Sandwiched between the Roman Forum and the Circo Massimo, the Palatino (Palatine Hill) was ancient Rome's most exclusive neighbourhood. It was here that Romulus supposedly founded the city in 753 BC and Rome's emperors lived in unabashed luxury. Highlights include the ruins of the main imperial palace and the grandstand views over the Roman Forum from the Orti Farnesiani.
Roman myth holds that Romulus established Rome on the Palatino after he'd killed his twin Remus in a fit of anger. There's obviously no proof of this but archaeological evidence has dated human habitation on the Palatino to the 8th century BC.
As the most central of Rome's seven hills (and because it was both close to and above the Roman Forum) the Palatino was the ancient city's most sought-after address. The emperor Augustus lived here all his life and successive emperors built increasingly opulent palaces. However, after Rome's decline it fell into disrepair, and in the Middle Ages churches and castles were built over the ruins. During the Renaissance, members of wealthy families established gardens on the hill.
Most of the Palatino as it appears today is covered by the ruins of Emperor Domitian's vast complex, which served as the main imperial palace for 300 years. Divided into the Domus Flavia (imperial palace), Domus Augustana (the emperor's private residence) and a stadio (stadium), it was built in the 1st century AD.
On entering the complex from Via di San Gregorio, head uphill until you come to the first recognisable construction, the stadio, probably used by the emperors for private games and events. Adjoining the stadium are the remains of the complex built by Septimius Severus, comprising baths (the Terme di Settimio Severo) and a palace (the Domus Severiana).
On the other side of the stadio are the ruins of the huge Domus Augustana, the emperor's private residence. It was built on two levels, with rooms leading off a peristilio (peristyle or garden courtyard) on each floor. You can't get down to the lower level, but from above you can see the basin of a fountain and beyond it rooms that were paved with coloured marble. In 2007 a mosaic-covered vaulted cavern was discovered more than 15m beneath the Domus. Some believe this to be the Lupercale, a cave believed by ancient Romans to be where Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf.
The grey building near the Domus Augustana houses the Museo Palatino and its collection of archaeological artefacts. Highlights include a beautiful 1st-century bronze, the Erma di Canefora, and a wonderful bust of Giovane Principessa, daughter of Nero's successor Marcus Aurelius.
North of the museum is the Domus Flavia, the public part of the palace complex. This was centred on a grand columned peristyle – the grassy area you see with the base of an octagonal fountain – off which the main halls led. To the north was the emperor's throne room; to the west, a second big hall that the emperor used to meet his advisors; and to the south, a large banqueting hall, the triclinium.
Among the best-preserved buildings on the Palatino is the Casa di Livia, northwest of the Domus Flavia. Home to Augustus' wife Livia, it was built around an atrium leading onto what were once reception rooms, decorated with frescoes of mythological scenes, landscapes, fruits and flowers. In front is the Casa di Augusto, Augustus' separate residence, which contains superb frescoes in vivid reds, yellows and blues.
Behind the Casa di Augusto are the Capanne Romulee (Romulean Huts), where it is thought Romulus and Remus were brought up after their discovery by the shepherd Faustulus.
Northeast of the Casa di Livia lies the criptoportico, a 128m tunnel where Caligula was thought to have been murdered, and which Nero later used to connect his Domus Aurea with the Palatino. Lit by a series of windows, it was once decorated by elaborate stucco. Nowadays it's used to stage temporary exhibitions.
The area west of this was once Tiberius' palace, the Domus Tiberiana, but is now the site of the 16th-century Orti Farnesiani, one of Europe's earliest botanical gardens. Twin pavilions stand at the northern point of the garden, commanding breathtaking views over the Roman Forum.