"Quanta Roma fuit, ipsa ruina docet" (the ruins of Rome spell its past greatness) is a sentence by Bishop Hildebert of Lavardin (1055-1133) which comes to the mind of visitors to the
Palatine archaeological area. The marbles and the columns of the imperial palaces are gone,
but the remaining structures which supported them are impressive.
While some monuments of ancient Rome were saved by being used for other purposes (Pantheon, Hadrian's Mausoleum, Hadrian's Temple) and others because the floods covered them with earth (Area Sacra di Torre Argentina), the palaces built by the emperors were systematically spoiled for almost a thousand years, after they were abandoned towards the end of the VIIIth century.
During the XVIth century the Palatine was divided into two villas: the north-western part belonged to the Farnese (Orti Farnesiani), the south-eastern one to the Mattei (Villa Celimontana). The main access to the imperial palaces (Clivus Palatinus) was built by Emperor Domitian: it started near the arch he erected to celebrate his brother Titus and his father Vespasian and it ended at the entrance to the palaces with another arch, which is lost.
Before becoming the residence of the emperors, the Palatine was accessed from its south-western corner which was located very near Velabro, the trading quarter of ancient Rome. The steps leading to the hill were called Scala Caci (Cacus' steps); archaeologists have uncovered remains of three huts from the Iron Age; this evidence confirms that the Palatine housed the first settlements of Rome.
(left) Walls supporting Domus (house) Tiberiana; (right) walls supporting the Palace of Caligula
Octavian at the very beginning of his political career lived near the upper end of Scala Caci. He then bought some nearby houses and by the time he was appointed Augustus
he had linked his properties to form one residence which is shown in page three.
It was just the house of a wealthy man, not the mansion of a monarch.
To the contrary, his successors Tiberius (and after him Caligula and Nero) were keen on emphasizing their supposed supremacy over the Senate and over the other bodies of the Roman State. In order to achieve this objective they acquired the properties between the two western corners of the Palatine and turned the site into a royal palace (Domus Tiberiana). The ground was levelled to obtain a very large terrace and this was partly done by building colossal walls.
View towards Campidoglio
Domus Tiberiana faced Campidoglio, the Capitoline hill, the religious centre of Rome, where the most important temples were located: in a way the emperors placed themselves at the same level as the gods. Caligula built a bridge between the two hills so that he could reach the temples directly from his residence: for many centuries an isolated column was thought to be part of that bridge (learn more about this topic).
View towards Via Sacra, the main street of Foro Romano, and its temples
The Forum was the heart of Rome: here the most important citizens came to go to the tribunals in Basilica Aemilia or Basilica Julia, to attend the meetings of the Senate in Curia Julia or just to learn what was going on. The imperial residence had a commanding view over the Forum and an entrance at its level on the site where later on S. Maria Liberatrice was built.
(left) Nero's Cryptoporticus (covered passageway); (right) a fragment of the elaborate stuccoes which decorated it (another detail can be seen in the image used as background for this page)
The architects of Domus Tiberiana paid a lot of attention to its logistics by providing it with a system of underground passageways for the movement of commodities, servants and guards. It might have been occasionally utilized by the emperors because its walls were carefully decorated. A similar approach was followed by Emperor Hadrian in the design of his suburban villa.
Domus Flavia - Peristilium
The imperial residence was greatly enlarged by Emperor Domitian with the addition of Domus Flavia, a set of halls and peristyles (columned porches surrounding an internal garden and embellished with fountains). Ancient Romans did not have living rooms where they entertained their guests; they followed Aristotle's practice of walking to and fro while talking: so the emperor discussed state matters with his advisors or just chatted with friends in these peristyles: the fountain at the centre of the one shown above had the design of the Cretan Labyrinth. Domus Flavia was also referred to as Domus Augustana (the Emperors' Palace).
Villa Mills prior to its demolition
(A part of) Domus Flavia fell in 1820 into
the hands of Charles Mills, Esq. This Scotch gentleman
caused the Casino (built and painted by Raffaellino dal
Colle near and above the house of Augustus) to be reconstructed in the Tudor style with Gothic battlements, and
raised two Chinese pagodas, painted in crimson, over the
exquisite bathrooms used by the founder of the Empire.
And for the branches of laurel and the "corona civica",
which in accordance with a decree of the Senate ornamented the gates of the palace, Charles Mills substituted
the emblem of the Thistle.
Rodolfo Lanciani - New Tales of Old Rome - 1901
Villa Mills was pulled down to unearth the Roman structures in the late XIXth century.
(left) Stadium: in the foreground one of the two turning points and in the background an oval manège; (right-above) detail of the engaged columns of the portico which surrounded the racecourse. The use of engaged columns by Roman architects
was very frequent, the best known ones being those of Colosseo; (right-below) Amazons' Fountain
Domus Flavia had a small stadium or rather a racecourse. In 500 Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, visited Rome (he usually resided at Ravenna) and watched some of the last races in Circus Maximus from the Palatine.
He ordered some repairs/changes to be made to the imperial palaces including an oval manège inside the stadium.
The fountains often were reminders of mythological tales: the Amazons' fountain has a design based on the sections of four pelta, the small round shields these female warriors used (you may wish to see a pelta in a relief in the Museum of Corinth).
Archaeological Museum of Naples - Farnese Collection: reliefs from Domus Flavia
The Adoptive Emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) did not use the imperial palaces frequently and so they made only relatively minor adjustments to them.
Domus Severiana: walls of the baths
Domus Severiana, a further expansion of the palaces was undertaken by Emperor Septimius Severus. He completed imposing baths left unfinished by Domitian. Their thick walls recall those of Terme di Caracalla which were built a few years later.
View over Circus Maximus from the terrace of Domus Severiana
The walls of the baths and pillars built on the southern slope of the hill supported a large terrace which allowed the emperor and his court to watch the races which took place at Circus Maximus.
Another purpose of the terrace was to impress the spectators by the size and height of its supporting structures. You may have a feeling of what they saw by visiting a page with a Grand View of the Palatine Hill.
Row of cypresses marking the site of Septizodium and S. Gregorio al Celio on the hill to the left
Septimius Severus built Septizodium, a large monumental fountain at the foot of the south-eastern corner of the Palatine. It was decorated with the finest marbles of the Empire. Its purpose was to show the majesty of the emperor's residence to those who entered Rome at Porta Capena. Its name suggests that it was dedicated to the gods of the seven days. In 1586 the remaining part of the fountain (you can see it in a 1575 etching by Etienne Du Pérac - it opens in another window) was pulled down by Pope Sixtus V to utilize its columns and marbles in the Sistine Chapel he built at S. Maria Maggiore.