The Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill is the legendary starting point of Rome. It is said that in 753 BC the city’s larger-than-life founder, Romulus, chose this hill (one of the seven hills of Rome which also include the Capitoline, the Caelian, the Aventine, the Esquiline, the Viminal, and the Quirinal) and set about demarcating the boundaries of a new city around it. In reality, things were probably not quite so simple. Archeological records show that people have lived in the vicinity of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill since at least 1,000 BC and the city probably grew more from amalgamation than the caprices of Romulus. Still, it’s quite a story. The Palatine Hill overlooks both the Forum Romanum and the Circus Maximus. In ancient Rome, it was some of the most desirable real estate in the city, if not the entire empire. A home to senators and emperors, it even included the palace of Augustus Caesar and his wife Livia’s home, which were recently opened to select tour groups.
Visiting the Palatine Hill: What to See
Caesar’s Palace / Casa di Augusto
Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar and Rome’s first full-fledged emperor. He ruled over the largest empire of its day and etched his name in the history books as one of the most influential and successful statesmen in history. Despite all the grandeur surrounding his achievements, he lived a comparatively modest lifestyle. When it was time for him to find a house he didn’t build one, he bought one on Palatine Hill. The house itself, which he shared with his wife Livia, wasn’t huge, but he hired the best painters of the day to fresco it with beautiful murals featuring scenes incorporating realistic (though mathematically incorrect) perspective. Seeing the house today offers visitors the chance to experience these paintings just as Augustus did over 2,000 years ago. You can also snoop around the intimate corners of his home, like the emperor’s bedroom.
The Flavian Palace and Domus Augustana
Another imperial residence on the Palatine hill is the Flavian Palace – so called because, like the Colosseum, it was built during the rule of the Flavian Dynasty (Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). The building is attributed to Domitian’s favorite architect, Rabirius, who is also believed to be the hand behind the Arch of Titus. While Augustus’ villa was a somewhat humble affair, the Flavian Place pulls out all the stops with its size and architecture. It was so grand that it was probably used more for functions and entertaining than for living. The emperors would have slept in the Domus Augustana. Not only did the Flavian Palace look out over the Ancient world’s largest chariot racing track, the Circus Maximus, it had within its grounds its own smaller circus called the Hippodrome of Domitian. Too small for chariots, it’s still unclear what sort of games or ludi took place here, but they were most likely Olympic-type events, like foot races.
The Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus sits at the foot of the Palatine Hill, separating it from the Aventine Hill. Today it’s a long, grassy public park with a half circle on one end, but 2,000 years ago it was the preeminent chariot racing venue in the world. Depending on whom you ask it had a capacity of anywhere from 150,000 to 250,000 spectators. Romans loved their sports, from bloodsport like the gladiator battles and public hunts to the less violent but often just as dangerous chariot races. Like their cousins in the Colosseum, chariot racers often started out as slaves or prisoners. With skill, cunning, and a lot of luck they sometimes won their freedom, along with large amounts of money. More often, they ended up dead or crippled. Either way, the masses loved it. Although the track is overgrown today you can still see the shape of the racecourse and imagine the cries of some of the biggest live sporting events ever assembled.
The Cryptoporticus of Caligula
A cryptoporticus is an underground tunnel. This particular tunnel links the house of Augustus to the Roman Forum. The long, vaulted corridor was a regular footpath in imperial Rome and still has some of its striking stonework. However, this isn’t why it’s famous. Based on an account written by Seutonius many historians think that this was where the infamous emperor Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Despite that fact that Caligula was probably not quite as insane as early historians have made him out to be, it was a crime mourned by very few.
The Baths of Septimius Severus
This huge public bath complex overlooks the Circus Maximus. Although not as much is known about it as the Baths of Caracalla (built by Septimius Severs’ son) its massive arches remain among the most awe-inspiring structures on the Palatine Hill. In its heyday, hordes of people would have come every day to clean themselves, play in the water, meet with friends, gossip, and generally use the baths in the same way that we would use a modern gym or spa.
The Hut of Romulus
The Casa Romuli or Hut of Romulus is one of the most humble pieces of venerated architecture on the Palatine Hill, if not all of Rome. So humble, in fact, that it might not even exist. Despite that, it’s one of the most symbolically important structures in the city. It is the supposed dwelling of Rome’s founder Romulus. Although it turns up in numerous historic records and was apparently rebuilt on various occasions after fires, it has since been lost. Recent excavations have turned up the remains of various single-room dwellings on the Palatine Hill, but there are no definitive connections between any of them and Romulus. Nonetheless, Roman legend has it that Romulus lived on the Palatine hill so it’s a good bet that archeologists will continue to search for his digs.
Tips for Visiting the Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill (like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum) opens at 8:30am every day and always closes one hour before sunset, which means that the closing times vary throughout the year. It is closed on December 25th and January 1st. Below is the list of closing times according to the time of year as well as special holiday times:
from 8:30am to one hour before sunset (exceptions: Good Friday 8:30am – 2:00pm, June 2 1:30pm – 7:15pm):
8:30am – 4:30pm from January 2 to February 15.
8:30am – 5pm from February 16 to March 15.
8:30am – 5:30pm from March 16 to last Saturday of March.
8:30am – 7:15pm from last Sunday of March to August 31.
8:30am – 7:00pm from September 1 to September 30.
8:30am – 6:30pm from October 1 to last Sunday of October.
8:30am – 4:30pm from the last Sunday of October to December 31.
Like many of the other famous Roman attractions, visitors can enter the Palatine Hill with small bags and medium-sized backpacks. But any luggage, large backpacks or bulky bags are strictly prohibited. In order to enter with a bag, you must open it and allow security to inspect it. Because of the security at the entrance, you should always arrive 30 minutes before the reservation time specified on your ticket.
There isn’t much in the way of plaques or supplementary info at the Palatine Hill so if you want to really appreciate what you’re seeing, read up before hand, rent an audio guide, or go on a guided tour.
Remember: there is little shade on the Palatine Hill. In winter this isn’t an issue, but the spring, summer, and early fall in Rome can be scorching. Use plenty of sunscreen, and remember that a good hat can be the difference between a little kiss of sun on your cheeks and a day laid up in the hotel from heat stroke.
The Casa di Augusto is still off limits to people who aren’t taking a guided tour so if you want to go you should book our Caesar’s Palace Tour.
How to Buy Palatine Hill Tickets
You can buy Palatine Hill tickets on the day of your visit at the entrance to the Roman Forum on Via Fori Imperiali.
Insiders’ Tip: If you want to visit the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill together, the Ticket office of the Roman Forum usually has the smallest lines. Avoid the crowds at the Colosseum and buy your ticket for all three attractions there.
You can also buy your tickets from the official website.
To skip any lines and enjoy the presence of an expert guide, you can go with a tour group who will buy all tickets in advance so you don’t have to worry about it.
The Best Time to Visit the Palatine Hill
The off-season, October through April, is the least crowded time to visit the Palatine Hill but you risk the occasional storm. A normal rain won’t close the Palatine hill, nor will a thunderstorm, though we would recommend waiting for it to pass before doing any sightseeing. You can generally count on good weather and larger crowds in the high season. For this reason booking your ticket in advance is especially important if you’re planning to visit between May and October. However, unlike the Colosseum, you don’t need to prepare for long entrance lines if you already have a ticket. The line into the Palatine Hill is rarely long and always moves at a clip.
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