Guide to the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill, with Rome's Best Preserved Frescos
Here's my guide to visiting the ruins of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill in Rome Italy. The House of Augustus was the home of Rome's first emperor. It stands as a symbol of the transition of Rome from a republic to an imperial empire.
The House of Augustus opened in 2014 after decades of excavation. The site is basically a "new attraction," only open on a limited basis, and still a hidden gem in Rome.
But it shouldn't be. The House of Augustus boasts some of the best preserved Roman walls on the planet, decorated with vibrant 2,000 year old frescos. If you're fascinated with ancient Roman history, put the House of Augustus on your itinerary for Rome.
READ: 3 Day itinerary for Rome
A Short Biography of Augustus, Rome's First Emperor
To understand the House of Augustus, you've got to understand the man who built it. Augustus was one of the world's luckiest, and most successful, men. Born in 63 BC, he was named Gaius Octavius and called Octavian. His mother was Atia, the niece of Julius Caesar, a handy connection.
Octavian was promoted quickly. He attended Caesar at his first triumph and, despite his perpetually fragile health, fought with him in the Spanish campaign. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Under Caesar's will, Octavian (just age 18) was posthumously declared Caesar's adopted son and heir.
Known for bringing peace to Rome, Augustus' rise was anything but amicable. After Caesar's death, and despite the recalcitrance of Mark Antony, Octavian became a senator and then consul. In 43 BC, he became part of a power-sharing triumvirate with Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Octavian was by far the shrewdest of the lot.
In 42 BC, Octavian had Julius Caesar deified. Octavian thereby became the son of a god. The triumverate split up the empire. Octavian remained in Italy, Antony was in Egypt, and Lepidus was in Africa.
The truce didn't last long. Ambition divided them. Bloody internal conflict ensued. Eventually, Lepidus was eliminated and Octavian was locked in a struggle with Antony for control of the empire.
Caesar cleverly declared war on Antony's lover, Cleopatra, not Antony. Cleopatra was easy pickings. She was having an affair with Antony, who was married to Caesar's sister Octavia. When Antony divorced Octavia for Cleopatra, Octavian went into full attack mode and turned Rome against Antony.
Caesar and his right hand man, Marcus Agrippa, outmaneuvered the pair in battle When trapped, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide to avoid capture. Caesar stole Cleopatra's loot to pay and settle his army.
Octavian changed his name to Augustus and became Rome's first emperor. Augustus revived Republican traditions. At least on the surface, he sought to placate the Senators and distance himself from any perceived military despotism.
Augustus also overhauled the administration of the empire. He ushered in 200 years of peace and prosperity, known as the Pax Romana. Art and literature flourished.
With Agrippa's help, Augustus spent massive sums on the architectural adornment of Rome. The historian Suetonius wrote that Augustus “could justly boast” that he had "found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble."
But was Augustus a good man? I'm not so sure. He was an expert politician. He stabilized Rome and accomplished things Caesar couldn't.
But Augustus had a bloody rise and was the ultimate opportunist. He ruthlessly took advantage of a fragile Rome to seize power. Personally, he was a calculating meanie, probably like most emperors.
Augustus passed severe adultery laws, while he continually cheated on his wives. Sometimes the cheating wasn't out of lust, but political machinations. He disowned and exiled his only daughter Julia. At his death, his final words were "Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit."
History of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill
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 marked the transformation of Palatine Hill from a residential area into an imperial seat.
The House of Augustus is located on the most sacred area of the Palatine Hill, near the symbols of Roman power. It was built near the Temple of Apollo (which Augustus could access by ramp from his peristyle) and on top of the sacred Cave of Lupercal, where the She Wolf of Rome nursed the twins Romulus and Remus.
Right next door are the ruins of the "Hut of Romulus." This may be the spot where Romulus lived in the 8th century BC, though most believe him to be a purely legendary character. Your tour guide will point out the hut.
Comprising two levels, the House of Augustus served as Augustus' primary residence during his reign. It was arranged around two courtyards, linked by an open promenade. Emperor Domitian, a more megalomaniacal sort, demolished much of it when he built his massive palace.
The word "palace" originates from Palatine Hill. But Augustus never lived in a palace in the traditional sense.
The House of Augustus was modest by imperial standards, especially given Augustus' enormous wealth. Augustus didn't want to appear as an over the top tyrant, as some had perceived Caesar. He slept in the same small bedroom for 40 years and had his family weave his clothes. Augustus never wore a crown, or a purple toga, or other insignia of personal power.
Why You Should Visit the House of Augustus: Pompeiian Frescos
The House of Augustus is most celebrated for its lavish red Pompeian frescoes. They're the best preserved frescos from ancient Rome, superior even to those in Pompeii. They're the real reason you should visit the House of Augustus.
Most of the frescos are executed in the Second Pompeian Style, called the "Architectural Style." It began in Pompeii, became the fashion, and was then adopted by Augustus.
The style emphasized architectural features and illusionistic compositions. Artists used columns, faux marble blocks, and stoas to frame fantastic images. The use of vanishing points made the walls seem three dimensional.
The House of Augustus was first unveiled to the public in 2014, the 2,000 year anniversary of Augustus' death, after many years of restoration. The restoration included installing protective roofing, stabilizing the buildings, conserving the frescos, and creating a route for visitors.
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.
Tour of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill
You start the tour with an introductory video. You'll be told how the beautiful frescos were created.
The western end of the house held the domestic rooms. The eastern end held the public reception rooms. The tour begins with the two rooms in the domestic section of the house.
The Pine Room has a simple architectural scheme. There are Doric columns with pine festoons, and porticos. The pine cone was the symbol of Cybele, whose temple was next to the House of Augustus. The temple was repeatedly destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Today, archaeologists know of its existence through an ancient coin.
Just behind the Pine Room is the Room of the Masks. This room has some of the finest frescos in the house, depicting theater themes in the Second Pompeiian Style. You'll see stylized creatures and tragic and comic theater masks. The room is painted to look like wooden theater sets standing on a stone podium.
Next is a series of five rooms along the north side of the western court. The rooms include two libraries and a tablinum (the guest reception room) with rooms on either side of the tablinum.
One of the rooms is called the Room of the Perspective Paintings. The frescos depict a two story architectural facade in vibrant colors of blue, yellow, red, and white. The frescos turn the room into a sort of colonnaded pavilion.
The path continues to the eastern, or public, section of the house. The most striking room is the Ramp Room.
The Ramp Room has a ceiling painted to mimic a real coffered ceiling. The ceiling is decorated with a painted pattern of diamond and square shaped elements containing rosettes. To give a sense of depth, dark colors were used for the recesses and lighter colors for the frame.
The next room is called the Large Oecus. It depicts architectural wall paintings, with four pediments supported by four columns. Among other functions, this room served as the setting for elaborate dinner parties.
The final room is by far the most elegant room in the House of Augustus. It's the Emperor’s Study, where Augustus burned the midnight oil. Today, it's covered by protected glass. You can admire it by climbing a modern steel staircase.
The walls in this room are somewhat more characteristic of the Third Pompeiian Style. This fresco style used large monochromatic planes of color, usually red or black, and veered away from illusionary effects.
The walls were decorated with stylized and miniaturized Egyptian motifs, gryphons, and floral elements. These were similar to the "grotesque" frescos later found in Nero's Domus Aurea, which influenced Renaissance artists.
The wall colors are bold -- green, black, and yellow. The ceiling decoration is rendered in lighter colors and white stucco. The dominant colors are pink and white, with hints of violet and gold.
How Do You Visit the House of Augustus?
How do you get tickets to the House of Augustus? Well, it'a bit tricky. You've got to be organized. Spontaneity doesn't work. Here are my tips for buying and reserving tickets to the House of Augustus.
Coop Culture has recently introduced the Biglietto S.U.P.E.R. or Super Pass, for 18€. It can be purchased online, by phone, or at the Arch of Titus entrance to the Roman Forum. The ticket allows access to 8 sites. Each site can only be visited with the ticket.
The 8 sites are: Neronian Cryptoporticus, Nero's Domus Transitoria, the Palatine Museum, Aula Isiaca-Loggia Mattei, House of Augustus, House of Livia, the Temple of Romulus, and Santa Maria Antiqua.
Each site has specific days and times that it's open. The House of Augustus is only open on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday
After you buy the S.U.P.E.R. ticket, you need to make a reservation for a 75 minute guided tour in English for the House of Augustus and House of Livia. The House of Livia is included with the House of Augustus. (For the other sites, you don't need a reservation except for Domus Transitoria.) If you just show up hoping to get in, you'll likely be turned away.
To make a reservation, call Coop Culture at +39 06 399 67 700. You can also "buy" a reservation online for 0 euros on the S.U.P.E.R. ticket page. Choose the House of Augustus and House of Livia. Then click the “details” button, choose your date and time, and place it in your cart. Bring your reservation information with you.
To visit the House of Augustus, use the Palatine entrance at via di San Gregorio 30. Allow plenty of time to find the site and go through security. You can take pictures without a flash. But the lighting is pretty terrible.
If you're interested in Roman ruins, you may enjoy these other Rome travel guides:
If you'd like to visit the House of Augustus in Rome, pin it for later.