For most of history, the home of Rome’s very first emperor and Julius Caesar’s grandnephew, Octavian Augustus, lay undiscovered. That changed in 1961 when Palatine excavations revealed a fragment of painted plaster. Further digging unearthed a house. But not just any house: the palace that Octavian lived in for 40 years, both before and after he became emperor.
Only in 2008, after decades of restoration, did the House of Augustus finally open to visitors. Even so, most tourists, even those who visit Palatine Hill, still don’t know about it. And that’s a shame.
The real draw of the House of Augustus isn’t its size or architecture; as Suetonius tells us, Augustus lived “in
a modest dwelling remarkable neither for size or elegance.” Instead, it’s breathtaking for its vibrant, well-preserved frescoes. Better yet, they date from a particularly poignant time in Rome’s history; they were done just a year after the Battle of Actium, when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra–bringing about their demise, the seizure of Egypt, and Rome’s eventual shift from republic to empire, in one fell swoop.
If you decide to visit, know that you might have to wait. Given the frescoes’ fragility, only a handful of visitors are allowed in at a time. But it’s worth the line to get to walk through Octavian’s dining room, bedroom, and reception hall.
And the upside is that, if you linger long enough, you can get Octavian’s house to yourself. Maybe, if you squint your eyes, you can even imagine him standing in the same spot where you are. Maybe he’d be weighing the merits of getting himself named emperor, which would happen three years after the frescoes are finished. Maybe he’d be trying to figure out how to handle Egypt. Or maybe he’d just be contemplating his brand-new frescoes, thinking that, given his wealth and power, he could reward himself with that much elegance. Little would he know that 2,000 years later, we’d be able to appreciate it, too.
The House of Augustus is open Mondays during the summer from 10:30am to 1:30pm, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30am to 1:30pm. It’s also open throughout the year. Entrance is included in your €12 forum, Colosseum and Palatine ticket price. Just make sure to double-check opening times at the ticket office, as in Italy, they’re often subject to change.