Exploring the Imperial Ruins of Rome’s Palatine Hill

If you love archaeology and history, then a visit to Palatine Hill is a must if you’re ever in Rome. It’s just a short walk from the Roman Colosseum and the Roman Forum, and you can easily spend half a day here exploring the ruins of a bygone era.

Pre-historic Occupation and the Myth of Romulus and Remus

Archaeological excavations show that people inhabited Palatine Hill as early as the 10th Century BC. It’s also considered to be the birthplace of the Italian capital. The story goes back to the myth of Romulus and Remus. Born of a vestal virgin and the god Mars, Palatine Hill was the location of the Lupercal cave, where the she-wolf Lupa found them and kept them alive.

The twins grew up and eventually set out to build their own city. Remus wanted to build on Aventine Hill, while Romulus wanted to build on Palatine Hill. They fought, and Romulus, or his supporters, killed Remus. Romulus went on to found the city of Rome, and reigned as its first king.

Upper class citizens built their palaces here, not only for the prestige, but for the incredible views. In fact, the word palace comes from the proper name of Palatine Hill.

a view of the eastern part of the Roman forum

A view of the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill. S. Francesca Romana bell tower is in the background.

The Home of the Emperors

One man in particular, named Gaius Octavius Thurinus, was born on Palatine Hill in 63 BC. When he became the first Emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 BC and changed his name to Augustus, he built his residence here. His home was somewhat modest, with two floors containing a bedroom and a work room. He lived here for about forty years, until his death in 14 AD.

In 2007, an archaeologist claimed she had found the legendary Lupercal cave underneath Augustus’ residence (also known as the House of Livia, named after his wife). Later laser scans of the vaulted space revealed decorated walls covered in seashells and mosaics. However, the theory of the space being the cave where the she-wolf actually suckled and raised Romulus and Remus was quickly debunked. The vault was more likely a triclinium (formal dining hall) or a nymphaeum; a grotto dedicated to the nymphs.

Construction Projects Spike on Palatine Hill

After Augustus, Palatine Hill became the primary residence of the emperors. There are several impressive sites still remaining on and around Palatine Hill, although most are in ruins now.

After Augustus’ death, his successor and step-son, Tiberius (14 – 37 AD) built his palace here. Tiberius was a great Roman general, but didn’t relish his role as emperor. In 26 AD, he left Rome and moved to the island of Capri, where he grew reclusive and paranoid.

In 37 AD, Tiberius took part in a ceremonial game where he threw a javelin, injuring his shoulder. His injury grew worse and he became bedridden, eventually lapsing into a coma. Supporters called his adopted grandson, Caligula, and quickly congratulated him as Tiberius’ successor. However, Tiberius suddenly recovered from his illness and regained consciousness. The Praetorian commander, Macro, went to Tiberius’ bedchamber and smothered him to death with his own bedclothes.

During his reign, Caligula extended the Domus Tiberiana towards the north-east. The northern side of the palace overlooks the Roman Forum and is the best preserved:

Domus Tiberiana, Rome

In 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated in the cryptoporticus, or covered passageway, beneath the imperial palaces.

The cryptoporticus is now referred to as Nero’s Cryptoporticus, although Nero became emperor much later. It’s thought that Tiberius built the original cryptoporticus to connect imperial buildings. Nero merely renovated and expanded them.

Nero's cryptoporticus, palatine hill

A fresco in Nero's Cryptoporticus

A fresco in Nero’s Cryptoporticus

While he was still alive, Caligula had begun an aqueduct project, but he died before it’s completion. After Caligula’s death, his uncle Claudius became emperor of Rome. Claudius finalized the aqueduct project:

Aqua Claudia, Palatine Hill

Nero and the Great Fire of Rome

After Claudius died in 54 AD, his adopted great-nephew, Nero became emperor. Nero was only sixteen when he inherited the title. His mother was heavily involved in helping guide him through the early years of his political reign, mostly due to her own desire to rule Rome. Eventually, Nero tired of her interference in his personal affairs, and he had her killed a few years later.

Initially, Nero took a diplomatic role towards ruling Rome. He increased trade, supported athletic games, and built new theatres. But in later years, something changed. After the death of his advisor, Burrus, Nero’s decisions became more erratic, and his taste more extravagant.

Disaster struck in 64 AD with the Great Fire of Rome. Some ancient reports indicate the fire was an accident, but others point the finger at Nero himself. Some sources claim Nero despised the ancient constructions in Rome and wanted more room to build his Domus Aurea, or Golden House. Nero deflected these accusations by blaming the Christians, sentencing many to death by execution. Over the years, Nero made numerous enemies through his extravagant spending, personal scandals, and taxation policies. In 68 AD, Nero became an enemy of the state, and he committed suicide.

Additional Sites on Palatine Hill

Other buildings of note on Palatine Hill include the Stadium of Domitian, who ruled between 81 AD-96 AD. Although it was designed in the style of a Roman circus, with dimensions of approximately 160 x 48 m, it was too small for chariots. It’s true purpose was more likely as a sunken garden. The stadium was the last part of Domitian’s palace that was built, and was originally surrounded by a two-story portico.

Stadium of Domitian

Domitian was a huge fan of sports, and even founded the Capitoline Games in 86 AD, which were similar to the Olympic Games. So it’s likely that he used this field for sports events of some kind.

This structure is an exedra, where the emperor and his family could view the races and games from a great vantage point. The stadium itself could hold up to 30,000 spectators!

exedra, Palatine Hill Hippodrome of Domitian

This is a view of the stadium from the opposite end of the field. Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, added this oval enclosure, possibly a racing track, around the 6th Century AD.

Stadium of Domitian

The stadium was part of the Domus Augustana, the domestic wing of Domitian’s Palace. Below is the palace courtyard, containing a water garden:

courtyard of Domus Augustana, Italy

This stepped basin may have been a fishpond:

Basin at Domitian's Palace

The Domus Flavia, or Flavian Palace, was also part of Domitian’s vast residential complex.

House of Augustus on Palatine Hill

This is part of the remains of the Palace of Septimus Severus, who ruled as emperor between 193 AD-211 AD, alongside Geta and Caracalla.

Severan arcades, Palatine Hill

In 476 AD, Emperor Romulus was overthrown by the Germanic leader Odoacer, effectively bringing the Roman Empire to an end. During the Middle Ages, Palatine Hill became home to churches and convents.

The Farnese Gardens

Fast-forward to 1550, when Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had a grand villa built on the ruins of Domus Tiberiana. This included the first private botanical gardens in Europe, called the Farnese Gardens. A few remnants of the gardens remain, including the Ninfeo della Piogga, or nymphaeum grotto:

Ninfeo della Piogga

This is the Ninfeo della Piogga portico:

Ninfeo della Piogga portico

Very little of the original Farnese Gardens exists today. However, the remains of the fountain still has traces of mosaics on the walls:

Farnese Gardens fountain

A statue of a Greek winged sphinx sits above the fountain area:

Greek winged sphinx, Farnese Gardens

Palatine Hill also has a great museum filled with architectural remnants and archaeological finds from various digs.

You can purchase your tickets to Palatine Hill on site, or as one of the many museums and attractions covered by the Roma Pass.

Address: Via di San Gregorio, 30

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