The Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia is a significant sacred complex dedicated to the goddess Fortuna, located in the ancient city of Praeneste (now Palestrina, 35 kilometers, about 22 miles, east of Rome). It is the “largest complex of late Republican architecture in ancient Italy”, as scholars have defined it.

It was built in the late 2nd century BCE, although the cult of the goddess Fortuna is documented as far back as the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. The exact dating has long been debated by scholars: initially attributed to the time of Sulla, then dated to the mid-2nd century BCE, and finally, based on epigraphic evidence, firmly placed in the late 2nd century BCE.

The construction of such a monumental sanctuary is believed to have been financed by associated groups of wealthy citizens, enriched by the flow of money and labor from the Eastern wars and trade of the time. They were likely emerging classes eager for political assertion.

The sanctuary gained worldwide fame in the Roman world for the cult of Fortuna Primigenia, the “first-born” among the children of Jupiter, but also a primordial deity and universal mother. Associated with the cult was an oracle, which provided answers about the future by extracting fortunes through the hand of a child.

These tablets, where the answers were inscribed, were kept in a chest made of sacred olive wood that stood at the site where the sanctuary was built.

Worshipers came from all over the empire to consult the goddess and to present their newborn first child, believing that doing so increased their chances of surviving infancy and perpetuating the gens. The oracle continued to be consulted until Theodosius I prohibited the practice and ordered the temple closed.

The remains of the sanctuary, incorporated into the medieval settlement of the city, came to light after the bombings of World War II.

The complex consists of six artificial terraces, descending the slopes of Mount Ginestro, supported by gigantic masonry substructures and connected by large ramps and staircases, originally covered by walls of opus polygonal and opus incertum.

The terraces, rising one above the other on the hill in a pyramid shape, are crowned on the highest terrace by the round temple of Fortuna, now incorporated into the Colonna Barberini Palace, built in the 12th century.

The first two terraces, accessible from the city forum, feature sacrificial altars and service rooms. The third terrace gives access to two monumental porticoed ramps, leading to the fourth terrace with a large Ionic portico.

Here, the oracular cult was celebrated, with the sacred well (where the sortes of the goddess were found) and the statue of Fortuna breastfeeding the child Jupiter and the girl Juno. The fifth terrace, called the “arcades”, has a portico with niches and false doors.

The last terrace, with a U-shaped plan, is bordered on three of its sides by a double Corinthian portico and housed in the center a theatrical cavea, crowned by a circular temple with a cult statue of the goddess.

Architecturally, the sanctuary shows sublime technical and stylistic mastery, inspired by the great Hellenistic terraced sanctuaries. The buildings are of perfect concrete and are covered with opus incertum. The axial arrangement and the sloping terraces create a studied balance between horizontality and verticality, with masterful perspective effects.

For these characteristics, the sanctuary is attributed to a late Hellenistic architect, who would be the precursor of the great Roman architects between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. The complex inspired many later architectural works, such as the Belvedere of Bramante in the Vatican, the Villa Sacchetti of Pietro da Cortona, the Schönbrunn Palace of Fischer von Erlach, and the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II of Sacconi in Rome.

This immense building, probably the largest sanctuary in the Italian peninsula, must have presented an imposing appearance, being visible from afar from much of Latium, from Rome, and even from the sea.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 27, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Santuario de la Fortuna Primigenia era tan grande que era visible desde Roma a 35 kilómetros de distancia


Scheid, J. (1989). Filippo Coarelli, I Santuari del Lazio in Età Repubblicana (Studi NIS archeologia VII). Rome: La Nuova Italia Scientifica, 1987. Pp. 195, 49 illus. (incl. pls, text figs, maps, plans). The Journal of Roman Studies, 79, 180-182. doi:10.2307/301195 | Museo archeologico nazionale Prenestino, Santuario della Fortuna Primigenia e Complesso degli edifici del foro di Praeneste (Ministero della Cultura) | Daniele Miano, Fortuna: Deity and Concept in Archaic and Republican Italy | Wikipedia

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