The City of Hills
Ancient Rome was founded on seven hills. Yet as you walk around Rome today, it is difficult to understand the layout of the city as the Romans knew it.
When Rome was founded long ago (see our blog on Romulus and Remus) the hills of Rome were occupied by different tribes who had settled in the area. Eventually, they banded together, drained the valleys between the hills and set about building a city. In the 380s BC the people now called ‘The Romans’ enclosed their settlement in the Servian wall. Rome today is much bigger than the original nucleus of the city and five of the seven hills are very central with many things to see and do
The Esquiline was the largest of the ancient seven hills of Rome, in the early days the it was a burial ground. By the 1st Century BC it had become a fashionable residential district, perhaps thanks to the Etruscan nobleman Maecenas who built a large Persian style garden on the slopes of the hill, soon followed by other senators with rich villas and gardens. After the fire of Rome in 64AD Nero would build a section of his Domus Aurea or golden house here. In an effort to destroy the memory of Nero Trajan built his baths on top, parts of which can still be seen today in the park next to the colosseum called the ‘colle oppio’.
The Esquiline hill continued as an elite area with villas and huge gardens, until gradually after the fall of Rome churches and monasteries took their place. By the 9th century AD Rome had become a host town and the area reverted to a few villas, vineyards and fields. A thousand years later the area was radically redesigned. The colosseum metro is built into the Esquiline hill which stretches from via Cavour to via Merulana. At the summit of the hill is the beautiful papal Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore where Rome’s artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini is buried. It is absolutely worth a visit for the 5th century interior with original mosaics, the stunning apse and to admire the gold on the ceiling brought back from the new world by Christopher Columbus.
The Capitoline hill was the most important of the seven hills of Rome. In the early days it was a natural fortress with cliffs on all sides. Several temples were built on its summit and it became the religious focus of the city and state; the most important and largest was to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Returning armies would end their triumphal processions here to thank the gods for their victory. The area changed greatly over time and today the hill is a jumble of history and has changed shape a great deal.
During the Middle ages the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli was built on top of the ancient arx, or citadel (facing Piazza Venezia), later Palazzo Senatorio (City hall) was built on top of the tabularium an ancient record office which faces the Roman forum. The Palazzo dei Conservatori (seat of the magistrates) was built on top of the temple to Jupiter. In the 1530’s the area was redesigned by Michelangelo to become Rome’s first organised public square the Piazza del Campidoglio, with a grand stairway leading down to Piazza Venezia. By the end of the 1800s the huge and impressive Altar of the Fatherland nicknamed the wedding cake was built to glorify the unification of Italy on the back of what was now called the goat hill.
Today these buildings house the Capitoline museums which has a staggering collection of statues and artefacts from ancient times which were all discovered in Rome.
According to legend the Aventine hill is where Romulus wanted to found his city and is where he set up his augurs to read the passing flight of birds. In Roman tradition the Aventine is outside of the sacred boundary set up by Romulus the first king of Rome. During the Roman Republic, the senate built a temple for the so-called Aventine Triad of Ceres, Liber and Libera, patron deities of the Roman commoners or plebs; from this point on the hill was associated with the lower classes of Rome as well as foreigners looking to join Rome – many foreign cults had temples on the Aventine hill.
Today the Aventine is an elegant residential part of Rome with palaces, churches, and gardens. It is a wonderful place to stroll and escape the intense pace of the rest of the city. In May Rome’s Rose Garden is in bloom with hundreds of rare species, the garden has a wonderful view of the remains of the imperial palace on the palatine opposite. Further on up the hill is the ancient basilica of Santa Sabina with wooden doors dated to the 5th century. The viewing platform from the orange garden next to the church has some beautiful views of the city. Just a little further up the hill is the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta and the not so secret keyhole which you can peek through to see the beautifully framed dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Behind the piazza is the Abbey of Sant ‘Anselmo all ‘Aventino, a Benedictine monastery with a church and wonderful giftshop full of produce made at the abbey.
The Caelian Hill like the others has been mostly lost thank to centuries of occupation. The hill starts at the Colosseum and rises up to the cathedral of Rome; San Giovanni in Laterano – the first church built by Constantine and still the most important church in Rome. The other side of the hill is marked by the great baths of Caracalla.
By the 1st century BC, the Caelian hill was a wealthy residential area where according to Jerome, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was born. In the first century AD the temple of Claudius was built on a slightly wooded outcropping of the hill which faces the colosseum and the arch of Constantine. Later a monumental food market was built for residents and further on up the hill Trajan and Septimius Severus built military barracks. During the repeated sackings of Rome by Barbarians this area was mostly destroyed but thanks to the vicinity of the cathedral the area would fill up with churches.
Although the modern buildings hide its history there are a number of interesting sites, including two underground treasures. The basilica of San Clemente is a wonderful site and hides four levels of history beneath the church; another underground site almost unknown to visitors is the remains of some fresco-ed remains of Roman houses under the church of San Giovanni and San Paolo which you can reach from Via Claudia.
The other side of the hill and beyond is the enormous complex of the Baths of Caracalla which once covered over 100,000 square metres. Today thanks to virtual reality goggles you can enjoy a reconstruction of the most complete thermal baths still surviving in Rome which accommodated some 10,000 bathers at any one time. In the autumn the space becomes an outdoor opera theatre.
According to legend it was on this hill that the she-wolf (Lupa) had suckled the twins Romulus and Remus and later where Romulus founded the City of Rome. The Palatine hill became the ‘Beverly Hills’ of ancient Rome, where the most noble ‘patrician’ families lived – the descendants of historic families or clans that had settled Rome. Anyone who was anyone in Rome lived on the hill, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Octavian (Augustus). Later these important figures would be kicked off the hill by the emperor Domitian who seized their properties and built himself an enormous palace, this would become the Emperors palace going forward (the hill and Domitian’s residence are where we get the word palace today). We can still marvel at the remains of the enormous palace complex today with huge gardens once embellished by statues and gushing fountains. Although centuries of pillaging and recycling has stripped the palace bare of the gorgeous coloured marble, in an area behind the museum you can still get a glimpse of the former luxury. This was Domitian’s winter living-room, the beautiful alabaster and granite floor has mostly collapsed thanks to the underfloor heating system.
The Palatine Hill is included in the ticket for the colosseum, it is included in most Colosseum and Roman Forum tours and should not be missed! The viewing platform overlooking the forum is breath-taking and makes for stunning photographs, on the opposite side of the palace complex you have a view of the Circus Maximus and beyond.
According to Roman legend, this hill in the north eastern part of the city was Sabine territory, their kind resided here and altars to their god Quirinus which gives the hill its name were erected here. Later Julius Caesar owned parkland on the hill which was bought and developed into a landscaped pleasure garden by the Roman historian Sallust. Constantine built the last thermal baths in Rome here, lost today thanks to renaissance urban redevelopment.
The ancient name of the hill lives on in spirit with the Palazzo del Quirinale, a sprawling monumental palace started by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century as a summer residence. Since ancient times it was believed the hill was healthier with a better quality of air. In 1871 after the unification of Italy it became the home of Italy’s first Kings until the abolition of the Monarchy in 1946. Today the palace is one of the symbols of the State and the residence of the President of the Italian Republic.
In front of the palace is Piazza del Quirinale decorated with a pair of gigantic Roman marble ‘Horse Tamers’ found in the Baths of Constantine, and an obelisk taken from the Mausoleum of Augustus.
The Quirinale hill is a stately area today, with much to see and do. The former papal stables Scuderie del Quirinale were converted into a museum and often have exhibitions. Near to the four fountains (Quattro Fontane) with reclining river gods you will find two churches designed by Rome’s most talented architects who were bitter rivals; the church of Sant ‘Andrea al Quirinale designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Borromini’s church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, both constructed in the baroque period but very different in their style and execution. The other side of the hill you will find Palazzo Barberini which houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica and Piazza Barberini with its artistic spurting triton fountain, again by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The Viminal Hill is a finger-shape outcrop pointing toward central Rome between the Quirinal Hill and the Esquiline Hill. The Viminal is home to the main train hub Termini Railway Station and encompasses the huge Piazza della Repubblica and is home to Rome’s Opera house. At the front of Termini station slightly to the side you can see the most visible section of the Servian wall – the first fortifications which surrounded the city over 2,400 years ago.
Piazza Repubblica marks the summit of the hill with its huge fountain in the centre and tall curved palaces seemingly cut in the middle by the via Nazionale a nice shopping street. That connect to the centre. The slightly curved palazzos and the brick remains far across the road are part of the largest complex of thermal baths in ancient Rome built by the emperor Diocletian in 298 AD. What remains of the baths today is the planetarium, the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri designed by Michelangelo who wanted to respect the ancient building, the museum of Diocletian’s baths and Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which are all part of the National Museum of Rome. They are dedicated to the history of the baths and Palazzo Massimo has Greek and Roman sculpture, frescoes mosaics and Epigraphy.