Praeneste is an ancient Latium town located 23 miles east-southeast of Rome, known in modern day as Palestrina. It is mostly known for its Temple to Fortuna Primigenia, the Nile Mosaic within the temple, and the elaborate grave goods located at this site.
1) Mythical Foundations
People from antiquity were well known for having mythical foundation stories for the places that they founded, such as the story of Romulus and Remus of Rome. Praeneste was not an exception to this and has two mythical stories that are credited with the founding of Praeneste.
The first story is told by the historian Aristokles in the Italian Histories. He claims that the son of Odysseus and Circe, Telegonus, was sent by his mother to find his father. He was supposed to find a place where farmers were dancing and carrying on and found a city there and call it Priniston, which the Romans would rename, Praeneste. This story is a bit odd since Odysseus is a Greek epic hero and there would no reason for his son to be searching for him in Italy.
Fun Fact: The Romans may have conquered the Greeks, but Greek culture heavily influenced the Romans to the point that foundation stories such as this would link them to each other.
The second myth supposedly comes from The Aeneid. The story goes that a woman was sitting by a fire when suddenly a spark landed in her lap and impregnated her with a son, Caeculus. She exposed him by the temple of Jupiter where he was found by maidens and they considered him to be the son of Vulcan. He grew up into manhood and with some friends built a new town that was to be the future Praeneste. He prayed to Vulcan in front of a crowd of people for a sign so they would believe that he was his son. Suddenly the whole assembly was surrounded by flames so they believed him. Thus, all the people settled with him in his town and they called is Praeneste.
2) Who You’ll Meet
Depending on the time period in which you arrive in Praeneste you are going to meet a variety of different people. The first people to settle the city of Praeneste is the Etruscans. The Etruscans were a part of a unified entity called the Latin League. Because of the violent history of Praeneste there are other groups of people you might run into as well. The ancient tribes of the Villanovans would attack on occasion, as well as the tribes of the Aequi. The Romans had constant conflict with the Etruscan cities as well, since they were in such close proximity to each other. Eventually Praeneste succeeded from the Latin League due to ongoing conflict and allied themselves with the Romans in 499 B.C.E at the battle of Lake Regillus. This, however, did not stop conflict between the two cities. In 390 B.C.E Gauls invaded Rome leaving an opportunity for Praeneste to fight against Rome during the Latin Wars. Finally by 90 B.C.E all the people in the Italian Peninsula were granted Roman citizenship, including Praeneste thus ending most conflicts with the two. If you were to arrive in Praeneste during 82 B.C.E, you would probably be stuck in the city and see Marius who, at the time, was being blockaded in the city by the Sullans.
Other notable characters that you might meet throughout time would be the Emperor Augustus (27 B.C.E -14 C.E.), the Emperor Hadrian (117 C.E.- 138 C.E.), and Pliny the Younger (writer under Trajan) who all made Praeneste a place for them to have nice vacation homes at. The author Claudius Aelianus Aelian, famous for his book On the Nature of Animals, was born in Praeneste sometime between 165 -170 C.E. These are all the groups and individual people you might meet if you had been a visitor to Praeneste in antiquity.
3) How You’ll Get There
Since Praeneste is only 23 miles from the city of Rome the trip in antiquity would take about a full day to get there. If you were to walk to Praeneste by yourself it would take you about 9 hours. Luckily there was a road called the Via Praenestina that went straight to Praeneste. The only thing you would really need to worry about would be robbers waiting on the sides of the roads for travelers to come by.
Today the road still exists under the name Via Prenestina, they just removed the a from the name. You can take a vehicle there and it will take you less than an hour to get there.
Fun Fact: Praeneste is 2,318 feet above sea level.
4) Why Would You Go There
During the early periods of Praeneste there would not be much reason for you to go there unless you were visiting the early temple of Fortuna or you were a resident of the town. Another reason that you might go there early on is if you were trying to negotiate things between the tribes of the Latin League, who were very undeceive and had a hard time working together. Praeneste, however, was a wealthier and more artistic Etruscan people during the early periods of the city, which is shown by their elaborate grave goods. This meaning that you may have wanted to visit the city in order to commission a nice piece of art for your collection.
Because of the artistic expertise of the people living in Praeneste, the city later becomes a popular place during the Imperial period of Rome for emperors and other to go and spend time at resorts in the city. During this time you would also go to the city in order to visit the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia. This enormous complex was not just a temple, it had places for shops at the base of the complex. From there you would go up enormous colonnaded ramps, there were fountains to pass and once you reached the top of the ramps there was a large square area with a courtyard leading to stairs that would take you to a theater and at the back of the theater there was a temple. All this was right off the forum in Praeneste.
Another reason you could have gone to Praeneste would be to help them in their military exploits. With all the attacks on Praeneste, they needed all the help they could get up until they became Roman citizens. At that point the Roman military would have stations soldiers there to protect the city.
Fun Fact: In 55 B.C.E. Pompey dedicated the first permanent theater in Rome which he built modeled after the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste.
5) What Praeneste Was Like
Praeneste was a wealthy town that rose up on the mountain side of the Apennine mountains. Early on evidence shows that the Etruscan town was flourishing based on evidence found in tombs dating date to the 8th c. B.C.E. An example of some of these grave goods would be things such as Cistae found in the tomb of a woman or bronze mirrors. Elaborate fibulae were also found in these tombs that were completely gilded and would even go so far as having tiny little figures on them that would have taken a skilled sculpture to make. These tombs would often be highly decorated on the inside and would sometimes have couches in them as well. It showed how much importance the Etruscans placed on their people, including their women even after death.
Life in Praeneste was probably peaceful for its residence on a daily basis during times of peace. Although with constant conflict with the different tribes surrounding it, including Rome, the city would probably have been on alert constantly and heavily guarded up until it unites with Rome permanently in 90 B.C.E. Even being united with Rome did not put the city at complete peace because conflicts such as the Sullans bloackading Marius in the city in 82 B.C.E. resulted in Sulla eventually coming into the city and slaughtering a large population of the resident men and placing military veterans in the city to live. After this a good portion of the city was moved to lower ground.
With the fall of the Roman Republic it ushered in a new time, a period of emperors beginning with Augustus who would make Praeneste a desired place for people to spend time away from their homes and relax, thus at this point the city was most likely stable and back to some sort of peace. The fact that you could see the ocean from Praeneste was appeasing to people in antiquity as well.
Visiting the huge complex of Fortuna would have been a site to see even in antiquity because it showed the versatile use of concrete and the amazing mosaic work inside the complex that is known today as the Nile Mosaic. Over time the city probably experienced ups and downs during the Roman Empire but overall was able to survive well into modern day, even surviving being bombed during World War II which helped uncover the ancient city. Eventually the ancient city was razed and the modern day Palestrina was built on top of the ancient city and is predominently Christian.
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