Octavian, the man who would become the emperor Augustus, chose the location of his future home carefully. The history of Rome began on the Palatine Hill, where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf, so the Palatine seemed like an obvious choice for the man who was about to begin a new chapter in Roman history, as the first emperor of Rome.
Octavian bought the house of the famous orator Quintus Hortensius – a contemporary of Cicero, who wrote about him – and used the site for his own projects. While the expanded villa was being constructed in 36 BC, the building was struck by lightning, and this was interpreted by the soothsayers as a sign from the god Apollo. Consequently, Octavian had a magnificent temple to Apollo built on the spot where the lightning had struck, and organised an inauguration ceremony with the court poets.
Although the temple is no longer standing, the rooms of the House of Augustus can be explored on a tour. The villa may seem understated when compared to the decadent Domus Aurea of Nero, but it’s still extraordinarily beautiful. The rooms are decorated with colourful frescoes – pine branches, theatrical masks, swans and illusionistic architecture. One of the bedrooms may well have belonged to Octavian, but he sometimes chose to sleep outside when it was hot, lying near the fountain while someone fanned him. The most beautiful room is perhaps Octavian’s study, with its painted satyrs, plants and winged female figures. This was the room which Octavian retired to whenever he wanted to be left alone, in order to work without interruption.
While Octavian was less hedonistic than other Roman rulers, even he had his excesses. According to Suetonius, at one banquet he caused a scandal by dressing up as Apollo:
There was besides a private dinner of his, commonly called that of the “twelve gods,” which was the subject of gossip. At this the guests appeared in the guise of gods and goddesses, while he himself was made up to represent Apollo. (…) The scandal of this banquet was the greater because of dearth and famine in the land at the time, and on the following day there was an outcry that the gods had eaten all the grain and that Caesar was in truth Apollo, but Apollo the Tormentor, a surname under which the god was worshipped in one part of the city. He was criticized too as over fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes and as given to gaming.
The House of Livia was excavated in the nineteenth century, and identified as belonging to Livia after the discovery of a lead pipe labelled “IVLIA AVGVSTA”. It is likely that Livia often shared the house with Octavian, and it may have been here that she gave birth to Tiberius, the future emperor.
There are more exquisite frescoes to be discovered in the House of Livia, as the large atrium and adjoining rooms are decorated with vivid mythological scenes, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus pursuing a nymph and Mercury freeing Io. There are also scenes of Egyptian life and beautiful illusionistic architecture, similar to the graceful colonnades depicted in the House of Augustus. The paintings are incredibly well-preserved, having been protected by remaining underground for centuries, and the original mosaic floor still remains.
To see more impressive Roman ruins, join our tour of the Private Colosseum Tour.