The Palatine hill became the residence of the Roman emperors, and the center 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 Coliseum stands, up the slopes of the hill toward the modern church and convent of St. 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 simple whitewashed walls.
Whether this selection of a site was made because the Palatine had long before been the Faubourg St. Honore, the Belgravia of ancient Rome, is difficult to determine. We know that the house of Hortensius, chosen by Augustus, was surrounded by those of Clodius, Scaurus, Crassus, Caecina, Sisenna, Flaccus, Catiline, 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 of 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 pre-historic, 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 some of the aristocratic palaces adjoining the old house of Hortensius, among them the historical palace of Catiline, 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, an almost incredible amount of money was subscribed at once, by all orders of citizens, to provide him with a new residence; and altho, with his usual moderation, he would consent to accept only one denarius from each individual subscribed, 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 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 Coliseum was afterward 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 and Heliogabalus.
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. One section alone of the imperial Palatine buildings remained unaltered, and kept the former simplicity of its plans down to the fall of the Empirethe section built by Augustus across the center of the hill, which comprised the main entrance, the portico surrounding the temple of Apollo, the temple itself, the Greek and Latin libraries, the shrine of Vesta, and the imperial residence.
The architectural group raised by Augustus on the Palatine, 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 marble, with capitals of gilt bronze; a group of 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, and 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 Serverus, Julia Mamaea, and Heliogabalus; 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.
During the rule of Claudius, the successor of Caligula, little or nothing was done toward the enlargement or the embellishment of the palace of the Caesars. Nero, however, the successor of Claudius, conceived the gigantic plan of renewingand of rebuilding from the very foundations, not only the imperial residence, but the whole metropolis. In the rebuilding of the city the emperor secured for himself the lion’s share; and his Golden House, of which we possess such beautiful remains, occupied the whole extent from the Palatine to the Quirinal, 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 center 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 water-falls 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; porticos three thousand feet long; farms and vineyards, pasture grounds and woods teeming with the rarest and costliest kind of game, zoological and botanical gardens; sulfur baths supplied from springs 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 marvelous still was the ceiling of the state dining-room. It was spherical in shape, and cut in ivory, to represent the constellated skies, and kept in constant motion by machinery in imitation )f 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 mil-lion dollars) 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 Coliseum on the very site 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 construction which was comprised within the boundaries of the Palatine hill.