by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

The First 'Palace' in History

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 5 April 1997
Soprintendenza, Rome
Frescoes from The House of Masks
at the House of Augustus, 1st century AD



The Palatine hill is even now one of the city's most delectable spots, and it is not surprising that some of ancient Rome's leading citizens, including Cicero and Antony, had homes on it. Octavian, later to be Augustus, Rome's first Emperor, was born here, and when he rose to power he made a more extensive residence on its slopes, founding, in name at least, the first 'palace' in history, since our 'palazzo' and 'palace' derive from the name Palatine.

Subsequent emperors' palaces were superimposed on the hill, with the result that the exact location of Augustus's original one was not rediscovered until relatively recently, and has only been systematically excavated over the last few years - a process that has unearthed two remarkable frescoed reception rooms and Augustus's own studiolo or private study, to which he used to go to seek solitude and to write.

As excavations are still under way, this area of the Forum is closed to visitors, but as part of the annual Cultural Heritage Week, when all Italian state museums and sites are open free of charge, the House of Augustus along with a number of other monuments not normally accessible to the public can be visited.

Augustus began his career as a staunch republican, and even after he effectively achieved absolute authority, he modeled his lifestyle on that of an unostentatious public magistrate, advocating moderation and the virtues of the Rome of old. He built a magnificent Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, but his own quarters next door, found below the remains of the temple's plinth, turn out to have been fairly modest, in keeping with the image he strove to project.

Two public rooms of the residence so far opened up have some intriguing frescoes, with finely-painted architectural and perspective views evidently modeled on theatrical scenery, as are the masks that also appear. The rustic scenic centerpiece in the 'Room of the Masks' figures a bizarre, futuristic, canister-like object with tapering ends, which is believed to be an arcane representation of Augustus's protecting deity, Apollo, other examples of which have been found in North Africa.

But the piece de resistance is the emperor's study on the floor above. 'The Emperor Domitian built his palace more or less directly on top of the House of Augustus, which was fortunate in a way since though this led to the destruction of parts of it, others were buried and left undisturbed for nearly 2,000 years,' said Irene Iacopi, who has been leading the excavations.

Augustus's vaulted study turns out to be only a few yards square, but decorated with some of the most exquisite and delicately-executed frescoes that have survived from the ancient world. They were almost certainly the work of a Ptolemaic painter who came to Rome from Egypt after Octavian's defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.

A passionate reader, with an extensive library housed in other rooms in the House, Augustus also wrote a number of works, including an autobiography (now lost). His study would still make the perfect place to retire and write and, as Iacopi commented: 'Of course this has been a very exciting archeological discovery, but it's just as important perhaps for what it tells us about the man and his tastes.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023