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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.