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Rome (Lazio), Italy

Roman Forum: Palatine Hill (Stadium)

The Palatine, next to the Roman Forum, is the most central of Rome’s hills and was the site of the city’s first settlements. Legend has it that the grotto where the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus was at the foot of the hill.

So it was certainly not by chance that Romulus chose the Palatine to found Rome, drawing a sacred perimeter and killing his brother Remus. Going beyond legend, however, excavations have brought to light extremely ancient remains that truly could be the confines of a newborn Rome.

The first inhabitants chose the area because it was considered safe, up high: in fact, it surveys the only wadeable point of the Tiber and was in a strategic position for trade.

Interestingly, the word “palazzo”, palace, comes from “Palatine”: the richest Romans have always lived on this hill, in sumptuous villas with mosaics, frescoes and colonnades, far from the swampy and crowded areas below. Almost all of Rome’s most famous residents have lived here. Later on, it became home to emperors.

The first was Augustus: he was born here and wanted to live where Romulus had lived. He didn’t want a showy palace so he simply restored some houses that already existed.

It was an astute political move because in that way, the Romans would connect him with Octavian Augustus, founder of the State. Succeeding emperors followed his example, building their grandiose mansions on the hill.

Slowly but surely, the Palatine became one, immense palace, the highest and most visible symbol of the growing power of Rome.

When the capital became Costantinople and the Western Roman Empire gradually lost importance, the Palatine began to fall to ruin. Only Emperor Teodorico, arriving in Rome around 500 AD, decided to restore certain buildings and base his reign here; a century later, however, the hill fell into disuse becoming a new quarry for building material, together with the Forum.

In the following 1000 years, churches, convents and fortifications were built on the hill until, in the year 1500, cardinal Alessandro Farnese bought up the entire hill and built his villa here.

He also created a marvelous garden full of trees, plants and flowers from many different places, thus creating the first botanical garden in history that, at least in part, still exists.

A visit to the Palatine is a pleasant walk among the gentle rises on the hill. A good place to start is the temple of the Magna Mater, the goddess Cybele, mother of all the gods to which the Romans dedicated a sanctuary after having won the battle against Hannibal.

Further on, there are the fenced remains of ancient huts from the 9th century BCE: you can see the holes in the ground made by the support poles. One of the huts is larger than the others and the Romans believed it was the home of Romulus.

The Palatine still has the ruins of the home of Augustus, first emperor of Rome as well as his family’s. The House of Livia, the emperor’s wife, still has its courtyard and three rooms rich in precious decorations in vivid colors, both on the walls and the floor.

The house of Augustus was divided into two parts: public, in which the emperor took care of affairs of State, and private, with smaller rooms, all decorated with beautiful paintings. The residences of Augustus’ successors were unbelievably rich and opulent.

The Domus Flavia, a little farther along, was built by the emperor Domitian in the 1st century AD. It had a large courtyard with various rooms facing onto it: a Basilica, an enormous royal hall where the emperor called the people together and an even larger banquet hall.

Next to the Domus Flavia, there is what was called the Domus Augustana, because “Augustus” was the name added to that of the emperors. This was Domitian’s real private home.

It even had its own stadium and a long, slim circus for horse races. This gives some idea of just how immense the mansions were on the Palatine.

And the view from the hill is just as exceptional, with Circus Maximus and Rome spreading out under the eyes of its emperors: they must truly have felt that they had the world at their feet.