Nero’s revolving restaurant really existed, archaeologists prove
Haaretz gets an exclusive look at the reopened dig of the infamous Emperor Nero’s rotating dining hall in Rome.
By Ariel David
July 1, 2014 | 10:10 AM
Dormice drenched in honey and poppy seeds as an appetizer.
Roast boar stuffed with live thrushes for the main course, focaccia with cheese and Spanish honey for dessert, and a finale of fresh oysters and grilled snails. All washed down with wine aged for a century.
That’s only part of the decadent menu that the satirical writer Petronius reports could be sampled at a typical banquet hosted by first-century Roman elites.
It’s easy to imagine even more exotic delicacies gracing the table of an emperor when visiting the remains of what archeologists believe was one of the most peculiar and sophisticated structures of antiquity: the revolving dining room built by the infamous Nero. First uncovered in 2009 by a team of French and Italian archeologists, the building is now undergoing excavations and will be visible to the public after October, when the dig ends.
Haaretz got an exclusive tour of the site last month, as well as insight into the archeological detective work that went into identifying the building.
Mystery: The platform that should have collapsed
When they started digging on an artificial terrace created by Nero’s successors on the north-east corner of Rome’s Palatine hill, researchers certainly hadn’t been looking for a precursor to the modern revolving restaurant.
The platform was built after 70 CE, shortly after Nero was toppled in a revolt. His successors, the Flavian dynasty, were moving to consolidate their rule by building a new palace on the Palatine, the traditional seat of imperial power in Rome.
Modern researchers had puzzled over the area because surveys showed the retaining wall was too thin to hold the artificial terrace: the whole thing should have collapsed.
“It was a mystery that needed to be solved,” says Francois Villedieu, the French archeologist who leads the dig. “There had to be something big underground holding it all in place.”
What they found was a huge puzzle: a round, 12-meter-tall tower, with a massive central pillar of four meters in diameter and 8 pairs of arches supporting two floors.
“There was no other ancient building like it, nothing to compare it to,” Villedieu recalls. The strata it occupied and the building technique dated the tower to Nero’s time. But whatever it was built to support had been razed to make way for the new palace and erase the memory of the previous ruler, reviled as a cruel, corrupt despot and megalomaniacal builder who allegedly fiddled while Rome burned down in 64 CE.
The only clues to the tower’s function, along the top of the upper arches, were lines of semi-spherical holes, filled with slippery clay.
Primitive ball bearings and water power
Archeologists were reminded of cavities, filled with similar lubricants, that were used on large ships and harbor structures to contain primitive ball bearings, on which moveable platforms were mounted to transport heavy loads.
But what was such industrial equipment doing in what would have been part of Nero’s elegant palace, the fabled D[omus aurea] – the Golden House?
It was then that researchers recalled a description of the emperor’s palace by the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote that Nero’s “main dining room was round, and revolved continuously on itself, day and night, like the world.”
Historians had long thought that Suetonius had exaggerated his description and that the coenatio rotunda was the round, frescoed hall located in another part of the immense palace, on the opposite Esquiline Hill.
But the discovery by Villedieu’s team is set to change that view. The mysterious cavities in the structure are believed to have housed metal spheres that supported a revolving floor.
At the bottom of the tower, archeologists also found indications that a mechanism had been built into the wall. The metal parts had been ripped out to be reused, but calcite deposits on the surrounding stones suggest that the floor’s constant movement may have been powered by water channeled through a system of gears.
The Sibylline inscription
Further evidence comes from a coin minted by Nero, which shows a tower similar to the one uncovered with two smaller structures on the side, and a Sibylline inscription that describes it as “MAC AUG.”
That second word refers to Augustus, the title that all Caesars took. As for the first abbreviation, some scholars think it refers to the m” or market of Augustus. But others, including Villedieu, believe the tall and narrow building on the coin does not look like a market, and the writing should be read as celebrating the “machina” – the machine of Augustus.
The discovery generated much debate and skepticism among archeologists, so much that it took years for Villedieu to gather funding to continue the dig.
“We don’t have definitive proof, but we have many convincing clues,” Villedieu told Haaretz.
Now, thanks to a prize that the project won in France and with the support of Italian officials, she hopes to find the building’s facade and the other structures depicted on the coin.
Maria Antonietta Tomei, an archeologist and former Culture Ministry official who supervised the dig on the Palatine, said the discovery of the dining room somewhat changes our view of Nero.
The emperor is known mostly through the writings of historians who belonged to the aristocracy and opposed him for his populist economic policies in favor of the poor and the expropriation of lands that belonged to the upper class to build his golden palace, she points out.
“Nero has a terrible reputation but he was a very complex character,” Tomei told Haaretz. “He was not just a negative figure.” And now, in hew view, the mechanical and architectural sophistication of his revolving dining room highlight his passion for science and technology as well as for the arts and culture.