In the cavernous depths of the grand palace built by the Roman Emporer Nero for his decadent house parties, archaeologists have stumbled across a hidden chamber that no one has laid eyes on for almost 2,000 years.
The long-lost “Chamber of The Sphinx”, as it has been named, was recently discovered in Rome by the Archaeological Park of the Colosseum during a scientific research project at Nero's famous pleasure dome, the Domus Aurea, Latin for “Golden House”. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Nero had this grand palace built in the heart of ancient Rome after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE (which he was accused of starting for this very reason) freed up real estate in the city.
The chamber is a little worse for wear, but beyond the water damage you can still make out hints of a vibrant fresco that once stood here, including paintings of flora, aquatic creatures, warriors, panthers, the god Pan, centaurs, and a sphinx.
"The Chamber of The Sphinx, as we have called it, remained in darkness for almost twenty centuries and it now tells us about the spirit of Nero's rule," Alfonsina Russo, Director of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, said in a press release.
"The discovery of this chamber is part of the Scientific Research strategy conducted by the Park which is continued daily alongside the refurbishment interventions."
Even by the standards of ancient emperors, the Domus Aurea was excessive. The palace was lined with polished white marble rooms, artworks, and even a 35.5 meter (116 foot) high statue of Nero himself. Weirdly enough, archaeologists believe it had over 300 rooms, but none of these were bedrooms, kitchens, or bathrooms, suggesting that this was a building solely for decadent parties to flaunt the emperor’s power.
It's unclear what this newly discovered chamber was used for, but it's almost certainly seen some wild stories in its time.
“Nero gave the best parties, ever," in the words of Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. “Three hundred years after his death, tokens bearing his head were still being given out at public spectacles – a memento of the greatest showman of them all."
Some argue the grandiosity of the palace has been overstated as a way to delegitimize Nero, but there are no contemporary records of the emperor, so everything we know is based on Roman historians writing 50 years after his reign. Regardless, the palace was promptly destroyed and filled with earth following Nero’s death (by suicide after becoming condemned as a public enemy) in 68 CE because it was seen as embarrassingly extravagant by his successors. It was only rediscovered again towards the end of the 15th century after a young man fortuitously fell down a cleft in the hill.