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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Palatine View: Julius Caesar to Mussolini

Updated: Mar 24

Rome has no lack of stunning views from St. Peter’s Dome, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Borghese Gardens or the Janiculum Hill. One hilltop panorama tells a story from Julius Caesar to Mussolini. The view from the Palatine conveys the storied history of ancient Rome, Christian Rome, and modern Rome.


Visitors who make their way up the steep incline to the Palatine Hill are rewarded with rich views of the Forum. As one of Rome’s seven historic hills, one can linger for quite some time on the terrace to enjoy the scenery. One can differentiate the buildings of the Forum: the round Temple of Romulus, the remains of the Vestal Virgin house, and the massive round barrel vaults of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. In the distance to the right stands the Colosseum. To the left of the terrace is another historic hill – the Capitoline, ancient Rome’s capital.


View from the Palatine Hill toward the Capitoline Hill, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.
View from the Palatine Hill toward the Capitoline Hill, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.

Six buildings from this viewpoint bring Rome’s history to life. In the foreground, the Temple of Castor and Pollux are identified by their three remaining columns. The square brick building off slightly to the right marks the old Senate chambers first built by Julius Caesar while the adjacent triple Triumphal Arch glorifies the military conquests of Emperor Septimius Severus. The dome of the church of Santi Luca and Martina sits next to the old Senate chambers and the triumphal arch. Evidence of Rome’s Middle Ages remains in the square building at the top of the Capitoline with its single tower, the Palazzo Senatorio. The white building rising above others is the Vittoriano, constructed to celebrate Italy’s twentieth century unification as a country.


Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Forum is a conglomeration of multiple buildings and temples, added on to and expanded over the centuries. The area is not laid out in a grid system of streets but a variety of paths allow the visitor to meander around various sites. It is about a fifteen-minute walk from the Colosseum to the Capitoline Hill. The Via Sacra, the Roman road visitors walk on today is a paved path from the Colosseum to the Capitoline. Known as the Sacred Way, it was used as a processional route as well as way to get around Rome for pedestrians, chariots, carts, and for commerce.


Temple of Castor and Pollux, c. 6 CE, Roman Forum, photo Gerriann Brower.
Temple of Castor and Pollux, c. 6 CE, Roman Forum, photo Gerriann Brower.

The Forum was Rome’s ceremonial place for civic pride, a place for pageantry, celebration of military victories, and sometimes doling out punishment. Its main purpose was to glorify Rome and its leaders, the gods and goddess it revered, and serve as a power center for the empire. It was the perfect venue to make a statement through ritual and political theatre. When Emperor Hadrian erased debts of some citizens, he publicly burnt the records in the Forum to gain favor with his subjects. Emperors and senators made good use of the religious sites to glorify their families and for partisan purposes. Political and rhetorical speeches were made outside the Temple of Castor and Pollux or the Senate house. Mingling between elite and citizens, although limited, occurred during public events, such as state funerals or triumphal processions to honor the gods or commemorate a military victory. The Forum provided community for a growing empire.


One of the oldest buildings is the Temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. Recognizable by its three tall columns on bases, the temple was first dedicated in 484 BCE. The Gemini twins Castor and Pollux were demi-gods who according to legend appeared in battle to help the Romans defeat the Etruscans. Their mythological ancestry originates as sons of god Jupiter and Leda with a popular cult established in Greece and Southern Italy. They functioned as divine military inspiration for the Roman cavalry. According to myth, the twins, known as Dioscuri, appeared on white horses in battle to aid in victory.


The columns are fluted (grooved) with Corinthian capitals. There would have been eight columns at the front and back of the temple with eleven on each side. The remaining columns visible today are from the side of the temple. The columns stand over forty feet high topped by an entablature (the horizontal marble piece). When complete, the temple stood about one hundred feet high. Castor and Pollux remained inspirational figures for the military and pride of the Roman Empire. A grand parade of military and mounted troops honored the demi-gods each year with about 5,000 participants.


Even though Rome was built of marble and brick, fires were common and the temple was destroyed and rebuilt a few times over, with this surviving version rebuilt by Tiberius in 6 CE during the reign of Augustus. Tiberius dedicated the temple to his family and his deceased brother, who died in battle. The ancient cult dedicated to Castor and Pollux symbolized the beginnings of the Roman Republic and heralded the expansion of the empire. It serves today as a visually orienting landmark in the Forum.


Senate House, Arch of Septimius Severus, and Santi Luca and Martina

A few steps away from the temple stand three adjacent monuments: the Senate house, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the church of Santi Luca and Martina (Saints Luke and Martina). All three have origins in the third century and capture the changing empire as the Christian faith took hold in Rome.


The square roofed brick Senate house was planned by Julius Caesar and completed in 29 BCE. Julius Caesar rebuilt it after a fire; additional fires would destroy the building and would be rebuilt, usually using the same foundation. The version you see today survives following rebuilding after the 283 CE fire. Although it looks rather plain and humble, it originally would have marble on the exterior of the brick, and stucco on the upper level. Following the demise of the empire the marble was stripped away by generations of looting and repurposing for other buildings.


Senate House or Curia Senatus, 283 CE, Roman Forum, photo Gerriann Brower.


When inside, it is one of the more impressive buildings in the Forum. The preserved interior marble floors, help us imagine the color and high level of decoration in Roman buildings. The decorative nature of the marble inlay contains stylized rosettes alternating with cornucopias in rare red and green porphyry marble with a background of yellow Numidian marble. Red porphyry originates from Egypt, the green porphyry from Greece, and the yellow marble from Tunisia. These are all lands the Romans conquered. The incorporation of the marbles into the meeting place for senators is a testament to the power of the empire and underscores the ability to transport valuable goods over long distances to display their conquests.


The function of the Senate varied over the centuries. Representing the elite of the empire, senators could hold the emperor in check, to a degree, depending on his personality. Initially only Italians held Senate positions but as the empire grew so did the composition of the senators. The Senate and emperor decided which temples or monuments should be erected. The relationship between the emperor and Senate was by no means equal. As emperors frequently declared themselves deities it became dangerous and difficult for Senators to contradict their wishes as mere mortals. The Senate was also known as the curia, hence the alternate name for the building the Curia Senatus. The area just outside in the front of the building was where citizens could vote on measures and trials were held. With each succeeding emperor the senators appeared to be more of a court in attendance to the needs and wishes of the emperor, and less of a governing body. Nonetheless for an emperor to survive, he needed to please the Senate, the people, and the military. Very few succeeded.


Arch of Septimius Severus

They heyday of Rome took place under the rules of Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius from roughly 96-180 CE. Stability, economic fortune, and relatively good government marked their reigns along with peaceful passing of power when an emperor died. This golden era ended when Commodus, Marcus Aurelius’ son, succeeded him. Unlike his father, he was not a philosopher or warrior. He was more interested in his own vanity than governing. He was strangled to death in 192. Septimius Severus was one of five generals who vied for power following Commodus’ death, resulting in a four-year civil war. A period of instability followed his successful battle for power, which continued during his family’s control. The dynasty they established is known as the Severans.


Septimius hailed from Libya and his wife from Syria. He was the first emperor from Africa, although we don’t know his ethnicity. Full of ambition and wily, Septimius came not from established Roman aristocracy, but from the provinces. To succeed he had to marry well and find his way into the right Imperial circles of influence. According to his portraits he had a full head of curly hair, a beard, and was physically short and strong.  He worked his way up the Imperial ranks and by his mid-forties was a governor of a Danube province, managing three legions of eighteen thousand men. He was well positioned to assert his control when Commodus died with administrative experience and the backing of many legions. It was a bloody and harsh road to become emperor and his brutality was on display when he executed twenty-nine senators for opposing his rise to emperor.

He died in Britain in 211 with his two sons named joint emperors.


Arch of Septimius Severus, 203 CE, Roman Forum, photo Gerriann Brower.
Arch of Septimius Severus, 203 CE, Roman Forum, photo Gerriann Brower.

Caracalla and Geta were not cut out to co-rule together. Caracalla wanted all the power and had his brother Geta murdered, while taking refuge in his mother’s arms. Caracalla was violent and perceptive, but also adept at creating enemies. Caracalla in turn was murdered by a member of the Imperial Guard, who found he was on Caracalla’s list for elimination. His mother committed suicide. When the army had had enough of an emperor’s misdeeds or extreme lifestyles, the military often intervened. Septimius’ surviving Syrian wife’s relatives installed a family member as emperor, who created a scandal by marrying a Vestal Virgin, and subsequently was assassinated. Additional family members made equally poor choices and finally the army mutinied and killed the remaining Severans in 235. The last ruler of the Severan family was Alexander, promoted to the throne at age thirteen. He managed to reign for thirteen years until his murder. He was weak in military leadership as the empire was vulnerable in many provinces. Persians threatened in the east and Germans in the west. Alexander and his mother were murdered by the army and replaced with one of their own. For the remainder of the empire, many future emperors were chosen directly by the ranks of the military.

 

Their family ruled the empire with murders and turmoil for forty-two years. In spite of their misdeeds and ill-fortune, the Severan dynasty completed a number of buildings including the Baths of Caracalla and the Arch of Septimius Severus in 203. Their building and re-building of Rome was partly out of necessity as major fires swept through the city in 180 and 192. The Arch of Septimius Severus is a visually pleasing triple arch situated next to the Roman Senate. Military victories and the spoils of war were celebrated on triumphal arches and also proclaimed the legitimacy of the emperor. The original inscription on the horizontal marble atop tells us the triumphal arch honors Septimius, Caracalla, and Geta for their service to Rome and military victories in Parthian, present day Iraq and Iran. Geta’s name was eliminated from the inscription after Caracalla’s decision to kill his brother.


Scenes on the arch depict their victories and the conquered Parthians showing obedience to Rome. A hundred thousand Parthians were captured during the wars ending in 198. Gods associated with victory and the Severan family are included like Hercules, Mars, river gods, and Bacchus. Prisoners escorted by Roman soldiers are on the base of the columns of the arches, closest to whoever passed through the arch. Gilded bronze decorated some of the reliefs on the arch. Now lost to us, a bronze sculpture of Septimius riding a six-horse chariot with either son flanking him on horseback adorned the top of the arch. Its location next to the Senate was purposeful in establishing the dynastic power as well as making it larger than another arch in the Forum, that of former Emperor Titus.


Santi Luca e Martina (Saints Luke and Martina)

It seems odd to see a church dome rising above the Forum. Juxtaposed to the Curia Senatus and the Severan Arch stands the church of Santi Luca and Martina. The church stands in contrast to the other ruins yet fits perfectly into this time period. Christians were practicing their religion in Rome before the Severan dynasty, during Nero’s reign. After the great fire of 64 CE, Nero blamed the Christians in Rome and they suffered horrible deaths. Persecution was dependent on the whims of the emperor and was infrequent. In the early 300s the persecutions of Christians peaked, under Emperor Diocletian (284-305).

 


Pietro da Cortona, Santi Luca and Martina, completed c. 1650, with Arch of Septimius Severus, 203 CE, Rome, Flickr, photo hl_1001.
Pietro da Cortona, Santi Luca and Martina, completed c. 1650, with Arch of Septimius Severus, 203 CE, Rome, Flickr, photo hl_1001.

It is estimated that about ten percent of the empire’s population was Christian during Diocletian’s reign. Christians were present throughout the empire and Roman society, including the military. Pagan religion was state sponsored and the official religion. Any other belief system was viewed with suspicion and a threat to the state. Many Christians refused to practice the pagan religion and offer sacrifices to the gods. Martyrdom was chosen by some while others went into hiding or went along to get along, making offerings to the gods while they practiced Christianity privately. Church buildings as we think of them today did not exist at this time as the faith was practiced in secrecy. Homes or the catacombs were usual places for those who risked to gather. This was about to change when Emperor Constantine (306-337) converted to Christianity and legalized the religion.


Constantine allowed the pagan and Christian religions to exist side by side without prejudice. Many more converted with possibly half the population Christian by mid-century. He began churches outside the ancient city limits, with St. John Lateran as one of the oldest. The Romans knew how to construct impressive buildings and the first churches were no exception. He also built churches to honor those martyred, including St. Peter. Begun in the early fourth century, St. Peter’s was built on the site where Peter was crucified positioning the high altar over the likely place of his death.


Honoring the relics of those who died for their faith became an important part of early Christian practices. Martina was an early martyr, choosing death rather than renounce her faith. We have little documentary evidence about her life. She was killed in 228 during Alexander Severus’ reign. She miraculously survived various tortures and finally succumbed to beheading. Pope Honorius (625-38) dedicated a church to her in the seventh century, which has now been replaced by this seventeenth century version. The position of the church is next to the Mamertine Prison, supposedly where Saints Peter and Paul were imprisoned.


The church’s connection to San Luca is complex. In the early seventeenth century, artist Pietro da Cortona was excavating the church crypt and found human remains, which were immediately ascribed to Martina. Pietro was a famous painter who decorated the ceilings of Palazzo Barberini and Palazzo Pamphilj with grand allegorical scenes. He also designed two churches in Rome, the first of which was Santi Luca and Martina.


Luca authored the third Gospel and was thought to be a physician. Legend tells us that he was also an artist and painted a portrait of Mary, resulting in the first image of the Virgin Mary. Although the idea of an evangelist painting Mary is more fable than fact, Luca became the patron saint of artists. Pietro headed up the Accademia di San Luca (Academy of Saint Luke) for fine arts in Rome. Pietro was asked by Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) to rebuild the church in the names of both saints. Completed about 1650, the church is compact in design to accommodate the limited footprint. On the interior, there are two stories with the upper section dedicated to Luca and the lower to Martina. The interior of the Greek cross plan is bright white marble, intimate, and well-proportioned. The two-story exterior of travertine marble is balanced with a slightly curving façade. Inside, the lower level of the church houses Pietro da Cortona’s tomb.


Palazzo Senatorio and the Vittoriano

The last centuries of the Roman Empire and Middle Ages did not bode well for the city of Rome. The fall of the Roman Empire was more like a prolonged disintegration. Sensing weakness on multiple frontiers, invaders took advantage and repeatedly attacked areas of the empire. Constantine ruled the empire mostly from Constantinople rather than Rome and unknowingly set up a fractured administration that could not survive. The signs of decline and poor administration were evident during his reign. By 400 the empire was ruled by different emperors, one for the east, and one for the west. The east thrived and the Western Empire struggled. The city of Rome was sacked twice in the fifth century. Roman provinces in Europe were under threat and attacked repeatedly by various groups. In reality, the Western Empire had dissolved by about 500. Without the food and riches from the provinces, the city of Rome struggled to sustain itself. The economy was not one of production, but rather consumption.


Rome slowly became the center of Western Christendom and the church and its leaders became politically involved and powerful in the Middle Ages. The bishops of Rome filled the power vacuum created by the decline of the empire’s government. They ruled the souls of Western Christianity and governed the inhabitants of Rome. There were intense disputes over who would become bishop or pope; sometimes resulting in two serving simultaneously. Corruption, unrest, and poor government plagued Rome for centuries.


Palazzo Senatorio, Twelfth Century from the Forum and the front with Michelangelo’s remodel begun in 1538, Capitoline Hill, photo Gerriann Brower.

The Palazzo Senatorio marks the hilltop of the Capitoline, just a staircase away from Pietro’s church, the monument to the Severan dynasty, and the Curia Senatus. In Roman times the hill was dominated by the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the most important temple in ancient Rome. Jupiter was the chief deity in the Roman religion and the temple occupied prime real estate in Rome. The temple is long gone and the Palazzo Senatorio is distinguished by its tall tower from the Middle Ages. What we see today dates from the 1100s with a restructured sixteenth century look thanks to Michelangelo’s design. From the backside, which faces the Forum, we see a brick building punctuated by windows on the top three levels. From the front, where Michelangelo’s redesign is apparent, we see a very different building. Michelangelo made a significant change to center the tower in the middle of the building, giving symmetry to the structure and the square (the Campidoglio) from the front of the Palazzo.


We know very little about the origins and complicated architectural history of the Middle Ages building, save that it served as the city hall in the twelfth century and still serves that function today. Rome’s mayor oversees the complicated governing of the city from the Palazzo Senatorio. The building also served as a fortress in times of unrest and a lookout due to its commanding hilltop position. We know that twelfth century Rome was fraught with political uncertainty and life was difficult. 1143 saw a full-scale popular revolt against the corruption and power of the papacy. The citizens of Rome were fine with the pope ruling the church, but not the citizens and their city. They established a Senate and government in the Palazzo Senatorio that endured until the end of the century. Conflicts between the popes and the Roman populace regarding governing the city were a constant theme in Roman history.


Cresting above the Palazzo Senatorio is the Vittoriano monument, also known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland). Disparaged by many, it is also known as Mussolini’s typewriter or the wedding cake. Its bright white marble dominates the surrounding buildings. In the view from the Forum and Palatine, the Vittoriano is seen from the back. Two-winged victory figures riding a chariot driven by four horses surmount the structure on either side. They represent Liberty and Unity. Anyone visiting Rome can’t miss the size and placement of the Vittoriano as it is strategically located in a highly trafficked area between Palazzo Venezia and Trajan’s Column.


The monument pays tribute to Italy’s unification as a country and its first King under unification, Vittorio Emanuele II. In 1830 there were eight states, each with separate laws and no unified language. Independent and semi-independent regions, some of which were ruled by foreign governments or the papacy, created a scenario where unification was troublesome and resulted in three bloody conflicts. Achieving unification was messy and was resisted by the popes. In 1861 the various states in Italy consolidated. One of the final acts in unification was ousting the Austrians from control in northern Italy.


Vittoriano Monument, 1885-1937, Rome, photo Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons.
Vittoriano Monument, 1885-1937, Rome, photo Jean-Pol Grandmont, Wikimedia Commons.

The Vittoriano is replete with a visual language that echoes Rome’s monuments. Inspired by the Roman Forum, the monument imitates a temple on a raised platform. The fluted columns resemble those on the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The staircase makes references to the Spanish Steps and the colonnade reflects Bernini’s in St. Peters square. The statues and allegorical figures emulate the gods and goddesses of ancient Rome. The equestrian statue of King Vittorio mimics that of Marcus Aurelius on horseback in Michelangelo’s Campidoglio square practically next door.


Begun in 1885 by Giuseppe Sacconi, it was finished during Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1935. Designed in a neoclassical style, many Italians dislike the monument to this day, not for its symbolism, but for its location. It disrupts the continuity of the Forum and the Campidoglio. Many felt the destruction of Roman ruins and medieval buildings went too far in order to erect the monument. Furthermore, the monument became the stage set for the Fascists and Mussolini with speeches, rallies, and political parades, and the monument remains a bitter reminder of that era. Architectural historian Terry Kirk wrote that the Vittoriano monument is a test of aesthetic tolerance. Most Italians would agree.


Sources

Claridge, Amanda. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press, 2010.

 

Dyson, Stephen L. Rome: A Living Portrait of an Ancient City. The John Hopkins University Press, 2010.


Kirk, Terry. “Monumental Monstrosity, Monstrous Monumentally.” Perspecta, vol. 40, 2008, pp. 6–15.


Macadam, Alta and Annabel Barber. Blue Guide: Rome. Twelfth edition. Somerset Books, 2020.


Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.


Strauss, Barry. Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. Simon & Schuster, 2019.


Wärnberg, Jessica. City of Echoes: A New History of Rome, its Popes, and its People. Pegasus: 2023.

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