ROME — It had always been thought that Nero’s famous dining room, which actually revolved day and night, simulating the earth’s movement, coincided with the octagonal room situated on the Colle Oppio. However, in the course of reinforcing work carried out on the Palatine, the real coenatio rotunda emerged.
Excavations in the Vigna Barberini area resulted in the discovery of a room imitating the earth’s movement. According to scholars this could well be the room mentioned by Svetonius in the "Life of the Caesars."
The author described that marvel of engineering as follows: "It turned on itself continuously, day and night, just like the world," situated in a villa that spread from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill. He added that "it was lined in gold and adorned with precious stones and shells and pearls with the ceilings of the dining room made of mobile ivory blocks and with pipes that could transport flowers or perfume to launch over the guests."
Until recently many scholars had thought that this dining room was the Octagonal Hall on the Oppio Hill. In recent days a different archaeological truth has emerged on the Palatine Hill.
According to many ancient authors, Nero’s residence spread as far as the Colle Oppio, but a large part of it was on the Palatine. Preliminary digs carried out by the Archaeological Department, with Maria Antonietta Tomei as the Scientific Director, work directed by the architect Antonella Tomasello and carried out by a team lead by Francoise Villedieu, revealed a circular room with no similarity to others in Roman architecture.
The particular nature of this find is that it is a rotating room and that mechanisms filled with a yet to be analysed dark substance were also discovered. It is this last detail, as well as the building’s circular shape and the surprising power of the central column, unprecedented in Roman architecture, that allow one to envisage the presence of a floor, perhaps made of wood, resting on round mechanisms capable therefore of making it turn. This hypothesis is corroborated by the exceptional position of the building, which dates back to after the fire of 64 A.D. and confirms Nero’s taste for the spectacular. It is in fact overlooking the valley of the Coliseum, at the time covered by an artificial lake, and with a 360-degree view from the Capitol to the Aventino, from the Celio to Velia’s Hill.
The room’s rotation is linked to the figure of the sun, around which Nero’s ideology was based. One must now wait and see if conduits are also discovered which would explain how the higher level built in wood would have rotated, like a windmill or a merry-go-round.
There is a great deal of evidence indicating that this really is the coenatio. Svetonius says that the rotating room was the "main room", hence on the Palatine, precisely where the newly discovered room is situated. The column and the nearby two-level archways are unique in Roman architecture and have no apparent function. There is no sign of walls, hence the brickwork wheel must have been used as the base for the rotating level that hosted dinners, parties and performances. Finally, another piece of evidence confirming this hypothesis, is that the building is on the same axis as other rooms in the Domus Aurea and hence there is continuity.
These excavations on the Palatine Hill, which were started last June, were addressed at reinforcing the corner overlooking the valley of the Coliseum and were carried out with ordinary financing from Rome’s Special Department for Archaeological Heritage. Considered the exceptional nature of this find, new funds have been allocated to continue excavations and bring to light the entire building so as to verify the hypothesis that this is indeed the coenatio rotunda, and also ensuring that less pressure is applied to the corner of the terrace of the Vigna Barberini.
Sensational discoveries such as this dining room of Nero’s always reopen the debate about the fact that the State should invest its resources in the necessary restoration of what is known and the discovery of what remains unknown. Our cultural legacy is one of Italy’s most important economic driving forces and it would therefore be appropriate to exploit it far more.