Palestrina: Ancient Praeneste (part 1)

The Palazzo Colonna Barberini, seat of the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina.

Getting from Rome to Palestrina by public transportation is pretty easy. You just have to know how. I travelled to the Ponte Mammolo metro station in the north of Rome and took a COTRAL bus to Palestrina from there. It should also be possible to make use of a similar bus service from the Anagnina metro station in the south of Rome. A third option would be to take the train from Roma Termini to Zagarolo and continue from there by local bus. The COTRAL bus service is a fairly quick and cheap way of travelling, but I would not call it comfortable. It was very hot outside and the bus was fortunately air-conditioned, but its shock absorption was exceptionally poor, so my ride to Palestrina – which took about 50 minutes – was rather bumpy. The countryside of Lazio is nice and the bales of hay in the fields are picturesque, but what really annoyed me was that many Italians use the ditches along the road to dump their garbage. And regretfully certain parts of the road to Palestrina are also used for illegal prostitution, so my trip to Palestrina was not altogether pleasant.

Ancient Praeneste

Fortunately, Palestrina itself is a very pleasant town. In Antiquity, it was known as Praeneste. Praeneste was probably founded in the eighth or seventh century BCE, when several older settlements merged into one larger town (much like Rome). The town commanded a hillside overlooking the plain of Latium and eventually became “one of the most powerful and wealthy of the Latin towns”.[1] Rich burial gifts from Praeneste’s archaic phase have been found, which indicate that, even in its early days, the town had contacts with the Etruscan world (especially Cerveteri), the Phoenicians (perhaps in this case the Carthaginians) and Syria. The Praenestini fought against the invading Italic peoples of the Volsci, the Aequi and the Hernici, enemies they had in common with that other important town in Latium, Rome. In about 496 BCE, Praeneste defected from the Latin League and joined the Romans, who subsequently defeated their Latin opponents in the famous Battle of Lake Regillus.[2]

Two warriors from Praeneste carrying a fallen comrade, part of a cinerary urn (National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina).

But Praeneste also tried to stem Roman expansion into Latium and tried to carve out a position of power for herself. In that respect, the town was a serious rival for Rome, and for much of the fourth century BCE, Praeneste was a bitter enemy of the Romans. In 383-382 BCE, troops from Praeneste supported the Roman colony of Velitrae, which had rebelled against its mother city. The Romans sent an army led by two consular tribunes to the colony, which succeeded in defeating the rebels. The auxiliaries that the Praenestini had sent played an important, yet unsuccessful role in the fighting: Livius claims that there were more troops from Praeneste on the battlefield than colonists from Velitrae itself.[3] After the defeat, the Praenestini struck back by joining forces with their former enemies the Volsci and attacking the Roman colony at Satricum. Livius claims they took the town and subsequently massacred the prisoners.[4]

In 380 BCE, the bold Praenestini even marched on Rome itself. As they advanced on the Colline Gate, the northernmost gate of Rome, the nervous Romans decided to appoint a dictator, a special kind of magistrate who wielded supreme power. The Romans then defeated their opponents in a pitched battle and drove them all the way back to Praeneste. Not wanting to lose momentum, the Romans stormed and captured several settlements that were dominated by Praeneste. Praeneste itself was forced to surrender and after accepting its capitulation, the Romans confiscated a statue of Jupiter Imperator which was to be paraded during the triumph back in Rome.[5]

Mosaic floor with griffins (first century BCE, National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina).

During the Latin War of 340-338 BCE, Praeneste, along with Tibur (modern Tivoli), supported the Latin rebels, whose main aim was likely to preserve what was left of their independence against the expansionist agenda of Rome. For its aid to the rebels, Praeneste was punished by the loss of part of her territory.[6] By the time the Latin War broke out, Rome had long become the dominant power within the Latin League, which was now dissolved. The Roman Republic concluded separate treaties with the Latin communities, who were required to provide the Romans with troops to fight in the Republic’s wars. Some of these communities were granted full Roman citizenship, others received citizenship without the vote (civitas sine suffragio). Communities with merely Latin status still profited from their alliances with Rome, as this status ensured they had the rights of intermarriage and commerce with Roman citizens. Praeneste was one of the towns whose citizens retained their own citizenship and Latin status. And they seem to have been mightily proud of it. In 215 BCE soldiers from Praeneste bravely but unsuccessfully defended the Campanian town of Casilinum against the forces of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. The survivors, little more than 250 men, were offered Roman citizenship, which they refused, content as they were to have their own citizenship.

Praeneste preserved its own citizenship until the Social War of 91-88 BCE, when Rome was forced to make concessions to her Italian allies. In 90 BCE, the town became a municipium and her citizens became full Roman citizens. But then disaster struck as the Praenestini chose to support Gaius Marius the Younger during the civil war between his supporters and those of his opponent Sulla. In 82 BCE, the younger Marius was trapped in Praeneste and committed suicide. After a lengthy siege, Sulla then massacred the population of the town, with Plutarchus claiming that 12.000 men were killed.[7] A colony of veterans was subsequently established here.

Model of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina).

The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia

Remains of the terraces. porticos and exedras. Also visible is the eastern hemicycle with the well from which the lots of the Oracle were taken.

As you approach modern Palestrina by bus, you will notice that the town is dominated by the remains of a huge structure from Classical Antiquity. This is the former sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, “Fortune the Firstborn”. There is a growing consensus that this massive sanctuary was constructed several decades before Sulla settled his veterans here, perhaps around 120 BCE. A reconstruction to be found in the National Archaeological Museum of Palestrina (see above) suggests that two staircases gave access to the lowest terrace of the sanctuary. From there, visitors could ascend to a second terrace using one of the covered walkways, and then continue to a third and fourth terrace. The sanctuary was topped by a curved temple for Fortuna Primigenia, which was converted into a palazzo during the Middle Ages – the Palazzo Colonna Barberini[8] – and now houses the aforementioned archaeological museum (see the first image in this post). The sanctuary comprised an impressive collection of porticos and exedras, linked by stairs and walkways and built against the slopes of Monte Ginestro.

The sanctuary was known for its Oracle, which involved lots – the sortes praenestinae – being drawn from a chest which was kept in a well. The lots were made of slips of wood with texts in archaic Latin.[9] Cicero claims a child was selected to mix them in the chest and then pick one.[10] The well in front of the so-called ‘eastern hemicycle’ has been identified as the well from which the lots were taken.[11] It is not clear what the function of the area surrounding the matching western hemicycle was. The cult of Fortuna Primigenia remained popular until well into the fourth century CE. It was ultimately suppressed when, during the reign of the emperor Theodosius the Great (379-395), Christianity became the state religion (in 380) and traditional cults were no longer tolerated (in 391). During the Middle Ages, the modern town of Palestrina was built over the ruins of the sanctuary, which were completely hidden from view. Rather ironically, the sanctuary was brought to light again as a result of Allied bombings during World War II, which destroyed the centre of the town in 1944.

At the foot of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia.

What is so extraordinary about the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia is that it must have dwarfed not only any other building in Praeneste itself, but also in nearby Rome. The largest structure in Rome was probably the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, but in terms of size it did not come anywhere near the sanctuary in Praeneste (and on a side note, it burned down in 83 BCE). We may establish with certainty that the sanctuary was not inspired by anything the Romans had ever built, apart from the fact that Roman concrete was used in its construction. In fact, it is clear that the Praenestini drew their inspiration from the art and architecture of the Greek world. For long, merchants from Praeneste had been active in commerce in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, especially on the Greek island of Delos.[12] In about 166 BCE, the Romans had turned this island into a free trade zone and soon Delos became one of the most important emporiums in this part of the world. Especially the slave trade flourished and there is no denying that the Praenestini were actively involved in it. The merchants from Praeneste not only grew rich, but they also learned much about Hellenistic culture. The ideas for the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia were no doubt conceived in this context.


[1] Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization, Paperback edition 2008, p. 716.

[2] Livius 2.19.

[3] Livius 6.22.

[4] Livius 6.22.

[5] Livius 6.27-6.29.

[6] Livius 8.14.

[7] Life of Sulla 32.

[8] Not to be confused with the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

[9] Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization, Paperback edition 2008, p. 716-717.

[10] On Divination, Book II.41.

[11] Paula Landart, Palestrina: Walks in the City and the Acropolis of Ancient Praeneste, p.31-32.

[12] Paula Landart, Palestrina: Walks in the City and the Acropolis of Ancient Praeneste, p. 7.