Together with the Quirinal, Vimineral, Capitoline, Aventine, Coelius, and Esquiline, the Palatine is one of the seven hills of Rome. The latter can be described as the most important and is located in the center and close to the Tiber; between the Velabro and the Forum Romanum. Moreover, on the banks of the Tiber, trade in goods and animals was carried out in this area, which is better known as the Foro Boario.
What remains of the Palatine today are the ruins of the temples and palaces of the Roman emperors who lived there. Consider, for example, the ruins of the imperial residences of Augustus, Tiberius, and Domitian. These can be visited in the archaeological zone that also includes the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.
History of the Palatine
The Palatine is the first of the seven hills of Rome that were inhabited. It’s located 40 meters above the Forum Romanum and looks down on it. On the other side of the hill is the Circus Maximus.
The name of the hill probably comes from the god Pales, who was worshipped during the festival of Parilia. This annual celebration took place on April 21, which is traditionally considered the day of the city’s foundation.
Monarchical period (753 to 509 BC)
The Palatine contains one of the most archaic remains of ancient Rome, consisting of, among other things, huts at various points on the hill (to the southwest) and a fortress wall on the north side, dating from the 8th century BC. Given its concurrence with the founding date of Romulus (753 BC), this detail is of particular interest.
However, the remains found of the oldest hut date from an earlier phase, from the period 900-750 BC, the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, before the time of Romulus.
The Palatine and the Aventine faced each other as the two components of Roman society: the patricians on the Palatine and the plebeians on the Aventine.
According to some historians, Rome was founded in the middle of the eighth century (753 BC) by Romulus using rituals that would remain in place and force for the foundation of colonies until 1,000 years later.
It’s said that the founder dug a well from the top of the Aventine with a plow pulled by a cow and an ox. He was also said to build the walls, dig the moat and place the gates. The historian Tacitus describes this as the original form of Roma Quadrata: a quadrangular plan with the vertices at the Ara Massima di Ercole at the Forum Boario, at the Ara di Conso at the Circus Maximus, and finally at the shrine of the Lari cult, at the foot of the Velia.
The original wall consisted of large pieces of tuff mixed with earth. Later, the first wall was reinforced and partially replaced by another wall, consisting of two curtain walls filled with clay. From this period also dates the excavation of the outer moat, which was almost filled in the 6th century, when the new walls were built, to allow the doubling of the mighty walls of red tuff blocks.
At the end of the century, the new city plan of the Tarquins (Etruscan kings) was implemented. Four gates were opening onto the walls, but only two are known by name: the Mugonia gate on the road from the Palatine to Velia, later renamed Via Sacra, and the Romana or Romanula gate in the direction of the Velabro.
The Tarquins dramatically transformed the city from 616 to 509 BC. Tarquinius Priscus sat on the throne of Rome until 578 BC and had stone buildings covered with decorative terracotta, while the temples and streets were among the most beautiful and impressive in the entire Mediterranean. The Cloaca Maxima (sewer) was built, and the inscription of Lapis Niger indicates the spread of Latin as an official language, despite the significant presence of the Etruscans.
Around the middle of the 6th century, King Servius Tullius divided the enlarged urbe into four parts, and square terrace walls were built on the Palatine to provide stability for the new buildings with sewers. Public spaces were created and the archaic road network was modified by replacing the old river beds of pebbles with tuff blocks. The main road around the hill was the Via Sacra. At the top of the hill were the most important temples.
Republican period (509 - 27 BC)
The history of the Palatine is quite obscure during the first centuries of its existence and, except for a few temples such as the Temple of Victory and the Temple of Magna Mater, no public buildings were erected.
In the republic, however, the hill turned into a residential area of the Roman ruling class, with private houses and villas of wealthy and influential people such as M. Valerius Maximus (consul in 505 BC), Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (politician), Licinius Crassus (consul in 95 AD), Cicero (statesman and philosopher), Catullus (first great Latin lyricist), Q. Hortensius Ortalo (speaker, lawyer, and consul).
Among the many palaces, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this article, the House of Livia stands out. Emperor Augustus lived here with his third wife, Livia. The building dates back to the 1st century BC and, despite being relatively modest, is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved imperial palaces.
Finally, in 44 BC, Augustus decided to move his residence, the House of Augustus, to the Palatine and build a temple in 28 BC dedicated to Apollo. Since then, almost all the emperors took up residence on the hill. Over time, more and more imperial palaces appeared on the hill overlooking the magnificent Forum Romanum.
The wealth of the imperial court was determined not only by the size of the residence but especially by the splendor of its decorations: colored marble on the walls and floors, elegant frescoes in the rooms, stucco with original and imaginative decorative motifs, etc. There were also statues, sculptures, and works of art scattered throughout the building and a dining room, the Cenatio Iovis, which was heated in winter.
Imperial period (27 BC - 476 AD)
With the succession of emperors, new residences were built one after another, such as the imperial palace of Tiberius or Domus Tiberiana (enlarged by Caligula), the palace of Nero, the Domus Transitoria, and part of the Domus Aurea (built after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD), etc.
The reputation of the hill was established when the sumptuous Palace of Domitian was built. This gigantic complex took up almost the entire surface of the hill.
The Palace of Domitian was divided into several parts: the baths and the stadium were for recreation; a private wing, the Domus Augustana, where the imperial chambers were located, divided into rooms with courtyards and terraces; and finally the public wing, the Domus Flavia, where the great throne room was located.
The building complex remained largely unchanged until the time of the Severians when Emperor Septimius Severus had a new section added, the Septizodium (or Septitentium). This is Latin for the temple of seven suns, referring to Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. It was a monumental, nymphaeum-like facade three stories high and was decorated with composite columns, numerous statues in niches, fountains, and plants. In the center niche was a statue of Septimius Severus.
After Septimius Severus, apart from a temple built by Heliogabalus in the 3rd century, no significant building was erected on the Palatine. At the beginning of the 4th century, the emperors even began to abandon the Palatine. The decline had already begun under Constantine and was only further encouraged by the abandonment of the ancient temples and the destruction in 410 by the Goths and in 455 by the Vandals.
Medieval era (476 - 1492)
During the Middle Ages, the Palatine underwent a major change and deteriorated into pasture land for herds. In the 500s, some functions of the palace were restored thanks to Theodoric, who carried out restorations and built an amphitheater in the stadium that Domitian had commissioned.
The former imperial residence, which housed the Byzantine administration, was used by emperors visiting Rome until the 7th century when the downstairs rooms were inundated by the mud left behind after the Tiber flooded.
After the decline of the Byzantine Duchy of Rome and the transfer of the pope’s seat to Lateran, the Palatine ceased to “exist,” although in the ninth and tenth centuries some villages arose near the churches. Some of the remaining buildings were converted into houses, and the hill aroused the interest of the di Imiza, di Papa and Stefaneschi families.
In addition, some churches were restored, such as St. Anastasia. Later, a monastery was founded in the Vigna Barberini and a church near the Settizonio. In the northern part of the Palatine stood the Cartularium of Testamentum, an archive of documents concerning church property.
Emperor Otto III chose the Palatine as his home. In the twelfth century, the hill was owned by a large family and religious bodies, while in the late Middle Ages it became depopulated and gave way to gardens, vineyards, and fields. In the monuments that were not used as homes, large excavations were carried out in search of material that would be made into lime.
The symbolic character of the Palatine again increased with the rise of the House of Frangipane, which settled near the Via Sacra and built towers and fortresses to control the main roads, which included the Arch of Titus.
Renaissance (1492 - 1789)
Another family that exercised its power on the hill was the Farnese family, who took the initiative to restore the Palatine to its former glory and had the Orti Farnesiani (Farnese Gardens) planted on the northern part of the hill, entrusting the project to Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola.
The green areas were interspersed with elegant buildings that are still partially preserved over the remains of the Domus Tiberiana. In addition, the gardens were intended to provide an exceptional assortment of rare and exotic plants.
As the influence of the Eastern Empire waned, papal authority increased. Thus, the church of San Sebastiano was built and the Settizonio was incorporated into the nearby abbey of San Gregorio, which shortly thereafter also occupied the Severiane baths. Another monastery on the Palatine was that of the monks of Montecassino, which came into being in the mid-14th century.
The last major change to the Palatine before the excavations that defined the current landscape and ruins was carried out by Pope Paul III, who in 1536 laid out the area of the Campo Vaccino and, after demolishing the buildings in the area, planted an avenue of elms between the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Septimius Severus, marking the ancient Via dei Trionfi.
Having purchased land and vineyards, the pope had luxurious gardens laid out at the top of the Palatine and ordered the construction of steps, fountains, nymphaea (a shrine dedicated to nymphs), and the planting of European and American species of trees.
Contemporary period (1789 - present)
In 1731, the Bourbons took possession of the gardens, which slowly fell into disrepair: abandoned by the owners who lived in Naples, the buildings were occupied by peasants who used the gardens for growing crops. Eventually, they came into the hands of Napoleon III and the Kingdom of Italy.
In 1830, Scotsman Charles Andrew Mills had a villa built, better known as Villa Mattei. Built on top of the Domus Augustana and the Domus Flavia, it was demolished in the early 20th century to allow for excavations of the archaeological site.
Intensive archaeological excavations in the area began in the 18th century and ended in the late 19th century after Rome was declared the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Discoveries continued in the 20th century, such as the House of Augustus and the very recent discovery of underground space, possibly the Lupercal. The Palace of Tiberius, under the Farnese Gardens, remains unexcavated.
Although today only parts of the ancient structures still exist, these remains allow us to get an idea of the lifestyle of the time. One of the best-preserved complexes on the Palatine is the House of Augustus.
At the top of the hill is the Antiquarium of the Palatine: the museum that exhibits material from the Republican period (first floor) and the Imperial period (second floor).
Among the monuments are various objects from the Iron Age and works of art from imperial buildings. The most important of these works are the decorative paintings of the Aula Isiaca.
Buildings and monuments on Palatine Hill
As mentioned earlier, the Palatine is full of majestic buildings, works, and monuments from different periods of Roman history. Some of the most ancient and relevant are listed in the historical section of this article and will be detailed below.
During excavations led by Dante Vaglieri in 1907, foundations of three huts were discovered. These were hidden partly in soil and partly in soft tuff. In 1948, they were more systematically excavated and recorded.
The remains consist of post holes, wall trenches, and drainage ditches delineating three small structures. The best documented was an elongated hut measuring 4.9 m by 3.6 m. The main walls were built with seven posts: four for the corners and three at center positions. There was also a small porch in front, formed by two more poles. In the middle of the hut, there was a fireplace. This hut is also called Casa Romuli or the Cabin of Romulus.
The Palatine huts are similar to other huts of the 9th-7th centuries BC found elsewhere in Rome and at other Latin sites. Based on this evidence, it’s likely that the huts had sloping thatched roofs and walls made of mud, straw, and thatch.
This is a cave on the southwestern slope of the Palatine where a sanctuary was later established and the Romans worshipped the god Luperco.
Located near the walls of Aurelius’ palace, between the Temple of Apollo and the Basilica of St. Anastasia, at the level of the Circus Maximus, the cave is 16 meters deep, 9 meters high, and 7.5 meters in diameter.
It’s thought to be the place where the brothers Romulus and Remus were found by a she-wolf, as described further in Curiosities about the Palatine. According to ancient sources, the place was surrounded by a forest of fig trees, but in the Augustan period, only the remains of a single tree near the Lupercal remained.
Stairs of Cacus
The Scalae Caci or Stairs of Cacus (the giant adversary of Hercules) connected the Palatine to the Forum Boarium before the imperial period through a gateway called Porta Scalae Caci, a square gateway to Rome.
The Porta Scalae Caci was one of three or four entrances (some say even more) that opened into the Roma Quadrata founded by Romulus, around which the original Roman city wall stood.
It’s said that Cassius Longinus (magistrate in 174, consul in 171, and censor in 154 BC) began the construction of a theater. However, the Senate prevented him from doing so because it wasn’t a suitable place for the rough Romans, who were supposed to be engaged only in war and not in entertainment or literature.
Thus, the theater was destroyed, and the remains were left near where the Palatine huts stood. Next to the remains, which date back to 154 BC, are the ruins of the Scalae Caci.
Temple of Apollo Palatinus
Apollo (the god of the sun) was promised the construction of a temple by Augustus (Octavian) if he achieved victory over Nauloco in the important battle against Sextus Pompey in 36 BC.
Apollo’s temple was built on the site where lightning struck Augustus’ estate on the Palatine, an event that, according to the tradition of the time, was taken as a divine sign.
The temple was inaugurated on October 9, 28 BC, 6 years after the vow was made, but the construction had taken some time. Augustus built other temples on the Palatine, but surely the most important and beautiful was the Temple of Apollo (Templum Apollinis). The construction of the latter also became an occasion to celebrate the victory at Actium over Mark Antony.
The temple and nearby library were where the Roman Senate often met during the imperial period. The building was destroyed by a fire on March 19, 363, but thanks to the efforts of rescue workers, the prophecies inside could be saved.
The land on which the temple was built as part of the area where the House of Augustus stood and had been acquired at his expense. The royal palace was connected to the terrace of the sanctuary by corridors decorated with frescoes, according to Hellenistic royal custom, whereby the dynasty was connected to the gods.
Portico of the Danaids
The temple was surrounded by a portico, known as the Portico of the Danaids, with columns of Numidian yellow marble, fifty statues of the daughters of Danaos (a figure from Greek mythology), 50 equestrian statues of their husbands, and a statue of Danaos with drawn sword.
In front of the temple was an altar flanked by bronze statues of Myron’s oxen and a huge marble statue of Apollo (which is not the cult statue), placed on a pedestal decorated with rostrums. Furthermore, the temple stood on an elevation measuring 24 by 45 meters.
The adjacent library, bibliotheca ad Apollinis, according to the Forma Urbis Severiana, consisted of two apside halls, the walls of which were decorated with an order of columns. Not much remains of the Temple of Apollo. The foundation of the podium, part of the cornice, a Corinthian capital, and a small part of the columns can still be admired on the Palatine.
Temple of the Magna Mater (Cybele)
The unfortunate period of the Second Punic War had created a sense among the Romans that they were being persecuted by the gods. Among the various attempts to regain divine grace was the introduction of the cult of the Great Mother (Magna Mater), Cybele, in 204 BC.
To save Rome required the protection of an ancient Mediterranean goddess, the Magna Mater whose important temple existed at Pessinunte, in northern Asia Minor, also known as The Black Stone. The simulacrum was a dark and cone-shaped rock, probably a meteorite.
The temple of Magna Mater (or Cybele) was then built on the Palatine starting in 204 BC and inaugurated on April 11, 191 BC. The celebration kicked off the Ludi Megalensi, a festival in honor of Cybele. The cult was officially proclaimed in the Roman Empire in 160 AD.
The ruins of the temple were found between the archaic huts and the Domus Tiberiana, near the House of Augustus: here the statue of the goddess was also found and the inscription was dedicated to her on the right side of the façade.
On the east side of the Palatine is a large, masonry terrace. In the middle of this have been found the remains of the Temple of Elagabel, which overlooked the Via Sacra and the Temple of Venus.
The temple was commissioned by Emperor Heliogabalus, an emperor from Syria who was also a priest of the sun god El Gebal. After coming to power in Rome at a young age, he had his sun god promoted under the Latin name Deus Sol Invictus and commissioned a temple to be built in his honor.
It’s said that the temple expressed a fusion of Roman and Oriental culture through grandiose architecture, columns, and steps of colored marble, beautiful statues, arches, cornices, and capitals.
Inside, it was decorated with painted carpets and pillows, veils of oriental silk, gilded bronze fire pots, and alabaster vases filled with water and floating rose petals.
Temple of Juno Sospita
This temple was built in honor of the Roman goddess Juno, the ruler of the heavens (wife of Jupiter and mother of Mars and Vulcan). The cult for Juno came from the Latin town of Lanuvium, whose inhabitants were granted Roman citizenship in 338 AD. Thus, the Romans adopted the worship of Juno and the first temple was built on the Palatine, which must have had three cells and two rows of columns in the pronaos.
The building probably stood next to the Temple of Magna Mater, where remnants of an ancient temple have been excavated and an antefix with the head of Juno has also been unearthed. The second temple to Juno Sospita stood on the Forum Holitorium.
Temple of Victory
The Temple of Victory was built on the southwest side of the Palatine, dedicated to the Roman goddess Victoria and adjacent to the temple of the Magna Mater. This goddess appears to refer to the Greek goddess of Victory, Nikè.
The temple probably had Greek influences and dates to the 8th century BC, before the founding of Rome. It was made of sun-dried clay bricks, with structural wooden beams for support and a wooden warped roof with steeply pitched slopes.
According to legend, it’s said to have been built by Evander (mythological character), then rebuilt, or built from scratch by Lucius Postumius Megellus, general and Roman politician, with the money from fines he had incurred during his service. The temple was dedicated to the goddess Victoria on August 1, 294 BC, the year he was consul.
The temple was then restored in the late Republic or early Augustan period, possibly before the fire of 3 AD, and later by Caligula.
House of Augustus
Augustus was born on the Palatine and chose it as his residence from the beginning of his political career. This fact was decisive for the future of the hill because since then it became a custom that other emperors also lived on the Palatine.
He bought the house of the orator Hortensius, located next to the so-called House of Romulus which, according to tradition, still existed in 31 BC. He later expanded it by buying adjacent houses and lived there, without turning it into a real palace. Its construction was the result of an assembly of several houses, including that of Caio Lutazio Catulo.
The House of Augustus was built in 36 BC, shortly after the emperor’s victory over the Sicilian territories with Sextus, the son of Pompey. Over time, the residence underwent numerous changes, allowing it to serve different functions than the original.
If we look at the reconstruction of the floor plan of the Domus Augusti, we see an atrium in the middle, a private residence in the left part, and a public part on the right. Noteworthy is an important addition by Augustus: he included the sanctuary of the Lupercal in his house.
The emperor continued to live here until his death and after a lightning strike in the year 3, part of the house was converted into a temple of Apollo. The rooms of the house were decorated with frescoes, large parts of which remain intact today. The complex totaled 12,000 m2 and had two floors.
House of Livia
The House of Livia is located near the Temple of the Magna Mater, on the west side of the hill. It was discovered in 1863 and is one of the few republican houses still standing on the Palatine.
The attribution of the house to Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, dates back to the first excavations carried out by Pietro Rosa on behalf of Napoleon III. Furthermore, it seems to have been an annex of the House of Augustus, with which it was connected.
Inside the villa, the walls are painted with sunny landscapes and beautiful flora and fauna. The first excavations of the site date back to 1863-1864, when the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta was discovered (today found in the Vatican Museums) and some underground rooms, such as the famous hypogeum with garden frescoes.
In 1944, a bomb damaged the underground room, which was also used by the military as a hideout. After the war, it was decided to remove the precious paintings (1951) and transfer them to the National Roman Museum, where they can still be found today.
The Domus Tiberiana or the House of Tiberius was the first true imperial palace on the Palatine. It was commissioned by Emperor Tiberius and built on the west side of the hill, on a vast site between the Temple of the Magna Mater and the slopes of the Roman Forum. Above it are the 16th-century Farnese Gardens, which cover the remains of the residence of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD).
The structure, 150 m long, 120 m wide, and over 20 m high, was the favorite residence of the Antonine emperors, with a library and the imperial archives, which burned down during the reign of Emperor Commodus (176-192 AD).
Inside, it was decorated with frescoes, mosaic floors, precious portals, marble balconies, and columns, among other things. The gardens surrounding it featured statues, fountains, terraces, flower beds, and trees.
The residence was then expanded by Caligula, who directed it to the Forum Romanum, completed by Emperor Nero and later restored by Domitian. Of the central part, only a large peristyle (an open courtyard with garden, surrounded by a colonnade), enclosed by rooms, has survived. From the south side, facing the temple and the House of Livia, 18 rectangular rooms remain, built entirely of brick with vaulted ceilings.
Palace of Domitian
The Palace of Domitian was the most important imperial complex on the Palatine. It replaced several older buildings from Republican to Neronian times, of which underground remains have been found as evidence.
The building consists of three parts:
- The Domus Augustana: the emperor’s private residence;
- The Domus Flavia: the public part of the palace where ambassadors, generals, and other heads of state met;
- The Palatine Stadium: the emperor’s private stadium that was used for recreational purposes.
For the first time, one complex brought together all the functions and needs of the political life of the State, in an organized and efficient manner.
As mentioned above, the House of Augustus was the private part of Domitian’s palace. Like the Flavian Palace, it was built during Domitian’s reign (in 85 AD).
The Domus Augustana consists of an eastern wing with a reception hall and basilica, residential quarters, and an imperial bathhouse. It was the private residence of the emperor, “the Augustus”, not Emperor Augustus.
Later it was also the residence and workplace of the highest officials, until the Byzantine period. It was a magnificent building, decorated with marble and fountains, statues, gardens, temples, and beautifully decorated rooms.
As mentioned earlier, the western wing of Domitian’s palace, the Domus Flavia, was the public space where the emperor could receive important people and politicians.
It was an almost self-contained rectangular block, extending northward along its entire front and connected to the inner peristyle only by secondary doors.
The rectangular peristyle was the portico that enclosed the garden or courtyard in the center of the house, built with Corinthian columns of precious antique yellow marble. In the center of this structure was a beautiful ornamental fountain, also octagonal.
An important part of this wing was the state residences, arranged on a terrace. Behind it, were two grandiose halls: on the north side the hall known as the Aula Regia, while on the south side was the Imperial Dining Hall.
The first was connected to the peristyle by two doors, between which was an apse in the shape of an arch, with the emperor’s throne in the middle. From this place, he received the homage of all who came to visit him. The Aula Regia was built by order of Nero and then redesigned and completed under the Flavians.
The Palatine Stadium (or Hippodrome of Domitian), as mentioned earlier, was the third and final part of Domitian’s palace built by the architect Rabiro.
The stadium completely enclosed the east side of the Domus Augustana, for a length of about 88 meters. It was a circus-shaped structure, an elongated rectangle measuring about 160 by 48 meters. In the center was a square altar representing the 12 most important gods of Olympus.
The perimeter had a two-story portico consisting of brick columns covered with marble on the lower level and marble columns on the upper level. On the east side, there was a grandstand in the shape of a semicircle at the upper level of the portico in the middle.
Domitian, who was not satisfied with an imperial grandstand at the Circus Maximus, apparently also wanted to build his own stadium for private use. The only imperial family and its guests were allowed to attend.
Its use is still unclear, perhaps it was used as a hippodrome for chariot races, or rides of the emperor. No doubt it was used for recreational purposes, for performances, and as a walking garden for relaxation.
This is an underground room under the so-called basilica auditorium of the Domus Flavia. Discovered in the 18th century, the room must have been part of a complex that extended down the slope of the hill, as evidenced by later finds that revealed other structures connected to the residence.
The room was that of a republican house, decorated at the beginning of the empire in the Augustan period, between 30 and 25 BC with paintings of an advanced style. The original walls to which the Opus reticulatum technique had been applied date from the 1st century BC. Furthermore, the floors were decorated with mosaics.
In the second half of the 1st century BC, an apse with paintings of subjects related to Isis was added on the east side and above it a frieze with Egyptian uraeus (the symbolic cobra snake). The name of the room was eventually derived from the numerous subjects related to the Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis.
The structure was abandoned in the Neronian period, around the middle of the 1st century AD, when a water reservoir was built on the site, probably by the order of Mark Antony.
House of the Griffin
Under the northern wing of Domitian’s palace, the remains of a republican Domus, the House of the Griffin, were found. This name is derived from a stucco of two griffins located above one of the passageways between two rooms of the complex.
The building is constructed in opus incertum (a mosaic-shaped construction technique applied to walls), with alterations in opus reticulatum (a refinement of opus incertum), with magnificent paintings dating between the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BC (even though the house is older).
Although the residence was interrupted by the foundations of the palaces of Nero and Domitian and therefore only part of it can be seen today, it’s the best-preserved example of a Republican-era residence in Rome.
The house was composed of rooms built on two levels; on the first floor, only the sign of an atrium remains. The owner of the lavish residence is uncertain, although sources speak of wealthy aristocrats from the Republican era.
The name Domus Severiana or Casa Severiana refers to an extension of the Domus Augustana, built between the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries by Septimius Severus. The magnificent structure stands on the south side of the Palatine and unfortunately today only brick structures remain of it, stripped of all decorations.
From the stadium, we can see the remaining arches of the Domus Severiana, where Septimius Severus renovated the baths of Domitian and built a large terrace with an imperial lodge, from which one could enjoy the spectacle of the games held below in the Circus Maximus.
The remains of this building are visible only as underground supporting structures, with a double order of vaults with arches supported by brick pillars. This architectural feat allowed the creation of an artificial plane that extended the surface of the Palatine, which by that time had been completely occupied by the other palaces.
The Baths of Septimius Severus, located on the east side of the Palatine Stadium, seems to date from the time of Domitian. He wanted to provide the imperial palace with a bathhouse, as evidenced by the intermediate rooms, most of which are still unexcavated.
The remains of baths, drains and heating systems typical of Roman baths are still visible inside; these show how valuable and rich the interior design was, as evidenced by the capitals and columns on the first floor.
On the southeast side of the hill, overlooking the famous Via Appia Antica, stood the famous Settinozio, built by order of Emperor Septimius Severus.
It’s a majestic nymphaeum facade with columns rising at different levels, and was built to astonish all those who came to Rome along the Via Appia.
The monument was intended as a scenic entrance to the palace, a monumental water structure, which contained statues of the seven planetary deities Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus.
Unfortunately, by the end of the 8th century, the Settizonio was already dilapidated, having been converted into a medieval fortress. After the central part collapsed, the remaining ruins became part of the Frangipane system of defenses.
The majestic building was razed to the ground in the 16th century at the insistence of Pope Sixtus V, who decided to use the material stolen here to build several works, including the chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Palazzo della Cancelleria.
Curiosities about the Palatine
Did you know that the Palatine was an essential site for the creation of the Eternal City? And that in honor of this exact location, a great feast was celebrated for 1200 years? Read on to discover all kinds of curiosities about the Palatine!
The Lupercal and the origins of Rome
According to Roman mythology, the twins Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were sons of Mars (god of war) and Rhea Silvia (priestess of the goddess Vesta, who had to maintain her virginity).
It’s said that the newborns, conceived in sin, were placed in a basket by a slave and carried away with the current of the Tiber river. The basket was eventually stranded in a cave, where the twins were found and suckled by a wolf.
This cave, the Lupercal (Grotta della Lupa), is therefore considered a sacred place and the origin of the Eternal City. Once grown up, the two brothers decided to build a city along the river, but because they couldn’t agree, Romulus killed his brother and founded the city of Rome. Today, a bronze statue of a wolf suckling two newborns stands in the area as a reminder of the myth.
Earlier, in the time of the Arcadians, the Pan cult had been established in the Lupercal, in honor of Pan Lyceus, god of nature and wild animals, especially wolves and goats. In addition to an altar and statue dedicated to this god, sacrificial rituals took place in February. These are discussed in more detail in the next section of this article.
Lupercalia, the Roman fertility festival
For 1200 years, the Lupercalia was celebrated from February 13 to 15. The origin of the festival and its purpose are related to the fertility of women and nature. Furthermore, it had characteristics of what we know today as Valentine’s Day and Carnival.
The image of the Lupercalia is that of young men, scantily clad in furs, hounding women by beating them with strips of goatskin to obtain fertility. It was one of the most uninhibited Roman festivals and, together with the Saturnalia, which took place in December, gave rise to carnival.
The origin of the feast has two stories, from three authors: the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the poet Ovid, who lived during the reign of Augustus; and the writer Plutarchus, almost a century after them.
According to Dionysius and Plutarch, the festival was originally related to a Greek ritual from the region of Arcadia. It’s believed to have been dedicated to the god Pan Lyceus. According to this version, it was originally a running race in honor of the god to ask him to keep the wolves away from the herds; hence, the participants were dressed in goatskins and wolf masks.
However, according to Ovid, its origin dates back to the time of Romulus, the founder of the city. Legend has it that during his reign a prolonged episode of infertility occurred among Roman women, who were making a pilgrimage to the sacred forest of the goddess Juno. She’s said to have replied that they should be “pierced by the sacred goat,” an allusion to the Faunus god Lupercus, deity of flocks and forests. An Etruscan soothsayer interpreted the prophecy, sacrificed a goat, and struck the women on the back with the goat’s skin. After ten moons (about nine solar months) they gave birth.
The secret garden of the Palatine
In 2018, when the restoration of the Uccelliera Farnese on the Palatine was completed, an exhibition curated by architect Giuseppe Morganti for the first time showcased one of the most famous and symbolic places of Renaissance and Baroque Rome: the Farnese Gardens.
The gardens, created from the middle of the sixteenth century by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, were a means of definitively consolidating the status and political position that the family had acquired. It’s no coincidence that this city, which includes the imperial palaces, was created on the site where Rome was founded and where imperial power was established from Augustus onwards.
The exhibition told the story from Farnese’s green project to the beginning of the 20th century, when archaeological excavations began. To revive the charm of the old garden, laurels, cypresses, yews, citrus trees, vines, and damask roses were planted. The result was one of the first botanical gardens in Europe and also the richest in the world.
Two very valuable statues from the Farnese collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the kneeling Barbarian and Isis Fortuna, were exhibited in the Uccelliera Farnese, marking their return to this site for the first time. Two giant busts of captured Dacians were also on display.
The purpose of the exhibition was to enrich the path with the use of digital technologies. In the Nymphaeum of Rain, one of the spaces of pleasure and recreation designed by the Farnese family, a fascinating journey through time was set up through the use of multimedia equipment, which reconstructed the original appearance of the gardens.
The myth of Hercules and Cacus
The gradual incorporation of Hellenistic culture into the primal cultures of Italy is expressed through, among other things, the myth of Hercules and Cacus. The demigod Hercules, son of Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and a mortal woman, who symbolizes courage and strength, but also humanity and generosity, faces Cacus, a monstrous and uncivilized shepherd, son of the god Vulcan.
The Roman historians who reconstructed archaic events and transmitted them to us tried to insert an element of continuity between the Greek and Roman civilizations through the figure of Hercules. To this end, the demigod clashed with the Italian gods whom, when he couldn’t restrain himself, he destroyed.
The myth reads as follows. When Hercules returned from Iberia with his oxen, he walked through the valley of the Tiber and asked Evander (son of Mercury and the nymph Carmenta), leader of the Arcadian community long established on the Palatine, for shelter.
As his red oxen grazed peacefully in the valley, they were stolen by the monstrous, fire-breathing shepherd Cacus, who lived in a den of the Aventine hill. Hercules eventually found his oxen and killed Cacus. Evander then decided to build a temple in honor of the demigod who had freed him from the terrible Cacus.
The legend is thus based on the clash between two mythological figures who, once the confrontation has begun, both turn out to be connected to the salt trade and to trade in general. Cacus is a chief, a barbarian robber who dominates the Salara road and its herds, Hercules is the Heracles of the Greeks who protects the ancient salt road that runs from Piceno to the mouth of the Tiber.
Cacus and Hercules symbolically represent the evolution of the area between the Palatine and the Aventine, close to the mouth of the Tiber River, which was a trading area. Chronologically, Cacus, the deity of the settled Middle Bronze Age tribes, presided over the proto-urban phase, when settlements began to expand between the Capitoline and the Palatine. In the next phase, with commercial transactions, the cult of Hercules emerged.
The birth of the hill
Given the importance of this hill to the birth of the city, it seemed appropriate to include some information about its origin. It seems that in the Neozoic, volcanoes erupted in Latium and deposited layers of sand, clay, and gravel on the soil, forming tuffs on which silt and clay of fluviatile and lacustrine origin were deposited.
This created a hill about 50 m above sea level, the top of which was flat, crossing the Forum Boarium and the Tiber to the south, with a slope named Germalus. The hill was additionally connected to the Esquiline hill behind it by a slope, the Velia.
The water had carved out large valleys on three of the four sides of the hill and the entire promontory was surrounded by streams and rivers, in the eastern part of the mountain was then the Velabro swamp, located between the Roman Forum and the Tiber, which often caused floods in the adjacent areas.
In the valley that would later lead to the Roman Forum, a stream flowed, which in monarchic times turned into the Cloaca Maxima (sewer), while springs such as those of the Lupercal or the Giuturna sprang up on the slopes of the hill. Furthermore, the land was covered with forests of oaks, beeches, cypresses, figs, laurels, shrubs, and streams.
As mentioned in the historical section of this article, it’s precise because of these favorable conditions that the Palatine is considered the cradle of Roman civilization, where the first settlements and the urban body of the city emerged.
The origin of the name
In ancient times, the Palatine was called “Palatium". Some say the name derives from Pallantion, a city in Arcadia from which Prince Evander, a figure in Roman mythology and son of the god Mercury and the nymph Carmenta, and his people emigrated.
According to other hypotheses, the name of the hill is derived from Pallas, an ancestor or son of Evander. Others believe that the name is derived from Pales, goddess of shepherds, or Palatium, a mythical city in Sabina.
In the imperial period, the term Palatium began to designate the imperial palace par excellence. It’s noteworthy that this word initially referred only to the imperial residence, but was later expanded into a general designation, denoting the palace as a generic structure in all European languages.
The origins of Christmas
The idea of replacing the Roman feast of the Invincible Sun (Natalis Solis Invicti) with the feast of the birth of Christ came from Constantine, the emperor who granted freedom of religion to Christians.
However, he was also responsible for the first celebration of the birth of Christ, which took place in 326 AD in the church of St. Anastasia. A basilica that had been built by the emperor in honor of his half-sister on the Palatine in the late 3rd century, early 4th century.
Since the capital had already been moved to Constantinople, one may wonder why this choice was made; some scholars suggest that the reason is that the Lupercal is located next to the basilica. With this political decision, the emperor imposed a turn in the history of Christianity.
Useful tips for your visit
- Remember that the Roman Forum, the Palatine, and the Colosseum are part of one archaeological zone, so the tickets available allow access to all three attractions.
- We recommend you buy your ticket online. This way you avoid long queues at the entrance.
- If you want to visit this area spontaneously, it’s best to start your walk at the entrance of the Roman Forum or at that of the Palatine. Unlike the entrance to the Colosseum, the queues there are usually shorter to get in.
- If you have to choose a time for your visit (online ticket), it’s only for access to the Colosseum. For the Forum Romanum and the Palatine, you don’t need to do this.
- As for security checks, before the entrance to the Palatine (along Via di San Gregorio) handbags and backpacks are usually checked manually.
- Please, note that there are no lockers or checkrooms available. Small and medium-sized backpacks are allowed but you will have to carry them all the time.
Nearby places of interest
As mentioned earlier, the Palatine is surrounded by other attractions. Here is a list of sights you could visit while you’re in the area.
The Flavian Amphitheater is the most important symbol of Italy and therefore definitely worth a visit during your stay in Rome. Each year, about six million travelers visit the ruins of the Colosseum, which are among the new seven world wonders.
Admission to the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the Palatine is included in a single ticket.
The Colosseum is 500 m from the Palatine (a 7-minute walk).
This was the epicenter of social, political, religious, and cultural life in ancient Rome. It was also the heart of the empire and the ruins found here are surprisingly interesting.
No trip to the Eternal City would be complete without a visit to this majestic complex. It’s a must-see site and access is included in the Colosseum entry ticket.
The Forum Romanum is accessible from the Palatine from the inside. From the outside, there is an entrance 140 m south of the Palatine (a 2-minute walk).
Arch of Constantine
Among the three Arches of Triumph that still exist in Rome, this is the best-preserved one. The striking monument was built in the early fourth century to commemorate the victory of Constantine I at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.
It’s the last great monument of Imperial Rome and was inaugurated on the 10th anniversary of Constantine’s reign. It’s an imposing 21 meters high and 25.6 m wide and stood on Rome’s triumphal route.
The Arch of Constantine is just 400 m east of the Palatine (a 4-minute walk).
The Fori Imperiali consists of a series of monumental fora (public squares). They were built over a total period of 150 years, between 46 BC and 113 AD. Over the years, Caesar, Vespasian, Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan contributed to its development.
The Imperial Fora were built to replace the Roman Forum after it became too small due to strong population growth and could no longer fulfill its purpose as the center of Rome.
The entrance to the Imperial Fora is 400 m northwest of the Palatine (a 5-minute walk).
Piazza Venezia with the Altare della Patria is among the iconic sights of Rome. It’s located at the foot of Campidoglio hill, where five of the city’s main streets intersect. It’s named after the nearby Palazzo Venezia, which was used as the embassy of the Venetian Republic in Rome.
A few sights in this square include Palazzo Bonaparte, the Monument to Victor Emanuel II, Palazzo Venezia, Basilica San Marco, and the bust of Madame Lucrezia.
From the Palatine exit, it is a 6-minute walk to Piazza Venezia (500 m).
Considered to be the largest sports stadium built by man, this archaeological area was the site of legendary entertainment activities for nearly a thousand years.
Most of the building is underground and there’s not much left to see above ground. However, through a virtual reality tour, you can discover what the circus used to look like. It’s definitely worth a visit.
The entrance to the Circus Maximus is 500 m southwest of the Palatine exit (a 6-minute walk).
The remains of the great palace that Emperor Nero ordered to be built in 64 AD can be visited in a virtual reality experience tour.
The virtual reality glasses allow you to explore Nero’s extravagant residence in all its glory and get an idea of what it would have looked like at the time.
The entrance to the Domus Aurea is 450 m northeast of the Palatine exit (a 6-minute walk).
The Ludus Magnus was the largest of the four Ludi (gladiatorial schools) known from ancient Rome. The rectangular building complex was commissioned by Emperor Domitian (81-96) and completed by Hadrian (117-138).
The building was located in the valley between the Caelius and the Esquiline, east of the Colosseum—to which it was connected by a subterranean passage.
From the Palatine exit, it’s a 2-minute walk to the Ludus Magnus (150 m).
Basilica of San Clemente
This intriguing building complex is a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Pope Clement I. The first tier was built in the fourth century, making it one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome.
Over the centuries, three successive floors have been built over it, of which the top three can be visited. During a visit, you can admire (among other things) the underground temple of the Persian sun-god Mithras and numerous medieval frescoes.
From the exit at the Coliseum, it is a 6-minute walk to the Basilica of San Clemente (400 m).