A Beginners’ Guide to the Seven Hills of Rome

You may have heard reference to the ‘Seven Hills of Rome’ and wondered what this is all about.  Walking around in modern Rome, you’re aware of the ground rising and falling, but in the jumble of buildings it’s difficult to get a sense of the underlying topography, which would probably have been rather clearer in Roman times.  It’s important to remember that the famous hills are really more ridges of land than hills, and from Roman times to the height of Fascism areas of the city have undergone vast landscaping projects which have seen parts of these ridges completely flattened.

Seven Hills of Rome

The Seven Hills of Rome (image from Wikipedia)

I thought it might be interesting to say a little bit about each of the hills, highlighting key monuments in those areas, to make it a bit easier to understand the topography of ancient Rome in relation to the present day.  Note that although I am not including the Janiculum or Vatican hills (which are on the opposite bank of the Tiber) nor the Pincian, because these are not included among the traditional seven hills, it should be remembered that (as Amanda Claridge points out) the Romans themselves had trouble defining which the seven were!

Palatine

'Hippodrome', Domitian's palace

The so-called ‘Hippodrome’, a sunken garden of Domitian’s Palace

The Palatine Hill was said to be where Romulus founded the original city of Rome on the site of an older settlement (archaeological evidence supports settlement here from the 9th century BC).  During the Republican period, this was where many aristocrats of Rome had luxurious houses, but by the Imperial period the whole hill was given over to the lavish palace of the emperor.  Indeed, our word “Palace” takes its name from this hill.  These days, the whole hill is an archaeological site, with the ruins of many generations of Rome’s emperors on show – notably some incredible frescoes in the House of Augustus (worth queuing for) and the vast so-called ‘Hippodrome’, an elliptical sunken garden from the palace of Domitian.  There’s an impressive view of the Circus Maximus from the south side, and of the Colosseum to the north.

Capitoline

Piazza del Campidoglio

View of the Piazza del Campidoglio from outside the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli

The Capitoline Hill was incredibly significant in Roman times, being home to several important buildings, notably the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, the Temple of Juno and the Tabularium (archives), the foundations of which can be seen beneath the Palazzo Senatorio, which is the modern City Hall of Rome.  The hill was also the site of the infamous Tarpeian Rock, from which traitors to ancient Rome were hurled to their deaths.

The focal point of the hill today is what would have been the back of the hill in Roman times.  It’s dominated by the mighty Vittorio Emmanuele Monument and by two imposing staircases:  the one on the left, leading up to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (which stands on the site of the Roman Temple of Juno), dates to 1348 and was offered in thanks for deliverance from the plague; and the far gentler cordonata on the right was designed by none other than Michelangelo, completed in 1566 and leading up to the Piazza del Campidoglio, over which Marcus Aurelius casts a kindly eye from atop his bronze steed.  This impressive statue is in fact a replica of the Roman original, which can be viewed in the Capitoline Museums which surround this piazza.  We don’t know for sure where it stood in Roman times – possibly the Forum Romanum – but it stood for centuries outside the Lateran palace before being moved to the Capitoline in 1538.  The hill also provides spectacular views over the Forum Romanum towards the Colosseum, and if you go down the set of steps to the left of the Forum you’ll get a brilliant close-up view of the colossal Arch of Septimius Severus.

Esquiline

Santa Maria Maggiore

The papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Esquiline Hill

The Esquiline hill is the area of modern Rome south of the main train station, Termini, and north of the Colosseum.  It’s home to the incredible basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the four papal churches) as well as several smaller churches and monuments, one of the lesser known of which is the ‘Arch of Gallienus’ – one of the original Republican city gates, now crammed unceremoniously between modern buildings.  The nearby Medieval church of Santa Prassede is frequently overlooked but a highly recommended stop on a walk around this part of Rome.  There are relics of ancient Rome prominently displayed either side of Santa Maria Maggiore, with an obelisk to the rear (one which flanked the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus) and a huge column at the front which was originally part of the epic Basilica of Maxentius, the vast structure seen on the left-hand side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali approaching the Colosseum.

Aventine

Divided into the Lesser and the Greater Aventine, this was the area of Rome originally outside the sacred boundary of the city and traditionally associated with the plebs of ancient Rome.  In the founding myths it was said that, while Romulus set up his augural tent on the Palatine Hill, his twin brother Remus set up his on the Aventine. It’s now a leafy residential district with a commanding view of the Palatine Hill, in which the church of Santa Sabina and its nearby orange grove are the main attractions.

Quirinal

The Quirinal Hill is dominated by the Palazzo del Quirinale, one of the three official residences of the Italian President. The obelisk in the elaborate horse fountain at the centre of the adjacent piazza was originally the partner of the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline, and flanked the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus.  Art lovers should head to the Palazzo Barberini, home to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, and Borromini’s Baroque church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is also nearby and worth a visit.

Caelian

Santi Giovanni e Paolo

The Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Caelian Hill. The impressive remains of a Roman house lie beneath it.

The Caelian hill lies to the south of the Colosseum, and these days it’s a good place to escape the manic throng of tourists.  If you’re a fan of churches, there are some stunning examples here – I recommend Santo Stefano Rotondo, Santi Giovanni e Paolo and Santi Quattro Coronati in particular.  On a rather larger scale is the Basilica of St John Lateran, one of the four papal churches, and the Baths of Caracalla, the ruins of which go some way towards giving us an impression of the enormous scale and magnificence of Roman imperial bath houses (which were so huge that they even had libraries).

Viminal

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

A famous statue showing Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest (Terme Museum). It was intended to show the emperor’s piety.

This is the area north of the Esquiline, now identified with the sprawling Termini station.  As a tourist, the main point of interest will be the Terme Museum, a priceless collection whose highlights include the beautiful frescoes from the so-called House of Livia, and an array of very famous statues including Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, the Terme Ruler and the Terme Boxer.  The nearby Baths of Diocletian are also worthy of a visit, and, like the Baths of Caracalla, give a reasonable impression of the vast scale of the Roman imperial bath houses.

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About Rachel Ingram

I graduated from Oxford University in 2009 with an MA in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History from St John's College. After graduating I worked as a Geographic Researcher at Holidaylettings.co.uk, spending lots of time researching and writing travel guides to worldwide destinations, developing my copywriting skills. After working as a copywriter and content consultant at White.net (formerly SEOptimise), where I most enjoyed working with travel clients, I went self-employed. I now divide my time between freelance copywriting and running the business I set up with my boyfriend - AirExperiences.co.uk - selling aviation gift experiences. In my spare time I'm training for a Private Pilot's Licence, and I also enjoy travelling, wine and baking. My favourite authors are Charles Dickens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bill Bryson.
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5 Responses to A Beginners’ Guide to the Seven Hills of Rome

  1. holidayhomerentals says:

    My brother worked in Rome for 3 years and I was only to happy to use that as an excuse to go out there regularly to see him.

    Despite having visited Rome many times I still stood in awe at each time I visited the many tourist attractions in the city. Having seen each attractions many times and in particular the Coliseum I never felt it necessary to do a guided tour of the place until my last visit when I’m glad I did. It’s a much better way of getting what is a fascinating insight into the historic events that took place in this famous arena all those years ago and is well worth the time and money!

    A great tip I picked up from my brother when eating out in Rome is stay away from the many bars and restaurants located directly outside the main tourist areas and instead look out for the many bars located within the side streets of the tourist venues. They offer much better value for money without hurting your wallet whilst still offering quality and authentic food!

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy | The Independent Traveler

  3. Aquivia says:

    thanks for the info we are using it in class !!

  4. Rob Saunders says:

    Rachel – Thank U for setting the seven hills out in a practical, visual and helpful organization. You made my days much better spent. Appreciate your hard work! Rob Saunders

  5. Thomas Loftin says:

    Rachael,
    I love this article. I use it each year to teach how Romans adapted to their environment as part of my 6th grade World History class. Thanks so much for providing such a valuable resource!

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