All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
on the Palatine Hill
"Quanta Roma fuit, ipsa ruina dixit" (the ruins of Rome spell its past greatness) is a sentence which comes to mind to 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 evidence of three huts of the Iron Age; this evidence confirms that the Palatine housed the first settlements of Rome.
The south-western corner of the Palatine retains some interesting buildings which shed light on the Roman approach to religion. The remains of a platform are thought by some archaeologists to be the foundations of Auguratorium, the site from which the aruspices practiced divination by the observation of the flight of birds (and by the inspection of the entrails of animals). Their recommendations were called augures and indicated divine approval or disapproval of a proposed action.
Next to Auguratorium there are larger foundations 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).
Octavian at the very beginning of his political career lived near the temple to Cybele: later on he bought some nearby houses and by the time he was appointed Augustus he had linked his properties to form one residence: the interior of a section known as Domus Liviae (Octavian's third wife) is decorated with very fine frescoes. Domus Augusti however was just the house of a wealthy man, not the residence of a monarch, because Augustus was very careful in respecting the republican institutions and in avoiding the behaviour of an absolute ruler.
To the contrary, his successors Tiberius (and after him Caligula and Nero) were keen on emphasizing their supposed supremacy on the Senate and on 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.
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 above 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).
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.
The designers 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. A similar approach was followed later on by Hadrian in the design of his suburban villa.
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).
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. A further expansion of the palaces was undertaken by Emperor Septimius Severus: Domus Severiana included large baths, a terrace overlooking Circus Maximus and, at the foot of the hill, Septizodium, a building 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.
Move on to page two.