Quick History of the Palatine Hill in Rome
If the Palatine Hill was a person I could talk to, the first thing I would say would be “thank you”! All the Seven Hills that compose Rome’s landscape are deeply connected to how the city developed and how Romans lived, but without the Palatine Hill in specific, there would be no history to be told.
According to Roman mythology, it was in the Palatine Hill that Rome was born, which was confirmed over two millennials later when archaeologists found remains of Rome’s oldest stones at the hill. But giving birth to the Eternal City is not its only remarkable fact. During the Roman Empire, the Palatine Hill was also one of the most important locations in Rome, being both the home of many aristocrats and emperors and the venue of religious events.
The green and quiet hill is open for visitation upon the acquisition of a ticket, but before you wander around the houses of Livia and Augustus, the palace of Domitian, the Temple of Apollo Palatinus and many other monuments, let me introduce a quick history of the Palatine Hill in Rome to you.
Palatine Hill in Roman mythology
Romulus and Remus
You most probably have already heard the story of Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were rescued by a she-wolf after being left to die as newborns in the Tiber River. According to legend, when the twins were rescued, the she-wolf suckled them in a cave at the Palatine Hill. The boys were later found and adopted by a shepherd named Faustulus and his wife.
When they grew older, Romulus and Remus became shepherds like their adoptive father. One day, Remus engaged in a fight with other shepherds loyal to King Amulius, king of Alba Longa, and was taken to the palace as a prisoner. Romulus assaulted the palace with the help of other shepherds, rescued his brother and killed king Amulius.
Instead of taking over Alba Longa, Romulus and Remus gave the throne back to King Numitor – from whom Amulius had usurped it – and decided to found their own city. However, the brothers didn’t agree on the location of the new city: while Romulus wanted to build it at the Palatine Hill, Remus wanted to build it at the Aventine Hill. After a fight on who had the support of the gods, Romulus killed his brother, founded the new city at the Palatine Hill and became its first king. He named the city Rome after himself.
Although the legend speaks of the time of the foundation of Rome, which allegedly happened in 753 BC according to ancient Roman scholar Varro Reatinus, its earliest written record is from the 3rd century BC, and little is known about the origins of the myth.
In 2007, a cave was found underneath the House of Livia during renovation works. The cave is decorated with mosaics, seashells and marble, and has the picture of a white eagle at the center of the ceiling, which was the symbol of the Roman Empire.
Italian archaeologist Irene Iacopi announced at the time that he had found the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf. Other scholars, however, affirm the grotto was more likely a nymphaeum or a formal dining room, and that the legendary one would be located more on the south. The cave is now known as Lupercal.
Hercules and Cacus
Another myth involving the Palatine Hill is that of Hercules and Cacus. Before the foundation of Rome, Cacus – the fire-breathing giant son of the god of fire – used to live in a cave in the Aventine Hill and feed on human flesh.
One day, Hercules passed by the Aventine and, in a minute of distraction, had some animals from his cattle stolen by Cacus. Hercules would have killed the giant at the Palatine with such a hard strike that a cleft was open on the southeast part of the hill, where an ancient staircase was built.
Archaeological discoveries and history
The Palatine Hill has been inhabited for a really long time. Modern archaeology has found evidences of Bronze Age settlements at the Palatine prior to the foundation of Rome. With all the traces of human settlements, archaeologists have collected enough indications that the city was indeed founded at the Palatine around the 8th and the 9th century BC, as Varro had suggested.
According to Italian historian Titus Livius (64 BC or 59 BC – 12 AD or 17 AD), after the Sabines and Albans moved to the city, the Palatine was mainly inhabited by original Romans. During the Republican Period, the hill was the home of many aristocrats and important figures. The same happened during the Roman Empire, when a number of emperors established their palaces at the Palatine Hill.
Historians believe that emperors built their palaces at the hill because living at the place first chosen by Romulus would legitimate and strengthen their power. During your visit, you can see the ruins of the Houses of Augustus and Livia, the first emperor of Rome and his wife; the House of Tiberius, son of Livia and stepson of Augustus, and second emperor of Rome; and the Palace of Domitian, last member of the Flavian Dynasty.
But the Palatine was not just a residential area. Religious temples were also built there.
One of the most important temples ever built at the site was the Magna Mater Cybele. Cybele is an Anatolian mother goddess associate by the Greek to nature, fertility, mountains, towns and city walls. The Romans called her Magna Mater (Great Mother) and built the first Roman temple dedicated to her at the Palatine Hill in 191 BC.
The Temple of Magna Mater Cybele was unfortunately destroyed in 394 AD, but the Palatine Hill still holds some of its ruins, as well as the ruins of the Temple of Apollo Palatinus, which was built in 28 BC.
In 1550, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese acquired some of the Palatine Hill’s northern area. He filled in some ruins of the Palace of Tiberius and built on top of them one of the first private botanical gardens in Europe, the Farnese Gardens.
The gardens were home for many exotic plants and birds, some of them brought for the first time to Europe from the American continent, which contributed to its popularity and prestige. However, they suffered from a long period of decline in the 18th century as the male branch of the Farnese family disappeared.
At the time, men at the Farnese family, who ruled the Ducky of Parma, transferred the succession of the ducky to the female line through Elisabeth Farnese, who’d later become Queen of Spain. Her son, Infante Felipe, got married to the French princess Marie Louise Elisabeth of France, member of the House of Bourbon, and founded the House of Bourbon-Parma. The Farnese Gardens then became property of the Bourbon of Naples, who had little interest in their maintenance.
Nowadays, the gardens have little of the magnificent structure they once had. However, thanks to a thorough restoration work that started in 2013, there are lots of beautiful and interesting things to see. Restauration was concluded in 2018 and the gardens reopened after more than 30 years closed to the public.
How to visit the Palatine Hill
If you have a ticket to the Colosseum, then you can also visit the Palatine Hill. That’s because the tickets to the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum are actually the same. The combined ticket gives you access to the three Roman sites within 48 hours.
During your visit to the Palatine Hill, you may also enter the Palatine Museum. No additional ticket is required. The museum was established where once stood the Monastery of the Visitation, built by the Catholic Church in 1868 over the ruins of Domitian’s palace. The museum holds many artifacts collected during two centuries of excavations in the Palatine, including pre-Rome Iron-Age objects and Roman statues.
The Palatine’s entrance and ticket office are on the right side of the Colosseum, a five-minute walk past the Arch of Costantino, at Via di San Gregorio.
REGULAR TICKETS COST 12€, OR 2€ IF YOU ARE A EUROPEAN UNION MEMBER OF BETWEEN 18 AND 25 YEARS OLD.
IF YOU ARE HANDICAPPED OR UNDER 18 YEARS OLD, ENTRANCE IS FOR FREE.
THE palatine hill OPENs AT 8:30 AND CLOSE ONE HOUR BEFORE SUNSET (VARYING DURING THE YEAR).
TICKETS CAN BE PURCHASED ONSITE OR THROUGH THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE.
Now that you know its history, you are ready to fully enjoy a walk across the Palatine Hill! Don’t forget to wear your most comfortable pair of shoes and bring a bottle of water with you. You’ll certainly spend long hours in that magic place.