Nero’s lost theatre found

Excavations in Rome have discovered a theatre that was built by Emperor Nero in the 1st century AD.

Several Classical historians refer to a theatre built for the infamous emperor – and known lover of the arts – where he is said to have rehearsed and performed poetry and music. However, its precise location remained lost, until now. The discovery was made in the Palazzo della Rovere, near the entrance to the Vatican and St Peter’s Square. In antiquity, this area was part of the Horti di Agrippina, the estate belonging to Agrippina the Elder, later inherited by her grandson, Nero. The site is now home to a Vatican chivalric order, which has leased the space to a hotel chain. Excavations in the Renaissance building’s walled garden in advance of the hotel’s construction have been ongoing since 2020, conducted by the Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma, directed by Daniela Porro, under the scientific direction of Alessio De Cristofaro, and led in the field by Marzia Di Mento.

Excavations in the Palazzo della Rovere have uncovered thousands of years of Rome’s history, including the remains of a theatre built for Emperor Nero.Image: Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma © Fabio_Cariccia

There, archaeologists discovered the remains of two high-quality structures built of brick, dated to the Julio-Claudian period (27 BC-AD 68). The surviving elements of the first building include a semi-circular cavea (seating section) and a scenæ frons (the stage’s architectural backdrop). The theatre would have been very grand in its heyday, with marble columns and stucco decorated with gold leaf (like that found in Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea). The second building, perpendicular to the first, contains a set of more functional rooms, possibly used to store sets and costumes. Both buildings overlooked a large open courtyard. The complex appears to have been dismantled in the early 2nd century AD, but the surviving archaeology matches perfectly what we know from ancient texts of the Theatrum Neronis.

The excavations also uncovered artefacts spanning Rome’s history from the time of the late Roman Republic (2nd-1st centuries BC) to the 15th century AD, including rare medieval glass and pottery, pilgrims’ insignia, and matrices for rosaries. These finds tell us more about the evolution of this area in the medieval period, as a production site for objects linked to pilgrimage between the 10th and 11th centuries, and later as an area of more general craft and trade activities.

The objects discovered will be placed on display in two museums, one dedicated to the Horti Agrippinae and the other to pilgrimage in the medieval period, while plans for the structural remains are still being developed by the construction project.