Rome – The Palatine Hill from the Colosseum

Here we have a near view of the upper galleries of the Colosseum, and over its dismantled walls we see the villas, gardens and the ruins of the Palatine. Doubtless we are surprised as we gaze at the great amphitheater to find that many parts of it are still in excellent repair. These few perfect arches and doorways and this level circular walk in front of them, help us to form a better idea of the appearance of the whole structure in its finished state. Observe that the gallery way, with its stone copings beneath us, appears as cleanly swept as a parlor floor. How many thousands of feet have thronged that circular aisle! It seems to have been the first landing place above the street, and from it stairways led to this second landing beneath us on our right. Just before us, along this upper gallery, is the western end of the highest remaining part of the wall, the part we saw so well from our stand near the Arch of Titus (Position 30). No matter where we stand, though, it is difficult for us to realize that two-thirds of the Colosseum have been taken away, and yet the material that re-mains is estimated to be worth two and a half millions of dollars. The Romans themselves have a proverb referring to the ruins of the city, ” What the barbarians spared, the Barberini sacked,” and this is of nothing more true than of the Colosseum.

Over the dismantled walls, then, we see the main portion of the Palatine, the oldest and most aristocratic of Rome’s hills. There is a good road which leads up the hill around to our left on the southeastern side, but I like best the unfrequented path which starts from the Arch of Titus, beyond this wall on our right, and skirting those nearest grass-covered walls ascends by that solitary palm tree and is lost in an entanglement of undisturbed ruins beyond. Few tourists enter the lonely seclusion of that path or are aware of its historic interest, for it crosses the site of the once famous Gardens of Adonis, where St. Sebastian, one of the early Christian heroes (represented in many beautiful and immortal paintings as a handsome youth bound to a tree and pierced with arrows), suffered martyrdom.

Such events, of course, only take us back to the first centuries of the Christian era. The buildings we see there, for instance, belong to the church and con-vent of S. Bonaventure, though they are built upon a portion of the ancient Palace of Nero. It is said that the Cardinal and Bishop of Abana, in honor of whom those buildings are named, was restored from a deadly disease by the prayers of St. Francis of Assisi, and was so rejoiced when he found himself recovered, that he exclaimed, ” O Buona Ventura “- what a happy chance ! and by this name he became known.

But it is the events of the earlier times for which that hill is especially famed. It was there, we remember, according to the legend, that the wolf suckled the twin sons of Mars and Rhea Sylvia, and there they were nurtured by the shepherd Faustulus. There also was the site of the ancient city of Romulus, which he founded when the auspices or auguries, from which we get our word inauguration, were favorable, far back in the dim and bewildering past. Having decided upon the site of his city he harnessed to a plow a heifer and a bull without blemish and made a furrow to define its limits. He lifted the plow over the places where he intended to have gates. Portions of the wall then built are still remaining on the west or farther side of the hill. Standing where we do, with the famous elevation so near at hand, it is vastly easier for us to recall its soul-stirring past. There is not another record in human history of so rapid and splendid a growth of a single city, from its first settlement on that hillside by shepherds until it became the proud mistress of the world.

From the foundation of the city to the early Empire little is definitely known about the history of the Palatine. During the time of Tarquinius Priscus, 616-578 B. C., it was still honored by the kingly residence. ” Toward the end of the republic it had become one of the most aristocratic quarters of the city. The great orators, lawyers and political men of the age resorted to this hill on account of its proximity to the Forum, the Curia and the Rostra.” There are records to show that the most palatial residences of the time were here. ” M. Fulvius Flaccus built a palace which was destroyed by the order of the Senate after his execution for joining in the conspiracy of the Gracchi. Q. Lutatius Catulus, consul with Marius B. C. I02, with whom he gained a victory over the Cimbri, filled his house with the spoils of war. M. Livius, tribune of the plebeians in B. C. 91, and Crassus, the orator, came here to live. Cicero paid a sum equal to one hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars for his home in 62 A. D. M. AEmilius Scaurus, a stepson of Sulla, is said to have had the richest house on the Palatine, for which, according to report, Clodius afterwards paid four million four hundred. and twenty-five thou-sand dollars. Most of these structures stood on the corner of the hill nearest the Forum, and must have been cleared away to give place to the later Palace of Caligula” (Lanciani). The homes of such men as Quintus Hortensius, of immense wealth, and L. Sergius Catilina, stood on this edge nearest us.

After the beginning of the Empire all others had to give way to the Emperors. Augustus selected the Palatine for the imperial residence and built his palace on the southern corner, the part of the hill seen on our extreme left, now called the Villa Mills, as the map shows. We are told by Suetonius that this Emperor occupied the same bedroom in that palace for forty years. It was at the gate of the same mansion that Augustus sat one day each year receiving alms from all who passed by, in conformity with a vision that he should in that way appease the gods. Subsequently he erected, near his palace, a magnificent temple to Apollo, also a library for the preservation of Greek and Latin manuscripts.

Though there is scarcely any trace of it now, something of a valley crossed the Palatine from the Arch of Titus on the north to the Circus Maximus on the south, dividing the top into two summits. Most of what we see belonged to the southeast summit, or Palatium; the northwest summit, or Cermalus, lies mainly to our right toward the Capitol.

The buildings of Augustus served in a way as a cornerstone from which others were erected until the palaces of the Caesars covered nearly the whole hill. Tiberius Cæsar built his palace in the center of the northwestern summit, the Cermalus, and connected it with that of Augustus by underground passages. Caligula built an extension to the houses of Tiberius, which covered the remainder of the northwestern summit, reaching, as we have seen, almost to the Forum. Nero located his Golden House on the south-eastern corner – this corner of the hill nearest us – though the grounds for his house reached from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill, behind us. After the death of Nero, Domitian utilized the site of the Golden House for the Gardens of Adonis.

The three Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, occupied themselves mainly in uniting the palaces of their predecessors by raising intervening structures, though the Palace of Augustus was rebuilt under Titus. The successors of these emperors for a hundred years did little more than keep the existing buildings in repair. But Septimius Severus not only repaired the great damages of the fire of Commodus in 191 A. D., but also put up an immense range of buildings on the southern edge of the Palatine, which considerably changed the shape of the hill.

Those who seek today among the ruins of the Pala-tine have great difficulty in tracing the foundations of the individual buildings. This is due to the fact that in order to find room, one emperor sometimes built upon the structures reared by his predecessors. For instance, Vespasian filled up many of the chambers of the Palace of Augustus with dirt in order to make a sufficient foundation for his own. And today, this dirt having been partly removed you can inspect the remains of the Palace of Vespasian, then descend into that of Augustus.

Near the Palace of Vespasian, in the center of the hill, was the basilica, or state apartment, in which the emperors tried the cases which came before them on appeal, and there, in that low court on this Palatine Hill, the Apostle Paul appeared before Nero. Fragments of the basilica have been found and a portion of the marble chair in which the emperors sat and the dais on which the prisoners stood while their cases were being tried. Usually the emperors did not live in these palaces, but in villas beyond the limits of the city. They came here to the palace in the morning, attended to whatever royal business properly came-before them and left early in the afternoon for their country homes in the suburbs.

In these modern times it is difficult for us to realize the scenes that were enacted on this hill under some of the emperors, the heads of the Roman world. Take the Palace of Caligula, the ruins of which we saw on our extreme right when looking from the Capitol (Position 27), and which lie here beyond the limit of our vision on the right. In those once gorgeous apartments the mad Caligula was wont to rush about, dressed in grotesque costume, appalling his subservient attendants by his wild fancies and cruel pranks. Once, at midnight, he summoned to the palace a dozen of the leading senators, who, not daring to disregard his commands, came with fear and trembling. When they reached the palace, Caligula kept them waiting for an hour in one of the spacious rooms, and then dismissed them without ceremony, laughing boisterously as he watched them hastily make their way along the marble corridors to the exit of the palace.

In one year this crazy Emperor squandered twenty-seven millions of sesterces. One of his wives, Lollia, possessed the most magnificent set of jewelry ever owned by a Roman lady, and of her Johnson writes:

” She came in like starlight, hid with jewels That were the spoil of provinces.”

But her beauty was more dazzling than her gems, and ofttimes Caligula would stroke her swan-like throat and hiss fiendishly :

” When I get ready, this lovely throat will be hacked through.”

It was in a vaulted passage which led from the palace to the theater that Caligula was murdered by the tribune Chaerea. No sooner was the news of the tragedy known, than the soldiers of the Praetorian guard, whose camp was at the foot of the Palatine, rushed into the palace and began to rifle it of its treasures. In one of the chambers they encountered Claudius, the uncle of Caligula, who flung himself at their feet supplicating for mercy. In their savage humor, more in jest than otherwise, they hailed him as Imperator, which he actually became. Later it was, in that very palace, that Claudius ate the supper of poisoned mushrooms prepared by his wife, Agrippina, the mother of Nero, which caused his death. Life to Claudius was largely a matter of eating and drinking, and yet, glutton as he was, he possessed a strong sense of justice and a streak of subtle humor. Once when he was trying a case in the Palatine basilica, a suitor made an apology for the absence of one of his witnesses, saying that the man was dead. ” I command him not to appear, then,” said the Emperor dryly.

We cannot stop to speak of the grandeur of the many palaces that once crowned this eminence with splendor, but we will pause to think of Nero’s Golden House, the most remarkable of them all. As we have said, this house with its grounds extended from the eastern side of the Palatine in front of us, to the Esquiline Hill behind us, covering territory one mile square. In nothing was Nero more extravagant than in his building operations, and in carrying out his ideas he seemed to let nothing stand in his way. Not finding room for the vast structure whose erection he contemplated, he is said to have caused the burning of Rome, which he then charged against the Christians, on account of which accusations many of them were apprehended and smeared with pitch and set up at night in his gar-den as ghastly torches. This conflagration gave him what he so much needed – room for his Golden House and its magnificent park. In this park he constructed artificial waterfalls, which necessitated the building of aqueducts fifty miles long, artificial lakes upon which floated the royal galleys, while surrounding these were extensive vineyards and woods which abounded in choice game. The house itself had a colonnade one mile long, and its portico was so lofty that beneath it stood a colossal statue of the Emperor one hundred feet high. The other dimensions of the palace were on the same scale. Some of the walls of this monstrous dream of splendor were incrusted with gold in-laid with jewels and mother-of-pearl; others were covered with mirrors that reflected the entire apartment. The triclinia, or banqueting-rooms, had vaulted ceilings which were so constructed as to be movable, being changed for each portion of the feast and reflecting the course of the dinner which happened to be on the table; thus fish were seen swimming in the sea, game flying in the air, cattle browsing in the fields, and fruits of every description hanging in golden sunshine. The ceilings, with every transformation, scattered flowers and rained down perfume upon the guests. Such novel and luxurious appointments were common to all the dining-rooms in the palace, but, in addition to these, the ceiling of the state dining-room was circular in form, and revolved continually in imitation of the celestial bodies. The bath-rooms were visions of elegance, being faced with rarest marbles, and the basins were of variegated stone. The faucets, from which the water flowed, were of silver and gold, water being brought in aqueducts from the Mediterranean for the salt-water baths, and the sulphur baths were supplied from springs along the Tiber. ” Now I am lodged as Caesar should be ! ” Nero exclaimed, when he took possession of this palace, which had cost him more than twenty millions of dollars.

Taking it all in all the Palatine, even now, is a picturesque hill, rising as it does one hundred feet high at its crest and being a mile in circumference at its base. Its grassy slopes as early as March are carpeted with a profusion of brilliant wild flowers. It is now completely inclosed and is entered through a gateway where an admission of twenty cents is charged.

The hill seen in the distance beyond the Palatine is the Janiculum, and, as we know, the Sacra Via, the Forum and Capitol lie off to our right. To look in that direction we will move from the northern to the extreme southern side of the Colosseum, a point on the ruins farther to the left than we can now see. This next position is given on the map by the two lines which start from the southern side of the Colosseum and extend slightly north of west.