Rising above the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill is supposedly where the city of Rome was founded, and is home to some of its most ancient remains. In a way it’s a greener, more pleasant site to tour than the Forum. In the days of the Republic, the Palatine was the most desirable address in Rome (the word “palace” is derived from Palatine), and big names continued to colonize it during the imperial era, trying to outdo each other with ever larger and more magnificent dwellings.
Along the main path up from the Forum, the Domus Flavia was once one of the most splendid residences, and, to the left, the top level of the gargantuan Domus Augustana spreads to the far brink of the hill. You can look down from here on its vast central courtyard with fountain and wander to the brink of the deep trench of the Stadium. On the far side of the Stadium, the ruins of the Domus and Baths of Septimius Severus cling to the side of the hill, while the large grey building nearby houses the Museo Palatino, which contains an assortment of statuary, pottery and architectural fragments that have been excavated on the Palatine during the last 150 years. Beyond the Domus Flavia is the Cryptoporticus, a long passage built by Nero to link the vestibule of his Domus Aurea with the Palatine palaces, and decorated with well-preserved Roman stuccowork at the far end, towards the House of Livia. The latter has been recently restored and can be visited on daily tours, its courtyard and inner rooms decorated with mosaic floors and frescoes depicting mythological scenes. The structure was originally believed to have been the residence of Livia, the wife of Augustus, but it’s now identified as simply part of the House of Augustus, which is also accessible on guided tours. Visits take in the vividly frescoed rooms, some of which are very well-preserved, with designs on rich Pompeian-red backgrounds.
Climb up the steps near the House of Livia and you’re in the bottom corner of the Farnese Gardens, among the first botanical gardens in Europe, laid out by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the mid-sixteenth century and now a tidily planted retreat from the exposed heat of the ruins. The gardens surround the foundations of the Domus Tiberiana, a once lavish palace begun by Nero, established by Tiberius and extended by Hadrian a century or so later.