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Athena Review: Recent Finds in Archaeology

Rome: Mural discovered in area of Nero's Golden House

Early in 1998, Italian archaeologist Elisabeta Carnabuci, working amid the ruins of Trajan’s Baths, discovered a large fresco of an unknown walled city. Within the high, towered walls shown on the 3 by 4 m painting are a theater, houses, a colonnaded precinct with a central hall, and an apparent row of statues. Adjoining the town wall in the painting is a large bridge or aqueduct spanning a river.

[Fig.1: Successive Roman structures: the Domus Aurea, AD 64-68, Baths of Titus, AD 79-81, and Baths of Trajan, AD 104-117 (after Lanciani 1897).]

The newly found mural is probably part of a series of Pompeian-style frescoes in the vast Domus Aurea (Golden House) built by the Emperor Nero in AD 64-68, now 9-10 m underground. A comparable painting from the House of Actius Anecetus in Pompeii, portraying an amphitheater brawl in AD 59 between Pompeii and Nuceria, shows similar perspective and architectural style, supporting a date for the Roman fresco of AD 65-68.

The unknown city in the mural may be Rome itself before the Great Fire of AD 64, after which Nero erected his luxurious new palace complex with lakes, forests, and vineyards. Soon after Nero’s death, the palace and grounds, encompassing one square mile, were built over by the Colosseum, Baths of Titus, Baths of Trajan, and Temple of Venus and Rome. Brick arches of the vast edifice of Trajan’s baths, begun AD 104, intrude into the room holding the newly found fresco.

Yet, while the painting seems to date from Nero’s time, turreted walls such as those it depicts were not built around Rome until the Aurelian Wall of AD 270-280. Earlier walls of Rome (the smaller Servian of the 4th c. BC and one from the civil war, 80 BC) had gates but lacked turrets. Another possible match is the walled city of Jerusalem, whose ground plan shows some comparison to the mural.

Despite understandable wishes to find documentary evidence in this painting, however, it may be only a fantasy city. Examples from 1st c. BC - 1st c. AD villas on the south coast of Italy, as that of Publius Fannius Sinistor in Boscoreale, often show architectural scenes which are imaginary (while based on actual buildings of the period). The painting, recovered as part of a city restoration project, should reveal more details once it is cleaned.

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