Ruin Lust: Complete Guide to the Palatine Hill in Rome Italy
Updated: Jul 16, 2020
Stadium of Domitian on Palatine Hill
Here's my guide to the must see sites and hidden gems on Palatine Hill in Rome Italy. The Palatine Hill is Rome's most ancient area, with a history that pre-dates Rome itself. It sits at the center of the Seven Hills of Rome, overlooking the Roman Forum to one side and Circus Maximus to the other.
The romantically dilapitated ruins you readily see atop the hill are the ruins of Domitian's Palace. But there are so many more delights, even some active archaeological sites and secret underground places to explore.
Most people adore the Colosseum and Roman Forum and often skip Palatine Hill. But I adore the more underrated, and vastly less crowded, Palatine Hill. Palatine Hill is home to many "new" S.U.P.E.R. Pass sites in Rome, some only recently opened after decades of excavation. New discoveries are made all the time.
a rough map of Palatine Hill by Rick Steves
History of the Palatine Hill, the Birthplace of Palaces
According to the legend of Romulus and Remus, Rome was founded on the Palatine Hill. Romulus and Remus were twin boys born in 770 BC. They were taken from their mother, a disgraced vestal virgin, and thrown into the Tiber River in a basket.
The twins were suckled by a she wolf (now the symbol of Rome) in the Cave of Lupercal, then rescued by a shepherd. The twins made their way to a future Rome. Once there, a sibling spat ensued. The brothers wanted to found the city on different hills. Romulus favored Palatine Hill, while Remus preferred Aventine Hill.
the She Wolf of Rome in the Capitoline Museums
The twins waited for an augury, or sign from the gods. It favored Romulus, who got to work building. Annoyed with his disfavor, Remus mocked his brother. An ambitious Romulus put Remus to death. Romulus then named his city "Roma," after himself.
Rome's first emperor Augustus built his residence, the House of Augustus, on Palatine Hill. This marked the hill's transition from a residential area to an imperial seat. Palatine Hill became a center of affluence and power -- the preferred place for emperors and the wealthy ruling class to build their lavish homes and palaces.
view of the Colosseum from Palatine Hill
view of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill
But as Rome declined, so too did Palatine Hill. The glorious buildings and temples became neglected and fell in to ruin. In the Middle Ages, churches and castles were built over the ruins. During the Renaissance, wealthy families built homes and gardens on the hill.
Highlights of a Visit to Palatine Hill: What's Worth Exploring?
Much of Palatine Hill is now dominated by the ruins of Domitian’s Palace. But there's plenty more to see. The Palatine Hill also offers stunning views over the Roman Forum.
Here are my picks for the key sites to explore on Palatine Hill. There's not much signage. You'll need either a guided tour or a good guide book and map.
ruins of the Palace of Domitian
1. Palace of Domitian, aka the Flavian Palace
Domitian's Palace was built circa 81 AD. It was the residence of emperors for three cenuries. Domitian hired master architect Rabirius to create a massive imperial palace for him. It was so grand that one poet remarked it "made Jupiter jealous."
Unlike previous emperors (except Nero), Domitian wasn't interested in public architecture. He didn't follow in the footsteps of his father Vespasian or his brother Titus.
A Nero-like megalomaniac, Domitian viewed himself as "lord and god" and wanted the public to know it. The palace contained two sections: Domus Flavia, reserved for public functions, and Domus Augustana, reserved for private domestic use.
The Domus Flavia included many large spaces, including a basilica, reception rooms, an audience hall, a stadium, peristyle courts, and baths. In the center was an Octagonal Fountain, sunken in the middle of an open air courtyard, which produced a spectacular water display.
remains of Domitian's Palace and the Fountain of Domitian
undulating marble floors from what was likely a dining room pavilion
The palace was decorated with reflective surfaces, probably white Cappadocian marble or selenium. A paranoid Domitian wanted to be able to spot any potential enemies and see what people were up to. Each public room had apses, where Domitian could sit on a throne and be worshipped.
But, since this wasn't enough, there was also a Throne Room. It's now just a large brick stump with a plaque designating its former importance. This is where the emperor did official business. The floors were inlaid with marble and colossal statues of Roman gods graced the walls. The vaulted ceiling was 7 stores high.
As you walk around Palatine Hill and see the ruins, you'll see scraps of marble everywhere. Flashy materials like marble underscored the power of the empire. The yellow marble was from Tunisia. The veined marble was from Greece. And the pink granite was from Egypt.
Stadium of Domitian on Palatine Hill -- possibly the emperor's rec center
2. Stadium of Domitian
The Stadium of Domitian is an oblong sunken space that looks like a racetrack. It was most likely used as Domitian’s personal gardens. It may also have been the scene of small sporting events (like foot races), though it was too small for chariots.
There are ruins of a two story exedra, an architectural recess crowned with a dome, at one end. This was the private box of the emperors.
the baths of Domus Severiana
3. Domus Severiana
Emperor Septimius Severus took over the reins of power in 193 AD. He was a brilliant general. But stretched Rome too thin, undermined the Senate, and precipitated the decline of the city.
On the upside, Severus extended Domitian's palace complex and added baths to the domestic area. The ruins of the baths are one of the easiest things to spot on Palatine Hill. The grand old arches can be seen from far off.
The baths were later remodeled and restructured by Emperor Maxentius. They were fed via the Aqua Claudia, which transported water from springs 45 miles away. The Romans really knew how to build aqueducts.
The ground floor is a typical Romans bath structure, supported by soaring arches. There was a terrace overlooking Circus Maximus. Emperors sometimes viewed the races from this terrace.
Circus Maximus, with the ruins of Domitian's Palace in the background
4. Circus Maximus
The Circus Maximus was a 1,300 foot long course used for chariot racing for over 1,000 years. If the gladiator show at the Colosseum was sold out, the citizens would come here for entertainment.
The stands once held up to 300,000 spectators. Emperors used a box built into a curved facade of the imperial palace hovering over Circus Maximus, added by Emperor Severus. Below the emperors, rowdy fans cheered, drank, and gambled. Once during a race, the wooden bleachers collapsed and killed thousands of Romans.
In the middle of the track, you can see a grassy area. That was what the chariots raced around. Races consisted of 7 laps or around 3.5 miles.
ruins of the House of Augustus
5. House of Augustus
For nearly 2,000 years, the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill lay hidden. Archaeologists only discovered the ancient home in the 1960s.
The House of Augustus is located on the most sacred area of the Palatine Hill, near the symbols of Roman power. It was supposedly built near the former Temple of Apollo and on top of the Cave of Lupercal.
Pompeiian fresco in the Emperor's Study of the House of Augustus
The House of Augustus was modest by imperial standards, especially given Augustus' enormous wealth. But he didn't want to be perceived as an over the top tyrant. He slept in the same small bedroom for 40 years and had his family weave his clothes.
The House of Augustus is nonetheless celebrated for its lavish Pompeian frescoes. Archaeologists broke through rock to access the rooms in the 1970s. Some frescos were intact; some were pieced back together.
The frescos were first unveiled to the public in 2014, the 2,000 year anniversary of Augustus' death, after years of restoration. The most exquisite frescos are in the Pine Room, the Room of the Masks, and the Room of the Perspective Paintings -- so named for their recurring motifs.
If you book a special ticket to see the House of Augustus, you'll also see the House of Livia. Livia was Augustus' third wife. In 37 BC, Augustus (then called Octavian) fell madly in love with the beautiful young woman, from an ancient patrician family more credentialed than his own.
The pair divorced their respective spouses on the spot to marry. In fact, Caesar's second wife, Scribonia, was about to deliver their baby when he and Livia married. Augustus and Livia were together for 53 years, despite Augustus' constant affairs.
Like may imperial Romans, Livia was manipulative and wielded great influence. She was accused of poisonings and other skullduggery. When Augustus' adopted heirs died, Livia's son from her first marriage, Tiberius, became Augustus' next adopted son and the second emperor of Rome.
garden fresco from Livia's House, now on display at the Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo in Rome
First excavated in 1839, Livia's House was attributed to her based on the name "IVLIA AVG[VSTA]," Livia's honorific name, found stamped on a lead pipe. Built in the first century BC, Livia's house was actually a bit larger and grander than her husband's house.
The best preserved section is the atrium and three adjoining rooms. The central reception room (the tablinum) was the most richly decorated. Known as the Room of Polyphemus, it had mythological frescos showing Mercury kidnapping the nymph Io. The colors are more delicate and feminine than those in the House of Augustus, with frescos in faded purple, blue, yellow, and white.
There were also beautiful garden frescos in the dining room. In the 1950s, four wall panels were detached for conservation. They're now safely on view in the Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo. Recently, a faithful reproduction of the painted panels has installed in the House of Livia.
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7. Nero's Domus Aurea, the Golden House
Built by the notorious Emperor Nero, Domus Aurea was once the grandest building on earth. Domus Aurea is an exciting excavation in progress, one of Rome's best archaeological sites.
Built by Nero between 64-68 AD in the heart of imperial Rome, the sprawling property covered up to 300 acres. The facade and walls were adorned with frescos, gold leaf, glass mosaics, pearls, and marble. In natural light, it had a golden hue.
But little of this wealth survived Nero's rule. As Nero's extravagance and tyranny spun out of control, rivals condemned both his reign and his emblematic palace. For a decade after his death, the palace was looted, destroyed, and filled in with brick. But the vivid frescos by the artist Famulus couldn't be pried off the walls.
the Octagonal Room in Domus Aurea, which may have inspired the Octagonal Fountain on Palatine Hill
frescos in Domus Aurea
At the end of the 15th century, the Domus Aurea was discovered by accident when a young man fell into a crevice. To his surprise, he found himself surrounded by paintings. At first, the palace ruins were thought to be caves or grottos. Artists like Michelangelo and Raphael flocked to see the ancient frescos, called "grotesques."
In the 18th century, proper excavation of the Golden House began. Now, you can visit (with a hard hat) on the weekends. The crown jewel is the Octagonal Room, which represented a revolution in architectural style and technique.
Before there was Domus Aurea, there was Domus Transitoria. Nero's first palace was built between 60 and 64 BC. The palace had a short life. It was destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 BC.
Like Domus Aurea, Domus Transitoria was a massive and lavishly decorated palace, connecting the Palatine Hill and Esquiline Hill. It was dubbed the Transit House. According to Seutonius, Domus Transitoria was characterized by all the pomp, gold, and luxury one typically associates with grandiose Neronian architecture.
Many of the walls in Domus Transitoria were painted with flowers and plants to look like a luxuriant garden. There are surviving frescos in the Palatine Museum. They're similar to the "grotesques" that were discovered in the 15th century in Domus Aurea and are found in Villa Farnesina and the Vatican Museums.
fragments of a fresco from Nero's Domus Transitoria in the Palatine Museum
fragments of a fresco from Nero's Domus Transitoria in the Palatine Museum
For many centuries, Domus Transitoria was thought to be completely lost. The powerful Farnese family excavated parts of it during the Renaissance, scavenging and chiseling off many frescos and precious bits. But, during excavations, archaeologists found proof that this might be Nero's original palace.
After decades of excavation, the Domus Transitoria was opened for small tour groups on April 12, 2019. There's not much signage. But it's just to the right of the Palatine Museum.
You enter anddescend a staircase to inspect the site underground. In the hall of the pavilion, a projection in both Italian and English audio introduces visitors to the history of Domus Transitoria and its relation to the subsequent Domus Aurea.
Virtual reality headsets bring the dank place to life, allowing visitors to see the palace in its former glory. The visitor's path highlights the key points and opulent elements -- floors with inlaid marble, frescoed vaults, and gold leaf and lapis lazuli accents.
the ruins of the Huts of Romulus, Rome's founder
9. The Huts of Romulus, Founder of Rome
Near the houses of Augustus and Livia, you'll see a sign pointing to the Casa Romuli. You'll need to use your imagination for this site. The Huts of Romulus is just a pit filled with stone. But it's incredibly ancient and still under excavation.
You'll see some oval and rectangular shapes carved into the ground as well. They are partial outlines of thatched roof huts from circa 850 BC. Some of the holes once held wooden posts.
The Huts of Romulus were already 800 years old when they caught Augustus' attention. Augustus ordered excavations and discovered artifacts from the Iron Age. Augustus declared Palatine Hill to be the birthplace of Romulus, and hence, of Rome itself. Augustus built his house next to the hut ruins.
For centuries, Romans believed the legend of Romulus and Remus. Later, it was thought to be purely mythological. But then the huts were unearthed in the 1940s. Now, the legend might be more history than myth.
In 2007, another cave was discovered under the House of Livia. It was 50 feet underground, decorated with motifs of seashells and wolves. Some archaeologists speculate that this may be the sacred Cave of Lupercal. It's under excavation and not currently open to the public. It can only be seen through an underground camera probe.
statue in the Palatine Museum
10. The Palatine Museum
The Palatine Museum documents the history of the Palatine Hill. It houses myriad artifacts from excavations on the hill. It's a small museum, but you shouldn't miss it.
On display, you'll find statues from the imperial palaces, fragments of palace decorations and frescos, fragments of columns and friezes, a model of the Huts of Romulus, and busts and statues. There's a historical video. From underground, you can see the foundations of Domitian's Palace.
It's notable for having a very rare bust of the Emperor Nero. When Nero's memory was condemned, all traces of him were destroyed.
a rare bust of Nero in the Palatine Museum, in a room full of portrait busts
Wings of Victory in the Palatine Museum, possibly from the former Temple of Victory
the Magna Mater statue in the Palatine Museum
Don't miss the ancient statue of Magna Mater on her throne. This goddess was called the Great Mother. She supposedly brought fertility to the Roman people. She was worshipped at the (now destroyed) Temple of Cybele.
There's also an "Augustus Room." It has frescos, terra cotta, and statuary from the House of Augustus. You'll find an "angel" sculpture with wings from a Victory statue. Another room features fresco fragments and marble from Nero's palaces.
the Neroian Cryptoporticus
11. The Neronian Cryptoporticus
Nero built the Cryptoporticus to connect his Golden House, Domus Aurea, with the other imperial palaces on Palatine Hill. It's an underground corridor that was 400 feet long. It allowed the imperial entourage to travel in privacy and splendor. The tunnel was once decorated with elaborate stucco decorations. Traces of them are still visible.
The Neronian Cryptoporticus was also the scene of imperial murder. According to the historian Seutonius, this is where the Praetorian Guard assassinated the infamous Emperor Caligula in 41 AD. Like Julius Caesar, he was stabbed many times by a group of conspirators.
Caligula was very unpopular. He had a nasty habit of inviting senators to dinner and absconding to a bedroom with one of their wives. He also pissed off the Praetorian guard by mocking them or harassing them in sexual ways.
view of the Casina Farnese, currently undergoing conservation but intended one day as a small museum on Palatine Hill
12. The Casina Farnese
The Casina Farnese was a 16th century Renaissance villa, rebuilt and restored by the Farnese family. It was built atop the ruins of Domitian's Palace, and once known as the Casino del Belvedere.
The Casina Farnese is one of the only remaining Renaissance buildings on Palatine Hill. The Farnese family added frescos and murals to the rooms and decorated the vaults.
Each vault is painted with a scene from the legend of Hercules defeating Cacus. Cacus was a fire-breathing giant who lived in a cave on Aventine Hill and fed on human flesh. One day, he stole Hercules' cattle. Enraged, Hercules beheaded him. His swing was so powerful it opened a cleft in Aventine Hill, where an ancient staircase was built.
frescos in the Casina Farnesina. image source: WMF
The villa's frescos were executed by the the workshop of Taddeo Zuccari. The World Monument Fund recently restored them. In 2017, glass window panels were installed in the arches of the casina to protect the frescoed vaults.
The marble pavement under the lodge, with floral and geometric designs, may have been part of Nero's Domus Transitoria. This monument is not yet open to the public because more conservation is needed.
the Nymphaeum of the Mirrors on Palatine Hill, a fountain built to resemble a grotto
13. Farnese Gardens
Finish your tour of the Palatine Hill with a stroll through the Farnese Gardens. Cardinal Alessandro Farnese built these lavish gardens to go with the family's frescoed pad. The garden was the first private botanical garden in Europe.
There's an orange grove, exotic plants, fountains, and an artificial grotto called the Nymphaeum of the Mirrors. The grotto niches formerly held statues of satyrs holding up mirrors.
You'll also have an incredible view over the Roman Forum from several spots in the gardens.
view from the Farnese Gardens
How To Visit Palatine Hill, Buying the S.U.P.E.R. Ticket
There are two entrances to Palatine Hill, one on the Via Fori Imperiali, the other on Via San Gregorio. The exits are located at the Arch of Titus and the Mamertino prison.
If you have a ticket to the Colosseum, you can also visit Palatine Hill. Entrance to the Palatine is included in the standard trifecta ticket for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Your ticket is good for 24 hours from the time you enter the first attraction. So you don't have to do all 3 sites in one day.
You need to purchase a special S.U.P.E.R. Pass, on the CoopCulture website to access seven sites on Palatine Hill, including the Palatine Museum, the House of Augustus, the House of Livia, Domus Transitoria, and the Neronian Cryptoporticus. You must also make a reservation either by phone or online with Coop Culture. Not every site is open every day.
You have to purchase a separate ticket for Domus Aurea.
fresco fragment found on Palatine Hill, in the Palatine Museum
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting Palantine Hill
Virtual Tour: You can take virtual walking tour of the Palatine Hill here.
How to get to the Palatine Hill/Entrance: You can reach the Palatine Hill either from the Roman Forum or from its own dedicated entrance on Via di San Gregorio. The dedicated entrance has the benefit of fewer steps to climb up the hill.
Hours: Open at 8:30 am. The Palatine Hill closes at 4:30 pm from end of October to mid February. The latest closing time is at 7:15 pm the rest of the year. Each site is open on different days. Check the Coop Culture website for exact days.
Entry fee: The standard ticket that includes Palatine Hill is € 16. If you have this ticket, the S.U.P.E.R. ticket is an extra € 6. The S.U.P.E.R. ticket itself is € 18. A ticket for Domus Aurea is € 16 and can be purchased here.
Coop Culture Telephone:+39 06 399 67 700
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