. Adjoining this was a banquet hall, whose pavement of red porphyry and green serpentine survives; gone are the delicate marble screens and beautifully columned windows through which the diners might watch the waters splashing over the marble basins of the nymphaea or fountains outside. It should be added that Domitian used this building only for receptions and administration; usually he lived in the more modest quarters of Augustus’ palace. Doubtless these royal edifices were part of the facade of empire, designed to impress natives, visitors, and embassies, while the emperors themselves, perhaps excepting Caligula and Nero, fled from the constraining formality of these ceremonial rooms to the ease and intimacy of their family quarters, and enjoyed, as Antoninus Pius would put it, “the pleasure of being men.”
IV. THE ARTS OF DECORATION
In these palaces, and in the homes of the rich, a hundred arts were employed to make everything if not beautiful, at least expensive. The floors were often of polychrome marble, or mosaics whose patient combination of tiny varicolored cubes ( tesserae ) resulted in paintings of remarkable realism and permanence. Furniture was less abundant and comfortable than among ourselves, but of generally superior design and workmanship. Tables, chairs, benches, couches, beds, lamps, and utensils were made of lasting materials, and lavishly adorned; the best wood, ivory, marble, bronze, silver, and gold were carefully turned and finished, decorated with plant or animal forms, or inlaid with ivory, tortoise shell, chased bronze, or precious stones. Tables were sometimes cut from costly cypress or citrus woods; some were of gold or silver; many were of marble or bronze. Chairs were of every sort from folding stool to throne, but less calculated than ours to deform the spine. Beds were of wood or metal, with slim but sturdy legs often ending in an animal’s head or foot; a bronze web, instead of a spring, supported a mattress filled with straw or wool. Bronze tripods of elegant form took the place of our end tables; and here and there were cabinets with pigeonholes for rolled books. Bronze braziers warmed the rooms, and bronze lamps lighted them. Mirrors too were of bronze, highly polished, embossed or engraved with floral or mythical designs; some were made horizontally or vertically convex or concave to distort reflections into a humorous slenderness or rotundity.
The factories of Campania, working with the rich output of Spanish mines, produced silverware on a large scale for a wide market; silver services were now common in the middle and upper classes. In 1895 an excavator found in the cistern of a villa at Boscoreale a remarkable collection of silver, apparently deposited there by its owner before his unsuccessful flight from the embers of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. One of the sixteen cups bears an almost perfect representation of simple foliage; two depict skeletons in high relief; another pictures Augustus enthroned between Venus and Mars, the rival deities of mankind; the sliest shows Zeno the Stoic pointing with scorn at Epicurus, who is helping himself to a huge piece of cake, while a pig, with uplifted foreleg, politely asks for a share. The coins and gems of the early Empire prove the progress of the engraver’s art. Those of Augustus show the same good taste, sometimes the same designs, as the Altar of Peace. Precious stones imported from Africa, Arabia, and India were cut and set into rings, brooches, necklaces, bracelets, cups, even into walls. A ring on at least one finger was a social necessity; a few fops wore rings on all fingers but one. The Roman sealed his signature with his ring and therefore liked to have the seal individually designed. Some of the best-paid artists in Rome were gem cutters, like the Dioscurides who made Augustus’ seal. In cutting cameos the Golden Age reached a level never surpassed; the gemma Augusta in Vienna is among the finest in existence. To collect gems and cameos became a hobby of rich Romans- Pompey, Caesar, Augustus; by inheritance the imperial gem cabinet grew till Marcus Aurelius sold it to help pay for his war against the Marcomanni. From the official guardian of the imperial seals and gems England derived her Keeper of the Great, or Privy, Seal.