More Findings, Uncertainty About Emperor's Birthplace

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Image: A mosaic floor in what is believed to be the birthplace of Rome's first emperor, Augustus. (Credit: Clementina Panella).

Archaeologists digging in Rome's Palatine Hill have found the remains of a large house that they believe might be the birthplace of Rome's first emperor, Augustus.

Announced at the end of a 10-year excavation, the finding was partly uncovered in 2006, when a team led by Clementina Panella, a professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza, unearthed part of a corridor and other fragments of "a very ancient aristocratic house" near the Arch of Titus on the northeastern side of the Palatine.

Extensive excavation in the past five years (founded by the Sapienza University and the Banca Nazionale delle Comunicazioni) and historical cross-checks have provided further weight to support the hypothesis that the house belonged to Gaius Octavius, Augustus' father.

"We have unearthed more than 10 rooms, beautiful mosaic floors and frescoed walls," Panella told Discovery News.

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According to the archaeologist, the two-story house looks like it almost climbed up the Palatine, the most aristocratic of all the Roman hills. Built around an atrium (a large open space), the residence had great views overlooking the Roman Forum and Esquiline Hill.

Beyond a tufa wall, the archaeologists also found the remains of a sanctuary.

"This is a crucial finding, indeed. We have identified this area as the Curiae Veteres, the earliest shrine of the curies of Rome," Panella said.

According to tradition, Romulus, one of the city's twin founders, divided the Romans into 30 parts or curiae. These in turn were grouped into three sets of 10 called tribes.

Mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56–A.D. 117) as one point in the Palatine pomerium, which according to legend was the original line ploughed by Romulus to mark Rome's boundaries, the Curiae Veteres was an important gathering place. On certain days of the year, representatives of the 30 curiae carried out ritual obligations in the communal building to reaffirm their membership.

Thousands of votive offerings and cult objects unearthed at the site indicate that the Curiae Veteres sanctuary was active for about 11 centuries — from the 7th century B.C. to the A.D. 4th century.

The Roman historian and biographer Suetonius (about A.D. 69/75–after A.D. 130) reported that Augustus was born on Sept. 23, 63 B.C., "in the region of the Palatine called Ad Capita Bubula (Ox Heads)." Several scholars believe that the toponym probably indicated a place in the Curiae Veteres.

Image: Augustus' Birthplace? (Credit: Clementina Panella).

However, doubts remain. "Augustus could have even made up his birth in the Curiae Veteres. He might have badly wanted to be born in that place, as it was strongly symbolic. It represented Romulus' founding and Augustus' re-founding of Rome," Panella said.

Born Gaius Octavius in 63 B.C., the future emperor was named adoptive son and heir of his great-uncle Julius Caesar when he was 18 years old.

After the civil wars that followed Caesar's assassination, Gaius Octavius was made emperor in 29 B.C., taking the name Augustus.

He was deified after his death in A.D. 14, and a calendar month — Sextilis — was renamed Augustus (August) in his honor.

The architect of the "Pax Romana" (Roman Peace), a 200-year period of peace and prosperity after years of civil war, Augustus was known for his fear of thunder and lightning and for his dislike of ostentation and excess.

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"For more than 40 years, he used the same bedroom in winter and summer," Suetonius wrote in his "Life of Augustus."

Augustus lived in the house near the Curiae Veteres for just three years. His family then moved to the Carinae, a spur of the Esquiline Hill that stretched toward the Palatine.

When he was 18 years old, Augustus bought a house near the Roman Forum; then, at 36, he moved again to the Palatine, where he bought the house of the orator Hortensius.

His choice of residence was again most likely symbolic. It was located just above what is believed to be the grotto where Romans once worshiped the city's founders, Romulus and Remus.

Augustus lived there, in a beautifully frescoed house, until he was crowned Rome's first emperor. The residence was reopened to the public in 2008, after a 2 million euro restoration.

His supposed birthplace near the Curiae Veteres was totally destroyed by the Great Fire in A.D. 64.

"The house was buried and later a road was built on top of it. It's really a unique residence, and much has yet to be uncovered," Panella said.