"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 by the Byzantine officers in ca 780 because the Popes, helped by Charlemagne, became the secular rulers of Rome and they did so from their residence in the Lateran.
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.
The oldest and most venerable sanctuary of kingly Rome
was the Lupercal, a grotto consecrated by the emigrants
from Alba to Faun, called Lupercus; that is to say, the
"driver-away of wolves" and the protector of herds. This
grotto, through which an icy crystalline spring flowed into
the green field below, opened under the northwest spur of
the Palatine. On February 15, it was the centre of great
rejoicings and of religious ceremonies called the Lupercalia,
during which the head shepherds, clothed with skins, used
to run around the precincts of their Palatine village, asking
the protection of Faunus Lupercus on their flocks of sheep.
These Lupercalia show clearly what was the condition of
the founders of Rome: they were shepherds.
Rodolfo Lanciani - Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries - 1888
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 steep ascent leading to the hill was 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. Today the cave of Lupercal is thought to have been at the south-western corner of the Palatine.
(left) An illustration from "Rodolfo Lanciani - Pagan and Christian Rome - 1893"; (right) Antiquarium Palatino: altar to an unknown divinity (early Ist century BC)
In 1829, while excavations were proceeding near the western corner of the Palatine, an altar was discovered, of archaic type, inscribed with the following dedication: "Sacred to a Divinity, whether male or female. Caius Sextius Calvinus, son of Caius, praetor, has restored this altar by decree of the Senate." (..) As a rule, the priests refrained from mentioning in public prayers the name and sex of new and slightly known divinities, especially of local Genii, to which they objected for two reasons: first, because there was danger of vitiating the ceremony by a false invocation; secondly, because it was prudent not to reveal the true name of these tutelary gods to the enemy of the commonwealth, lest in case of war or siege he could force them to abandon the defence of that special place, by mysterious and violent rites. The formula "Sei Deo Sei Deivae", "whether god or goddess," is a consequence of this superstition. Lanciani - 1893
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 given the title of Augustus
he had linked his properties to form one residence which is covered in a separate page.
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
Caligula built out a part of the Palace as far as the Forum, and making the temple of Castor and Pollux its vestibule, he often took his place between the divine brethren, and exhibited himself there to be worshipped by those who presented themselves. (..) He built a bridge (..) and thus joined his Palace to the Capitol.
Suetonius - The Lives of the Twelve Caesars - translation by J. C. Rolfe
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.
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.
Caligula appears to have purchased and embodied in the crown property another large house, belonging to a certain Gelotius and hence called domus Gelotiana; and this acquisition was made, not for any want of additional space and accommodation, but to satisfy the mania of the prince for the games of the circus, for horses and grooms. Caligula was a passionate supporter of the squadron of the greens, so much so that he used to spend days and nights in their stables, sharing their dinners and suppers, and indulging with them in all sorts of excesses. This house of Gelotius was bought because it lay nearer to the circus than any other building on the Palatine, and because, by simply crossing it, the prince could reach, undisturbed and unseen, his favorite place among the "greens." Lanciani - 1888
(left-above) Domus Gelotiana aka Paedagogium seen from the edge of the southern part of the imperial palaces; (left-below) seen from Circus Maximus; (right) Antiquarium Palatino: Alaxamenos graffito
The graffiti, discovered in the year 1857, in the domus Gelotiana, introduce us into the intimacy of the life of court servants of a higher class. It appears from them, and from the records they contain, that after the murder of Caligula the house became a residence and a training-school for court pages. (..) The boys must have been delighted at (..) their admittance into the palace; and accordingly they chronicle the happy event on the walls of their new residence with inscriptions. (..) But by far the most interesting and most widely celebrated graffito of the whole set is the one (..) which was removed soon after to the Kircherian Museum at the Collegio Romano. (..) It contains a blasphemous caricature of our Lord Jesus Christ. (..) He is represented with the head of a donkey, tied to the cross, with the feet resting on a horizontal piece of board. To the left of the cross there is the figure of the Christian youth Alexamenos, with arms raised in adoration of his crucified God, and the whole composition is illustrated and explained by the legend "Alexamenos worships (his) God." Lanciani - 1888
(left) Nero's Cryptoporticus (covered passageway linking the northern to the southern part of "Domus Tiberiana"); (right) a fragment of the elaborate stuccoes which decorated it (another detail can be seen in the image used as background for this page)
As regards Caligula's buildings, which extended from
Tiberius's palace to the northeast corner of the hill, overlooking the forum, the best preserved portion of them is
a long cryptoporticus, or subterranean passage. On January 24th, a. d. 41, a scene of horror took place in this dark corridor, - the murder of the Emperor Caligula. Lanciani - 1888
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. It is now dated Nero's time. A similar approach was followed by Emperor Hadrian in the design of his villa at Tivoli.
Antiquarium Palatino - Domus Tiberiana: (left) "opus sectile" (marble inlay) decoration (Ist century AD); (right) marble wings of a statue of Victory, perhaps from a nearby temple
In 1856 a parcel in the former Villa Mattei was assigned to the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary and a nunnery was built near the southern edge of the Palatine. Today it houses some of the works of art which were discovered during the excavations which were carried out after 1870. They were found in almost all the sections of the palaces.
Emperor Nero bought some properties on the Esquiline Hill where he eventually built Domus Aurea. Archaeologists have called Domus Transitoria a complex of halls and courtyards by which the Emperor wanted to link the palace on the Palatine to the Esquiline. Parts of this complex were identified under a terrace which was built at a later period.
According to historical records Nero built on the Palatine also Coenatio Rotunda, a revolving dining room with a commanding view over Domus Aurea; its location was identified in 2009.
We climbed the Palatine hill, where the magnificent Palace of the emperors stood. Since it has suffered many changes, we must believe that the ruins we now see date from the time of Domitian. We saw a superb hall from which one can judge the grandeur of this
From James Boswell's letters on the Grand Tour related to his visit to Rome in 1765.
The imperial residence was greatly enlarged by Emperor Domitian with the addition of Domus Flavia, a set of halls and peristyles (colonnaded porticoes surrounding an internal garden and embellished with fountains). They partly stood above Domus Transitoria, because the Flavian Emperors were keen on erasing the memory of Nero.
Ancient Romans did not have living rooms with sofas 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 layout of the Cretan Labyrinth. Domus Flavia was also referred to as Domus Augustana (the Emperors' Palace).
Antiquarium Palatino - Domus Augustana: (left) Hercules with the Leontè, the skin of the Nemean Lion, copy of a Greek original of the second half of the IVth century BC; (centre) female torso, perhaps a dancer, copy of a Greek original of the Vth century BC; (right) Dionysus, with traces of gold paint (IInd century AD)
The palaces of the Caesars, in the Palatium, have been filled with most splendid statuary.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book XXXVI - Translation by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley
In a chapter which deals with sculpture in marble Pliny listed 225 famous Greek statues, many of which embellished Rome. In their praise of Greek sculpture the Emperors were not selective (at least initially); they commissioned copies of Greek statues, both of the Classic style and of the Hellenistic one. Statues which were not mere copies of Greek ones show a preference for the latter style.
(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).
Antiquarium Palatino - from the area of the stadium: (left) Aphrodite/Venus, copy of a Greek original of the Vth century BC, aka Hera/Juno, because of its resemblance with statues supposed to portray that goddess; (centre) Winter (early IVth century AD); (right) a nymph on a rock (Ist century AD)
Almost all the statues which were found in the imperial palaces are dated between the late Ist century BC to the early IIIrd century AD. The relief portraying a season might have been made at the time of Maxentius, who is known to have resided on the Palatine, where he restored some facilities.
Archaeological Museum of Naples - Farnese Collection: reliefs from Domus Flavia
In 1724-1726 Francesco Farnese, Duke of Parma, promoted excavations at Domus Flavia that led to the discovery of statues and of several columns of pavonazzetto, porphyry, basalt and other fine marbles
which he used to embellish a new ducal palace he was building at Colorno near Parma. He described his findings in a long inscription which is still at Domus Flavia.
Some reliefs enriched the family collection of ancient art in Rome (it was moved to Naples in 1787).
The Emperors of the IInd century did not use the imperial palaces frequently and so they made only relatively minor adjustments to them. Trajan personally led many military campaigns; Hadrian travelled to almost all the provinces of the Empire and when in Rome preferred to stay at his villa at Tivoli. Antoninus Pius rarely moved from his villa at Lanuvio. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus spent many years in campaigns to protect the borders of the Empire. A particularly fine bust of Antoninus Pius which was found near the stadium shows that the palaces were well kept and were ready for a visit by the Emperor.
The chronology of the group (of builders of the palaces), as far as important or interesting additions are concerned, ends with Septimius Severus, who built a magnificent palace at the south corner of
the hill, facing the Appian Way and the road to Ostia, in
order (..) that his African countrymen, arriving in Rome by the way of Pozzuoli (near Naples)
and Ostia, might be struck at once with a specimen of his
grandeur. Lanciani - 1888
You may have a feeling of what they saw by visiting a page with a Grand View of the Palatine Hill. The new wing had a large terrace which allowed the emperor and his court to watch the races at Circus Maximus.
Row of cypresses marking the site of Septizodium or Septizonium and S. Gregorio al Celio on the hill to the left
And magnificent indeed was the wing of the palace called Septizonium,
because it was seven stories high. The terrace on the top
of the building towered to the height of 210 feet above the
level of the surrounding streets, commanding one of the
finest views over the metropolis. Lanciani - 1888
Neere the Circus were of late three rowes of pillars, one above the other; and this monument is called Il Settizonio di Severe, of seven souldiers engraved thereupon, and is thought to be the sepulcher of Septtimius Severus, but the Pope Sixtus the fifth pulled it downe.
Fynes Moryson - An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through .. Italy (in 1594)
The site of Septizodium seen from the western end of Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
Septizodium was decorated with the finest marbles of the Empire. Its name suggests that it was dedicated to the gods of the seven days. In 1586 the remaining part of the building (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 new chapel he built at S. Maria Maggiore.
Domus Severiana: walls of the baths
The new wing included imposing baths which were left unfinished by Domitian. Their thick walls recall those of Terme di Caracalla which were built a few years later. 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 tests were made to ensure the construction was properly built (see the inscription placed by L. Fabricius on a bridge).
The end of the Severian dynasty led to a period of military anarchy during which the palaces were seldom utilized. Aurelian was the last emperor to reside there. Other emperors, e.g. Constantius II in 357, stayed at the palaces during short visits to Rome.
Antiquarium Palatino - from Domus Severiana: (left) base of a square pillar; (right) capital