Having recently reviewed both the SD-DVD and BD of Quo Vadis, I came to Nero's Golden House smugly self-assured that everything vile we've all believed about the "evil" Roman Emperor, especially as enacted by such greats as Peter Ustinov, would be emphatically exposed and analyzed. Damn! I hate it when films fictionalize historical characters (you regular readers of my reviews know it's best not to get me started on the Jessica Lange feature Frances, for example). This very interesting documentary uses Nero's insanely grandiose digs, built after the infamous fire (and actually referred to quite explicitly in Quo Vadis), as the starting point for an examination that may not exactly fulfill most viewers' preconceived notions of what the supposed mad fiddler was all about.
Nero's Golden House starts with some contemporary shots of Rome, intercut with several vintage film clips of various actors portraying Nero (including Ustinov, of course), before stopping a wide pan on the Coliseum, which happens to be built on top of part of what once was the huge, 200 acre plot where Nero's building ambitions reached their heights. The camera then moves a bit to the right and reveals and nice little sylvan glade in the midst of the Roman madness, revealing that underneath the mini-forest are the only remains of what once was an astoundingly huge array of buildings.
The documentary goes into the history of the discovery of these remains (it was actually hundreds of years ago, and the frescoes on the walls back then were evidently as fresh as the day they were painted), before rippling out into what the archeological remains tell us about Nero the man, his reign, and some of the mistaken history we've all swallowed hook, line and sinker. Along the way we get the usual assortment of learned talking heads, intercut with some fun archival film clips, and, perhaps a bit bizarrely, shots of the old Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas being demolished and then a new hotel being built (shown via some pretty cool time lapse photography).
If Rome wasn't built in a day, it didn't take them too much longer, as Nero's Golden House makes quite clear. Due to their for the times advanced engineering techniques, including that new-fangled invention concrete, the Romans were able to erect absolutely epic structures in a surprisingly small amount of time. Nero, who it turns out wasn't even in Rome when it burnt (hence couldn't have been fiddling and/or lyre playing as it burned), used that facility to quickly reclaim the center area of Rome to build his Golden House, which, it seems, really was finished in gold leaf, something that must have been quite dazzling due to the main structure's southern exposure. Nero's aims for his massive manse were to solidify and give symbol to his power, which the project actually did for a while.
What is revealed throughout Nero's Golden House is that our commonly held precepts about the emperor are mostly wrong, or at least misguided. Was Nero lewd and lascivious? Probably no more than the average Roman of the day. Was he a wannabe "artiste"? Most definitely, though the jury is still out on whether the "wannabe" moniker fits, as he actually may have had some talent, and he certainly was a champion of the arts. Was he stupid? Well, he may not have been the brightest bulb in the pack, but it seems that he was mostly na´ve, the result of a sheltered upbringing by a mother who, if not quite as ruthless as Livia of I, Claudius fame, was not above scheming to make sure her son ascended to the throne. That lack of guile is what ultimately led to Nero's downfall and the ultimate eradication of his huge fortress.
This is an appealingly broad, yet nicely intimate, look at a long pilloried figure of history who may not quite deserve the scorn he's frequently given. The recreations of what the palace may have looked like are neat, if not always photo-realistic, and the learned commentary gives us enough insight into Nero the man to help better understand why such an immense structure was built to begin with. Quo Vadis and its ilk may be the version of Nero most people will always remember, but sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction (as some wise man once said), and Nero's Golden House proves that, architecturally at least, that's one adage that holds entirely too true.