The first palace built by Rome’s notorious emperor, Nero, reopened to the public this spring after an extensive renovation. But though the Domus Transitoria (or Transit House) was originally built to be a place of opulence and splendor, visitors must descend underground to view the rooms and garden site. They’ve been covered over by other buildings and debris as the centuries have passed.
Nero was born in the year A.D. 37—when Jesus’ disciples were beginning to spread His church. The boy Nero was adopted by his great-uncle, Emperor Claudius, becoming his heir. Historians believe Nero and his mother dishonestly manipulated Claudius to gain the emperor’s favor. Nero’s mother is also believed to have plotted—and achieved—Claudius’ death so that her son could rule the Roman world.
Nero was a tyrant who lived to excess and extravagance, even at the cost of others’ lives and well-being. He ruled from A.D. 54 to his death at age 30 in A.D. 68. Even his contemporaries criticized the Domus Transitoria for its opulence. It stood atop Palatine Hill and featured inlaid marble, fresco-painted walls and ceilings, and trimmings of gold and precious gems. Alfonsina Russo is the general manager of the Colosseum archaeological park nearby. He says, “Nero wanted an atmosphere that expressed his ideology, that of an absolute ruler, an absolute monarch.”
But in stark contrast to the one True King that had so recently walked the Earth before Nero’s rise to power, Nero was cruel, selfish, and destructive.
In A.D. 64, a great fire broke out in Rome. It swept through the city, burning for about a week. Historians now believe Nero himself likely caused the fire. But he blamed Christians for it, creating hatred and suspicion for the new believers among Roman citizens. He is remembered for persecuting Christians, as if his efforts could end the new faith. But even the ruler of the Roman world could not extinguish the Holy Spirit who was growing Christ’s kingdom.
Nero returned to ash and dust, taking his pride and cruelty with him. And so did Nero’s “opulent” palace, which he built as a monument to his short-lived power. It took more than a decade for restorers even to make that monument to the “absolute monarch” accessible again.
But the love and mercy of a humble Savior who triumphed over death produces something that will never fade or decay. The Apostle Peter wrote to believers in Rome. He encouraged them in the face of the upcoming persecution that, unlike Nero’s temporary palace, they were “being built up as a spiritual house” that would endure forever. (1 Peter 2:5)