PALATINE HILL TOUR - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


While many tourists consider Palatine Hill just extra credit after the Forum, it offers an insight into the greatness of Rome that’s well worth the effort. (And, if you’re visiting the Colosseum or Forum, you’ve got a ticket whether you like it or not.) Palatine Hill is jam-packed with history—“the huts of Romulus,” the huge Imperial Palace, a view of the Circus Maximus—but there’s only the barest skeleton of rubble left to tell the story. This tour will enable the thoughtful sightseer to bring those remains to life.

Palatine Hill is ideal for those who want to get away from the crowds and discover the romantic, melancholy essence of ruins. Become a 19th-century poet or a painter on the Grand Tour, meditating on the destiny of once-great civilizations, and wander through the remains of the palaces that Nature seems to have reclaimed for herself.


(See “Palatine Hill” map, here.)

Cost: €12 combo-ticket covers both the Roman Forum/Palatine Hill and the Colosseum; also covered by Roma Pass. The combo-ticket is valid two consecutive days, but once it’s scanned, you can’t reenter that sight (even the next day). Palatine Hill is free and more crowded on the first Sunday of the month.

Hours: The Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum are all open daily 8:30 until one hour before sunset: April-Aug until 19:15, Sept until 19:00, Oct until 18:30, off-season closing time can be as early as 16:30—for specifics, see “Hours” on here; last entry one hour before closing. The House of Augustus, a minor stop on this tour, is usually closed Tue and Fri; on other days it has shorter hours than the rest of the site (generally 8:30-13:30, hours vary off-season).

Getting There: The closest Metro stop is Colosseo. Buses #51, #85, #87, #118, #186, and #810 stop along Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum, the Forum, and Piazza Venezia.

Getting In: Of the various entrances to the Forum/Palatine Hill complex, the handiest is the one at the Forum’s Arch of Titus (near the Colosseum and Colosseo Metro stop). Next best is the one on Via di San Gregorio, 150 yards from the Colosseum—farther away but possibly less crowded.

Once inside the Forum/Palatine complex (from either entrance), just climb the hill to the start of our tour. From the Arch of Titus entrance, head straight up the hill. From the Via di San Gregorio entrance, follow the path to the left as it winds to the top. Our tour begins at the one big building still standing—the museum.

Information: Tel. 06-3996-7700,

Tours: Audioguides cost €5/2 hours (€7 version includes Roman Forum and lasts 3 hours, must leave ID—so you have to return the audioguide where you rent it). Guided tours in English might be available (inquire at the ticket booth).

Length of This Tour: Allow 1.5 hours. Don’t miss the stadium or the view of the Circus Maximus. If lines are long, skip the House of Augustus.

Services: WCs are rare in the Colosseum-Roman Forum-Palatine Hill area. Your best (though still meager) options are here at Palatine Hill, where you’ll find WCs at the ticket office when you enter, at the museum in the center of the site, and hiding among the orange trees in the Farnese Gardens. For restaurants in the area, see the sidebar on here.

Expect Changes: Large parts of Palatine Hill—including the viewpoints over the site’s highlight, the Circus Maximus—have been closed off in recent years due to ongoing archaeological work. Just see what you can, using this chapter’s map to navigate.

The Tour Begins

(See “Palatine Hill” map, here.)

✵ Start on top of the hill at the Palatine Museum (Museo Palatino, #6 on the map). You can take either of two Forum/Palatine Hill entrances to get into the complex (see “Getting In” above). Once on top, it’s easy to spot the museum: it’s the one modern building (big and gray) standing amid the ruins.


We’ll visit the museum later. But for now, grab a stone and sit with your back to the museum to orient yourself, facing in the direction of the Forum (roughly north).


You’re sitting at the center of what was once a huge palace, the residence of emperors for three centuries. Orgies, royal weddings, assassinations, concerts, intrigues, births, funerals, banquets, and the occasional Tupperware party took place within these walls. What walls? The row of umbrella pines about 200 yards to the east (to your right) now marks one edge of the palace. The reconstructed brick tower (at about 11 o’clock) was the northwest corner. The palace also stretched behind you (the area behind the museum) and beneath you, since some parts of the palace had a lower floor. (Right now, you’re standing not on the original palace’s ground level but several floors up.)


The area in front was the official wing of the palace; behind were the private quarters. All in all, it made for a cozy little 150,000-square-foot pad.

The palace was built by Emperor Domitian in about A.D. 81. A poet of the day described it as so grand that it “made Jupiter jealous.”

✵ Now proceed, following the map for this 13-stop tour. With your back to the museum, head left to a big rectangular field with an octagonal brick design in the center—the main courtyard of the palace.

Image Main Courtyard (Peristilio) and Octagonal Fountain (Fontana Ottagona)

The brick octagon was a sunken fountain in the middle of an open-air courtyard. Like many fine Roman homes, this palace was built around an oasis of peace where you could enjoy the sun, catch the precious rain, and listen to the babble of moving water. The courtyard was lined with columns (notice the fragments) supporting an arcade for shade. Originally, the floor and walls of the courtyard were faced with colorful marble.


✵ The palace’s stadium is 100 yards behind you (to the east), near the long row of pine trees. Belly up to the railing and look down on the elliptical track.

Image Stadium (Stadio)

This cigar-shaped, sunken stadium (500 feet long) was the palace’s rec room. It looks like a racetrack, but it just held gardens with paths for strolling. The oval running track at the south end was added later. The emperor had a raised box on the 50-yard line, in the curved apse across from you. At the north end were changing rooms, and the marble fragments that litter the ground once held up an arcade.


✵ Stretching between the stadium and the museum is a big brick structure called the Domus Augustana. Depending on the progress of archaeological work, you may be able to actually walk through the big arches, or you may have to walk around the end (using the path alongside the stadium) to reach the back of the structure. As much as is possible, explore the...

Image Private Wing of the Palace (Domus Augustana)

The part of the palace you’re standing in now held the private rooms of the emperor and his extended family. Today, all that marks this part of the palace are some brick ruins and a lone umbrella pine on a mound (which was the courtyard of the Domus Augustana). Survey the maze of brick rooms (many of them reconstructed), noticing...

✵ The typical Roman building method: Build a rectangular shell of brick, fill it with concrete, then finish it with either plaster (you’ll see an occasional faded fresco) or slabs of marble. The small, round pockmarks on many walls show where the marble was fastened.

✵ The square holes in the walls that held wooden beams, used for scaffolding during construction and maintenance, for shelves, and for wooden floors.


✵ Over the doorways, the bricks in the walls that form the pattern of an arch. These “blind arches” were structural elements that allowed the walls to be built higher. The iron bar clamps are recent additions and hold the crumbling walls together.

✵ Niches and apses that once held statues. Every family had their own household gods and displayed small images of these guardian spirits, as well as busts of honored ancestors.

✵ The fragments of columns, reliefs, and sculpture scattered about that suggest the wealth of this great palace. The floor plan is complex—a fantasyland maze of small, private, sometimes even curved rooms.

✵ In the south part of the Domus Augustana (behind the museum), you can look down on the ruins of the lower story.

Image Domus Augustana—Lower Courtyard

This open-air courtyard has the concave-convex remains of a large fountain that must have been a marvel. Try to mentally reconstruct the palace that surrounded this fountain. The emperors could look down on it from the upper story (where you’re standing) or view it from the rooms around it on the lower story, where the emperor and his family ate their meals in private.


The lower story was built into the slope of the hill. The southern part of the palace was an extension of the hillside, supported beneath your feet by big arches.

✵ Continue to the southern edge of the hill (directly behind the museum), overlooking a long, wide grassy field—what once was the Circus Maximus. Lean over the railing and you might be able to make out the concave shape of the palace’s southern facade. (Note that archaeological work may prevent you from reaching these viewpoints.)

Image Circus Maximus

If the gladiator show at the Colosseum was sold out, you could always get a seat at Circus Max. In an early version of today’s demolition derby, Ben-Hur and his fellow charioteers once raced recklessly around this oblong course.

The chariots circled the cigar-shaped mound in the center (notice the lone cypress tree that now marks one end of the mound). Bleachers (now grassy banks) originally surrounded the track (see artist’s reconstruction in photo below).

The track was 1,300 feet long, while the whole stadium measured 2,130 feet by 720 feet and seated—get this—250,000 people. The wooden bleachers once collapsed during a race, killing thousands.


The horses began at a starting gate at the west end (to your right), while the public entered at the other end. Races consisted of seven laps (about 3.5 miles total). In such a small space, collisions and overturned chariots were common. The charioteers were usually poor, lowborn people who used this dangerous sport to get rich and famous. Some succeeded. Most died.

The public was crazy about the races. There were 12 per day, 240 days a year. Four teams dominated the competition—Reds, Whites, Blues, and Greens—and every citizen was fanatically devoted to one of them. Obviously, the emperors had the best seats in the house: Built into the palace’s curved facade was a box overlooking the track. For their pleasure, emperors occasionally had the circus floor carpeted with designs in colored powders.

Picture the scene: rowdy crowds, lots of drinking, heroes strutting to the adoration of the masses (and that was just the Rolling Stones concert held here in 2014). Back in ancient times, imagine the palace fully intact, with the emperor watching from his balcony. Below, a quarter of a million Romans were cheering, jeering, and furiously betting. Horses raced here for more than a thousand years. The track dates from 300 B.C., and the spectacles continued into the Christian era, until A.D. 549, despite Church disapproval.

From this viewpoint, looking to the left, you can see the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla (not worth touring if you’ve seen Palatine) rising above the trees a half-mile away. About a mile beyond that, Appian Way led from a grand gate in the ancient wall, past the catacombs, to Brindisi.

✵ Turn around and head back toward the museum.

Image Museum (Museo Palatino)

The museum contains statues and frescoes that help you imagine the luxury of the imperial Palatine.

Enter on the lower level (note the WCs) to trace the Palatine’s history from the start. Find the models of the eighth-century B.C. Iron Age village of Germanicus. These dozen or so huts are the so-called Huts of Romulus that we’ll see later in the tour. The rest of the lower floor uses audiovisual displays to virtually reconstruct the luxury of the palaces.

Go back outside and climb the stairs to the upper floor. As you enter, turn left and go to the end of the hall to find the statue of “Magna Mater” on her throne. This Great Mother brought life and fertility to the Roman people, who worshipped her at the nearby Temple of Cybele. Her arms and foot were destroyed by time, but there was always a cavity where her head should be—this was a standard Roman device in which interchangeable heads could be inserted. In this case, the Magna Mater’s “head” was actually a sacred, black cone-shaped meteorite that caused astonishment when it fell from the sky.


Next comes the “Augustus” room, with frescoes and statues from Augustus’ reign and fine decorative terra-cotta panels. (Take an angel selfie at the surviving wings from a Victory statue.) Continuing on, find two torsos—of a tiger and a river god. Next is a room of portrait busts, including the notorious Emperor Nero (“Nerone”) and the last great emperor, Trajan. And finally, back near the entrance is a large, headless, topless statue of a Muse (labeled as “muse of Dresden-Zagreb type”) that once decorated the Hippodrome.

✵ From the museum, begin circling the main courtyard (with its octagonal fountain) counterclockwise. Turn left with the path, then turn right into the first opening, marked by the squat brick pillar with a stubby column on top. Step into the...

Image Throne Room (Aula Regia)

The nerve center of an empire that controlled some 50 million people from England to Africa, this was the official seat of power. The curved apse of the largest brick stump (there’s now a plaque on it) marks the spot where the emperor sat on his throne for official business.


Imagine being a Roman citizen summoned by the emperor. You’d enter the palace through the main doorway (now a gap) at the far (Forum) end of the room, having climbed up three flights of a monumental staircase. The floor and walls dazzled with green, purple, red, white, and yellow marble. Along the walls were 12 colossal statues of Roman gods. The ceiling towered seven stories overhead. On either side were doorways leading to a basilica and the emperor’s private temple.

You’d approach the emperor, who sat on a raised throne in the apse, dressed in royal purple, with a crown of laurel leaves on his head and a scepter cradled in his arm. Big braziers burned on either side, throwing off a flickering light. As you approached, you’d raise your arm to greet him, saying, “Ave, Caesar!” The words would echo through the great hall.

Now imagine yourself as emperor. Stand on the small white stone marking the location of the throne (a few feet in front of the plaque), and look out over your palace. (The ceiling was a barrel vault sitting upon towers as high as the brick tower in the distance to the left.)

Beauty Among Rubble

As you walk through the (mostly brick) ruins, you’ll also see colorful marble scraps lying all over Palatine Hill. Flashy building stone was used to boast of the power and vastness of the empire. Citizens knew that the Numidian yellow marble was from Tunisia, the veined Cipollino marble (with swirling designs like an onion) was from the island of Euboea in Greece, and the pink granite was from Aswan in Egypt. This was all sliced and laid out in fine pavement and wall designs, enjoyed by those who could only be thankful they were on the winning team.

✵ Continue circling the main courtyard counterclockwise until it dead-ends at a big field filled with pebbles.

Image Dining Room (Triclinium) and Fountain Room (Nymphaeum)

The floor of the dining room had a hollow space beneath it (you can see the two-foot gap between the two original floors). Slaves stoked fires from underground stoves to heat the floor with forced air. At the far end of the room, the platform and curved apse mark the spot where the emperor ate while looking down on his subjects. Guests could look into the adjoining room, where an elliptical-shaped fountain (see the brick remains) spurted for their amusement.


Here, the wealthiest Romans enjoyed the spoils that poured into Rome from its vast empire. Reclining on a couch, waited on by slaves, you’d order bowls of larks’ tongues or a roast pig stuffed with live birds, then wash it down with wine. If you were full but tempted by yet another delicacy, you could call for a feather, vomit, and start all over. Dancing dark-skinned slaves from Egypt or flute players from Greece entertained. If you fancied one, he or she was yours—the bedrooms were just down the hall.

Or so went the stories. In fact, many emperors were just and simple men, continuing the old Roman traditions of hard work and moderate tastes. But just as many were power-mad scoundrels who used their authority to indulge their every desire.

✵ From the dining room, backtrack a few steps and work your way west through openings in the low brick wall to exit the palace.


✵ As you leave the palace, follow signs directing you to the Casa di Livia and Casa di Augusto. These were the homes (once joined together) of Rome’s first power couple—the first emperor and his wife. Their homes are sometimes open to tourists, sometimes not. In the general vicinity, you’ll also find the Cryptoporticus and Huts of Romulus.

Start with the House of Augustus. Because the space is so small, and the frescoes so fragile, only five visitors at a time are allowed to enter—and for just five minutes. Find the queue. The wait is usually about 15 to 30 minutes.

Image House of Augustus (Casa di Augusto)

Augustus, a.k.a. Octavian, the first emperor, lived in this house (and the neighboring House of Livia) with his wife. This relatively modest dwelling, dating from before Octavian became emperor, is a far cry from the later Imperial Palace that was built on top. The three humble rooms with their finely restored frescoes are well worth the wait. See rooms vibrantly painted with fake columns and arches, and with fake windows that once looked out on illusionary landscapes. Climb the steps outside to see a fourth room. You’ll see that Livia and Augustus had little of the lavish marble found in most homes of the wealthy.


Augustus was a modest man who believed in traditional Roman values. His wife and daughter wove the clothes he wore. He slept in the same small bedroom for 40 years. He burned the midnight oil in his study, where he read and wrote his memoirs. Augustus set a standard for emperors’ conduct that would last...until his death.

Augustus wanted to be the new Romulus, building his house adjacent to the home of the mythological founder of Rome.

✵ After exiting the House of Augustus, see if the House of Livia is open (it probably isn’t). If it is, you could take a free 20-minute tour, offered alternately in Italian and English—you may want to take whichever tour leaves first, as there’s some English info inside. Otherwise, peek inside through the dirty windows.

Image House of Livia (Casa di Livia)

Augustus’ wife Livia lived here during her first marriage. After she married Augustus (and after he became Rome’s ruler), they merged their two homes into a larger but still modest complex.

Your visit includes the former entrance hall—a high-ceilinged room with a few faded frescoes in purple, yellow, blue, and white. The best-preserved ones are in the central alcove, the room known as the tablinum, where guests were received. The tablinum’s right wall depicts the god Mercury (on the right side of the scene), arriving to kill the giant Argus (left) and kidnap the nymph Io (center) so Jupiter can ravish her. Frescoes in the alcove to the right of the tablinum show a columned portico draped with garlands. The left alcove has delicate Pompeiian-style designs.

Why do scholars think these ruins were Livia’s house? Because they found her honorific name, “Julia Augusta,” inscribed on the lead pipes now displayed in the tablinum.

✵ Near the Casa di Livia is the entrance to a tunnel known as the...

Image Cryptoporticus

This covered passageway, 400 feet long, allowed the imperial entourage to travel privately through the palace complex. The tunnel was elaborately decorated with frescoes (little remains). The Cryptoporticus may have been built by Emperor Nero to link the Palatine and Forum with his vast mansion, the Domus Aurea, which extended from the edge of the Forum past (what is now) the Colosseum and onto Esquiline Hill. Nero’s cryptoporticus may have been an expansion of an earlier passageway built by Tiberius (Livia’s son). Here, the notorious emperor Caligula is said to have been assassinated.

✵ Make your way to the nearby section of ruins, protected by a large metal roof. Cozy up to the railing to see ruined walls and foundations.

Image Huts of Romulus (Capanne Romulee)

Looking down into this pit filled with big blocks of stone, you can make out some elliptical and rectangular shapes carved into the stony ground. These are the partial outlines of huts from about 850 B.C. Some have holes that once held the wooden posts of round thatched huts.


This is the village of Germanicus; we saw a model of in the museum earlier. Picture the village long, long ago: a few dozen people, with their goats, dogs, and crude farm tools, trying to eke out a living in a new land.

According to legend, Romulus and Remus (see photo of statue on here) were children of the first Vestal Virgin. For complicated family reasons, she was executed and her babies were set adrift on the flooding Tiber River, eventually washing ashore at the foot of Palatine Hill. In a cave just downhill from here, a shepherd discovered them being suckled by a mother wolf. He took them home—maybe right here—and raised them as his own. When Romulus grew up, he killed his brother and built a square wall (Roma Quadrata) on the hilltop, thus founding the city of Rome.

For centuries, the Romans believed this myth. They honored the wolf’s cave (called the “Lupercale,” where every February 15 men dressed up in animal skins and whipped women), as well as the spot where Romulus was said to have lived. Lo and behold, in the 1940s, these huts were unearthed, and the legend became history. Archaeologists are still at it, and the more they dig, the more they find to confirm the legends. A nearby cave discovered in 2007—ornamented with seashells, colored marble, and a wolf mosaic—may be that original Lupercale. (It’s not open to the public, and dissenting archaeologists believe it’s a temple to water nymphs.)

Here at Rome’s birthplace, reflect on the rise of this great culture—from thatched huts to the modest House of Augustus to the massive Imperial Palace of Domitian, with its stadium and view over the Circus Maximus. It’s no wonder that the hill’s name gave us our English word “palace.”

✵ Climb a few steps to the summit of the hill (following signs to Orti Farnesina) where there are great views of the city. Start walking through the trees of the Farnese Gardens as you make your way toward the Forum.

Image Farnese Gardens—View of Forum Fit for an Emperor

Finish your tour with a stroll through the Renaissance gardens of the Farnese family. Walk past the foundations of the House of Tiberius—Livia’s son by her first husband—who became emperor after Augustus. Continue on, admiring the exotic plants, fountains, underground grotto, and pavilions. When you see the incredible view of the Forum from the end of the gardens, you’ll know why Palatine Hill was Rome’s best address.


✵ To exit, wind down Palatine Hill to the Forum, ending up at the Arch of Titus.