History of Palestrina


See Palestrina guide for highlights and historic monuments

Within the territory of the ancient "Latium" (etymologically "vast plain"), Palestrina is in the area between the Tiber River to the north, the Lepini Mountains to the south, the sea to the west and the pre-Apennines mountains to the east.

As a result the ancient town of Praeneste, now Palestrina, occupies a position of considerable strategic importance, which is closely linked to its historical importance. On top of a mountain and surrounded by powerful walls, the city could control the valley of the Sacco River which was a key point for communications between Etruria and Campania, a region where 2500 years ago the Etruscans had some important settlements.

Ancient history of Praeneste - Palestrina

The inhabitants of Praeneste have throughout history made a great deal of the location, as evidenced by the monuments and the valuable archaeological finds in the city and surrounding territory.

Ancient myths attribute the founding of the city to different characters. The origins of Praeneste were sometimes traced to Prainestos, son of King Latinus and nephew to Ulysses; to Telegonus, the son of the same Ulysses and Circe; or even to Caeculus, the son of Vulcan.

Archaeological surveys have allowed us to hypothesize that a proto-historic village existed here, although the exact location of the village is still uncertain - it seems possible it was structured as various communities scattered in several villages, according to a widespread system in Latium.

Early history of Palestrina

By the 7th century BC Praeneste was trading with many of the important cities of the time, as evidenced by the rich furnishings of its graves, and precious objects which show contacts and exchanges with all the peoples of the Mediterranean, in particular with the Etruscans.

Between the 7th and 6th century BC and until the mid-5th century BC, Praeneste had particularly strong ties with the Italic world, especially with the peoples of the hinterland and the Apennines, as demonstrated both by certain characteristic women's ornaments found here, and also typical armaments of the warrior, such as some bronze armour.

The Roman era

As early as 380 BC Praeneste was having frequent struggles with Rome. Cincinnatus (519-438 BC) conquered it, but riots that followed made Palestrina the first city to ally with the Gauls against the Romans, in 358 BC. In 338 BC however it was subdued by Rome.

The history of Palestrina during the imperial period is less known, but judging both from the inscriptions and the remains of buildings, we can reconstruct a situation of discreet prosperity, although not a level of wealth comparable with the splendours of the Republican age. In the Augustan Age monuments and archaeological finds indicate some recovery and a moderate prosperity of the city.

Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD) possessed a palace here, and he gave the city the status of “municipium”.

Palestrina after the Romans

The sources for the history of the city are limited in the Middle Ages. We know that it became part of the Roman duchy with the donation of Sutri in 728, and, in 752, for a time it was occupied by the Lombards of Astolfo (died in 756 AD).

The modern name "Palestrina" appears for the first time, in a code of Farfa Abbey dating back to 873.

Palestrina and the Colonna dynasty

About a century later, the whole "Civitas Praenestina" was given by Pope Giovanni XIII (died in 970) to Stefania, wife of Alberic II of Tusculum (905-954) and then, by inheritance, it passed in 1043, to  the Colonna family. So it was that Palestrina came to take part in the struggles of this family against the papacy.

Gregory VII (1028 ca.-1085), in fact, challenged the legality of the passage of the city to the Colonna family, provoking the reaction of Pietro Colonna (1460-1540) who supported an anti-pope. Palestrina was still in the possession of the Colonna family when they opposed the election of Pope Boniface VIII (1230-1303), who in 1297 proclaimed a crusade against the city, which was seized and destroyed.

The city returned to Stefano Colonna (died in 1378) in 1337, and as a fief of the Colonna it participated in fighting with the "Ghibellines" against the papacy, with the so-called "third destruction" in 1437, by Cardinal Giovanni Vitelleschi (died in 1440), after the escape of Lorenzo Colonna (15th century).

The Colonna recovered their property about ten years later, and they remained masters of the city until the 17th century, despite the temporary occupation by Borgia in 1503 and the Duke of Alba (1507-1592) in 1553.

The last four centuries

In 1630 Francesco Colonna sold the feudal rights to Palestrina to Carlo Barberini, brother of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644), for 775,000 crowns. The Barberini were the authors of the urban arrangement that gave the city its current appearance, as well as reconstructingh the baronial palace (in 1640) that had already been built by the Colonna in the upper zone of the ancient sanctuary of Fortuna.

The 18th century saw a strong development of the agricultural land and, simultaneously, several military occupations: German (1701, 1711), Spanish (1734, 1736), Neapolitan (1799) and French (1802). In the next century Palestrina followed the events of Rome and it became part of the Kingdom of Italy with the unification of 1861.

Origins of the name Praeneste- Palestrina

With regard to the etymology, the scholar who best tackled the problem was A. Nibby in the 19th century, who observed that in the classical writers we read three etymologies of the ancient name:

  • Plutarch (46-127 AD) and Servius (late 4th century) derived it from the Greek word “prìnoi” (oaks), for the abundance of these trees.
  • Festus (later 2nd century AD) said that Praeneste was so named because it was "before" or "leaning against the mountains" (quia ..... montibus 'praestet': trans "mountains that lie ahead").
  • Solinus (middle of the 4th century AD) and Henri Estienne, called “Stephanus” (1528-1598), derived the name from Prainestos, or Preneste, the son of King Latinus and son of Ulysses and Circe. He also adds that Strabo (64-25 BC) considered "Praeneste" a Greek city, as it was once called, in Greek, "Polustefanos", meaning "city with many crowns" [1].

Current proposals about the etymology of the name Praeneste relate to the term "Prenesteo", or "high place", referring to where the city is situated, or they refer to the Greek word Prìnos, indicating the oak or holm.

See also our Palestrina travel information and guide.

References

1. A. Nibby, “Analisi Storica, Topografica e Antiquaria della Carta dei Dintorni di Roma” , Vol. II, Rome, Tipografia delle Belle Arti, 1837, pp. 475-476