Splendor on Top of a Hill
“Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.”
My mind takes me to a quiet, charming and opulent place on top of a hill. I could picture Cicero, deep in thought, perhaps contemplating on the issues of the State or simply gathering his thoughts into literary forms in the middle of his garden bathed in beautiful sunlight…or Augustus, as he takes refuge in his tablinum, looking out at his lovely courtyard while reclining on a lectus medius, feeling tired at the end of the day from going around his realm and meeting with his men…or Tiberius, in his lavishly furnished triclinium, while looking with pleasure at a large table set with gold plates and full of exotic dishes like roast parrot and boiled flamingo, would think: “I deserve a sumptuous feast after a stressful day of discourse with the Senate and Sejanus!”.
It’s amusing to come up with conjured up pictures of carefree moments and drama of many scenes during the waking hours of the inhabitants of Palatine Hill, where the most powerful men of the most powerful empire lived. Even some of the slaves had their high moments…the famous ones were Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was born a slave in Cicero’s house, whom he later freed and published his works after his death…and Musicus Scurranus, the slave of Tiberius, who was said to own 16 slaves: two cooks, a doctor, three secretaries, two footmen, a businessman, a valet, a couple in charge of silver, a purchasing agent, two chamberlains, and another staff.
High up on the hill looking down at the Forum, between the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Circus Maximus, is Palatine Hill where Romulus is said to have founded Rome in 8th century BC. So this was the birthplace of Rome which also became the birthplace of its first emperor. Palatine Hill was therefore an obvious choice of abode for the succeeding emperors, making this their home for over 400 years.
The who’s who of Rome, even before it became an empire, lived here. I guess any mansion from the wealthiest neighborhoods in the modern world would seem puny and inferior to the villas in Palatine Hill which had doors of ivory, floors of bronze and lavishly frescoed walls.
Domus Augusti or the House of Augustus
Augustus was born and grew up in Palatine Hill and lived with his wife Livia in this house, which was huge but not as ostentatious as some of the houses in its neighborhood. An open space was used as a private horse racetrack.
Domus Tiberiana or the Palace of Tiberius
“If only walls could speak, what a tale they have to tell…” It would certainly tell a tale of euphoria or despair… moments of peace, aggressive impulses or intense madness…for in this mansion lived the second emperor of the Roman Empire. Definitely, it would never be like a fairy tale because in reality, to rule the Roman Empire meant insurmountable challenges.
Rome had no law of succession but the emperors chose their sons as heirs. Augustus, faced with succession problems because he had no children with his wife Livia, wanted to choose carefully his successor…and he had enough time for he lived a long life. His first choice was his best friend Agrippa, who gave him great military victories, the greatest of which was the Battle of Actium where the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra were crushed. It was such a huge triumph that Rome ultimately became an empire, with his best friend proclaimed as the first emperor.
So Augustus arranged the marriage of Agrippa to Julia, her daughter from a previous marriage. They had two sons, Gaius and Lucius, who were both adopted by Augustus after Agrippa’s death in 12 BC.
The next scenario initiates a state of perplexity – is becoming an emperor a matter of destiny? Both Gaius and Lucius died early in their lives! It became clear that Augustus was left with only one choice for his successor – his stepson Tiberius, son of his wife Livia from a previous marriage.
Given that the throne promised an unrivalled proportions of grandeur and power, fierce competition was expected to attain it. However, strange and peculiar, Tiberius was hesitant to sit on the golden throne.
Perhaps when all was quiet in his room, and even the chirping through the open window had ceased, and the most favorable breeze caressed his face, he felt that even at the age of 55, though fearful, he knew that he got to fit well into the power structure…what with all the prestige Augustus had built! Yes, he was bent on emulating Augustus…but when his dark side was unleashed, he’d become a ferocious ruler.
Tiberius’ reign, from 14-37 AD, granted prosperity with an improved financial structure and decorum in the Forum…but it also brought terror – plots became common and those suspected of treachery were executed! He relied on the unscrupulous lieutenant named Sejanus whom he appointed chief administrator.
Tiberius left Domus Tiberiana and spent his remaining 11 years of reign in Capri where he built his magnificent villas. So the government was left at the mercy of Sejanus! This well illustrates that Tiberius was not only unable to equal Augustus in statesmanship…but he also shattered the glory which Augustus had built.