You may wish to read a page on the main monuments on the Palatine Hill first.
Octavian at the very beginning of his political career lived on the Palatine in a small house: later on he bought some nearby properties and by the time he was appointed Augustus he had linked his properties to form one residence. Domus Augusti however was just the house of a wealthy man, not the mansion of a king, because Augustus was very careful in respecting the republican institutions and in avoiding the behaviour of an absolute ruler.
(above) Sites of Livia's (left) and Augustus' (right) Houses; (below) platform of a private Temple to Apollo which stood above Augustus' House (and the domes of Rome in the background)
Augustus' House was situated on the southern edge of the Palatine and thus it enjoyed a commanding view over Circus Maximus and received a lot of sunshine, an important thing for Augustus who was a rather sickly man (but he reached age 77). It was arranged around two courtyards with an open promenade linking them. Parts of the House were demolished when Emperor Domitian built a large palace close to it. The upper storey and a private temple built by Augustus are almost entirely lost. The so-called House of Livia, third wife of Augustus, is a sort of annex situated in a less favourable position. It was named after Livia by Pietro Rosa, the archaeologist who first excavated it in 1869, mainly because of its proximity to Augustus' House.
Livia had a suburban villa along Via Flaminia and Augustus had a villa at Nola, near Naples, where he passed away in 14 AD.
Augustus was a shrewd man and historians believe he did not choose the location of his house only because of
its southern exposure and its view. That section of the Palatine had strong links with the history of Rome, not so much with actual events, but with legends related to its foundation. The knowledge of this past was revived by Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books from the Foundation of the City), a history of Rome written by Titus Livius (aka Livy), a friend of Augustus and his wife.
According to Livy the fight between Hercules and Cacus occurred right under Augustus' House and the she-wolf found infant Romulus and Remus at Velabro, a marsh (and later on the first harbour of Rome) which is visible from the Palatine. By living so close to sites associated to the foundation of the City, Augustus stressed his being a true Roman. His mother was a niece of Julius Caesar and belonged to Gens Julia, one of the most ancient patrician families of Rome, but his father was a homo novus, the first member of Gens Octavia, a family from Velitrae (today's Velletri), to serve in the Roman Senate.
Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo - Rome: Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
Augustus was Pontifex Maximus, the highest priest of Rome. He often chose to be portrayed in this role and he wanted that Pontifex Maximus preceded Imp(erator) (emperor) in inscriptions.
Auguratorium and eastern wall of Tempio di Cybele
In addition to being close to historical sites, Augustus' House was very near two buildings which were important from a religious point of view.
Some archaeologists believe that the remains of a platform are the foundations of Auguratorium, the site from which the augures practiced divination by the observation of the flight of birds. Their recommendations were called auguria and indicated divine approval or disapproval of a proposed action.
Next to Auguratorium there are large walls which supported a temple dedicated to Cybele: the Romans called this goddess Magna Mater (Great Mother), a name which very appropriately reflected the role of Cybele in some parts of today's Greece, Turkey and Syria in the very early stages of civilization. The decision to dedicate a temple to this foreign deity was taken during a critical period of the Second Punic War (learn more about Cybele in a page covering the Temple to Zeus and Cybele at Aizani). The temple was restored by Augustus in 3 AD.
A room of Augustus' House
The rooms of the existing part of Augustus' House did not have windows and received light from the entrance. They were all rather small but their apparent size was increased by frescoes which depicted a scenae frons, the background of a Roman theatre proscaenium (stage) with some theatrical masks. You may wish to see that at Sabratha. When the house was decorated Augustus was completing Teatro di Marcello. The painter who made the frescoes had knowledge of perspective laws which were rediscovered by Renaissance artists 1500 years later.
Studiolo (cabinet) di Augusto
A small room on the upper storey is named studiolo di Augusto because its size and the fact that it was separate from other rooms recall cabinets of Renaissance palaces (see Studiolo del Cardinale at Villa Medici). The decoration is very elaborate but well ordained as if it wanted to favour mind concentration. Roman painters had access to a wide choice of colours, but they mainly used red and yellow to cover large spaces, perhaps because they were easier to make.
Two rooms of Livia's House and in the lower right corner inscription on lead pipes which can be seen in the room to the left
The best preserved section of Livia's House consists of a square atrium and three relatively large adjoining rooms. It retains the original floors which were covered with black and white mosaics. They are rather plain with just a few geometric patterns, most likely to balance the very rich decoration of the walls. Archaeologists have found some of the lead pipes which carried water to the House. They bear long inscriptions with the names of the manufacturers and those of the landlords (in this case Iulia Augusta, a name used by Livia after her marriage to Augustus).
One of the reasons which explain why so many Roman monuments survive to the present day is that those involved in building them were held accountable for their work/materials. The bricks were stamped with the symbol of the factory where they were made and the aedile, the magistrate in charge of the construction, made a final test to ensure it was properly built (as did Lucius Fabricius for the bridge named after him).
Ceiling in the entrance room of Augustus' House
Illusionistic ceiling painting was already known in Ist century BC Rome. A fake coffer ceiling was painted on the barrel vault of Augustus' House entrance room. The painter emphasized the depth effect by using appropriate shadows and by not placing rosettes at the very centre of their coffers. Dark colours were used for recesses and pink rhombi "invaded" the adjoining white frame to give the impression of protruding from it.
"Tabulas" (frescoes depicting small scenes): (left) in the entrance room of Augustus' House; (centre) in the cabinet; (right) in Livia's House. It is known as "The Prisoner" or "Hermes, Io and Argo"
Usually the paintings in the palace of an important Renaissance man depicted glorious events of his life (e.g. Fasti Farnesiani Hall at Caprarola or Palazzo della Corgna at Castiglione) or of a hero he wanted to resemble (Hercules at Villa d'Este). Augustus was not a military leader but was very proud of his conquest of Egypt. He chose however not to celebrate himself in his own house where tabulas do not depict war events or buildings or other achievements of the landlord. Their subjects are not always clear to us, but in some cases, as in the tabula in Livia's House, they portray mythological tales, perhaps those chanted by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.
Decorative motifs based on festoons at Livia's (above) and Augustus' (below) Houses
At her suburban villa Livia had a beautiful fresco decoration showing plants and birds, now at Museo Nazionale Romano al Palazzo Massimo. Festoons were a popular decorative motif not only in paintings, but in buildings too (e.g. at Cecilia Metella). The use of dark backgrounds for flowers and fruits can also be found at Pompeii. The paintings at Augustus' and Livia's Houses have been classified as belonging to the second Pompeian style.
Augustus' House - grotesque decoration; the image used as background for this page is another example
of grotesque decoration
Strips painted with very small subjects separated large areas covered with a uniform colour. The subjects were very different and they were not linked one to the other except from an aesthetic point of view. Some of them, such as the "joker" shown above, strike the viewer for their elegance. They became more popular over time and they were often arranged vertically so that they formed a sort of chandelier. Renaissance artists used these chandeliers for decorating the frames of doors and windows (e.g. Palazzo Ducale di Urbino).
Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin - relief portraying Apollo followed by Diana and Latona moving towards a winged Victory who pours wine. In the background a temple which is believed to be that built by Augustus next to his house (late Ist century BC)