Nero’s Colossus

Most scholars have claimed that Nero built a huge bronze statue of himself as the sun god and set it up in the vestibule of his famed Golden House (Domus Aurea), the extensive remains of which have been opened recently to the public beneath the streets of Rome. But visitors cannot see the statue: it was destroyed in the fourth century.

What can be known is that the emperor planned to erect a 100- to 120-foot statue of Sol, one of the Roman sun gods. Pliny the Elder (23–79 C.E.) says that the statue was intended to represent Nero, but some scholars have noted that this may be the opinion of the emperor’s detractors, who wished to denigrate him after his death. The historians of Nero’s time do not unambiguously support the notion that the great image was of the emperor himself, nor indeed that it stood in the Domus Aurea in the time of Nero. The biographer Suetonius, born a few years after Nero’s death, is the only one who specifically refers to “a colossal statue of the emperor.” But he does not say that such a statue stood in the vestibule; rather, that the space was large enough for one. Pliny actually witnessed the sculptor creating his work, but he does not say that it was finished in Nero’s time. Tacitus (ca. 55–120), who was a keen critic of the emperor, makes no mention of the image. Further, third-century historian Dio Cassius records that Vespasian, one of Nero’s successors, erected the colossus several years after the latter’s death, not in the Domus Aurea but on the Sacred Way. It is therefore unlikely that Nero ever saw the statue standing in his house.