PRAENESTE (mod. Palestrina), a very ancient city of Latium, lies 23 m. E. of Rome by the Via Praenestina (see below), on a spur of the Apennines facing the Alban Hills. To the natural strength of the place and its commanding situation Praeneste owed in large measure its historical importance. There are various legends as to its foundation. Objects in metal and ivory discovered in the earliest graves prove that as early as the 8th or 7th century B.C. Praeneste had reached a considerable degree of civilization and stood in commercial relations not only with Etruria but with the East. At this time the city was probably under the hegemony of Alba Longa, then the head of the Latin League. In 499 B.C., according to Livy, Praeneste withdrew from the Latin League, in the list of whose members given by Dionysius (v. 61) it occurs, and formed an alliance with Rome. After Rome had been weakened by the Gallic invasion (390) Praeneste joined its foes in a long struggle with Rome. The struggle culminated in the great Latin War (340–38), in which the Romans were victorious, and Praeneste was punished for its share in the war by the loss of part of its territory. It was not, however, like most other Latin cities, embodied in the Roman state, but continued in the position of a city in alliance with Rome down to the Social War, when it received the Roman franchise (in 90 B.C., probably as one of those cities which had not rebelled or had laid down their arms at once), which in 215 B.C. some of its citizens—who had bravely held Casilinum against Hannibal, and only surrendered when pressed by hunger—had refused to accept.
As an allied city it furnished contingents to the Roman army and possessed the right of exile (jus exilii), i.e. persons banished from Rome were allowed to reside at Praeneste. To judge from the works of art and inscriptions of this period (338 to 90 B.C.), it must have been for the place a time of prosperity, and even luxury. The nuts of Praeneste were famous and its roses were amongst the finest in Italy. The Latin spoken at Praeneste was somewhat peculiar, and was ridiculed to some extent by the Romans. In the civil wars of Sulla the younger Marius was blockaded in the town by the Sullans (82 B.C.); and on its capture Marius slew himself, the male inhabitants were massacred in cold blood, and a military colony was settled on part of its territory, though, possibly owing to the extravagance of the new coloni, we find that in 63 B.C. this was already in the possession of large proprietors. It was probably in 82 B.C. that the city was removed from the hill-side to the lower ground at the Madonna dell’ Aquila, and that the temple of Fortune was enlarged so as to include much of the space occupied by the ancient city. From an inscription found in 1907 it appears that Sulla delegated the foundation of the new colony to M. Terentius Varro Lucullus, who was consul in 73 B.C. Under the empire Praeneste, from its elevated situation and cool salubrious air, became a favourite summer resort of the wealthy Romans, whose villas studded the neighbourhood. Horace ranked it with Tibur and Baiae, though as a fact it never became so fashionable a residence as Tibur or the Alban Hills. Still, Augustus resorted thither; here Tiberius recovered from a dangerous illness, and here Hadrian probably built himself a villa. Marcus Aurelius also had a villa here. Amongst private persons who owned villas at Praeneste were Pliny the younger and Symmachus. Inscriptions show that the inhabitants of Praeneste were especially fond of gladiatorial shows.
But Praeneste was chiefly famed for its great temple of Fortune and for its oracle, in connexion with the temple, known as the “Praenestine lots” (sortes praenestinae). The oldest portion of the sanctuary was, however, that situated on the lowest terrace but one. Here is a grotto in the natural rock, containing beautiful coloured mosaic pavement, representing a sea-scene—a temple of Poseidon on the shore, with various fish swimming in the sea. To the east of this is a large space, now open, but once very possibly roofed, and forming a basilica in two storeys, built against the rock on the north side, and there decorated with pilasters also; and to the east again is an apsidal hall, often identified with the temple itself, in which the famous. mosaic with scenes from the Nile, now in the Palazzo Barberini on the uppermost terrace, was found. Under this hall is a chamber, which, as an inscription on its walls shows, served as a treasury in the 2nd century B.C. In front of this temple an obelisk was erected in the reign of Claudius, fragments of which still exist. The modern cathedral, just below the level of this temple, occupies the civil basilica of the town, upon the façade of which was a sun-dial, described by Varro (traces of which may still be seen). In the modern piazza the steps leading up to this latter basilica and the base of a large monument were found in 1907; so that only a part of the piazza represents the ancient forum. As extended by Sulla the sanctuary of Fortune occupied a series of live vast terraces, which, resting on gigantic substructions of masonry and connected with each other by grand staircases, rose one above the other on the hill in the form of the side of a pyramid, crowned on the highest terrace by the round temple of Fortune. This immense edifice, probably by far the largest sanctuary in Italy, must have presented a most imposing aspect, visible as it was from a great part of Latium, from Rome, and even from the sea. The ground at the foot of the lowest terrace is 1476 ft. above sea-level; here is a. cistern, divided into ten large chambers, in brick-faced concrete. The goddess Fortuna here went by the name of Primigenia (First-Born, but perhaps in an active sense First-Bearer); she was represented suckling two babes, said to be ]upiter and ]uno, and she was especially worshipped by matrons. The oracle continued to be consulted down to Christian times, until Constantine, and again later Theodosius, forbade the practice and closed the temple. A bishop of Praeneste is first mentioned in A.D. 313. In 1297 the Colonna family, who then owned Praeneste (Palestrina), revolted from the pope, but in the following year the town was taken and razed to the ground. In 1437 the city, which had been rebuilt, was captured by the papal general Cardinal Vitelleschi and once more utterly destroyed. It was rebuilt and fortified by Stefano Colonna in 1448. In 1630 it passed by purchase into the Barberini family. Praeneste was the native town of Aelian, and in modern times of the great composer (Giovanni) Pierluigi da Palestrina.
The modern town of Palestrina, a collection of narrow and filthy alleys, stands on the terraces once occupied by the temple of Fortune. On the summit of the hill (2471 ft.), nearly a mile from the town, stood the ancient citadel, the site of which is now occupied by a few poor houses (Castel San Pietro) and a ruined medieval castle of the Colonna. The magnificent view embraces Soracte, Rome, the Alban Hills and the Campagna as far as the sea. Considerable portions of the southern wall of the ancient citadel, built in very massive Cyclopean masonry of blocks of limestone, are still to be seen; and the two walls, also polygonal, which formerly united the citadel with the town, can still be traced. The ruins of the villa attributed to Hadrian stand in the plain near the church of S. Maria della Villa, about three-quarters of a mile from the town. Here was discovered the Braschi Antinoüs, now in the Vatican. The calendar, which, as Suetonius tells us, was set up by the grammarian, M. Verrius Flaccus in the forum of Praeneste (the reference being to the forum of the imperial period, at the Madonna dell’ Aquila), was discovered in the ruins of the church of S. Agapitus in 1771, where it has been used as building material (C. Hülsen in Corp inscr. lat. 2nd ed. i. 230). Excavations made, especially since 1855, in the ancient necropolis, which lay on a plateau surrounded by valleys at the foot of the hill, and of the town, have yielded important results for the history of the art and manufactures of Praeneste. Of the objects found in the oldest graves, and supposed to date from about the 7th century B.C., the cups of silver and silver-gilt and most of the gold and amber jewelry are Phoenician (possibly Carthaginian), or at least made on Phoenician models; but the bronzes and some of the ivory articles seem to be Etruscan. No objects have been discovered belonging to the period intermediate between the 7th and 3rd centuries B.C.; but “ from about 250 B.C. onwards we have a series of Praenestine graves surmounted by the characteristic ‘pine-apple’ of local stone, containing stone coffms with rich bronze, ivory and gold ornaments beside the skeleton. From these come the bronze cislae and specula with partly (but far from wholly) Etruscan inscriptions, for which Praeneste is renowned ” (Conway, Ital. Dial.). Among these is the famous Ficoroni casket, engraved with pictures of the arrival of the Argonauts in Bithynia and the victory of Pollux over Amycus. It was found in 1738. “ The caskets are unique in Italy, but a large number of mirrors of precisely similar style have been discovered in Etruria and are published in full by the German Archaeological School at Rome: Etruskische Spiegeln, vol. v. sqq. (Berlin, 1884). Hence, although a priori it would be reasonable to conjecture that objects with Etruscan characteristics came from Etruria, the evidence, positive and negative, points decisively to an Etruscan factory in or near Praeneste itself ” (Conway, ibid.). Most of the objects discovered in the necropolis are preserved in the Roman collections, especially in the Kircherian Museum (which possesses the Ficoroni casket) and the Barberini library.
See E. Fernique, Préneste (Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises, fasc. 17, Paris, 1880); H. Dessau in Corp. inscr. lat. xiv. 288 sqq., Corp. inscr. etrusc. vol. ii.; O. Marucchi, Guida archeologica dell' antica Preneste (Rome, 1885), and in Bullettino comunale (1904), 233 sqq.; R. S. Conway, Italic Dialects, i. 311 sqq. (Cambridge, 1897); T. Ashby in Papers of the British School at Rome, i. 132 sqq.; R. Delbrück, Hellenistische Bauten in Latium, p. 47 sqq. (Berlin,1907); Notizie degli Scavi, passim; and especially D. Vaglieri (1907), p. 132, &c.; R. van Deman Magoffin, Topography and Municipal History of Praeneste (Johns Hopkins University Studies, xxvi. 9, 10); Baltimore, 1908). (J. G. Fr.; R. S. C; T. As.)
- Thus the Praenestines shortened some words: they said conia for ciconia, tammodo for tantummodo (Plaut. Truc. iii. 2, 23; Id. Trinum. iii. 1, 8; cf. Comment. on Festus, p. 731, ed. Lindemann), and inscriptions exhibit the forms Acmemeno and Tondrus for Agamemno and Tyndarus. They said nefrones for nefrendes in the sense of testiculi and tongitio for notio (Festus, s.v. “nefrendes” and “tongere”). Cf. Quintilian, Instit. i. 5, 56.