Guide to the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill, with Rome's Best Preserved Frescos
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Here's my guide to visiting the ruins of the House of Augustus on Palatine Hill in Rome Italy. 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.
A 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.