Palatine: Palace of Domitian

Palatine: Domitian Palace
photo: Alan Kotok

Domitian commissioned the architect Rabirius to build a large palace atop the Palatine and a part of the Velia. This meant that many houses from the times of the Republic had to be disowned to then be demolished or covered in sand. In addition, the Velia and Palatine were partially excavated and levelled to create an even construction terrain. This is where Domitian had his palace built between 81 and 96. The palace is made out of two parts: one part is the public space, the Domus Flavia, and the second part is the private residence, the Domus Augustana, with an adjacent hippodrome or recessed garden.

Map of the palace:
1. Propylene (entrance)
2. First peristyle courtyard
3. Second peristyle courtyard
4. Third peristyle courtyard
5. Aula regia
6. Basilica

7. Triclinium of the coenatio Jovis
8. Nymphaeum
9. Domus Augustana private quarters
10. Hippodrome
11. Fountain and peristilium
12. Exedra overlooking Circus Maximus

Second peristyle courtyard and remnants of aula regia

Palace Domitian: Second peristyle courtyard, remnants aula regia
photo: Jensens

The public area, the Domus Flavia, is a building of which the rooms (as per Roman custom) are situated around open courtyards, which in turn are surrounded by peristylia. These courtyards were adorned with flower beds and fountains. The whole of the Domus Flavia was divided in three:

1. The three reception halls for official events and basilica, reception hall or the aula regia and the lararium.
2. Courtyard with colonnades and baths
3.Triclinium (dining hall) with fountains and aviaries.

Domus Flavia map whole    Reconstruction Domus Flavia
Floor plans of the different parts of the Domus Flavia:
1. Vestibule

2. Aula Regia
3. Peristyle
4. Triclinium

Remnants the third peristyle courtyard of the Palace of Domitian

Palace Domitian: Remnants third peristyle courtyard
photos: sebastian_bergmann and remnants: Laci30

The basilica, of which a part is still visible today, was likely used by the people to convey requests to the emperor. The emperor himself attended such gatherings in the apse. The aula regia, the throne room, was used for official events such as receiving ambassadors. The emperor would then be seated as a dominus et deus, as lord and god, in the apse on his throne. The lararium (derived from omus Flavia Lares, meaning the gods that protect the house) was a private chapel that held the altar for Lares and Minerva.

The centre part of the Domus Flavia was a courtyard with flower beds and an octagonal fountain, the foundations of which are still visible. Domitianus always feared attacks and given his reign of terror, not entirely without reason. That is why he used marble from Cappodocia to clad the courtyard of the public area of his palace.

Palatine: triclinium Domus Flavia
photo: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

The remnants of the triclinium Domus Flavia
Reconstruction drawing (Gibson)

The triclinium was the third and final part of the Domus Flavia. This is where dining with esteemed guests took place. Of course, Domitian did seat himself on an elevated platform in the apse. After all, as ‘deus’ he could ill afford to be too close to mother earth. This is an old custom that dates back to the Etruscans. That is why Etruscan temples are always elevated. During a state dinner, guests could view the aviaries with the oval fountains on both sides through the windows, and gawk at all kinds of tropical plants and many exotic birds.This type of marble is so delicate and smooth that it reflects light like a mirror. The emperor could then see his assassin coming. Unfortunately for Domitianus, he did trust his wife Domitia. She ordered the slave Stephanus to assassinate him. After his death, as mentioned before, his cavalry statue on the Forum Romanum was taken down. The senate issued a damnatio memoria over the emperor, who first had himself addressed by dominus et deus. A damnatio memorio meant that every inscription, but also the statues of Domitian, were removed.

Behind the Domus Flavia, Domitianus had two libraries constructed: a Greek and a Latin one. Excavations from the 19th and 20th century revealed that underneath the floors of the triclinium there were rooms from homes of the days of the Republic. A staircase allows the present-day visitor to still catch a glimpse.

The Domus Augustana

Remnants of the Domus Augustana and Circus Maximus    Reconstruction drawing

Domus Augustana  Circus Maximus
photos: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT and Circus Maximus: Antonella Nigro
Domus Augustana lowest-lying area
photos: Jensens and lowest-lying area: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Domus Augustana lowest-lying area

The Domus Augustana, the private quarters of the palace of Domitian, was much larger. The Domus Augustana has two floors and because it stands on both the Palatium and the Velia, there is a whopping height difference from north to south of 11 metres. In the south, the lowest-lying area, there was then room for two floors.

Another reconstruction of this part of the palace here. No less than three courtyards were placed next to each other on one axis, with all kinds of rooms around them. At the most southern peristylium, with two floors, there was an oval fountain with water basins, niches and statue pedestals. The palace closed in the south with a large exedra, which looked out onto a large racetrack: the Circus Maximus, that could hold some two hundred thousand visitors. The entire complex was clad with the most expensive marble and statues (made by the best Greek sculptors), gold ornaments, mosaics and tapestries.

Hippodrome    Side    Imperial box

The hippodrome (racetrack) or the recessed garden, archaeologists differ of opinion, bordered the Domus Augustana. The hippodrome was surrounded by a peristylium that consisted of two floors. In the middle on the eastside was an exedra, which also had two floors. The exedra was used by the imperial family.

Palatine: Hippodrome
photos: hl_1001; side Richard Cassan and exedra: Alf van Beem

Under emperor Nero (reigned from 54-68), a long underground tunnel was constructed, the cryptoporticus. This underground tunnel spanned from the palace of Nero – the golden house – to the Domus Augustana. The tunnel was only excavated in 1870, and some of it still remains, but it is closed to the public. 

Continuation Rome day 3 Palatine: Imperial box for the Circus Maximus