04 October 2009

Nero’s Dining Room?

Last week news of a curious discovery on Rome’s Palatine hill was in the news. French and Italian archaeologists have found a unique circular room that they speculate may have been Nero’s "rotating dining room”. The press is accepting this speculation as fact. But was it really?

Discovery reports:
Known as "coenatio rotunda", the circular room was found by French archaeologist Francoise Villedieu in the Domus Aurea (“Golden House”), the emperor’s sumptuous residence on the Palatine Hill.

Dating to the 1st century AD, the room has a diameter of over 50 feet (16 meters) and is 33 foot (10 meter) high.

It was supported by a 13 foot (4 meter) wide pillar, which was connected to the perimetral walls by a series of arches.

The room, whose structure is unprecedented, matches a description by the ancient historian Suetonius, who described Nero’s dining room as a circular, rotating, wooden-floored platform.
There’s a nice slide show with the Discovery article, and the BBC has video here complete with hyperbolic narration about archaeologists “dropping their trowels with amazement”. Readers of Italian readers can find a bit more sober coverage here.

The Soprintendenza’s website (Italian) provides more archaeological details, with a refreshing lack of hyperbole.

It’s certainly a weird room – 16 meters wide, with eight arched ribs, and a huge central pillar with small niches. The Soprintendenza suggests that it’s the right date, sometime between the fire of 64 and Nero’s damnatio memoriae at the beginning of the Flavian era. But let's look at the actual description that the find "matches".

Suetonius, in his Life of Nero, says that
There were dining-rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.
That last sentence is the key one, and is the source of the press' breathless excitement. But that's really all the evidence they have to go on. We're still waiting on answers to other questions, like:
Where is the wall decoration that one would expect? How is this room connected to other parts of the palace? How did the rotation mechanism work? If it was really water-powered, as the archaeologists speculate, where are the channels?

And, if I may be so bold, should we rely so much on one vague sentence in Suetonius? Suetonius’ Lives are full of gossip and rumor, animated by anti-imperial sentiment, and written over 50 years after Nero’s death. (Not to mention that the palace itself was buried by Suetonius’ time, so he never could have seen it.) It's an extremely fun book to read, but has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Mary Beard (whose blog is always worth a read) puts her finger on the problem, pointing out that our knowledge of Nero’s Golden House is still spotty and based largely on literary evidence:
does a big pillar really prove that we have got a rotating dining room... and what exactly rotated anyway?

I half suspect that no such thing as a rotating dining room existed. But even if it did, I still don't see why these remains really do reveal whatever it was that Suetonius was talking about.
It was once pointed out that digging is a pathology of archaeology. But this instance illustrates a much deeper and more destructive problem of the field: the frantic desire for ancient texts to be physically true. This leads to sloppy habits of interpretation, where huge, complex architectural features like this are “interpreted” by hanging them on one sentence in a sensationalist writer who never saw the building he was writing about.

Classical archaeology in particular has this vice, reflecting its roots as a discipline that started as the study of literature and took centuries to turn its attention toward excavation. For many Classical archaeologists the ancient texts, and the world they evoke, still remain “more real” than the archaeological evidence of Greek and Roman civilization. (I’m looking for postdocs so I can write a book on this very subject, so stay tuned for more on this.)

So, in short: I would love to know what this strange and interesting room was, and I will be thrilled if it turns out to have been a rotating room of any kind! But I’d like to see those conclusions drawn from archaeological evidence, and a little less breathless speculation from the Fourth Estate.

1 comment: