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Sandwiched between the Roman Forum and the Circo Massimo, the Palatino (Palatine Hill) is an atmospheric area of towering pine trees, majestic ruins and memorable views. It was here that Romulus supposedly founded the city in 753 BC and Rome's emperors lived in unabashed luxury. Look out for the stadio (stadium), the ruins of the Domus Flavia (imperial palace), and 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. Archaeological evidence clearly can't prove this, but it has dated human habitation on the hill to the 8th century BC.
As the most central of Rome's seven hills, and because it was close to the Roman Forum, the Palatino was the ancient city's most exclusive neighbourhood. The emperor Augustus lived here all his life and successive emperors built increasingly opulent palaces – in fact, the word ‘palace’ is derived from the hill's Latin name, Palatium. But after Rome's decline, the area fell into disrepair, and in the Middle Ages churches and castles were built over the ruins. During the Renaissance, members of wealthy families had landscaped gardens laid out on the site.
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, Domus Augustana, and a stadio, it was built in the 1st century AD.
On entering the complex from the main entrance on Via di San Gregorio, head uphill until you come to the first recognisable construction, the stadio. This sunken area, which was part of the main imperial palace, was probably used by the emperors for private games and events. A path to the side of the stadio leads to the towering remains of a complex built by Septimius Severus, comprising baths (Terme di Settimio Severo) and a palace (Domus Severiana). Much of this area is off-limits to visitors, but if they're open, you can visit the Arcate Severiane, a series of arches built to facilitate further development.
On the other side of the stadio are the ruins of the huge Domus Augustana, the emperor's private quarters in the imperial palace. This was built on two levels, with rooms leading off a peristilio (peristyle or porticoed courtyard) on each floor. You can't get down to the lower level, but from above you can see the basin of a big, square fountain and beyond it rooms that would originally have been paved in coloured marble. In 2007 a mosaic-covered vaulted cavern was discovered more than 15m beneath the Domus. Some claim this is the Lupercale, a cave believed by ancient Romans to be where Romulus and Remus were suckled by a wolf.
The grey building next to the Domus houses the Museo Palatino, a small museum dedicated to the history of the area. Archaeological artefacts on show include a beautiful 1st-century bronze, the Erma di Canefora, and a celebrated 3rd-century graffito depicting a man with a donkey's head being crucified.
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 audience chamber (aula Regia); to the west, a basilica where the emperor judged legal disputes; and to the south, a large banqueting hall, the triclinium.
Near the Domus, the Casa di Livia is one of the Palatino's best preserved buildings. 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. Nearby, the Casa di Augusto, Augustus' private residence, features some superb frescoes in vivid reds, yellows and blues.
Near to the Casa di Augusto, but closed off to visitors, are the Capanne Romulee, where it's thought Romulus and Remus were brought up by a local shepherd called Faustulus.
Northeast of the Casa di Livia lies the Criptoportico Neroniano, a 130m 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's now occasionally used to stage temporary exhibitions.
The area west of this was once Tiberius' palace, the Domus Tiberiana, but is now home to the 16th-century Orti Farnesiani, one of Europe's earliest botanical gardens. A viewing balcony at the northern end of the garden commands breathtaking views over the Roman Forum.