While you may not believe the story that Romulus killed his twin brother Remus for crossing the property line he had staked out on the Palatine, archaeological evidence shows that this spot was probably the site of the settlement that would become Rome. Remains have been found of a wall near the Forum area and of primitive huts on the top of the hill dating from the eighth century BC; tradition says one of these latter was Romulus' home.
Later, the Palatine became the home of the movers and shakers of both the Republic and the Empire as sumptuous palaces were built. The choice of location was understandable: the Palatine overlooks the Foro romano, yet is a comfortable distance from the disturbances and riff-raff down in the valley. But the area really came into its own after Augustus built his new home next to the house of Rome's founder; successive emperors constructed massive palaces until the Palatine became virtually one massive Imperial dwelling and government seat. With Rome's decline it became a rural backwater, home to monasteries and their vegetable gardens, its precious marble and statuary toted off by looters. In the 1540s much of the area was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who turned it into a pleasure villa and garden.
Entering the Palatine from the Roman Forum, you pass the Horti farnesiani - originally the Domus Tiberiana - on the right. These gardens - a shady haven full of orange and olive trees but sadly in need of a makeover - were originally laid out in the 16th century, making them one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe; what you see now is an 'interpretative recreation' from the early 20th century. The 17th-century pavilion at the top of the hill offers a good view over the Forum. Passing beneath the gardens, behind the pavilion, is the Cryptoporticus, a long semi-subterranean tunnel built by Nero either for hot-weather promenades or as a secret route between the Palatine buildings and his palace, the Domus Aurea. Lit only by slits in the walls, the Cryptoporticus is welcomingly cool in summer. At one end there are remnants of a stucco ceiling frieze and floor mosaics.
Head south from the gardens for the site of the 'huts of Romulus', the Domus Augustus and the Domus Livia. In the house of Augustus' wife Livia - now beneath a modern brick protective covering - wall paintings dating from the late Republic were found; they include trompe l'oeil marble panels and scenes from mythology.
South-east of here are the remains of the Imperial palaces built by Domitian in the late first century AD, which became the main residence of the emperors for the next three centuries. The nearest section, the Domus Flavia, contained the public rooms. According to Suetonius, Domitian was so terrified of assassination that he had the walls faced with shiny black selenite so he could see anybody creeping up behind him. It didn't work. The strange-looking room with what appears to be a maze in the middle was the courtyard; next to this was the dining room, where part of the marble floor has survived, although it's usually covered for protection. The brick oval in the middle was probably a fountain. Next door is the emperor's private residence, the Domus Augustana, whose name derives from augustus ('favoured by the gods' - nothing to do with Emperor Augustus). The oval building next to it may have been a garden or a miniature stadium for Domitian's private entertainment. It was surrounded by a portico, visible at the southern end.
Sandwiched between the Domus Flavia and Domus Augustana is a tall grey building that houses the Museo Palatino. Downstairs are human remains and artefacts from the earliest communities of Rome, founded in the Forum and Palatine areas from the ninth century BC. Room 2 has a model of an eighth-century BC wattle-and-daub hut village. Emerging from the floor are the foundations of Domitian's dwelling. Upstairs are busts, gods and some fascinating eave-edgings from the first to the fourth centuries AD.
Walking east, past the stadium, several paths lead to a lower level, from where the remains of the comparatively small palace and baths of Septimius Severus can be seen. They are some of the best-preserved buildings in the area.