Rome Reborn

Institute for Advanced Techology in the Humanities

Rome Reborn

Palatine Hill

Palatine Hill

The Palatine is made of tuff and sits in the middle of the hills of Rome. According to tradition, this is where Romulus founded his city (while his brother, Remus, unsuccessfully tried to found his on the Aventine). For centuries, a monument called the Hut of Romulus was lovingly maintained on the hill near the Scalae Caci. The Lupercal, a shrine commemorating the site (not yet been securely identified) where the wolf suckled the infants Romulus and Remus, was located in a cave somewhere at the foot of the hill. In the late Republic, property on the hill was among Rome's most expensive and desirable. It later became the site of emperors' residences, or “palaces”—a word whose etymology refers to this hill

Palatinus Mons

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 374-380.

The centremost of the seven hills of Rome, an irregular quadrilateral in shape, and about 2 kilometres in circuit. Its highest point is 43 metres above the level of the Tiber, and 51.20 above sea-level; and its area was about 25 acres. According to tradition, it was the first of the hills to be occupied by a settlement; and some authorities think that ritual reasons had much to do with its selection. Pigorini believed that the Prisci Latini occupied it owing to its similarity in shape to that of the rectangular 'terremare' of the plain of the Po, from which they came, and also to the fact that it was surrounded by streams. He further favoured the derivation from palus (Perchè l' antica Roma è sorta sul Palatino, in Archivio Storico per la Sicilia Orientale, xv.). To others the natural advantages of its position seem sufficient.

It was a flat-topped hill with two distinct summits, the Palatium and Cermalus (the former name does not appear to have extended over the whole hill until the third century B.C. — see below — though in common parlance it may have done so earlier), protected by lofty cliffs far more formidable than they seem at present (v. Doliola for the discovery of republican buildings under the arch of Janus Quadrifrons, which show that the valley was originally much deeper than it now appears to be) and almost entirely surrounded by two marshy valleys traversed by winding streams, being connected only by the narrow ridge of the Velia (on the summit of which stands the arch of Titus) with the Oppius, an outlying part of the Esquiline. It was thus a position of great natural strength, and its neighbourhood to the river gave it the command of the crossing of the Tiber, probably a ford at or near the site of the pons Sublicius. This crossing was of great importance, for it was the only permanent one on the whole of the lower course of the river.

View Full Article

Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    I. The Site and Foundation of Rome

    Geographical Overview

    Rome's landscape is best understood as a plateau of soft rock (primarily tufa, a sedimentary rock of volcanic origins) that has been worn down by the Tiber River about 30 km. from its mouth. This erosion created, in the case of the Palatine, Aventine, and Capitoline, free-standing hills along the riverbank almost detached from the plateau. The other hills traditionally included in Rome's seven—the Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, and Quirinal—are rather finger-like extensions of the plateau, all on the left bank; the Janiculum is a similar extension of the plateau on the right bank of the Tiber. Especially the free-standing hills were steeper in antiquity and previously had a greater elevation above the surrounding floor, which has risen between 5 and 10 meters since antiquity on ruins and sediment.

    4. The Republic Walls. Sources.


    [After gaining sole power] Romulus's first act was to build a wall around the Palatine, the place of his own childhood.

    Livy, History 1.7.3


    The first founders of Rome walled in the Capitoline, Palatine, and Quirinal hills.… The fourth king Ancus Martius extended the walls across the Caelian and Aventine hills and the valley floor between them, … and the sixth king Servius added the Esquiline and Viminal to Rome's walled area.

    Strabo, Geography 5.3.7

    6. Pomerium. Sources.


    Claudius also extended the pomerium of Rome [in AD 49], by an ancient custom whereby those who extended the empire might also expand the boundaries of the city. However, Rome's leaders, even those who greatly expanded the empire, had not availed themselves of this privilege, with the exception of Sulla and the deified Augustus.

    The pomerium's expansion under the kings (whether in accordance with their vainglory or their true achievements) is variously reported, but I think that the beginning of Rome's foundation and the pomerium that Romulus established can be reliably traced as follows. From the point in the Forum Boarium where the bronze statue of the bull stands today (appropriately, since this is the species yoked to the ritual plow), a furrow was plowed to designate the city limits. It ran first to the Great Altar of Hercules [119.] and then along the base of the Palatine hill, in a line preserved today by regularly spaced boundaries stones. From here, the line extended to the Altar of Consus, then to the Old Assembly Grounds [Curiae Veteres] nearby, then to the Shrine of the Lares and on past the Roman Forum. Sources report that the Forum itself and the Capitoline hill were not part of Romulus's original city but added by Titus Tatius. The pomerium was soon enlarged to keep pace with Rome's fortunes.

    The boundaries of the pomerium as extended by Claudius are easy to recognize and also documented in the public records.

    Tacitus, Annals 12.23-24

    V. The Upper Sacra Via


    By convention that has more to do with the arbitrary limits of the present archaeological park than with ancient terminology, the long slope between the Regia and the Arch of Titus is commonly considered part of the Forum. The presence of the Sacred Way certainly ties the two areas together, but this region, even after its relatively late regularization with Hadrian's Temple of Venus and Constantine's Basilica, lacked the architectural unity of the Forum Romanum proper, and it was never as intensely focused on public business. Even into the early Empire, this was an area of prestigious private homes, intermixed with shrines and temples, and especially as one proceeds uphill on the Sacred Way to the ridge connecting the Palatine and largely vanished Velia, it could be said to overlook the Forum rather than to belong to it. Such an arrangement, however, gave a high-profile visibility to such private residences, thereby using, as so often in ancient Rome, natural topography as an agent and display of social and political life. Homes (often more like mansions) here and on the adjoining slope of the Palatine kept their owners in the public eye and allowed them and their entourages to stage dramatic entrances down into the Forum, in an ancient version of a VIP motorcade.

    Because the homes of the elite on the Forum-side slope of the Palatine were so closely connected to the life of the Forum, I have included them here. That there is nothing to be seen of this aristocratic housing is due to another characteristic and defining feature of the Roman experience, the imperial family's eradication of aristocratic “pluralism” and its competing displays of power, here in the form of conspicuous real estate. Accordingly, there is little sense, among the predominantly imperial ruins, of the Palatine's long residential phase, with its network of streets that included the Sacred Way, the Nova Via (the “New Way,” actually very ancient) part way up the Palatine, and connecting roads between them. Topographers generally place Cicero's house, with its address “on the Palatine”, [47.3-7] higher up the hill, on what we consider the Palatine today, but Coarelli may be right in arguing that anything built on the Palatine side of the Sacred Way could have been given the address “on the Palatine” (LTUR 5.109-112). Excavations have demonstrated the existence of sumptuous aristocratic houses beneath the now largely vacant area between the Arch of Titus and the Hall of the Vestals. These homes were destroyed in the fire of AD 64, after which Nero and Vespasian had other uses for the area.

    One might imagine this area as the side of a bowl (in place of the current park's rectangle) with the Forum proper at the lowest level and the Sacra Via rising from it to a low point on the rim near the Arch of Titus, dividing the Palatine neighborhood on its right from the Velia neighborhood on its left. Further back on the left, in the direction of the St. Peter in Vincoli church, lay another fashionable neighborhood, the Carinae [48.], whose most famous resident had been Pompey the Great, before his property was taken over by Mark Antony [48.3]. The platform and hulk of the Basilica of Constantine, as well as the trench cut in the 1920s for the Via dei Fori Imperiali on the other side of it, obscure what must in some way have been a more continuous and unified zone with primarily upper-class residences that took advantage of the terrain placing them in close physical and visual proximity to the Forum below.

    Excerpts from the electioneering handbook (attributed to Cicero's brother Quintus but perhaps of later authorship) give Cicero advice on how to run his campaign for consulship, and provide graphic evidence of the importance and value placed on the high visibility of these homes and their owners [47.9]. Cicero's home also became the focal point of an intense political battle, in which his enemies, led by Clodius, had the statesman exiled, his house burned, and its ground rendered sacred so that no residence could henceforth be built there. But Cicero and his allies fought through these problems to bring about both his return to Rome and the construction of a new home on the old site.

    47. Republican Mansions. Sources.


    [In 91 BC] Marcus Livius Drusus turned his efforts…towards granting citizenship to the Italians. While he was working on this problem and was returning home one day to the Palatine surrounded by the large and unruly crowd that accompanied him wherever he went, he was stabbed in front of his house with a knife that the assassin left behind in Drusus's side. Within a few hours he was dead.

    I should not omit to mention one instance that reveals Drusus's character. When he was building his house on the Palatine (on the same site where Cicero later built his house, subsequently owned by Censorinus and presently [c. AD 30] by Statilius Sisenna), his architect promised that he would build Drusus a house with total privacy, shielded from the view of all prying eyes. Drusus responded, “I want you, insofar as it is in your powers, to build me a house in which everything I do will be visible to everyone.”

    Velleius, History 2.14.1-3


    My house is on view to practically the entire city.

    Cicero, On his House 100


    [Clodius, Cicero's bitterest political and personal foe, outmaneuvered him and had the orator exiled in 58 BC.] Cicero's property was confiscated, his house razed to the ground as though it belonged to a foreign enemy, and the site was dedicated for a temple to Liberty. Cicero himself received the penalty of exile, which he was forbidden to spend in Sicily, since he was banished 500 miles from Rome, with the further provision that if he should ever be seen inside this distance, both he and those who harbored him could be killed with impunity.

    Dio, History 38.17.6-7


    The violence with which Cicero's home was destroyed by Clodius [in 57 BC] was matched by the splendor to which the Senate restored it.

    Velleius, History 2.45.3


    [In court, Cicero defends a young ambitious politician against charges of political violence, arguing that the charges were trumped up by his ex-lover Clodia.] The prosecution finds it reprehensible that my client Caelius moved out of his father's house.… But that was at an age when he was old enough to run for public office, and since his father's house was far from the Forum, Caelius moved not only with his father's permission, but with his encouragement. He rented a house—at a modest rate—on the Palatine so that he would have readier access both to my and Crassus's homes and to his own supporters.

    [Would, though, that he had never moved to the Palatine!] For you will find, judges, that the young man's move to the Palatine, and the Palatine Medea [his lover Clodia] whom he met there, were the cause of all his troubles, or rather the slander that caused his troubles.

    Cicero, In Defense of Caelius18 [65 BC]

    58. Overview of the Palatine Hill. Commentary.

    The pre-urban topography of the Palatine, like the Capitoline's, is lost to us, having undergone a far greater transformation than even Propertius could envision when, although writing before the imperial palaces took over the entire hill, he marveled at Rome's urbanity.

    Although most of the hill looks today as if it has reverted to the conditions of Evander's day (with herds of a different species), the greenery is deceptive, rooted on platforms and debris several stories above the natural bedrock in some places.

    Much of the Palatine has remained unexcavated, but there is one part of the Palatine—the corner of the hill closest to the Tiber, overlooked by the southern balcony of the Farnese Gardens—that not only has been plundered and excavated down to very early levels, but which contains the core sites that determined the hill's later imperial makeover. Here in close proximity to each other are the houses of Augustus's compound [62.], with the Temple of Apollo [63.] on one side of them and the older temples of Victory [60.] and the Great Mother Goddess [61.] on the other. In meaningful proximity to Augustus's residence was the Hut of Romulus [62.], and further down the slope of the hill here was the Lupercal cave [59.]. Admittedly none of these remains is impressive. Some attractive frescoes are preserved in the House of Augustus; the temples have mostly disappeared, and the exact locations of the Hut of Romulus and the Lupercal cave are not known. But if the ruins of this zone are surpassed by both the ruins and the lurid stories of the subsequent palaces, it is the richest section of the Palatine for the intersection of archaeology, legend, and history.

    58. Overview of the Palatine Hill. Sources.


    Visitor to mighty Rome: wherever you look

    Was simply grass and hill before Aeneas came;

    Along the Palatine's crest where Apollo's temple stands

    Evander's cattle roamed and ruminated at will.

    Propertius, Elegies 4.1.1-4

    64. The Palace of Tiberius (Domus Tiberiana). Commentary.

    After Augustus, the building of palaces began. His successor Tiberius must have built something grander than Augustus's collection of homes, since the large area now taken up by the Farnese Gardens became known as the Palace of Tiberius (the Latin word for this and Domitian's palace continued to be domus). The earliest palace foundation here, however, appears to go back only to Nero, who no doubt had to rebuild the palace after the Fire, and perhaps took the opportunity to make it larger. The Palace of Tiberius, whatever transformations and expansions it underwent, would have been the principal Roman imperial residence for Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero in the early part of his reign. Nero made several attempts at a wholesale expansion via independent structures, first with his Domus Transitoria and then after the fire of AD 64, with the Domus Aurea, and there are significant though mostly subterranean Palatine remains from his reign. The colorful marble floor exposed in the western courtyard of Domitian's banquet hall, a consummate example of ancient Roman stonecraft, goes back to the Domus Aurea phase of Nero's reign.

    After Nero's death, Vespasian, perhaps as part of a general attempt to dissociate himself from the excesses of Nero, seems to have avoided the palace. His son Domitian was responsible for the next, and grandest, expansion of palace buildings, and in the process built over much of what was distinctive from Nero's reign. The Palace of Tiberius, however, continued to be used under its own name at least into the reigns of the Antonines and perhaps much longer.

    There is little in the sources on the construction and appearance of the Palace of Tiberius in any of its phases, with the exceptions of Caligula's extension of the Palace of Tiberius out over the Forum and the bridge he built to connect the Palatine to the Capitoline. Although in the first instance Caligula's architecture, in the service of his intimacy with Castor and Jupiter, is illustrative of a notoriously unbalanced megalomaniac, it is also part of the ongoing and evolving imperial attempt to increase and express the power of the imperial office. It is as if what the other emperors (above all, Augustus) were able to manipulate symbolically, Caligula tried to embrace all too literally, a not uncommon dysfunction.

    64. The Palace of Tiberius (Domus Tiberiana). Sources.


    Up until now I have been discussing Caligula in his capacity as an emperor. We must now consider him in his capacity as a monster.…

    When Caligula was on the verge of assuming a royal crown, converting the appearance of the Principate into the institution of monarchy, and someone pointed out to him that he already rose above both emperors and kings, Caligula began to claim for himself divine status. He gave out orders that the exceptionally revered and beautiful statues of deities, such as the Jupiter at Olympia, were to be brought to Rome from Greece, decapitated, and supplied with a head of his own likeness. He also extended a part of the Palatine palace all the way out to the Forum, transforming the Temple of Castor and Pollux into an entrance hall for the Palace. There in the temple he would often take his seat between the twin gods, presenting himself for worship to those who approached. Some even greeted him as Jupiter Latiaris, [a form of Jupiter worshipped on Mt. Albanus].

    On clear nights when the Moon was full, he would welcome the lunar deity into his bed with passionate embraces, but by day he had private words with Jupiter Capitolinus, and would whisper in the god's ear or put his own ear to Jupiter's lips. At times he would raise his voice and even quarrel with the god: once he was heard to quote Homer in threatening tones, “Either you move me, or I move you…!” Finally Caligula announced that he had been won over by Jupiter's entreaties to live together. He then built a bridge above the Temple of the Deified Augustus to connect the Palatine and the Capitoline, and soon laid the foundations of a new house near the Temple of Jupiter.

    Suetonius, Caligula 22.1-4


    The emperor Vespasian resided infrequently on the Palatine, spending most of his time at the estate called the Gardens of Sallust, where he would receive anyone who wished to see him, not just the senators.… He was considered an autocrat only in his care of the public welfare; in all other respects he lived a common life on the level of others.

    Dio, History 65.10.4, 11.1


    [There are many examples of Antoninus Pius's (AD 138-161) peaceful and generous character.] There was a Greek philosopher from Chalcis named Apollonius who had been summoned to Rome by the emperor. When Antoninus sent word for him to come to the Domus Tiberiana (where the emperor was then living) to tutor Marcus Aurelius, Apollonius said, “The teacher should not come to the pupil, but the pupil to the teacher.” Antoninus only smiled, saying “It was easier for Apollonius to get from Greece to Rome than from his own house to the Palatine.”

    Imperial Lives, Antoninus Pius 10.4

  • Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project
  • German Archaeological Institute
  • Flickr images
  • Wikipedia

©2008 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia. All rights reserved.