You’re listening to an Audio Guide to Ancient Rome.
Each episode in this series gives you the history and a short tour of a site in the eternal city in the hope that you can make the most of your visit.
For an interactive map of the locations covered go to rome-podcast.com
My name is Daron Green and in this episode I’ll be describing the Palatine Hill.
As part of this description I will provide some directions and guidance to specific locations to help you explore the site however it is difficult to provide an exact route as the access paths change depending on what archeological excavation or restoration work is taking place.
Note that visiting the House of Livia and the House of Augustus requires arranging tickets in advance as only limited small group access is allowed and for both of these you will have a dedicated tour guide. For more details go to Coopculture.it
This tour starts at the entry gate on Via di San Gregorio. Once through the admission gate, make your way up the hill until you are standing in a wide graveled area overlooking the sunken garden (also known as the Hippodrome). As you walk I will give you some of the general history of the site.
The Palatine is said to be the site of the first settlements in Rome and archeological evidence shows indeed that human habitation here extends back to the 10th century BCE. Visible today are therefore the remains of multiple phases of building, rebuilding, stone robbing and overlaying of structures across three thousand years of people living on this hill. Although names have been given to some structures often there is no reliable evidence that links a person to a specific house however you will see that some structures are labelled with Roman names, these are largely a matter of convention rather than evidence that a particular person lived there.
The rich and wealthy had long sought to live here overlooking the Roman Forum but it was Emperor Augustus who established the trend of Rome’s emperors making it their imperial residence from around the year 40 BCE. Redevelopment of the hillside over the following centuries means that there is still some debate over the exact identification of buildings from Augustus’ time, some do remain but most of the major large-scale structures we see today were commissioned by Emperor Domitian in the first century or later revised or repaired by the Severan emperors of the third century. Domitian’s extensive palace, which is the first area we will explore, was designed by Rabirius, the construction and remodeling took roughly 10 years and was completed around the year 90. Now, continue on until you come to the area overlooking the sunken garden.
If you can, stand at the railing and look along the main axis of the garden. Here you can see just a small part of the imperial palace that extends out in front of you and sprawls over the hillside to your right. These buildings and features are referred to as the Domus Augustana a name that derives from Emperor Augustus’ original home located somewhere nearby on the Palatine hill. Domitian’s inclusion of this hippodrome-shaped garden was part of a major overhaul of the area which continued the redevelopment of earlier palace structures by his predecessors emperors Nero, Vespasian and Titus – as you will see, strong echoes of their palaces can be found in Domitian’s palace.
Now, looking down you should see the remains of a semi-circular fountain that was originally mirrored by a matching feature at the other end of the garden. These were fed by water from the Aqua Claudia aqueduct a branch of which Domitian had brought to the side of the hill on your left. The remains of the aqueduct can still be seen a short distance south of the modern Via di San Gregorio entrance. The water was stored in a series of massive cisterns built underground directly behind you.
The garden was surrounded by a two-story portico providing both different levels of viewing and shelter from the sun or rain. Part way along the left hand (or south) side was a semi-circular exhedra that was renovated by the Severan emperors as they redeveloped this part of the palace at the time when also adding a set of baths further along on that same side. These new baths replaced Domitian’s original bathing area that was at the very far end on the left.
Use of this area changed over time and either Emperor Maxentius or Constantine installed a private amphitheater as is evidenced by the concrete and stone structure in the shape of an ellipse towards the south-west end of the garden.
Now, make your way into the complex of rooms on the right hand side of the sunken garden. You will pass one of what will turn out to be three large courtyards – the first we encounter is identifiable by the lone tree growing out of a small mound roughly in the middle of the courtyard. Continue past the courtyard with the tree walking roughly parallel with the sunken garden and you will eventually an area that on one side looks out over the Circus Maximus and, on the other side looks down into another sunken courtyard – the remains of a fountain.
The fountain, our second courtyard, takes its design from four half-ellipses each with two semi-circular gaps along the edges. This was a very private courtyard or peristylium in the heart of the palace and is surrounded by a series of reception rooms, there were also other water features and dining areas as well as niches for statues of gods. This area was deep within the palace complex and had access stairs to the imperial apartments below as well as to the palace wine cellars.
Now move to look out over the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, here you will see the Circus Maximus. Although it is hard to tell now, Domitian’s viewing gallery on this side of the palace was made of a huge gently concaved curving portico that provided a unique perspective on the chariot races held below – where you are now standing is just behind the portico and served as a dining area that allowed the emperor and his guests to enjoy refreshments whilst watching the games.
Moving back to the north-west, retrace your steps and go left at the lone tree courtyard and pass in front of the Museum (that’s the modern-looking building) and you should come to another open area with the remains of a large fountain with a hexagonal island in the middle.
This is the third palace courtyard we will encounter. Some of the surrounding buildings are often misleadingly referred to as part of the Domus Flavia. Instead, this was simply another part of the palace and actually the first reception courtyard encountered by anyone visiting Domitian’s palace through its main entrance.
If you can, position yourself so you are facing the east side the hexagonal water feature – if you’re oriented correctly then the museum should be on your left and the lone tree courtyard some way behind you. Now, Domitian’s palace entrance would have been directly across from you on the other side of the hexagon. Behind the large brick-built sections over on the right is a large reception area known as the Aula Regia, the imperial audience chamber or throne room. The Aula Regia was huge and had 8 niches around the edge for 3.5m tall statues of deities, two of which were unearthed in the 19 century – these two depicted Dionysus and Hercules. The throne room had a second story (and perhaps a third) with even more statues and columns. At the far end of the room stood an enthroned statue of Jupiter Tonans (or Thundering Jupiter) who’s head was found during excavation of the area.
Further excavation of the throne room showed that Domitian expanded on an earlier design by Vespasian who had himself expanded on Nero’s reception area in this part of the palace. Although not visible from this side, beyond the audience chamber directly away from the hexagonal courtyard was the palace forecourt. Tradition had it that, on a morning, the emperor would appear on a porch overlooking the forecourt to greet his subjects and dependents. The people of Rome would approach the palace coming up the slope from the Arch of Titus through a another huge monumental arch and flanked on either side by large platform extensions that Domitian had built on the North side of Hill. One of these platforms originally used as a garden now supports the San Bonaventura church on the North-west corner of the Palatine hill.
Continuing along the right side of the hexagonal water feature, past the Aula Regia you can see the first story of a massive Basilica, this defines the north corner of Domitian’s palace. Directly opposite the throne room across on the other side of the hexagon was Domitian’s banquet hall. Make your way across there now, this time on the other side of the hexagonal water feature.
As you come to the end of the path you should see a couple of half-columns in front of an elliptical stone structure – these are just in front of a rather odd more modern looking building with glass windows and a brick arch. The museum and the mostly sand-covered dining hall should be on your left.
Excavation revealed that Domitian’s dining room was an update to a design by Nero but on a much larger scale. The Banquet hall had exquisite mosaics and water features. At the far end of the banquet hall away from the hexagonal fountain there is a mosaic floor apse where Emperors would have sat and entertained their guests. At each side of the hall, visible through large windows, Rabirius placed matching elliptical fountains that would have been surrounded by colonnades. The whole area would have been ornate, richly colored and breathtaking in its design and grandeur. The mosaics that you see today actually date from the time of Nero and include delicate swirling flowers in red and green porphyry with intricated details in red and yellow numidian limestone surrounded by white and purple Phrygian marble.
We’re now going to move just outside of Domitian’s palace. So, go back to the hexagonal water feature and walk left through what would have been the main palace entrance. You should go down a set of 4 steps.
Once down the short set of steps look immediately to your left. This seemingly uninteresting concrete mound is actually of critical importance to our understanding of the development of the hill. This is the site of a Temple dedicated to Apollo. Apollo was Emperor Augustus’s adopted patron deity and he vowed to build this temple following victories over Sextus Pompeius (son of Pompey the Great) at the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BCE and over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium 5 years later. Tradition has it that is was built on a site where a lightning bolt had struck the interior of one of Augustus’ properties here on the Palatine.
Unfortunately, the riches of the Temple’s marble decoration, its ornate mosaics and exquisite statues were a target for looters or builders robbing away materials such that nothing of its original splendor remains.
The Temple was built high on a podium and early archaeological exploration suggested that its entrance steps faced the Circus Maximus however recent and more considered analysis of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the temple faced the area in which you are standing. Indeed, it may be that any guidebooks or maps that you have still show the temple opening to the southwest.
At what we now believe is the back of the temple there were two ornate and richly decorated terraces. The first terrace had a rectangular portico with fifty columns and fifty statues all of which enclosed a central altar of Apollo. To one side of this terrace was a library. Beyond this was a second terrace with an even larger courtyard and portico surrounding yet another altar – presumably the grove sacred to Diana. The whole area dedicated to the terracing behind the Temple was 106m long and 106m wide. The general fall-off of the land and sloping concrete structure on that side meant it felt logical to assume a set of steps leading from that direction into the temple and, as we will see, there are other temples on this side of the hill that face in that direction. However, that interpretation doesn’t fit the ancient descriptions of the layout of the site or the architectural design principles that were well documented for the time of Augustus.
In front of the temple, in the area you are now standing was a large forum-like square. If you’re looking towards the Temple of Apollo then, at the time of its construction the so-called House of Livia on your right had already been largely removed and the ground re-leveled. The approach to the front of the temple would have been via a series of perhaps 17 white marble steps leading up to four massive Corinthian columns. This entrance-way continued with two more columns on each side that, taken together, defined the Temple portico. Beyond this was a very similar-sized Temple cella. Above the temple was four-horse chariot of the sun decorated at the roof apex. Inside, at the back of the central cella hall were statues of Apollo, his sister Diana and their mother Latona. The recently derived layout of the temple was such that, with the temple doors open, the statues would have been visible from some distance away in the long courtyard in front and alongside the palace entrance.
Pre-dating the Temple to Apollo and adjacent to it is the House of Livia – this is hidden under a low area of modern roofing. In the late 1800s archaeologists excavated what was open ground between the north corner of the temple and the south corner of the Domus Tiberiana, removing a paved street and finding buried beneath it a small house that contains some extraordinarily well preserved Pompeian style wall paintings. During this excavation, a lead water pipe was found in a tunnel at one end of the building. The pipe was stamped with the name Livia Augusta from which was taken as evidence that the house had been built for Augustus’ widow Livia although there were many other aristocratic Roman ladies with that name. It should also be noted that the same pipework was stamped with the names of Domitian and one Prescennius Eros, an assistant to the Severan emperors. Given this, it is extremely tenuous to argue that this is definitively Livia’s house however the naming has persisted. This was a two-story building, constructed around 100 BCE and features a central atrium with several side rooms. The remains of the house are reached by a sloping hallway covered with a black and white geometric mosaic on the floor, this leads into the best preserved section of Livia’s House – the atrium and its three relatively large adjoining rooms (a tablinum and two side rooms). Each room was painted with a mythological subject and its floor decorated in more of the black and white geometric mosaic. The pipe stamped with Livia’s name is on display in the Tablinum – this room is also known as “Room of Polyphemus” given that the mythological picture on the back wall, now totally unreadable, showed one of the earliest representation of the story of the monster Polyphemus and the sea nymph Galatea. It depicted Polyphemus immersed in the water with a young Cupid riding on its shoulders pursuing the Galatea as she rode a sea-horse (hippocampus).
Walk along so that the house of Livia is on your right and you should see signs for the so-called House of Augustus. This will be on your left if you’re walking away from the Temple of Apollo and you have the House of Livia on your right. We know that initially Augustus or Octavian as he was at the time, moved onto the Palatine hill and into the house of Quintus Hortensius Hortalus who’s father, of the same name, had been a Roman Consul. Hortensius’s relatively modest house became Augustus’s home for over 40 years. Substantial remains of a house complex remain underneath and to the North West of the Temple. The house had three distinct development phases with the first attributed to Hortensius and the second and third associated with Augustus as he systematically expanded his accommodation. It is highly likely that such expansion was aided by the fact that Augustus was systematically seizing the houses of those identified as being allied with Julius Ceaser’s murderers – these included Hortensius and other rich home owners with property on the hill.
Like the house of Livia, this building is also on two levels and is presented today as Augustus’s primary residence during his reign. Despite its relatively small size, this building is celebrated for its lavish Pompeian frescoes which rank among the best in the Roman world. Unfortunately, the association between the house and Augustus was made in the 1960s however it is unclear whether this was the house in which Augustus lived. It is known that the lightning bolt struck a property Augustus had recently bought and that the temple of Apollo was sited close to where he lived however there is no definitive proof that this was his home. Indeed, written records suggest that, while approaching the Palatine Hill from the Forum, Augustus’s house was visible before the Temple of Apollo and that his house burnt down in the year 3. The building we see today called the House of Augustus is therefore on the wrong side of the hill and there is no evidence of burning. Additionally, access to the Temple of Apollo from here at the time of Augustus would have been via a ramp that appears to been abandoned around the time of the Temple’s construction. Its is therefore much more likely that Augustus residence is located somewhere else on the hill and potentially under the areas later developed by Domitian or Nero.
The next area we will visit is a religious precinct containing the Temple of Victory, the temple of Victoria Virgo (Maiden Victory), the temple of the Great Mother and the so called House of Romulus. This is accessed by following the path between the Houses of Livia and
All of the temples in this precinct suffered at the hands of stone robbers who in some cases stripped away nearly everything of the building. The first you will encounter is the Temple of Victory, this is the largest of the three temples and was made of extremely valuable and easily reusable squared tufa blocks – this prized building material was so effectively removed that it has exposed the fragmentary remains of earlier C6 to C5 BCE wells and cisterns. Now, look for a low covered area protecting a large circular cistern at the corner of the Temple of Victory’s foundations. This is one of four that were deep underground and, although originally intended to collect water, several eventually became the cite of votive offerings with archaeologists removing over 65,000 fragments from just one of them. These offerings included cups, painted roof tiles and decorated clay tablets depicting a range of different scenes including banquets, games and military processions. The stratification of these deposited fragments taken together with their nature (domestic or ceremonial) as well as the style of artefacts helped reconstruct a detailed chronology of the use of the site and the surrounding area. The exposed circular cistern was underneath the rear corner of the Temple of Victory so, if you are standing next to the cistern opening, you need to imagine that you are standing looking up at a huge temple surrounded by columns with the entrance steps at the other end of this area. The Temple was dedicated on the 1st of August 294 BCE by Lucius Postumius Megellus an overbearing and manipulative politician and general that held office during the middle years of the Roman Republic.
The Temple of the Great Mother, which you will come to if you continue along the path past the cistern, was built and dedicated nearly 100 years later in response to the Republic feeling threatened by invaders and disturbed by a series of ill fortunes including a failed harvest, a famine and a meteor shower. At the time, Hannibal was actively moving his forces in what is now southern Italy in part of the second Punic wars. The Roman Senate consulted the Sibylline oracle and decided that Carthage might be defeated if Rome venerated the goddess Magna Mater or “Great Mother” of Phrygian Pessinos. Magna Mater was represented in this case by a cult object that belonged to the Kingdom of Pergamum, so the Roman Senate sent ambassadors to seek the king’s consent to relocate the goddess to Rome from her sanctuary in what is modern day Turkey. The goddess in the form of a black meteoric stone, was transported across the Mediterranean Sea to Ostia. Roman history connects the end of this voyage to at Vestal Virgin, Claudia Quinta, who was accused of unchastity but proved her innocence by single-handedly hauling the barge carrying the statue. On arrival in the city the stone was temporarily housed in the Temple of Victory until the completion of the Temple of Mother Mater. In due course, the famine ended and Hannibal was defeated. The temple was roughly 33 meters long, and 17 meters wide, accessed by steps of the same width. At the top of the steps there would have been a statue of the Great Mother sitting in a throne, with a turreted crown and lion attendants. This is consistent with a colossal, fragmentary statue of the goddess, found within the temple precincts. The goddess’ meteoric stone may have been kept on a pedestal within the temple cella; or perhaps incorporated into the face of a statue.
Like the adjacent Temple of Victory, the Temple of the Great mother faced roughly south west although on a slight different angle as, squeezed between these two larger temples is the much smaller Temple dedicated to Maiden Victory. The small concrete platform visible today dates from the second century however excavations have revealed that it sits above two earlier buildings one of which is likely to have been the original shrine from some 400 years earlier.
This area of the Palatine grew in importance as the concentration of Temples increased and thanks to the close association with the site that was claimed to be the original hut of Romulus, the founder of Rome. Over the centuries the area was repeatedly upgraded, repaired after fires and remodeled with different surrounding walls.
The House of Romulus was a modest reed hut that the priests maintained for centuries and was reportedly still being serviced towards the end of the empire. It sat on the side of the hill almost directly in front of the Temple of Victory. Tradition dates Romulus’ reign to 771-717 BCE and his house, on the south-west corner of the Palatine hill was a single-roomed peasants’ hut.
To date, archaeologists have been unable to definitively associate the house Romulus with any specific remains. However, a strong candidate is the largest of a group of dwellings whose foundations were unearthed in front of the Temple of the Great Mother during excavations in 1946. The dwelling’s foundations were cut into the bedrock. Six post-holes arranged in a circle and one in the center presumably to accommodate the supporting struts for walls and roof respectively. Organic material found in the site has been dated to between 900 and 700 BCE. The evolution of the site seems to match well with the Roman traditions and mythology surrounding the foundation of the site although it is hard to give direct attribution to any one of these very early structures.
Without a doubt, this area of the hill was settled and developed early in Rome’s history and the location matches the historical accounts. Some of the earliest Roman settlements, child graves, cisterns and sewer sections have been uncovered here and in the immediate surroundings. The site was venerated and maintained throughout the rest of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.
Now let’s move on to another part of the Palatine Hill and, again, don’t be confused by the name. Despite being called Domus Tiberiana, the palace on the northwest sector of the Palatine was not erected by Tiberius but by his successors, Caligula and Nero. Very little is known about their palace designs as they are largely buried beneath the Farnese Gardens, laid out in the 16th century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Building before Domitian’s overhaul of the Palatine complex, it is thought that Tiberius’s palace was to the north west at the opposite end of the long courtyard and directly facing the temple of Apollo. The mad emperor Caligula built his palace to the north east and so close to the Forum that he was able to link his home to the Temple of Castor and Pollux by a short bridge. Again, it is hard to know the layout of these buildings as most of these structures remain unexcavated.
Much later, Emperors Trajan and Hadrian then both extended this area of the hill to the point that it became a continuous development with the Forum area and, in particular, with the Temple and house of the Vestal Virgins that were rebuilt on a much grander scale in the year 113.
This description ends here however for a great view over the Roman Forum make your way past the Domus Tiberiana and the Farnese gardens over to the north west corner of the Hill and onto the platform area.
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Thanks for listening.