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Bill Thayer

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The Palatine Hill:
Two Millennia of Landscaping (sort of)


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Said to be the cradle of Rome, the Palatine is the site of some very ancient remains. Just possibly somewhere on it someone may yet find the Lupercal: the cave where Romulus was raised by his four-footed adoptive mother. Here you are looking roughly south from the Basilica of Maxentius on the other side of the Roman Forum, the easternmost finger of which (along the Sacra Via) in fact occupies the foreground of this photo.

Not by accident did the Palatine give Western languages the word palace.

Mind you it didn't start that way. On its southern side against the Tiber, it is altogether plausible that in the 8c B.C. a couple of abandoned babies should have drifted thru the marshy waters and come to rest against the foot of this hill to be taken care of by swineherds; but if Rome was born on this hill, she wisely turned her back on the Tiber — not the safest of rivers and ignored even by the very few towns near it — and ventured down from her hill on the other side, to the meeting-ground to the north, now known as the Forum Romanum.

As Rome developed and the Forum was embellished, gradually the Palatine became prime real estate, conveniently close to the seat of power, yet enjoying better air than the miasmal muck the commoners had to breathe (whence another universal word: malaria from the Italian for the notoriously "bad air" of Rome). It also has a splendid view: a logical place for the very wealthy and the very powerful to build beautiful houses. This was already so in Republican times — Augustus was born on this hill in the consulate of Cicero — and the process reached its logical conclusion when the emperors took it over completely: Domitian had the hill radically carved up, relandscaped and built over by his architect Rabirius.


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Our own age, with its taste for investigations, has undone the place pretty thoroughly. By surface area, the Palatine is now almost all excavations and rather sad remnants of Roman antiquities, among which the House of Livia, named in modern times after Augustus's wife: a pleasant house it must have been, too, although she may not have had anything to do with it. There's nothing much left but an attractive set of three longish rectangular rooms, apparently dining rooms: each opening onto a patio on one of the short sides, the other three walls decorated with frescoes.


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On the other hand, probably the most authentic recreation of ancient Rome on this hill was the work of people who had no such intent. The Farnese Gardens (in Italian: Orti Farnesiani) were the work of the Renaissance architect Vignola for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, of one of the great papal families. Once the Farnese family died out, most of the villa and gardens were dismantled, and the digging for antiquities started in earnest: but for a while, there was a wonderful house on the top of a hill overlooking the Roman Forum, with sophisticated gardens and fountains; exactly what the emperors had there before.


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Page updated: 27 Apr 02