Of all the Seven Hills of Rome, the Palatine Hill played the most important part in Roman history.
According to legend, it was here that Hercules strangled Cacus, a fire-breathing giant who had been terrorising the area, here that the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus had her cave, and here that Romulus founded Rome when he returned here as an adult.
Humans first settled on the Palatine Hill in the 10th century BC: 200 years before Romulus founded Rome. Throughout the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, it was continuously inhabited: first by Rome’s most eminent residents, later by the city’s succession of Caesars.
Click on the history button below to learn all about the Palatine Hill.
Why was Rome built on the Palatine Hill?
Simply put, the Palatine Hill was perfect for human habitation. Stretching some 51 metres above the often-flooding River Tiber, its earliest inhabitants enjoyed the convenience of easy access to water with the safety of living away from the stagnant swampland and festering disease below.
Between the Palatine and Capitoline to the northwest was a stagnant valley which, when the Etruscans drained it, became the Roman Forum. When archaeologists excavated the Roman Forum during the time of Mussolini, they found human remains dating back to before the Iron Age.
This means that as well as swampland, the valley beneath the Palatine Hill used to be a necropolis, a city of the dead. One of the wildest, boggiest cemeteries imaginable.
In his Aeneid, a text written during the Age of Augustus (31 BC - 13 AD), the poet Virgil described a group of Arcadian Greeks living on top of the Palatine. Their rulers, we are told, were King Evander and his son Pallas. To give some historical context, this predated Romulus, who lived in the 8th century BC, by some 500 years,
Why is the Palatine Hill famous: The story of Romulus and Remus
Hardly anyone has heard of Evander or Pallas. Most people know about the second named figure to occupy the Palatine. This was Romulus, a son of Alba Longa nobility, who moved south from the modern town of Castel Gandolfo to found a city of his own.
Romulus settled on the Palatine Hill around the middle of the 8th-century BC. Legend has it that Romulus and his twin brother Remus were raised by a she-wolf (though the Latin double-meaning of the word lupa meaning both she-wolf and prostitute has thrown this theory into slight disarray).
To mark the boundary of his newly founded city, Romulus ploughed a furrow around the circumference of the hill. You can see an artist’s interpretation of this in the Capitoline Museums.
We’ll never know the truth about Romulus’ supposed act of fratricide. The most popular version of the story is that he killed his twin Remus because he’d jumped over the ramparts Romulus had built on the Palatine. The archaeology suggests that there might be some truth in the story.
Archaeologists have discovered Iron Age huts on the Palatine Hill dating more or less exactly to the time of Romulus. Such a discovery led archaeologists to label one of these huts La Casa di Romolo (the House of Romulus).
If you'd like to visit this incredible site, let us know: we can take you to see it on our private Classic Ancient Rome tour.
What was the Palatine Hill used for?
Aside from the Rome’s foundation story (Romulus act of fratricide), the Palatine Hill is famous for being the Beverly Hills of the ancient world. This might sound like an exaggeration, but the sheer opulence of the palaces and temples on the Palatine was absolutely mindblowing.
During the Roman Republic (510 BC - 31 BC), the Palatine Hill was home to the residences of the rich and famous. Cicero had a home here for which he paid 3.5 million sestertii. If that sounds like a lot, it's because it is: working out at what 2,400 Roman workers would earn in a year.
During the Roman Empire (31 BC - 410 AD), successive imperial dynasties started building their own palatial residences on the Palatine Hill.
Augustus was the first. His house was modest, but that shouldn't surprise us. After all, Augustus was Rome's first ever emperor, a man who'd come to power in the wake of years of civil war. This war had broken out largely because of the assassination of Julius Caesar which his murderers had tried to justify on the grounds that Caesar was aspiring to become king.
Augustus couldn't look like a king if he wanted to hold power.
By extension this meant that he couldn't live like one either.
His successors had no such problems, however. After Augustus' death in 14 AD, his successor Tiberius got to work building his own resplendent palace, the Domus Tiberiana, on the Palatine. Tiberius didn't stay in Rome for long, preferring the solitude of Capri just off the Amalfi Coast to the prying eyes of the capital. But his successors made great use of his imperial abode.
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What to see on the Palatine Hill
House of Livia
Dating from the turn of the 1st century BC/AD, the House of Livia was the residence of the emperor Augustus' wife (and perhaps even the emperor himself).
Because he was the first emperor, the first sole-ruler in centuries whose rise to power had followed several bloody decades of civil war, Augustus was at pains to present himself as an ordinary citizen rather than a powerful autocrat.
This meant that his residence, along with that of his wife Livia, was modest. At least from the outside. For the inside was splendid, decorated with the kind of floral frescoes found elsewhere in Pompeii, insulated by a central heating system flowing through ceramic pipes, and tiled with stunning mosaicked and marble floors.
The original wall frescoes have since been moved from the House of Livia to be put in display in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme next to Rome's central Termini Station.
Domus means house in Latin. Yet the Domus Flavia was less of a house and more of a city within a city.
Built for the emperor Domitian throughout the 80s-90s AD, the Domus Flavia featured all the furnishings of luxury you would expect from an imperial residence at the height of the Roman Empire.
Surrounded by an enormous pillared courtyard, it comprised an enormous throne room, a triclinium (dining-room) large enough to fit a small legion, a shrine to the lares (domestic gods), and a sizeable basilica which most probably served as a law court where the emperor himself could sit in judgement.
Quite misleadingly, the Domus Augustana has nothing to do with the emperor Augustus. Instead, it was another imperial residence on the Palatine Hill begun under the emperor Domitian (81 - 96 AD).
Of all the palatial ruins on the Palatine Hill, the Domus Augustana gives you the best idea of what life was like for Roman royalty.
The Domus Augustana outlived Domitian to function as the imperial residence for many successive emperors.
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the Domus Augustana continued to serve as residences for high-ranking officials of the Byzantine Empire.
Stadium of Domitian
You might think that being perched on the Palatine Hill above the Circus Maximus would satiate an emperor's appetite for stadium on his palace grounds. You'd be wrong.
Piazza Navona now stands, would be happy enough with one. You'd be wrong again.
Within the grounds of his imperial palace, Domitian built an enormous track measuring some 160 meters in length and 47 meters in width. We don't know exactly what kind of sporting events took place here.
According to tradition, however, it was here in the grounds of the Stadium of Domitian that Saint Sebastian was martyred on the orders of the emperor Diocletian in 288 AD.
It may not quite have the magnificence of the Capitoline Museums, but the Palatine Museum houses an enviable array of ancient artefacts, monuments, and statues recovered from across the Palatine Hill.
How do I visit the Palatine Hill?
Visiting the Palatine Hill requires a combo ticket also covering the Colosseum and Roman Forum. You can do this independently, but to get the most out of these sites it really pays to have an expert licensed tour guide.
Walks Inside Rome offer several tours walking you through the Palatine Hill.
- Small Group Ancient Rome with Colosseum tour
- Watercolor Painting on the Palatine
- My Rome Tailored tour
Our most comprehensive coverage of the Palatine is our private Ancient Rome with Colosseum tour.
The nearest metro stop is Colosseo (Line B).
The nearest bus stop is Colosseo (services: 60, 75, 84. 85, 87,l 117. 175, 186, 271, 571, 810 and 850).
Where do I enter the Palatine Hill?
Via San Gregorio, 30.
Where does the word Palatine come from?
It’s from the Palatine Hill that we derive our word palace? And not just in English. The Italian palazzo, French palais, Spanish palacio - even the German palast all derive from the Latin palatinus.
But where did palatinus come from?
There are several theories. Livy tells us it was because of the Greek settlement of Pallantium that stood atop it. Another ancient theory is that it comes from an archaic Latin word for heaven or sky.