The Palatine

Clivus Palatinus  and map of the Palatine
The ascent to the Palatine in Antiquity and for tourists
Clivus Palatinus the ascent to the Palatine in Antiquity

pictures: alisonshine and Nathan deGargoyle

View of the Palatine from the lower situated  Roman Forum large size
View of the Palatine from the lower situated  Roman Forum Rome

picture: Mike Wegner

View of the Palatine from the lower situated  Roman Forum large size


Palatine view on Palatine from Circus Maximus and  youtube  DJI Phantom drone Palatine (10. 54 minutes)
Palatine view on Palatine from Circus Maximus Rome

pictures: Capucine et Ludovic (Martin G.Conde)

‘The street along which people ascend(ed) the Palatine is called Clivus Palatinus by archeologists, the ‘Palatine slope’. Cicero bought a home in this street for which he paid no less than 3.500.000 sestertius, an amount equal to what some 2400 workers earned in a year. ‘Near enough the whole city,’ he said, ‘can see my house. It costs a few coins, but that is well worth it’ Cited from: Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’, Athenaeum- Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 p. 210.

The Palatine is one of the seven hills in Rome. As described earlier, this is where the city’s first inhabitants resided. The Palatine consists of three hill tops: the Germalus, the Palatium and the Veli (click here for a map of the Palatine with the three hill tops and the two branches of the Tiber: Vallis Murcia and the Velabrum).

The basket holding Remus and Romulus stranded at the Velabrum, underneath a fig tree: the ficus ruminales. The twins were raised by a female wolf on the southwest base of the Palatine, in a cave, the Lupercal. Before the discovery of the Lupercal in 2007. At the entrance, which connected the Circus Maximus with the Lupercal, was a bronze statue of the wolf with the twins.

As mentioned, the remnants of the cabins were found not far from the Lupercal, including the so-called Romulus hut. The remnants of the staircase of Cacus can be sen next to this hut. A lecture (Youtube starts at 3.25) about the hut of Romulus and the architecture by professor Kleiner from Yale University can be seen here .

According to one legend, the giant Cacus terrorised the inhabitants on the hills of Rime. Before Aeneas even set foot in Latium, the Greek demi-god Heracles also visited Rome. Cacus had stolen Heracles’ herd. Exactly at the place near the bank of the Tiber, where the cattle market (Forum Boarium) was later established. Our Greek hero didn’t stand for this, and after an epic battle he defeated Cacus. The Romans were grateful and constructed an altar for Hercules.

This staircase was the ascent from the southwest, from the Lupercal, to the Palatine. Romulus united the three tribes atop the Palatine hills into a single people. After Romulus, according to legend, founded the city in 753 BC., a wall was built around the shepherd’s village: the roma quadrata. a wall was built around the shepherd’s village: the roma quadrata. Some remnants of this first city wall have been discovered (see map below of the hilltop Germalus, no. 2). The oldest buildings on the Palatine can be found at the southwest corner, on the Germalus.

One of the oldest buildings is the mundus, a round building that likely served as a well (map no. 6). Every year after harvest, the first picked fruits were thrown in the mundus. Any stranger who wished to enter the city was required to throw some soil of his birthplace into the mundus.

Map Southwest side of the Palatine: the hill top Germalus 
1. Porta romanula (city gate)
2. Remnants of the Roma quadrata
3. Foundations from the 8th century  BC
4. City gate
5. Foundations of unknown origin
  6. Mundus
7. Cistern
8. Temple of Magna Mater Cybele
9. Auguratorium


Auguratorium: place where Augurs studied bird flights to predict the future large size        View from the top
Remnants of the Auguratorium Palatine Rome
photo: Anton Skrobotov

The temple of Magna Mater Cybele was built during the war against arch-enemy Carthage around 191 BC. Magna Mater Cybele, the great mother, was a goddess worshipped in the city of Troas, present-day Turkey, where Aeneas was born (the temple with the statue and the statue itself). A remarkable black stone – likely a meteorite – was brought to Rome by the ambassador of the King of Pergamon. The black stone did not travel under favourable circumstances. The ship with the black meteorite got stuck in the Tiber. Thankfully, a Vestal virgin came to their aid, who was not too keen on saving her virginity anyway.

The accused virgin used her belt to pull the ship back afloat and in doing so, saved her own life. The stone was first placed in the temple of Victoria, but later on was carried to the temple of Magna Mater Cybele. The statue of the great mother was given the black stone atop her torso instead of a head. The great mother was very popular with the Romans. Her right foot was kissed so often that it needed a replacement more than once. This custom can be found centuries later with Mary and Peter statues. The Catholics were wise enough to provide the right foot of the Saint with a copper or silver cover, as shown with the statue of the H. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio from c. 1250 in the St. Peter. For more info about the Magna Mater temple on the Palatine, click here for the Magna Mater project.

Magna Mater Museo Palatino
Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio St. Peter c. 1250
statue of Magna Mater Museo Palatino Rome

pictures: Kwong Yee Cheng and NeoFlicks

Remnants of the podium of the temple of Cybele large size
Remnants of the podium of the temple of Cybele Palatine Rome

The house of Augustus was located not far from the temple of Magna Mater. This house is usually referred to as the house of Livia, the wife of Augustus. Excavations uncovered lead water pipes that bore her first name, Julia. The house was purchased by Augustus, the first emperor, around 30 BC. The Palatine was a highly desired location to live at even during the early days of the Republic. It had a lovely view, the forum was nearby, but it also had a refreshing sea wind, which meant that Rome’s elite loved to have their homes built there.

Map Casa di Livia and Casa di Augusto
Map of the house of Livia:
1. entrance
2. atrium
3. rooms
4. rooms
  5. rooms
6. triclinium
7. rooms
8. peristylium

The Roman historian Suetonius wrote in his ‘Emperors of Rome’ about the house of Augustus, which, compared to the palace of Domitianus, was very modest.

‘It was not so much large or awe-inspiring. […] For over forty years, Augustus used the same bedroom, not just for summers but also for winters, though he did feel that Rome’s winter, where he indeed preferred to spend his time that season, was detrimental to his health. Whenever he wished to work in solitude without being pestered, he had an isolated room on the upper floor, which he aptly named ‘Syracuse’ or ‘the studio’.  This is where he would retreat, or into the country house of one of his released slaves. But whenever he fell ill, he was nursed in the house of [his friend] Maecenas. […] The austerity of his furnishings and household are clearly seen by the beds and tables, which have been preserved to this day. Most of them would barely be sufficient for a regular citizen now. Even the bed on which he slept was, according to hearsay, kept low and simple.’

Cited from: Jona Lendering, ‘Stad in marmer Gids voor het antieke Rome aan de hand van tijdgenoten’, Athenaeum- Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2002 p. 216. The translation of this text is from: Suetonius, Emperors of Rome (vert. Daan den Hengst) Amsterdam 1999. Click here for Wikipedia if you want to read more about Suetonius.

Casa di Livia large size       Entrance       Map Casa di Livia and Casa di Augusto
Video Casa di Augusto reconstruction (2.39 minutes)       Video Casa di Livia (6.37 minutes)
Casa di Livia Palatine Rome
photo: Christie K
House of Augustus
House of Augustus Palatine Rome

photo: Anton Skrobotov

Their ‘homes’ were palaces. Our word palace comes from the world Palatine. In the tablinum (reception halls): 22; numbers three to five) and the triclinium (dining room, no.  6), the wall decorations can still be seen: frescos that are optically enlarged. By realistically painted architecture, like windows and columns, a view of the hinterlands can be seen.

After Augustus, the emperors Tiberius (ruled from 14-17 AD.) and Domitianus (ruled from 81-96 AD) radically changed the Palatine. Tiberius constructed a large palace, the Domus Tiberiana, in the north-west corner of the Palatine (map VII: domus Tibiana). Caligula (ruled from 37-41 AD) expanded the palace of Tiberius even farther north-eastward. The complex survived two large fires, including one under Nero. Since 1520, the palace has disappeared mostly underground. The cardinal Farnese had a terrace constructed atop the vaults of the palace. This is where the first true botanic garden was laid (map no.  9.). Important 16th century artists like Michelangelo, Vignola, Antonio da Sangallo and Zuccari participated.

The layout of the garden is based on the traditional Roman garden from Antiquity. The first Roman ‘gardens’ were vineyards, which later changed into real gardens used only for personal entertainment. These gardens often had a shed (casino), a nympheum and aviaries, as seen at the palace of Domitianus in the Domus Augustana. Below the hot Italian sun, scholars, artists and cardinals alike enjoyed conversations where they reminisced on the old classical authors like Cicero, who lived in a house on the Palatine some 1500 years ago. Presently, this garden can still be admired.

1. Youtube reconstruction (1.15 minutes)
2. Youtube Circus Maximus Altier4 (0.31 minutes)
3. Youtube Circus Maximus Khan Academy (2.03 – 2.51 minutes)
4. Youtube Ben Hur 1959 (4.17 minutes)
5. Youtube Circus Maximus Ben-Hur 2016 trailer
6. Youtube DJI Phantom drone Palatine (10. 54 minutes)

The story about the Circus Maximus is too detailed to place here. Click this link to read it.

Domitian commissioned the architect Rabirius to build a large palace atop the Palatine and a part of the Velia. This meant that many houses from the times of the Republic had to be disowned to then be demolished or covered in sand. In addition, the Velia and Palatine were partially excavated and levelled to create an even construction terrain. This is where Domitian had his palace built between 81 and 96. The palace is made out of two parts: one part is the public space, the Domus Flavia, and the second part is the private residence, the Domus Augustana, with an adjacent hippodrome or recessed garden.

The Remnants of the palace of Domitian large size         Reconstruction of the palace large size
The Remnants of the palace of Domitian aerial Palatine Rome

photo: Capucine et Ludovic and model  Lasha Tskhondia

Youtube  A lecture by professor Kleiner from Yale University can be seen here (starts at 33.09)
Map of the palace and a reconstruction (Domus Flavia to the left, public area and private area to the right) of the palace of Domitian:
1. Peristylium
2. Aula regia (throne room)
3. Lararium
4. Basilica
5. Triclinium
6.        Nympheum Domus Augustana
7.        Wall in the shape of an exedra
8.        Atrium with fountain
9-10. Peristylia

The public area, the Domus Flavia, is a building of which the rooms (as per Roman custom) are situated around open courtyards, which in turn are surrounded by peristylia. These courtyards were adorned with flower beds and fountains. The whole of the Domus Flavia was divided in three:

1. The three reception halls for official events and basilica, reception hall or the aula regia and the lararium.
2. Courtyard with colonnades and baths
3.Triclinium (dining hall) with fountains and aviaries.

The basilica, of which a part is still visible today, was likely used by the people to convey requests to the emperor. The emperor himself attended such gatherings in the apse. The aula regia, the throne room, was used for official events such as receiving ambassadors. The emperor would then be seated as a dominus et deus, as lord and god, in the apse on his throne. The lararium (derived from omus Flavia Lares, meaning the gods that protect the house) was a private chapel that held the altar for Lares and Minerva.

Domitian’s Palace and the Circus Maxima reconstruction
Domitian's Palace reconstruction drawing Palatine


The centre part of the Domus Flavia was a courtyard with flower beds and an octagonal fountain, the foundations of which are still visible. Domitianus always feared attacks and given his reign of terror, not entirely without reason. That is why he used marble from Cappadicio to clad the courtyard of the public area of his palace.

Remnants of the courtyard with thee octagonal fountain of the Domus Flavia large size       Octagonal fountain       Reconstruction
Map  number 1
Remnants of the courtyard with thee octagonal fountain of the Domus Flavia Palatine Rome

The triclinium was the third and final part of the Domus Flavia. This is where dining with esteemed guests took place. Of course, Domitian did seat himself on an elevated platform in the apse. After all, as ‘deus’ he could ill afford to be too close to mother earth. This is an old custom that dates back to the Etruscans. That is why Etruscan temples are always elevated. During a state dinner, guests could view the aviaries with the oval fountains on both sides through the windows, and gawk at all kinds of tropical plants and many exotic birds.This type of marble is so delicate and smooth that it reflects light like a mirror. The emperor could then see his assassin coming. Unfortunately for Domitianus, he did trust his wife Domitia. She ordered the slave Stephanus to assassinate him. After his death, as mentioned before, his cavalry statue on the Forum Romanum was taken down. The senate issued a damnatio memoria over the emperor, who first had himself addressed by dominus et deus. A damnatio memorio meant that every inscription, but also the statues of Domitian, were removed.

photo: edk7

Behind the Domus Flavia, Domitianus had two libraries constructed: a Greek and a Latin one. Excavations from the 19th and 20th century revealed that underneath the floors of the triclinium there were rooms from homes of the days of the Republic. A staircase allows the present-day visitor to still catch a glimpse.

The Domus Augustuna, the private quarters of the palace of Domitian, was much larger. The Domus Augustana has two floors and because it stands on both the Palatium and the Velia, there is a whopping height difference from north to south of 11 metres. In the south, the lowest-lying area, there was then room for two floors. Another reconstruction of this part of the palace here. No less than three courtyards were placed next to each other on one axis, with all kinds of rooms around them. At the most southern peristylium, with two floors, there was an oval fountain with water basins, niches and statue pedestals. The palace closed in the south with a large exedra, which looked out onto a large racetrack: the Circus Maximus, that could hold some two hundred thousand visitors. The entire complex was clad with the most expensive marble and statues (made by the best Greek sculptors), gold ornaments, mosaics and tapestries.

Atrium with fountain of the palace of Domitian large size       Atrium large size
Video Drone DJI Phantom      Map number 8     Reconstruction
Atrium with fountain of the palace of Domitian Palatine
The hippodrome (racetrack) or the recessed garden, archaeologists differ of opinion, bordered the Domus Augustana. The hippodrome was surrounded by a peristylium that consisted of two floors. In the middle on the eastside was an exedra, which also had two floors. The exedra was used by the imperial family.
Under emperor Nero (reigned from 54-68), a long underground tunnel was constructed, the cryptoporticus. This underground tunnel spanned from the palace of Nero – the golden house – to the Domus Augustana. The tunnel was only excavated in 1870, and some of it still remains, but it is closed to the public. The southern foot of the Palatine had the paedagogium. This building was likely a school for educating pages at the imperial court. A famous graffiti is preserved to this day, where Jesus with a donkey head is nailed to the cross). The inscription reads: ‘Alexamenos worships his God’.  A depiction of a crucified Christ with a donkey head was a standard way of mocking Christianity.
Remnants of the Paedagogium 
remnants of the Paedagogium Palatine Rome

Drawing: Wikipedia

Would the drawer have considered the satire by the Greek Xenophanes when he made this graffiti? This Greek singer, poet and philosopher wrote the following:

‘Ethiopians say the their gods are flat-nosed and dark, Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. ‘[..] ‘If oxen and horses and lions [donkeys] had hands, they would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen to look like oxen, and each would make the gods’ bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.’

Cited from: Luciano de Crescenzo, ‘ Geschiedenis van de Griekse filosofie van de prescocraten tot de neoplatonici’, Bert Bakker, Amsterdam 1991 p. 104

If this is not the case, then Alexamenos instead of Christ is the donkey in this drawing. Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered and it remains but a speculation.

Claudia Aquaduct at the east side of the Palatine large size          Claudia Aquaduct
Claudia Aquaduct Palatine Rome
Under the reign of emperor Septimius Severus (193-211), the aqueduct at the east side of the Palatine was restored and a bathhouse was constructed. This did require the construction of a plateau supported by barrel vaults. The hill on the eastside of the Palatine had a steep slope. This is how Severus expanded the hill. The south-eastside had a similar expansion where he had a palace constructed.

Finally, Septimius had the Septizonium constructed. The emperor, who came from Africa, commissioned a skene at the south-east foot of the Palatine. A skene is a wall used in theatres for the dressing rooms of the actors and it also served as a background for the stage. Travellers who arrived from the south – also those from Africa – through the Via Appia, were the first to behold this wonderful seven-story high skene, in this case the Septizonium.

The Septizonium (septum zonae or seven floors) had columns of African marble. In between the columns were fountains and statues. Over the years, the Septizonium, given all its precious marble became a popular marble quarry. There were just three floors remaining in the Renaissance, and the statues were missing.

A part of the demolition can be found back in the well-preserved archives of the Vatican. In it, you can you read that the cost for demolition was 905 scudi. Thankfully, the marble gained from the demolition brought in a lot more money. Thirty-three blocks were used as a pedestal for the obelisk on the St. Peter’s square. One hundred and four marble blocks were used to restore the column of Antoninus and for the base of his statue. The columns taken from the Septizonium were used in many churches and chapels. Presently, you can only tell by the pavement and the trees what the floor of the Septizonium was.

If we have some time left, we will visit the museum on the Palatine. You can see things like a reconstruction of the village on the Palatine next to sculpture and remnants of frescos. Esko Koskimies has many pictures of artworks in the Museo Palatino up for view. Site Palatine museum (English).

Museo Palatino
Museo Palatino Palatine Rome
Museo Palatino
Museo Palatino statues Palatine Rome

photo: Hiker Bob

The history of the Palatine after the decline of the Roman Empire is rather vague. The Goth king Theoderic restored the palace of Domitianus with the hippodrome in the mid-5th century and turned it into his residence. Even after the fall of the West-Roman Empire, the emperors from Byzantine (East-Roman Empire) still considered this hill as their spot and had themselves represented by courtiers from Constantinople. Eventually, the Popes were in command. The lararium of the Domus Flavia turned into a chapel devoted to the holy Caesarius.

Close to the palace you could also find a Greek monastery, and the old temple of Heliogabali became the spot for a church dedicated to the H. Sebastian. The famous, holy Sebastian received the death penalty because he refused to renounce his Christian faith. The Roman archers pierced him with their arrows, but Sebastian did not die, on the contrary, he healed miraculously. The emperor at the time, Diocletianus, who didn’t get along with Christians, saw this Christian being alive and well and ordered to have Sebastian beaten to death. The clubs seemed to suffice, and his body was thrown in the cloaca maxima.

In the 12th or 13th century, a certain Gregory of England documented how he experienced his visit. After thanking God and elaborating on Rome’s never-ending splendour, Gregory continues with …

Even if Rome is naught but a ruin, nothing that is intact can compare with it. That is why one says: ‘Nothing compares to you, Rome, while you are naught but a ruin. With how small you are now, you may show us how grand you were then.’ I am convinced, that all Rome’s rubble shows us clearly that all goods on earth perish with time, when Rome, the capital of all worldly goods, weakens and wobbles daily.

From: Magistri Gregorii narratio de mirabilibus urbis Romae. Translation  Leo Nellissen .

In the sixteenth century, the cardinals rediscovered the Palatine and cardinal Farnese planted the beautiful gardens.


Farnese gardens large size
Farnese gardens Palatine Rome

photo: HEN-Magonza

 Farnese gardens
Farnese gardens Palatine Rome

It was not until 1870 that the entire area fell into the hands of the Italian state, and ever since it is a rich and precious quarry for archaeologists, but also a beloved camera object for the modern tourist.

We walk back through the Clivus Argentarius and head for the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, which was built on top of a special prison from Antiquity: the Mamertinum

picture: JWY80