All Romans know the Via Prenestina: one of the most ancient of the roads leaving the city, it starts at the once-noble Porta Maggiore, traverses populous eastern Rome, and at the ninth Roman mile (13 km from the city) it crosses an ancient bridge, built toward the end of the 2nd century BC. This is the Ponte di Nona, the Bridge of the Ninth Mile, still carrying traffic today. (Alas because of the parapets added in the 1930s, nothing of it is visible from the roadway).
The ancient Via Prenestina alongside the modern roadway.
From here, the urban sprawl abates and the road passes through the fields of the Campagna Romana. Timidly at first, and then quite clearly, the stalwart basalt blocks of the ancient Via Prenestina appear alongside, assuring travellers they are indeed on their way to the place promised by this road – Praeneste.
Long before reaching the city, its silhouette beckons – ramps, arches, stairways, terraces, all perfectly symmetrical. These are the remains of the great sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, whose cult spanned at least 600 years, from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.
Palestrina, seen from the plain.
Today, as millennia ago, this grandiose construction of singular beauty rising above the plain invites a visit. To us moderns who seek the past, as to those ancients who sought the future, Fortuna Primigenia continues to offer her knowledge.
Part of the extraordinary history of Praeneste is the survival of the sanctuary. After the fall of the Roman Empire, like many ancient structures, it was re-used, transformed into a fortress and foundations for medieval houses. Then, during the Second World War, Palestrina was bombed: the ancient concrete, far more solid than medieval mortar, resisted. When the rubble was cleared away, the entire sanctuary was revealed.
Rocca Colonna, fortress of the lords of Palestrina.
Even older than the sanctuary are the walls, the fortifications, and the acropolis of ancient Praeneste. A walk up the dry slopes of Mount Ginestro to see the impressive blocks of the 4th-century BC walls around the acropolis brings us to the very start of our civilised history.
The fortress of the Colonna family dominates the eastern flank of the acropolis. A grim reminder of the harsh and violent Middle Ages, it too, with its tales of war, captivity, and destruction, reveals the history of Palestrina.