You may wish to read a general description of Palestrina first.
Section of ancient Via Prenestina outside the modern town of Palestrina
The ancient Roman roads uniformly present a breadth of fourteen feet except where a greater breadth
is required, as on the via Praenestina at the Ponte di Nona.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1843
Via Prenestina with its ancient paving-blocks appears by the side of the road; and (..) we reach the foot of the hill, up which Palestrina clambers.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1875
You may wish to see a page on the ancient monuments of Via Prenestina between Rome and Gabii.
Praeneste dominated the Campagna far and wide, until it was laid low by the Romans. In later times it is often named in history. Pyrrhus took possession of the town, and halted there before marching on Rome. Praeneste fared even worse in the days of Silla, when the young Marius strove to defend himself within its walls. When Sulla had taken the stronghold, after a strenuous siege, he killed every inhabitant of the place, planting his veterans in their dwellings.
Ferdinand Gregorovius - About the Roman Campagna - 1856
In 388 BC Praeneste, today's Palestrina, was conquered by the Romans; subsequently the town experienced a long phase of development which was interrupted in 82 BC when Silla punished its inhabitants. He founded a military colony on the plain at the foot of the hill where Praeneste stood. During WWII Palestrina was bombed and this led to unearthing some of the structures of Silla's town inside medieval buildings and some very ancient walls.
View of S. Maria della Villa and the adjoining cemetery, the site where the Antinous Braschi was found
Near the rural church of S. Maria della Villa, about a mile from Palestrina, are the remains of the villa of Adrian built about A.D. 130, as is indicated by the marks on the bricks; and the ruins, which are about three quarters of a mile in extent, give its name to the church. (..) Amongst its ruins was found the Braschi Antinous. Donovan
The plain is so rich that it looks like one vast garden of fruit-trees, amongst which, about a mile from the town, near S. Maria della Villa (the name commemorating it), the remains of the immense villa of Hadrian may be discovered. They are little worth visiting, yet here the Braschi Antinous and other important statues have been found, and smaller antiquities are dug up daily. Hare
We begin our antiquarian researches at the lower garden of the Barberini, about half a mile from the porta del Sole, on the way to the garden gate, at the place called Arcioni, we observe to our right thirteen arches out of twenty nine, which ran between the extremities of the lowest terrace and formed part of its substructions. Within a few yards of the gate we observe to the left of the road the remains of an ancient fountain. Donovan
Silla enlarged the Temple of Fortune with such magnificence that this abode of the gods, once the most famous temple in all Latium, covered the whole of the ground now occupied by the present town, which is built on its foundations. Gregorovius
Palestrina is an episcopal city of seven thousand inhabitants, built almost entirely within the precincts of the temple. Every house, church, convent, or villa rests on antique foundations. They rose in steps and terraces up the slope of the mountain to a great height, the difference of level between the lower gate and the pinnacle of the upper rotunda being five hundred feet.
Rodolfo Lanciani - Wanderings in the Roman Campagna - 1909
(left) Walls supporting the third terrace in "opus quadratum"; (right) a brick wall in "opus latericium" forming a niche which was added to the
structure supporting the first terrace
According to Cicero, Praeneste was the site of a sanctuary known for its very old oracle; archaeologists are uncertain about the date of its construction: IInd century BC or in conjunction with the foundation of the new town by Silla; during the Renaissance the Italian architect Palladio drew a reconstruction of the ancient sanctuary in which also the lower terraces were part of it; today archaeologists tend to believe that these terraces and their buildings and monuments were part of the town, although their design was consistent with that of the sanctuary. The ancient town is a catalogue of the Roman construction techniques; initially the Romans relied on the careful alignment of rectangular stones, but later on they developed an advanced technology in the use of fired bricks and mortar.
(left) Fašade of the Cathedral where a restoration after WWII unveiled the wall of a Temple to Jupiter; (right) steps of the Temple and pavement of the Forum near the Cathedral which were discovered in 1907
The Cathedral was built over a Temple to Jupiter in the Vth century and it had the same shape of the temple until the XIIth century when it was enlarged by adding new space to its northern end. It is very likely that the temple stood at the centre of the Forum of the town.
Evidence of the ancient town under the main nave and apse of the Cathedral
The chancel and the crypt were built into what was once a street between the Temple and other facilities of the Forum. They were built using materials taken from ancient buildings. Excavations carried out in the 1970s unveiled the northern part of the Temple and evidence of the layout of the ancient town.
According to Cicero, Numerius Sufficius, an important man from Praeneste, was told in a dream to search for an oracle; he found some tablets which were engraved with letters of the alphabet; they were probably tossed or picked by random and the priests of the sanctuary based their oracles on the association of the letters; an artificial grotto which enlarged a small natural cave and which is located at the foot of a high wall behind the cathedral was thought to be Antro delle Sorti, the site where the oracle was announced.
According to the theory lately expounded by Prof. Orazio Marucchi, fortune-telling was practised in this way: The applicant having stated his question standing or kneeling in the apse before the image of the goddess, his message was transmitted by an accomplice to the sortilegus in charge of the olive-wood chest at the other end of the secret passage. The answer, drawn at random from the mystic receptacle, was read to the seeker from an opening above the apse, the voice of the messenger being probably altered and made mysterious and awesome by the acoustic arrangement of the place. Among the historical personages known to have stood in quest of a response, in the later period of the Empire, are Severus Alexander and Julian the Apostate. (..) As regards Julian the Apostate, he seems to have exerted himself so energetically in reviving the fortunes of Praeneste that a statue was raised to him in the forum, the pedestal of which was discovered in 1657. Lanciani
Details of the mosaic of Antro delle Sorti, one of which shows the lighthouse of Alexandria
There is another mosaic (in addition to the Mosaic of the Nile) of the same exquisite texture and coloring to be seen in the cave of the Fates (Antro delle Sorti), which tradition considers to have been excavated by Numerius Sufficius while searching for the labels. It was discovered in 1869 by a local antiquarian, and has only within the last two years been reunited to the main group of remains to which it belongs. The cave is irregular in shape, with three recesses; and its floor has been very much damaged, the cave itself having been used as a repository of quicklime. It represents the surface of the sea dotted with fish (..) Egypt is referred to in another detail of the scene, the Pharos or lighthouse of Alexandria, a conspicuous landmark at the lower right corner of the picture. Lanciani
Today archaeologists believe the grotto was part of a fountain which decorated the Forum of Praeneste; they have reached this conclusion after they unearthed fragments of a very fine mosaic which decorated the grotto; its subjects do not seem in accordance with the site of an oracle; mosaics depicting sea creatures were very popular in Rome and throughout the Empire (e.g. in Tunisia and Spain).
Palazzo Barberini (today a museum) which was built on the highest structures of the sanctuary
The bombs which fell on Palestrina in 1944 damaged many houses which had been built on the three upper terraces of the sanctuary; luckily they did not damage the palace built by the Barberini on the "theatre" which crowned the sanctuary.
View of the upper terraces
The lower terrace had a frontage of twelve hundred feet, and the whole establishment covered an area of about eighty acres. Such figures of length, breadth, and surface do not mean much by themselves; but if we cover that space with structures of stone and marble exquisitely cut and carved; with colonnades of the costliest breccia, crowned with capitals of gilt metal; with hundreds of statues chiselled or cast by Greek artists; if we consider that the only mosaic floor yet exhumed at Palestrina is the finest in the world, we may grasp the idea of the millions which must have been lavished upon and absorbed by the building and ornamenting of the great sanctuary. Lanciani
After WWII Italian authorities decided to remove the debris of the bombed buildings in order to unearth the structure of the sanctuary; its upper terraces are impressive and they prove the high technical skills achieved by Roman engineers.
One of the two ramps leading to Terrazza degli Emicicli and S. Antonio
The width of the two ramps leading to Terrazza degli Emicicli indicate that ceremonies involved a large number of people; we can imagine the effect on watchers of processions reaching the top of the sanctuary and more so if we think of them by torchlight.
Eastern section of Terrazza degli Emicicli
This terrace is named after two identical circular porticoes; one of them was preceded by a sacred well which might have been the place where the oracles were announced; archaeologists have found some analogies between the structure of this sanctuary and those of the Temple to Jupiter Anxur at Terracina.
The walls supporting the last two terraces are marked by a series of vaulted niches which probably housed statues; their purpose was not merely a decorative one; Roman engineers were aware that curved structures such as arches and vaults were more able to support weight than traditional vertical walls. You may wish to see the Great Hemicycle of Mercati di Traiano.
Terrazza della Cortina
The final terrace was much wider than the other ones and it ended with a sort of theatre having on its top a small circular temple; the majesty of the buildings was increased by their being located in a commanding position and by the perfect symmetry of the whole structure.
View from Palazzo Barberini
One looks upon these plains and hills, bedecked with towns and villages, of which most are rich in associations, and the early history of Rome, the story of the empire, or of the middle ages, comes back to one's recollection, and when one feels that Umbria, the Sabina, Latium, the Equian territory, the land of the Hernicans, Etruria, the Volscian country, the Alban hills, and the sea are united in one panorama, one appreciates the grandeur of this view. Gregorovius
(left) Ancient structures inside Palazzo Barberini; (right) Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Palestrina: statue of Fortuna Primigenia
(another one is shown in the image used as background for this page)
For the Romans Fortuna was the personification of Luck; the appellation of Primigenia (first bearer) indicates that the original devotion to the goddess was part of the cult of Mother Earth; according to Cicero a statue at Antro delle Sorti showed an infant Jupiter sitting with Juno in the lap of the goddess Fortuna, reaching for her breast. After the Roman conquest of Egypt Fortuna Primigenia took some features of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility; this last aspect led to depicting the goddess holding a cornucopia, a symbol of abundance.
Cryptoporticus under the "theatre"
The sanctuary continued to be very popular until the IIIrd century, when the diffusion of Christianity and of new beliefs, e.g. Mithraism, reduced the appeal of the traditional cults. The sanctuary was most likely closed by Emperor Theodosius.
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Asklepion of Kos
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
Introductory page on Ferdinand Gregorovius
Next pages (in Gregorovius' walks): Cave, Genazzano, Olevano, Paliano and Anagni
Next page (in Giuseppe Vasi's Environs of Rome): Frascati
The Ernici Mountains: Ferentino; Alatri; Fiuggi (Anticoli di Campagna); Piglio and Acuto
The Volsci Mountains: Valmontone; Segni; Norma; Cori
On the Latin shores: Anzio; Nettuno and Torre Astura
Circe's Cape: Terracina; San Felice
The Orsini Castle in Bracciano
Subiaco, the oldest Benedictine monastery
Small towns near Subiaco: Cervara and Rocca Canterano; Trevi and Filettino.