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It was the Roman month of September, seven hundred and four years after Romulus—so tradition ran—founded the little village by the Tiber which was to become "Mother of Nations," "Centre of the World," "Imperial Rome." To state the time according to modern standards it was July, fifty years before the beginning of the Christian Era. The fierce Italian sun was pouring down over the tilled fields and stretches of woodland and grazing country that made up the landscape, and the atmosphere was almost aglow with the heat. The dust lay thick on the pavement of the highway, and rose in dense, stifling clouds, as a mule, laden with farm produce and driven by a burly countryman, trudged reluctantly along.
Yet, though the scene suggested the heat of midsummer, it was far from being unrefreshing, especially to the eyes of one newly come. For this spot was near "cool Præneste," one of the favourite resorts of Latium to the wealthy, invalid, or indolent of Rome, who shunned the excessive heat of the capital. And they were wise in their choice; for Præneste, with its citadel, which rose twelve hundred feet over the adjoining country, commanded in its ample sweep both the views and the breezes of the whole wide-spreading Campagna. Here, clustering round the hill on which stood the far-famed "Temple of Fortune," lay the old Latin town of the Prænestians; a little farther westward was the settlement founded some thirty odd years before by Sulla as a colony. Farther out, and stretching off into the open country, lay the farmhouses and villas, gardens and orchards, where splendid nuts and roses, and also wine, grew in abundant measure.