The Palatine hill became the residence of the Roman emperors, and the centre of the Roman Empire, not on account of its historical and traditional associations with the foundation and first growth of the city, nor because of its central and commanding position, but by a mere accident. At daybreak on September 21st of the year 63 B.C., Augustus was born in this region, in a modest house, opening on the lane called ad Capita bubula, which led from the valley, where now the Colosseum stands, up the slopes of the hill towards the modern church and convent of S. Bonaventura. This man, sent by God to change the condition of mankind and the state of the world, this founder of an empire which is still practically in existence, never deserted the Palatine hill all through his eventful career. From the lane ad Capita bubula he moved to the house of Calvus, the orator, at the northeast corner of the hill overlooking the forum; and in process of time, having become absolute master of the Roman Commonwealth, he settled finally on the top of the hill, having purchased for his residence the house of Hortensius, a simple and modest house, indeed, with columns of the commonest kind of stone, pavements of rubble-work, and simply whitewashed walls.
Whether this selection of a site was made because the Palatine ad long before become the Faubourg St. Honoré, the Belgravia of ancient Rome, is difficult to determine. p107We know that the house of Hortensius, chosen by Augustus, was surrounded by those of Clodius, Scaurus, Crassus, Caecina, Sisenna, Flaccus, Catilina, and other members of the aristocracy. I am persuaded, however, that the secret of the selection is to be found in the simplicity, I will even say in the poverty, of the dwelling; in fact, such extreme modesty is worthy the good sense and the spirit of moderation shown by Augustus throughout his career. He could very well sacrifice appearances to the reality of an unbounded power. It is just, at any rate, to recognize that even in his remotest resorts for temporary rest and retirement from the cares of government he led the same kind of plain, modest life, spending all his leisure hours in arranging his collections of natural history, more especially the palaeo-ethnological or prehistoric, for which the ossiferous caverns of the Island of Capri supplied him with abundant materials.
It was only after the victory of Actium that, finding himself master of the world, he thought it expedient to give up, in a certain measure, his former habits, and live in better style. Having bought through his agents (per procuratores) some of the aristocratic palaces adjoining the old house of Hortensius, among them the historical palace of Catilina, he built a new and very handsome residence, but declared at the same time that he considered it as public property, not as his own. The solemn dedication of the palace took place on January 14th, of the year 26 before Christ. Here he lived, sleeping always in the same small cubiculum, for twenty-eight years; that is to say, until the third year after Christ, when the palace was almost destroyed by fire. As soon as the news of the disaster spread throughout the Empire, and almost incredible amount of money was subscribed at once, by all orders of citizens, to provide p108him with a new residence; and although, with his usual moderation, he would consent to accept only one denarius from each individual subscriber, it is easy to imagine how many millions he must have realized in spite of his modesty. A new, magnificent palace rose from the ruins of the old one, but it does not appear that the plan and arrangement were changed; otherwise Augustus could not have continued to sleep in the same room during the last ten years of his life, as we are told positively that he did.
The work of Augustus was continued by his successor and kinsman, Tiberius, who built a new wing (domus Tiberiana) near the northwest corner of the hill, overlooking the Velabrum. Caligula filled with new structures the whole space between the domus Tiberiana and the Roman forum. Nero, likewise, occupied with a new palace the southeast corner of the hill, overlooking the valley, where the Colosseum was afterwards built. Domitian rebuilt the domus Augustana, injured by fire, adding to its accommodations a stadium for gymnastic sports. The same emperor raised an altogether new palace in the space between the house of Augustus, on one side, and those of Caligula and Tiberius on the other. Septimius Severus and his son restored the whole group of imperial buildings, adding a new wing at the southwest corner, known under the name of Septizonium. The latest additions, of no special importance, took place under Julia Mamaea (diaetae Mameianae) and Helagabalus (baths on the Sacred Way).
It is impossible for me to give a minute description of this immense and complicated mass of structures; to render such a description intelligible I ought to make use of an indefinite number of plans, diagrams, scenes, and photographs, and even then I am not sure that I could reach the necessary degree of clearness. One must be on the p109spot; one must examine de visu those endless suites of apartments, halls, terraces, porticoes, crypts, cellars, to appreciate the difficulty of the problem. Every emperor, to a certain extent, enlarged, altered, destroyed, and reconstructed the work of his predecessors; cutting new openings, walling up old ones, subdividing large rooms into smaller apartments, and changing their destination.
Coming now to some particulars concerning a few of the leading portions of this immense group of buildings, I must remark that one section alone of the imperial Palatine buildings remained unaltered, and kept the former simplicity of its plan down to the fall of the Empire, — the section built by Augustus across the centre of the hill, which comprised the main entrance, or propylaia, the portico surrounding the temple of Apollo, the temple itself, the Greek and Latin libraries, the shrine of Vesta, and the imperial p110residence. A brief description of this group, so simple and yet so magnificent, will be easily understood, and will convey to the mind of the reader the true idea of the aspect which the palace of the Caesars, taken as a whole, presented in the golden age of the Roman Empire to the astonished eyes of a foreign visitor.
The state entrance was approached from the Sacra Via by a wide street, named vicus Apollinis, the street of Apollo, from the sanctuary to which it led. On the top of the central arch of this state entrance Augustus had placed one of Lysias's masterpieces, a chariot drawn by four horses, driven by Apollo and Diana, the whole group being cut out of a single block of marble. This archway seems to have been rediscovered about 1575. Flaminius Vacca, a sculptor and an antiquarian of the time of Sixtus V, who has left a diary or register of discoveries which took place in his lifetime, says: "I remember to have seen in the palace of the Caesars, near the Farnese grounds, the remains of a colossal gate, with posts of Greek marble which must have been formerly on the top of it."
Passing across the threshold of the propylaia, the visitor found himself at once before the most marvellous sight which human eyes have ever witnessed. There is certainly no exaggeration in the words of contemporary writers, when they give to this group the epithet of golden, of perfect, and of the chef d'oeuvre of the Augustan magnificence.
The peristyle, surrounding the sacred area paved with white marble, contained fifty-two fluted columns of giallo antico, many of which, more or less broken, were discovered on the spot by Pope Alexander VII, by Vespignani in 1869, and by ourselves in 1877. As regards the number of the shafts, there is no doubt that there were p111at least fifty-two, because fifty intercolumniations were occupied by the statues of the Danaids, and one by the statue of their prolific father. In the open space, in front of the figures of the Danaids, stood equestrian statues of their miserable husbands, the sons of Egypt. Many torsos and fragments belonging to this army of statues, the work of the best Greek chisels of Augustus's age, were recovered on the spot, just three centuries ago. The account of their discovery is given by the same Flaminius Vacca whom I mentioned above: "I remember to have witnessed the discovery of eighteen or twenty torsos, or statues, representing Amazons, a trifle larger than life-size. They were lying under the Ronconi garden, in the centre of the palace of the Caesars. I recollect, also, that in mending the wine-press, the said Ronconi discovered a beautiful marble statue imbedded in the wall. It represents Hercules, and bears on the plinth the signature ΛΥΣΙΠΠΟΥ ΕΡΓΟΝ, the work of Lysippus. Duke Cosimo de' Medici bought the figure from Ronconi for 800 scudi, and removed it to Florence, where it is still to be seen." It is evident that Flaminius Vacca, a faithful but simple and unlearned diarist, mistakes Danaids for Amazons. As to the fate of the twenty statues, I am afraid they must have come to their end in a limekiln or in a foundation wall.
On the west side of the portico, behind the temple of Apollo, was the library of the same name, in two sections, the Greek and the Latin, with a reading-hall between them large enough to accommodate the whole Senate on state occasions, and to hold a colossus fifty feet high. This library did not contain books upon every branch of human learning. It is certain that historical works were not included in the catalogue. Vopiscus, the imperial biographer, declares that he collected the materials for the life of Probus from p112books preserved in the library of the palace of Tiberius and in that of Trajan's forum. This means, we believe, that no such documents were to be found in the library of Apollo. Its formal destination has been made known to us by an anonymous scholiast of Juvenal, who, commenting on the 128th verse of the first satire, says: bibliothecam iuris civilis et liberalium studiorum in templo Apollinis palatini dedicavit Augustus. "The Augustan library by the temple of Apollo is devoted to books on civil law and on the liberal arts." The Romans, after all, knew perfectly well how much more advantageous to science is the institution of special libraries for one single branch of human learning than the institution of miscellaneous, universal, encyclopaedic arsenals of books, which can scarcely keep up with the times, and reach the necessary degree of completeness in every department. Another peculiarity of literary Roman establishments and reading-rooms was the absolute exclusion of trash; the honor of appearing on the scrinia, or shelves, was reserved to standard works only, even when the productions of contemporary writers.
The Greek and the Latin sections of the library of Apollo were placed under the supervision of a carefully selected staff of officials, under the high directorship of a procurator bibliothecarum Augusti, superintendent of imperial libraries.
The principal ornament of the hall was a colossal bronze statue, fifty feet high, representing Augustus with the attributes of Apollo. It was the work of an Italian artist, and was cast successfully in Rome, in spite of its enormous size. Nardini attributes to this colossus the bronze head, six feet high, which is preserved in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitol, because its size is exactly proportionate to that assigned by Pliny to the whole figure, — whereas it p113would be too small for the colossus of Nero, the height of which was exactly double that of the Palatine statue. The walls of the reading-room were covered with medallions of the most celebrated authors and orators, some in repoussé work of gold and silver, some cast in bronze. Tacitus relates how the son of M. Hortalus, having been called to defend himself before the Senate assembled in this reading-hall, would sometimes turn towards the image of Augustus. The medallions were disposed in groups of poets, historians, lawyers, orators, and so forth. In the same library, rare specimens of palaeography were exhibited. Pliny, in the seventh book of his "Natural History," after declaring how closely old Greek handwriting resembled the Latin, adds: "I can bring the evidence of an archaic bronze inscription from Delphi, which Augustus has placed in his library as a specimen of palaeography." It is probable that in this reading-room were held the sittings of the literary academies and societies, described by Pliny the younger in his letter to Sosius Senecio (I.1 13), which were the delight of the Emperor Claudius, the abhorrence and the horror of literary men, who were obliged by their connection with the imperial court to lose hours upon hours in listening to silly and narcotic lecturers. Nothing could be more graphic than the description by Pliny of one of these compulsory sittings. "We approach the hall," he says, "as if we were compelled by main force; many of us sit outside of the door, and try to overcome the ennui by discussing the gossip of the town. Messengers are surreptitiously sent in to inquire whether the lecturer his really made his appearance, whether he has finished his prologue, or how many sheets are still left to be read. Then, when we hear that the moment of deliverance is p114not very far off, we come in slowly, sit on the edge of our chairs, and do not even wait for the end of the discourse to slip or steal quietly away."
The temple of Apollo, which stood in the centre of the square portico, between the propylaia and the libraries, was built entirely of Carrara marble. The front of the temple was covered with bas-reliefs in Parian marble, the work of Bupalos and Anthermos of Chios, the favorite artists of Augustus. On the top of the pediment, the chariot of Apollo, of gilt bronze, shone under the rays of the sun. The two sides of the door were incrusted with ivory bas-reliefs, representing on one side the extermination of Niobe's family, on the other the flight of the Gauls from Delphi. Inside of the temple, the attention of the visitor was particularly attracted by the group of Apollo playing on the lyre, between his mother and sister, the work of three famous sculptors. Scopas had made the Apollo; Cephisodotos, son of Praxiteles, Latona; and Timotheos had modelled the figure of Diana. The central group was surrounded by the nine Muses. Other works of art are described by Pliny. "Great predilection," he says, "is shown by artists and amateurs for hanging chandeliers, or for candelabras cast in the shape of trees, which bear lamps instead of fruit. The finest specimen of this kind of work p115is preserved in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, a work remarkable also for its historical association, having been seized by Alexander the Great in the storming of Thebes, and afterwards dedicated in the Temple of Cyme." There was also a collection of gold plate, and especially of tripods. Augustus had ordered those to be made out of the money raised by the melting of all the silver statues which provincial servility had set up in his honor and against his will. Finally, we have the record of a collection of engraved gems and cameos, a present offered to the god by Marcellus, son of Octavia and nephew of Augustus.
Inside of the pedestal that supported the statue of Apollo two golden chests were concealed, in which Augustus had deposited, as in a safe, the Sibylline books. The last account I have been able to find of these Sibylline books, so intimately connected with the history of Rome and of the world, belongs to the year 363 of the Christian era. In the winter of that year, more precisely in the night between the 18th and 19th of March, the Temple of Apollo caught fire, and was destroyed to the very foundations. The only things which the firemen, led by Apronianus, prefect of police, could save from the conflagration were the Sibylline books. Their subsequent fate is utterly unknown. Of the shrine of Vesta, which occupied the space between the libraries and the palace of Augustus, there is but little to say, except that it was round in shape and built in imitation of its prototype on the Sacred Way.
Summing up the brief description I have given of the architectural group raised by Augustus on the Palatine, and which formed, as it were, the vestibule to his own imperial residence, we know with absolute certainty that it contained at least one hundred and twenty columns of the rarest kinds of marbles and breccias, fifty-two of which were of Numidian p116marble, with capitals of gilt bronze; a group by Lysias, comprising one chariot, four horses, and two drivers, all cut in a single block of marble; the Hercules of Lysippus; the Apollo of Scopas; the Latona of Cephisodotos; the Diana of Timotheos; the bas-reliefs of the pediment by Bupalos and Anthermos; the quadriga of the sun in gilt bronze; exquisite ivory carvings; a bronze colossus fifty feet high; hundreds of medallions in gold, silver, and bronze; gold and silver plate; a collection of gems and cameos; and, lastly, candelabras which had been the property of Alexander the Great, the admiration of the East.
Has the world ever seen a collection of greater artistic and material value exhibited in a single building? And we must recollect that the group built by Augustus comprises only a very modest section of the Palatine; that to his palace we must join the palaces of Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Vespasian, Domitian, Septimius Severus, Julia Mamaea, and Helagabalus; that each one of these imperial residences equalled the residence of Augustus, if not in pure taste, certainly in wealth, in luxury, in magnificence, in the number and value of works of art collected and stolen from Greece and the East, from Egypt and Persia. By multiplying eight or ten times the list I have given above, the reader will get an approximate idea of the "home" of the Roman emperors in its full pride and glory.
I have deliberately excluded from my description the residence or private house of Augustus, because he himself had deliberately excluded from it any trace of that grandeur he had so lavishly bestowed on the buildings which constituted the approach to it.
As regards Caligula's buildings, which extended from Tiberius's palace to the northeast corner of the hill, over p117looking the forum, the best preserved portion of them is a long cryptoporticus, or subterranean passage, represented in the illustration below.
On January 24th, A.D. 41, a scene of horror took place in this dark corridor, — the murder of the Emperor Caligula. Whoever will endeavor to picture in his mind all the revolting circumstances of that death, as described by Flavius Josephus, will hear echoing again in the long vaulted crypt the last cries of the frantic young prince, fallen on his knees, and trying to avert with his feeble hands the last implacable blows of his assassins.
p118 Caligula had spent the morning of that eventful day in attending to the ludi palatini, or scenic plays, which Livia had instituted permanently in honor of Augustus, and which were usually performed on a wooden stage, built for the occasion, in front of the pal itself. Having left the performance towards noon, Caligula walked with his attendants towards the palace, entering by the main gateway. But once inside, instead of proceeding by the usual way, that is, by the state court-yard and staircase, where the body-guard was in attendance, and whither he had been preceded by Claudius, he suddenly turned to the right, and entered, as the historian says, a solitary and obscure corridors, which led to the bathing apartments. He was tempted to pass this unusual way by the desire of meeting some young noblemen from Asia, whom he had invited to the imperial court to be trained in singing hymns and in performing the sacred pyrrhic dance.
Having halted a few minutes to speak to them, and to ascertain the state of their training, he was met by Cassius Cherea, the captain on duty and leader of the conspiracy, who asked the young prince the password for the day. Receiving an exceedingly profane answer, Casius Cherea with his poniard struck the first blow. Caligula tried to escape towards the group of terrified youths from Asia, but Cornelius Sabinus, who had joined the conspiracy, knocked him down, and held him firm until the deed was accomplished.
The conspirators, now that they had succeeded in their murderous attempt, fearing for their own safety, tried to escape unobserved. Not daring, however, to go back the same way they had entered the crypt, for the dread of the sentinels who kept watch at the main gateway, they ran through the other end of the corridor, and concealed p119themselves in the house of Germanicus, which had been incorporated in Caligula's palace. A strange occurrence, indeed, that the murderers of the son of Germanicus should seek refuge in the house of his own father!
The historical corridor just described, and the apartments which adjoining it on the north side, are not the only additions made by Caligula to the imperial palace. He appears to have purchased and embodied in the crown property another house, belonging to a certain Gelotius and hence called domus Gelotiana; and this acquisition was made, not for any want of additional space and accommodation, but to satisfy the mania of the prince for the games of the circus, for horses and grooms. Caligula was a passionate supporter of the squadron of the greens, so much so that he used to spend days and nights in their stables, sharing their dinners and suppers, and indulging with them in all p120sorts of excesses. This house of Gelotius was bought because it lay nearer the circus than any other building on the Palatine, and because, by simply crossing it, the prince could reach, undisturbed and unseen, his favorite place among the "greens." From an inscription discovered in Rome in the seventeenth century, which mentions a Symphorus tesserarius, or ticket collector, de domo Gelotiana, we gather that this house on solemn occasions could contain a large number of guests. Its importance to us, however, is not derived from its connection with the circus, but from the considerable number of graffiti, or scribblings, which cover its walls.
The mania for writing on the plaster in public or private buildings, with a nail or a sharp point of any kind, was perhaps stronger in ancient times than it is now. It must have been tolerated by municipal regulations. In that portion of Pompeii which has been unearthed up to the present time, not less than six thousand graffiti have been copied and published; and we have gained more knowledge of the life and habits, the love and business transactions, and the political feelings, of the Pompeians from this source than from any other written or engraved documents. In Rome, not a single edifice escaped the nail and the pocket-knife of idlers or schoolboys. Wherever there was a flat surface of marble or plaster, no matter whether horizontal or vertical, there you are sure to find some more or less interesting record: checked gaming-tables, caricatures, alphabets, profane words, sentences, emblems, and the like. The dread which neat people felt for scratchers on walls was such that we have actually found a marble inscription outside the Porta Portuensis, which had been put up by a gentleman, in front of his property, and in which he begs passers-by not to scariphare or scratch the walls of his p121buildings. When graffiti are found in large numbers in one and the same place, they gain the importance of an historical document. Such are, for instance, those discovered in the barracks of the seventh battalion of police, which have revealed to us the most minute details regarding the organization and duties of that body; and such are, also, the graffiti, discovered in the year 1857, in the domus Gelotiana, which introduce us into the intimacy of the life of court servants of a higher class. It appears from them, and from the records they contain, that after the murder of Caligula the house became a residence and a training-school for court pages, who had received their first education in the imperial elementary school, called paedagogium ad caput Africae, from the name of a street which led from the Colosseum to the aristocratic quarter of the Caelian. The boys must have been delighted at their deliverance from the rod of the master, and their admittance into the palace; and accordingly they chronicle the happy event on the walls of their new residence with inscriptions modelled on the same pattern: Corinthus exit de paedagogio; Marianus afer exit de paedagogio, and so forth. There is another very spirited and bright allusion to the hardships of school life, composed of a vignette and its explanation. The drawing represents a donkey turning the mill; and the legend says, LABORA ASELLE QVOMODO EGO LABORAVI ET PRODERIT TIBI: "Work, work, little donkey, as I have worked myself, and thou shalt be rewarded for it." But by far the most interesting and most widely celebrated graffito of the whole set is the one discovered at the beginning of the year 1857 in the fourth room on the left of the entrance, removed p122soon after to the Kircherian Museum at the Collegio Romano, where it is still to be seen. This graffito, illustrated by Garrucci, Visconti, Becker, De Rossi, and Kraus, contains a blasphemous caricature of our Lord Jesus Christ, — a caricature designed only a few years after the first preaching of the gospel in Rome by the Apostles. Here is a photographic reproduction of the precious sketch. Our Lord is represented with the head of a donkey, tied to the cross, with the feet resting on a horizontal piece of board. To the left of the cross there is the figure of the Christian youth Alexamenos, with arms raised in adoration of his crucified God, and the whole composition is illustrated and explained by the legend, ΑΛΕΞΑΜΕΝΟΣ ΣΕΒΕΤΕ ΘΕΟΝ: "Alexamenos worships (his) God."
During the rule of Claudius, the successor of Caligula, little or nothing was done towards the enlargement or the embellishment of the palace of the Caesars. Nero, however, the successor of Claudius, conceived the gigantic plan of renewing and of rebuilding from the very foundations, not only the imperial residence, but the whole metropolis; and as the metropolis was crowded at every corner with shrines and altars and small temples which religious superstition made absolutely inviolable, and as the slightest work of improvement was fiercely opposed by private owners of property, and gave occasion to an endless amount of lawsuits, and appraisals, and fights among the experts, he rid himself of all these difficulties in the simplest and cleverest way. He ordered his favorite architects, Severus and Celer, to draw a new plan of the city, and to draw it according to the best principles of hygiene and comfort; then he caused an enormous quantity of wooden booths and tents to be secretly prepared, and ordered fleets of grain-laden p123vessels to be kept in readiness to sail from the various harbors of the Mediterranean at a moment's notice.
Having taken all these precautions, and insured the success of his stratagem as far as human foresight could, Nero set the whole city into a blaze of fire, and did it so neatly that although, of the fourteen regions, or wards, into which Rome had been divided by Augustus, three were annihilated completely and seven for the greater part, yet not a single human life seems to have been lost in the gigantic conflagration.
The homeless crowds found a ready and comfortable shelter under the booths and tents, raised by thousands in public parks and squares; at the same time, a large number of vessels laden with grain from Sardinia, Sicily, Numidia, and Egypt appeared at the mouth of the Tiber, and relieved the emperor from any anxiety as far as famine was concerned. These vessels, as soon as they had discharged their cargoes, were filled up again with the débris of the conflagration, which was thrown into the marshes surrounding the delta of the Tiber.
Even in our age of progress, and material improvement, and comfort, we cannot help admiring the profound wisdom shown by the two imperial architects, Severus and Celer, in designing and rebuilding the city. The straight line and the right angle were followed, as far as could be done in a hilly region, in tracing the new streets and avenues through the still smoking ruins. Hasty and irregular constructions were forbidden; the line of frontage of each new building had to be sanctioned and approved by one of the official surveyors. Large squares were opened in place of filthy, thickly inhabited quarters. The height of private houses was not allowed to exceed double the width of the street, and porticoes were to be built in front of each one, to provide p124the citizens with cool, sheltered walks in case of rain or of excessive heat. Lastly, wooden ceilings were excluded from the lower story of private dwellings, and absolute isolation on every side made compulsory.
In the rebuilding of the city the emperor secured for himself the lion's share; and his Golden House, domus aurea, of which we possess such beautiful remains, occupied the whole extent from the Palatine to the Viminal, where now the central railway station has been erected. Its area amounted to nearly a square mile: and this enormous district was appropriated, or rather usurped, by the emperor, right in the centre of a city numbering about two million inhabitants.
Of the wonders of the Golden House it is enough to say that there were comprised within the precincts of the enchanting residence waterfalls supplied by an aqueduct fifty miles long; lakes and rivers shaded by dense masses of foliage, with harbors and docks for the imperial galleys; a vestibule containing a bronze colossus one hundred and twenty feet high; porticoes three thousand feet long; farms and vineyards, pasture-grounds and woods teeming with the rarest and costliest kind of game; zoölogical and botanical gardens; sulphur baths supplied from the springs of the aquae Albulae, twelve miles distant; sea baths supplied from the waters of the Mediterranean, sixteen miles distant at the nearest point; thousands of columns crowned with capitals of Corinthian gilt metal; thousands of statues stolen from Greece and Asia Minor; walls encrusted with gems and mother-of‑pearl; banqueting-halls with ivory ceilings, from which rare flowers and precious perfumes could fall gently on the recumbent guests. More marvellous still was the ceiling of the state dining-room. It was spherical in shape, and cut in ivory, to represent the constellated p125skies, and kept in constant motion by machinery in imitation of the movements of the stars and planets. All these details sound like fairy-tales, like the dream of a fertile imagination; still they are described minutely by contemporary and serious writers, by Suetonius, by Martial, and by Tacitus. Suetonius adds that the day Nero took possession of his Golden House, he was heard to exclaim, "At last I am lodged like a man."
The wonders created by him, however, did not last very long. Otho, his successor, on the very day of his election to the throne, signed an order of fifty millions of sesterces (two million dollars) ad peragendam auream domum, — to bring the Golden House to perfection; but after his murder Vespasian and Titus gave back to the people the greater portion of the ground usurped by Nero. They built the Colosseum on the very spot of Nero's artificial lake, and the thermae of Titus on the foundation of his private palace; they respected only that portion of Nero's insane constructions which was comprised within the boundaries of the Palatine hill. This section of the imperial palace, facing the Colosseum and the great fountain named the Meta sudans, has been charmingly described by Cardinal Wiseman as the scene of St. Sebastian's martyrdom. It is the only portion of the Palatine that has never been excavated, — at least, as far as we can judge; and, accordingly, I have little or nothing to say about it. Vespasian and his sons, in their turn, could not resist the temptation of doing something to the imperial residence; and as the houses of Tiberius and Caligula (on the northern summit of the hill) were separated from the house of Augustus (on the southern summit) by a deep gorge, they filled up the gap by means of huge vaulted substructures, and on the artificial platform thus obtained they raised a new building, the Flavian p126palace, the handsomest and noblest of the whole Palatine group, and used exclusively for state receptions and state banquets.
The chronology of the group, as far as important or interesting additions are concerned, ends with Septimius Severus, who built a magnificent palace at the south corner of the hill, facing the Appian Way and the road to Ostia, in order, as his sharp-tongued biographer says, that his African countrymen, arriving in Rome by the way of Pozzuoli and Ostia, might be struck at once with a specimen of his grandeur. And magnificent indeed was the wing of the palace built by Septimius Severus, and called Septizonium, because it was seven stories high. The terrace on the top of the building towered to the height of 210 feet above the level of the surrounding streets, commanding one of the finest views over the metropolis.a
After Severus, we have records of more or less important restorations to the palace, not of additions; unless this name may be given to some baths constructed by Helagabalus, between Nero's house and the Via Sacra, the remains of which were brought to light in 1874. The mention I have made of that infamous youth leads me to speak of a very curious and scarcely known incident in which he plays a prominent part.
In the •year 549 of Rome, the high-priests, after consulting the Sibylline books on the issue of the second Punic war, found that, to insure the safety and the prosperity of the Roman Commonwealth, it was necessary to send an embassy to Pessinus in Phrygia, to get possession of a meteoric stone, fallen from heaven, which was worshipped there under the name of the "Great Mother of the Gods," or Cybele. The embassy succeeded in securing the stone, and I need not repeat the beautiful description which Livy as left p127(xxiv. 14) of its arrival and solemn reception in Rome. On April 4th of the following year, 550, the precious relic was deposited temporarily in the temple of Victory, on the Palatine; and twelve years later it was finally located in a temple built for the purpose by the censors M. Livius and C. Claudius, known to topographers and historians as the temple of the great mother of the gods: aedes magnae Deum Matris. We possess a very accurate description of this meteoric stone: it was conical in shape, of a deep brown color; it looked like a piece of lava, and ended in a point so sharp that Servius calls it acus Matris Deum, the "needle" of Cybele. The stone was set in a silver statue of the goddess, in place of the head.
Among the wild manias of Helagabalus, Herodianusb describes the attempt to collect in his private chapel, attached to the palace of the Caesars, the most sacred relics of the Roman Empire, such as the Palladium, the ancilia, and, of course, the meteoric stone of Pessinus. So far as this last is concerned he succeeded in his attempt: he stole the relic from the temple, and placed it in his chapel, under the name of Sol Helagabalus, the Sun Helagabalus. The description left by Herodianus of the stone is absolutely identical with the description of the needle of Cybele. "The stone," he says, "is very large, shaped as a cone, and black in color. People think it a stone fallen from heaven, and believe also that some accidental irregularities in the surface represent the image of the sun, modelled by supernatural hands."
When the excavations of the palace of the Caesars began, about twenty years ago, I felt sanguine of the recovery of this relic, since it was an object too common to have attracted the attention either of the barbarians, when they pillaged the palace, or of former excavators, unacquainted p128with its value. My hopes were disappointed, however; and it is only lately that I have learned of its discovery, and probable destruction, in 1730. In reading the book written by Monsignor Francesco Bianchini on the excavations carried on in the Palatine by Duke Francis of Parma, at the beginning of last century (a book which is little known in spite of its enormous size and the useful information it contains), I have found the following passage. After describing the discovery of the private chapel of the emperors, Monsignor Bianchini says: "I am sorry that no fragment of a statue, or bas-relief, or inscription has been found in the chapel, because this absence of any positive indication prevents us from ascertaining the name of the divinity to whom the place was principally dedicated. The only object which I discovered in it was a stone nearly three feet high, conical in shape, of a deep brown color, looking very much like a piece of lava, and ending in a sharp point. No attention was paid to it, and I know not what became of it."
I shall bring this chapter to a close with a few remarks on the inhabitants of the enormous mass of dwellings which the palace of the Caesars formed.
The organization of the imperial household, the number of the servants and attendants, the title and the nature of their duties, are details perfectly well known and full of interest, especially if compared with the organization of modern "maisons royales;" and the way we gained our information on the subject is this. Servants attached to the person or to the house of an emperor or an empress, as well as servants attached to the person or to the house of a patrician, usually bound themselves into a corporation, a collegium as it was called, for the purpose of providing p129themselves with a common and decent resting-place, with a proper funeral, and with the view of securing a suitable commemoration on the anniversary day of their death. Sometimes the columbaria were bought by subscription, raised among the servants of one family or of one person; sometimes servants or two or more persons or families joined in the purchase; sometimes their lords and masters would present them with the much-wished‑for resting-place. Columbaria of ordinary size contain from thirty to fifty incinerated bodies, and each cinerary urn is labelled with a marble slab, giving the name, the age, and the official title of the decorated. I need not explain what an amount of useful and genuine information can be gathered from the discovery of well-preserved columbaria belonging to one household. We are able to make a personal review of its various members; we can investigate their life and condition; we can picture in our minds the organization of a rich house, no matter whether patrician or imperial.
Hundreds of these columbaria have been discovered since the Renaissance. Two, however, deserve special attention, as capable of throwing ample large ton the matter which I have undertaken to illustrate: the columbaria of the servants of the Statilii and the columbaria of the servants of the Empress Livia: one describing the household of a patrician family, noblest among the noble, and connected with the imperial family by the marriage of one of its members, Statilia Messalina, to Claudius; the other describing the household of an empress. I bring the two instances into comparison to show what little difference in luxury and comfort there was between the house of the sovereign and that of a wealthy subject; and to show also how poor the millionaires of to‑day must feel in presence of such a display of grandeur and of such legions of attendants.
p130 The columbaria of the servants of the Statilian family came to light in 1875, in that portion of the Esquiline cemetery which stretches from the so‑called temple of Minerva Medica to the Porta Maggiore. The excavations lasted only a few weeks; but in this short time not less than five hundred and sixty-six inscriptions were discovered, together with many hundred objects in terra-cotta, glass, bone, ivory, bronze, gold, silver, marble, belonging to the funeral supellex of the deceased. Later excavations, carried on in the same place in 1880 by the municipality of Rome, have brought the total number of inscribed tombstones, discovered within an area of a few thousand square feet, to more than eight hundred.
The columbaria of the servants and freedmen of the house of Augustus, and especially of Livia, his empress, were discovered between November, 1725, and January, 1726, in a vineyard then belonging to Giuseppe Benci, on the left side of the Appian Way, at the exact distance of 5,800 feet outside Porta S. Sebastiano. The discovery was beautifully illustrated by an eye-witness, Monsignore Francesco Bianchini, from whose book, dated 1727, I quote the following particulars. He begins by remarking that between the first and the second milestone of the Appian Way many tombs had been discovered already, all built by Augustus for his household; that one of them, found by Fabretti near the bridge spanning the river Almo, contained in its three rooms more than three thousand cinerary urns. The ashes of an equal number of persons had been deposited in the tombs which he describes. The consequence is, that in two sepulchres only, comprising six rooms, not less than six thousand servants and officials of one emperor and of his relatives were buried, — a number which would seems altogether incredible if we did not possess p131the evidence of many eye-witnesses and that of the tombs themselves, which still exist, although in a state of great dilapidation. It is true that Augustus reigned for nearly half a century, and that, for a reason which I fail to comprehend, many of his servants died very young, and consequently were replaced by others many times during his lifetime. It is true that, besides the servants strictly so called, their children and brothers and sisters were sometimes buried with them. Still, the number of six thousand, as a minimum, is simply astonishing. Out of this powerful army not less than six hundred were attached to the person of Livia.
One circumstance which helps us to explain such an extraordinary state of things is this: the offices and duties which, in modern times, and even in the richest houses, are intrusted to one or two individuals, in ancient times were divided and subdivided to an almost ridiculous extent. Take, for instance, the department of the wardrobes. There were, in Livia's household, a Parmenius, a purpura, keeper of purple robes; an Arion, a veste matutina, keeper of the morning-dresses; a Rhodanus, a veste regia, keeper of the imperial robe; a Bira Canaciana, a veste magna, keeper of state robes; a Eutactus, capsarius, keeper of overcoats; a Blastus, lanipendius, keeper of the manufactured woollen goods; and ten many vestiplici or vestiplicae, folders of clothes. Take also the department of the personal toilet. We have a general officer ab ornamentis, whose duties, however, are not well defined; and Aponia, a tutulo ornatrix, a specialist in dressing the hair in the fashion of a high toupet; a Helico, ad unguenta, keeper of perfumery; eight aurifices, or goldsmiths, an indefinite number of margaritarii, or jewellers; a Secundus, aquarius, or regulator of hot and cold water for the bath; a M. Livius, p132calciator, keeper and maker of imperial shoes; a Verania, a sandalio, keeper of that special kind of shoes which were called sandals; a Julia Hilara, ornatrix; another Julia, auriculae ornatrix; a Calene, untrix, and so forth. The same subdivisions of duties occur in the department of silver and gold plate. Then there was a Lydus, a sede Augustae, keeper of Livia's chair; an Aurelia, a cura catellae, governess of the favorite pet dog. a Syneros, ad imagines, keeper of the family portraits, and so on. It is no wonder, with the particulars which I have given, that the servants of the various members of the imperial family reached such large numbers; indeed, their number was so large that, to provide for their assistance in case of sickness, not one, but many physicians of both sexes were permanently engaged, and placed under the direction of a head physician, supra medicos, names M. Livius Orestes. The servants attached to the person of Statilius Taurus, consul in the year 764, and to his children, numbered at least three hundred and seventy. I say at least, because the columbaria discovered in 1875 on the Esquiline could not have contained the whole body of servants; there were other tombs of the Statilian household, as proved by inscriptions discovered much nearer the Porta Maggiore in 1880, in which the mention of Statilian freedmen occurs many times. I shall give the titles of such of them as seem curious and full of interest.
First of all comes an Asturconarius, keeper of the Spanish of which Statilius Taurus had bought in the province of Asturia, a province famous for its breed of easy riding-horses. Then comes a puer capsarius, a boy who carried the overcoat for his master; two wet-nurses, nutrices; a midwife, obstetrix; a collector of legacies and bequests; a locator of town and country property; a keeper p133of the family tomb; a keeper of the clothes of the grandfather; a keeper of bathing implements, such as sponges, scraping-knives, ointments, and so on. Amidst this variety of duties intrusted to male servants, from the washer-man, fullo, to medicus ocularius, or oculist, we find females employed in a very restricted number of occupations, almost exclusively in carding wool. The carding of wool at home was one of the oldest traditional occupations of a Roman lady, eld in great estimation as late as the beginning of the Empire. The highest praise which could be bestowed on the mother of the family was contained in the words, Domum servavit, lanam fecit, "She stayed at home to card the wool." The family of Statilius Taurus seems to have kept faithful to the simplicity of good old times, in spite of the high rank and the honors and riches acquired at the beginning of the Empire. On the tombstones discovered in the columbaria at the Porta Maggiore, we find the mention of a female director of the wool manufactory (lanipenda), a weaver and carder of wools (tonstrix), and a large number of dressmakers and spinners (sarcinatrices and quasillariae). The wool manufactory was probably established in a separate wing of the mansion, apart from the men's quarters, and its entrance was watched by a doorkeeper, ostiaria.
a This is sheer nonsense of course. 210 feet tall is roughly the height of a 21‑story building. If it was seven stories tall, the construction techniques were far beyond the Romans, and even today, we have no 7‑story buildings with 30‑foot stories. Even the seven stories is a wild surmise, for which there is no evidence beyond the name of the building, which might be explainable in several other ways: Platner (q.v.) deals with this much more soberly.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 10 Dec 16