Rome: The Palatine is a hill for dreams

If the Capitol is a centre of activity, the Palatine is a hill for dreams. When its emperors forsook the imperial buildings there, more than sixteen hundred years ago, the palaces still stood intact, rich with facings of many-coloured marbles, bright with paintings and gold. But soon their history grew as dim as the fading frescoes on their deserted walls. Through the dark centuries that followed, one fact only remained clear: here, on this mount which the ancient Romans knew as Palatium, stood the remnants of those great structures called after the hill itself, which gave the name 'palace' to stately buildings throughout the world.

Here, too, centuries before the first palaces were even dreamed, was the birthplace of Rome. In a thicket at the Palatine's foot, tradition says, the kindly wolf suckled Rome's founders, Romulus and Remus; and about this hill Romulus built the walls of the city's first settlement, when the Romans were a simple shepherd folk with no thought of a fortified citadel or a shining temple to Jupiter on the Capitol. Archaeology bears out the tradition that here were the oldest habitations of the Eternal City.

Kings known to history came and went, but though the breezy Palatine was a desirable place of residence, there is no indication that they lived there. By the first century before Christ, however, the hill had its famous inhabitants. Cicero lived there, and Catiline, whom Cicero's orations sent into exile. And here, in 63 B.C., was born Octavius, Julius Caesar's greatnephew, whom the world knew later as Augustus. Because Augustus lived on the Palatine the hill began to take on its character of 'the imperial mount'. Augustus' own house was modest; he kept it so from policy as well as taste. But his successors had no such scruples. They built and re-built, taking over private property with a high hand until the hill became practically one labyrinthine palace. Often they deliberately crushed and filled in their predecessors' buildings to use as foundations for their own. To give themselves more room they extended the surface of the hill by the mighty substructures of brick and concrete which are its most prominent features today, as they have been for centuries.

Rome and the Palatine ceased to be the centre of the imperial court when Diocletian, late in the third century A.D., divided the empire into eastern and western parts. Milan first and then Ravenna became the seat of the western government. A still worse blow to the hill's prestige came when Constantine removed the capital of the briefly reunited empire to Constantinople in 330. Yet for a long time the palaces were kept in repair, ready for infrequent imperial visits. Through Claudian's welcoming poem to Honorius in 404 echoes the wistful longing of the Romans for their emperors' return:

'Of a truth no other city could fitly be the home of the world's rulers; on this hill is majesty most herself, and knows the height of her supreme sway; the palace, raising its head above the forum that lies at its feet, sees around it so many temples and is surrounded by so many protecting deities. . . . The eyes are dazed by the blaze of metal and blink outwearied by the surrounding gold.'

Six years later, in 410, Alaric sacked the city--a disaster less utterly overwhelming, however, than it first appeared to the horrified Roman world. The palaces, or at least parts of them, were still fit for habitation, and later in the century the Ostrogothic ruler Theodoric repaired them. Although Ravenna was the official centre from which the eastern emperors governed Italy, the Byzantine governor Narses lived on the Palatine as late as 570 and died there at a ripe old age, according to the ninth-century chronicler Agnellus of Ravenna. Soon after his death darkness falls over the Palatine except for mentions of churches which had crept in among its decaying buildings and indications that repairs were made as late as 680. Time and the hands of men stripped the imperial halls of their marble facings, overthrew them, and filled their chambers with debris, leaving only a few bare walls standing above ground and a labyrinth of buried rooms beneath.

The most impressive view of the hill today is from the south, looking across the desolate site of the ancient Circus Maximus toward the substructures built by Severus, though begun by Domitian a century before. Though these substructures are merely underpinning, meant to widen the ground area of the hill, and are far from the present entrance to the Palatine, they afford the only chance for comparison between its appearance today and in past centuries. Almost no other recognizable early views of ruins on the Palatine are known and very few could exist. Before the end of the sixteenth century these substructures and the remnants of building above them were not only the most outstanding features of the hill but among the few ancient structures still unburied there.

Between today's photograph and Etienne Du Pérac's etching done almost four hundred years ago, the main mass of these great arches has changed but little. Seen from their foot or from the hilltop of the Janiculum across the Tiber, they seem as much the work of nature as of man. By day the immense piers of brick rise stark and brown beneath their crown of pines and cypresses. Moonlight pales them to a ghostly radiance. And on a night when lightning flares across the wide sky they leap out suddenly against the darkness like gigantic skeletons articulated by no human hands. Then indeed Jupiter Tonans, the Thunderer, seems to speak as he did long ago to Numa, king of Rome, when he hurled a brazen shield from heaven as a pledge of empire amid crashing thunder peals.

Besides its palaces, the Palatine had temples famed in ancient times. Of these, that dedicated to Cybele, the Great Mother, is best identified. Excavated in the 1870's, though known considerably earlier, its grey stone platform and truncated columns have a look of immemorial age as they stand beneath a thick ilex grove near the southwest corner of the hill. One of the oldest shrines on the Palatine, it was built before marble came into use in Rome. The location of the temple of Apollo, so lyrically described by Propertius, though many a battle of scholars has been fought about it, is now generally identified with the large podium approached by a monumental staircase southeast of Cybele's temple. Where the temples of Vesta, of Jupiter the Victorious, and other deities once stood is still in question.

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