You may wish to read a page on the other imperial palaces 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 so named 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
After he finally had assumed the office of pontifex maximus on the death of Lepidus (for he could not make up his mind to deprive him of the honour while he lived) he collected whatever prophetic writings of Greek or Latin origin were in circulation anonymously or under the names of authors of little repute, and burned more than two thousand of them, retaining only the Sibylline books and making a choice even among those; and he deposited them in two gilded cases under the pedestal of the Palatine Apollo. Inasmuch as the calendar, which had been set in order by the Deified Julius, had later been confused and disordered through negligence, he restored it to its former system; and in making this arrangement he called the month Sextilis by his own surname, rather than his birth-month September, because in the former he had won his first consulship and his most brilliant victories.
Suetonius - The Lives of the Twelve Caesars - translation by J. C. Rolfe
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.
Illustration from "Ave Roma Immortalis" by Francis Marion Crawford - 1898; it shows the very edge of the southern side of the Palatine where evidence of the early walls of Rome was identified; in the background two temples which are shown in the next photo and the supporting structures of "Domus Tiberiana"
By their camp-fires, by their firesides in their little huts, the first Romans told old tales of their race, and round the truth grew up romantic legend, ever dear to the fighting man and to the husbandman alike, with strange tales of their first leader's birth, fit for poets, and woven to stir young hearts to daring, and young hands to smiting. Truth there was under their stories, but how much of it no man can tell. Crawford
"Auguratorium" or Tempio della Vittoria Palatina (see two marble wings which perhaps were part of a statue in this temple) 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.
For more than forty years he used the same bedroom in winter and summer; although he found the city unfavourable to his health in the winter, yet continued to winter there. (..) The simplicity of his furniture and household goods may be seen from couches and tables still in existence, many of which are scarcely fine enough for a private citizen. They say that he always slept on a low and plainly furnished bed. Except on special occasions he wore common clothes for the house. Suetonius
The rooms of the existing part of Augustus' House did not have windows and received light from the entrance. They were all rather small, in particular the private ones, 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. The painter who made the frescoes had good knowledge of perspective laws which were rediscovered by Renaissance artists 1500 years later.
If ever he planned to do anything in private or without interruption, he had a retired place at the top of the house, which he called "Syracuse" (perhaps a reference to the study of Archimedes) and "technyphion" (little workshop). Suetonius
In his temporary rest and retirement from the cares of government he led the same kind of plain, modest life, spending all his leisure hours in arranging his collections of natural history, more especially the palaeo-ethnological or prehistoric.
Rodolfo Lanciani - Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries - 1888
Because of Suetonius' quotation a small room on the upper storey is named studiolo di Augusto; it recalls 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, similar to what can be seen at Pompeii and Ostia.
Illusionistic ceiling painting was already known in Ist century BC Rome. A fake coffered 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.
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).
"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 of a hero he wanted to resemble (Hercules at Villa d'Este). Augustus was not a military leader, but he was very proud of his conquest of Egypt, from where he brought the first obelisks of Rome. He chose however not to celebrate himself in his own house where tabulas do not depict war events or monuments 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 which was written in 2-8 AD.
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 be found also at many other locations, e.g. at Vienne in France. The paintings at Augustus' and Livia's Houses have been classified as belonging to the second Pompeian style.
Augustus' House - grotesque decoration (also in the image used as background for this page)
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 candelabrum.
Renaissance artists used these candelabra for decorating the frames of doors and windows (e.g. Ambrogio Barocci at Palazzo Ducale di Urbino).
In 1912 a richly frescoed room was discovered beneath Domus Flavia; the style of its decoration led archeologists to consider it a part of the House of Augustus. Because of some details which allude to Egypt it was named after Isis. The frescoes were detached and they were eventually placed inside an ancient hall which houses also a small loggia which was part of Villa Mattei.
The vault shows a rather unusual decoration with an undulating yellow ribbon on a blue background which frames elaborate plant motifs.
Antiquarium Palatino: statues from the House of Augustus or from the Temple to Apollo: they were all made in the late Ist century BC or in the Ist century AD, but they were based on Greek models of the Vth century BC: (left) Hermes; (centre) basalt statue of a young athlete, most likely personally commissioned by Augustus; (right) a herm portraying a "canephora" (basket bearer), a young woman bearing offerings during processions
At Rome, there are some statues by these artists (Bupalus and Athenis) on the summit of the Temple of the Palatine Apollo, and, indeed, in most of the buildings that were erected by the late Emperor Augustus. (..) As to the Father Janus, a work that was brought from Egypt and was dedicated in his Temple (it stood near Basilica Aemilia) by Augustus, there is an equal degree of uncertainty, whether it is the work of Scopas or of Praxiteles: at the present day, however, it is quite hidden from us by the quantity of gold that covers it.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book XXXVI - Chapter IV - Translation by J. Bostock and H. T. Riley
In a chapter which deals with sculpture in marble Pliny listed 225 famous Greek statues, some of which were moved to Rome to embellish its monuments at the initiative of Augustus and his friends, e.g. Maecenas. They and many other wealthy Romans, in the lack of originals, commissioned copies or statues with Greek style features. The label "Roman copy after a Greek original" can be found in museums throughout the world on most Roman sculptures that portray deities, heroes, or athletes.
Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin: relief (from the Albani Collection) 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); photo taken at a 2014 exhibition in Rome
He reared the temple of Apollo in that part of his house on the Palatine for which the soothsayers declared that the god had shown his desire by striking it with lightning. He joined to it colonnades with Latin and Greek libraries, and when he was getting to be an old man he often held meetings of the senate there as well. Suetonius
Antiquarium Palatino: painted terracotta reliefs which were found during excavations near the Temple to Apollo (late Ist century BC): (left) Apollo holding the Tripod of Delphi which Hercules is trying to steal (see a clearer depiction of the event in another relief at Cologne); (right) two young women at the sides of a sacred stone, perhaps a symbol of the lightning which struck the site
Antiquarium Palatino - Augustan age: (left) thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel associated with Dionysus; (centre) small triangular pillar with depiction of herms; (right) capital portraying Hathor, an Egyptian fertlity goddess