Palestrina: Ancient Praeneste (part 2)

Mosaic floor from the Imperial era.

After Sulla had established a military colony at Praeneste after 82 BCE, the town enjoyed several centuries of peace. It prospered and grew and quickly became a popular destination for Romans during the summer to escape the scorching heat of Rome itself. I myself visited Palestrina on a very hot day in July and can confirm that it is nice and cool up here in the hills.

Life in Praeneste must have been quite comfortable. Apart from the famous sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, the town had two forums, several temples, a large basilica, baths and markets. During the Imperial age, wealthy Romans had their villas in the lower area of Praeneste. One should be able to find the so-called Villa di Adriano using Google Maps. I have not visited the ruins of this villa myself and I sincerely doubt there is much to see, but apparently these are the remains of a villa that was associated with the emperor Hadrianus (117-138). A large statue of the emperor’s lover Antinous was found here, which can now be admired in the Vatican Museums. The emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) suffered a personal tragedy in Praeneste when his son Marcus Annius Verus died here at the tender age of seven. The boy did not survive an operation on a tumour under his ear.[1]

Palestrina, seen from the National Archaeological Museum.

National Archaeological Museum

Trajan’s triumph.

If we want to learn more about Ancient Praeneste, especially during the Late Republic and the Imperial Age, we should definitely visit the National Archaeological Museum. Two of the most stunning highlights in this museum are the model of the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (discussed previously) and the world-famous Nile Mosaic (discussed in a separate post). I was eager to see the sculpture of the Capitoline Triad, which was supposed to be on display here, but I could not find it. The museums staff informed me that it was now in the Museo Civico Rodolfo Lanciani in Montecelio, a town that is about 30 kilometres northwest of Palestrina. I do not know whether the sculpture is on loan, nor whether it will ever return to the National Archaeological Museum in Palestrina.

Fortunately, there is still much to see in the museum. One of the most impressive pieces of sculpture is exhibited in one of the rooms of the ground floor. I am referring to a large relief depicting the posthumous triumph of the Roman emperor Trajanus (98-117). Trajanus was one of the most successful Roman emperors of all time. He was an excellent administrator and a great general. As ancient historian Adrian Goldsworthy correctly argues, “subsequent generations preserved his memory as the Optimus Princeps, the best of emperors, only rivalled in prestige by Augustus himself”.[2] Born and raised in the Roman colony of Italica in Spain (founded in or shortly after 206 BCE), Marcus Ulpius Trajanus was adopted by the elderly emperor Nerva (96-98) in 97 and was quickly made his heir and successor. As emperor, Trajanus took on the powerful Dacians under their king Decebalus, defeating them in two consecutive wars (101-102 and 105-106). Using a dispute over Armenia as a pretext, the emperor then launched an invasion of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s archenemy in the East.

The Parthian War of 114-117 was initially a great Roman success. Trajanus and his army captured the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and reached the Persian Gulf. But then rebellions broke out in the newly conquered territories and almost simultaneously there were even more serious Jewish revolts in Egypt (the Kitos War) and other provinces. The emperor unsuccessfully besieged the desert city of Hatra in present-day Iraq and was nearly killed there when he ventured too close to the walls. Not long afterwards, Trajanus suffered a stroke and died. He was 63 years old at the time.

Copy of the Fasti Praenestini.

Even though he certainly deserved it by the standards of his time, the emperor had never been able to celebrate a triumph for his victories against the Parthians. The relief at the museum therefore depicts his posthumous triumph of 117. Although a sizeable part of it has been lost, the relief is still a splendid piece of work. Apparently it was discovered in 1967 and was originally part of the tomb of one Quintus Fabius Postuminus, who was suffect consul in 96 and served as praefectus urbi of Rome in 112. According to Eric R. Varner, “the relief employs an emphatically non-classicizing style characterized by hierarchy of scale, exaggerated, non-naturalistic proportions, frontality, and differing, segmental ground lines”.[3] The level of detail is very impressive. Note for instance the image of winged Victoria on the chariot or the fasces (bundles of rods with axes) carried by the lictors.

The primary forum of Ancient Praeneste was located below the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, on the spot where we now find the Piazza Regina Margherita and the cathedral of Sant’Agapito, built over a pagan temple of Jupiter. In was here that, in 1907, the Italian archaeologist Dante Vaglieri (1865-1913) discovered the remains of a semi-circular structure.[4] The prevailing theory is that this structure supported a public calendar known as the Fasti Praenestini. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote about one Marcus Verrius Flaccus (ca. 55 BCE-20 CE), a freedman from Praeneste who was a tutor for the emperor Augustus’ grandsons. To quote from Suetonius’ On Grammarians:

“His statue stands at Praeneste in the upper part of the forum near the hemicycle, on which he exhibited the calendar which he had arranged and inscribed upon its marble walls.”[5]

Sow suckling her piglets.

So this Verrius Flaccus was the author of the Fasti Praenestini. A replica of the calendar is kept in the National Archaeological Museum (see the image above); the original is now at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, one of several locations of the Museo Nazionale Romano. Although by the looks of it over half of the Fasti has not survived, even the replica is rather interesting. It is still possible to make out certain public holidays, for instance the Robigalia, an agricultural festival held in April.

Also on display at the museum is a splendid Augustan era relief of a sow, i.e. a female wild boar, suckling her piglets. We now know that the relief used to be part of a series and that two others can be found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. The other two reliefs show us a lioness with her cubs and a ewe with a lamb. Together they are usually called the Grimani reliefs, after the Palazzo Grimani in Venice (and, I assume, after Giovanni Grimani, the sixteenth century patriarch of Aquileia who was also an avid collector of Antiquities). It is possible that the reliefs were displayed on either side of the Fasti Praenestini and were all connected to a season, with the boar representing summer, the lioness spring and the ewe winter. One season is obviously missing, so archaeologists have speculated that there must have been a fourth relief of a cow with her calves, an allegory of autumn.


[1] Historia Augusta, The Life of Marcus Aurelius 21.

[2] In the Name of Rome. The Men who won the Roman Empire, p. 374.

[3] Eric R. Varner, Book Review Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Palestrina: Le Sculpture.

[4] Paula Landart, Palestrina: Walks in the City and the Acropolis of Ancient Praeneste, p. 16 v.

[5] On Grammarians 17.

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