Return to Nemi

The King of the Wood: Rex Nemorensis

"From the still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia's trees—
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain"

Thomas Babbington Macaulay, The Battle of the Lake Regillus (X)

Situated in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, Lake Nemi is the water-filled caldera of an extinct volcano, evocatively called Speculum Dianae, the "Mirror of Diana," by Servius (Commentary on the Aeneid, VII.515) because it reflected the moon. It was sacred to Diana (Diana Nemorensis, "Diana of the Wood"), as was the wooded grove (nemus) in which her temple was situated. The original sanctuary was no more than a clearing, a sacred space consecrated as a templum by augurs and auspices, and administered by the nearby town of Aricia (on the other side of the lake's rim), which had been a member of the Latin League until its dissolution by the Romans in 338 BC (Livy, The History of Rome, I.50–51). Granted Roman citizenship, the town became the first way station (at the sixteenth milestone on the Appian Way) for those traveling south to Capua. The construction of this "queen of long roads" (Statius, Silvae II.2.12) in 312 BC had a profound impact on the sanctuary, allowing suppliants and petitioners to journey there with greater ease.

A decade or so later, in about 300 BC, the wealthy elite of Aricia asserted themselves by building a monumental temple to the goddess. In the itinerary for Latium, Strabo relates that the Artemisium (so named after Artemis, the goddess' Greek counterpart) was on the left as one traveled up the Appian Way from Aricia (Geography, V.3.12). When the horses slowed in their trek up the mount, beggars from the town would importune the pilgrims, blowing kisses as the coaches haltingly went back down again (Juvenal, Satires, IV.117; Martial Epigrams, II.19, XII.32; Persius, Satires,VI.56). The temple was unusual in that the axis of its cella (shrine) was at right angles to the pronaos (the porch or vestibule fronting the temple), which was flanked by columns (Vitruvius, On Architecture, IV.8.4). With an entrance on the long side of the rectangular cella, the length of which was double the width, the temple could have a wider portico and still not be as deep—an important consideration given its position against the sloping wall of the caldera.

Virgil speaks of Aeneas entering the grove of Diana and her "gold-roofed" dwelling (Aeneid, VI.13); to be sure, the gilded roof tiles of the temple set within the sacred grove must have inspired awe. It would be another century and a half before the Romans themselves would gild even the ceiling of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. Such were the dedications and gifts to the sanctuary that Octavian borrowed from its treasury, which still was one of the richest in Italy when Appian wrote about the incident two centuries later (The Civil Wars, V.24).

About 95 BC, the sanctuary was reconfigured. Below the crowning level of the temple, a massive artificial terrace was constructed. Open to the lake, it was framed on three sides by retaining walls pierced by large semicircular niches that sheltered statues. In front of the revetment was a portico that formed an open corridor around the precinct. Another building (originally identified as a temple), a small theater, and bath were added, as well as additional shrines and a granary. By the end of the Republican period, the sanctuary was completedonly to be destroyed by an earthquake and landslide in the middle of the second century AD. All that now can be seen are a section of the retaining wall and the stubby remains of several columns.

Votive tablets hung in the grove (Ovid, Fasti, III.267) and, although Diana was worshipped as goddess of the hunt, she also was regarded as a healing deity, attracting women suppliants who, seeking cures from illness or aid in childbirth, left gifts of jewelry and elaborate clothing. There also were terracotta votive offerings in the shape of the body part to be healed.

The Artemisium was said to be a copy of the one at Tauris, in the Crimea on the Black Sea (Strabo, Geography, V.3.12), which Ovid says had huge columns and forty steps leading up to the entrance (Letters from Pontus, III.2.49-50). Iphigenia had been transported to that distant land by Artemis when she was about to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon. As priestess of the goddess, she herself was to sacrifice any stranger who came ashore (Euripides, Iphigenia Among the Taurians, lines 30ff). It is this rite to which Strabo refers in recounting what happened on the shores of Lake Nemi. 

"And in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the people set up as priest merely a run-away slave who has slain with his own hand the man previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself. The temple is in a sacred grove, and in front of it is a lake which resembles an open sea, and round about it in a circle lies an unbroken and very high mountain-brow, which encloses both the temple and the water in a place that is hollow and deep. You can see the springs, it is true, from which the lake is fed (one of them is 'Egeria,' as it is called from a certain deity), but the outflows at the lake itself are not apparent, though they are pointed out to you at a distance outside the hollow, where they rise to the surface" (Geography, V.3.12; also Lucan, who likens the cult to that of "Scythian Diana," Pharsalia, III.86; Ovid, Metamorphoses, XIV.331, "Scythian Diana in her forest kingdom").

Writing in the mid-second century AD, Pausanias comments on the ancient ritual, "where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters" (Description of Greece, II.27.4). The Rex Nemorensis traditionally was thought to have been Virbius, an ancient king of Aricia who was the first "king of the wood" (Virgil, Aeneid, VII.761; Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV.497; Fasti, VI.756). Later, he was identified with Hippolytus, who in Greek mythology was killed by his own horses when he spurned the advances of Phaedra, only to be restored to life by Asclepius and removed to the grove at Aricia— from which horses were excluded.

There, he married the water nymph Egeria, who shared with Diana the guardianship of women in childbirth. Her name derives from egero ("to bear") and the goddess was thought to aid in "leading out" the child from the womb (cf. Festus, De Verborum Significatione, 67L). Egeria also was associated with Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. "It was his communion with her that gave him a life of blessedness and a wisdom more than human" (Plutarch, Life of Numa, IV.2; Livy, History of Rome, I.19, where Numa only pretended that the authority of the goddess had guided him).

Before fighting the reigning king, the runaway slave first had to demonstrate his intention by breaking a bough from a sacred oak tree in the grove (Servius, VI.136, who is the only one to mention the breaking of the branch). It is this ritual that is the subject of The Golden Bough by James Frazer, who thought the branch to be mistletoe and carried by Aeneas when he journeyed to the underworld (Aeneid, VI.136). Suetonius writes that Caligula actually hired an adversary to attack the reigning king, since he "had now held his priesthood for many years" (Life of Caligula, XXXV.3; this is the only account actually to use the title of Nemorensis rex). Intriguingly, the rex mentioned by Strabo may still have ruled when forced to fight this new challenger.

"Mistress of mountains and green woods and lonely glades and sounding rivers."

Catullus, Poems (XXXIV)

The collection at the University of Nottingham was the gift of Lord Savile, the British ambassador to Italy, who obtained a license to excavate in 1885. It was understood that Prince Orsini, who owned the land, would retain the more impressive objets d'art, which he sold to art dealers in Rome. Discouraged with such indifference to the archaeological importance of the pieces and obliged to fill in what already had been excavated, Savile quit the dig and offered his own share of artifacts to the Castle Museum (Nottingham).

Orsini then invited Roman art dealers to excavate the site themselves, with these pieces coming onto the market in 1896. Some of the some most important, including a large acrolith head of Diana (above), were acquired by the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, which opened the next year. But then another group of marbles became available, some of which were acquired by the University Museum in Philadelphia, which itself had opened in 1894. Among the votive statuettes and marble fragments was the head of a late second-century BC cult statue, probably of Diana.

The publication of The Golden Bough in 1890 drew international attention to the cult of Diana at Nemi, which was the starting point for Frazer's seminal work in social anthropology. He had written to his publisher that "The resemblance of the savage customs and ideas to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity is striking." Indeed, Frazer's study of primitive religion would cause a sensation in Victorian England.

Cool in the summer and sheltered by the wooded slopes of the surrounding hills, Lake Nemi became an increasingly fashionable retreat for the patricians of Rome. Indeed, the number of villas prompted Ovid to call its presiding goddess Suburbana Diana ("Suburban Diana") (Ars Amatoria, I.259). Lucius Caesar (the uncle of Mark Antony) invited Cicero to meet Brutus there only two months after the assassination of Julius Caesar (Cicero, Letters to Atticus, XV.4a). The gluttonous Vitellius also had a villa at Lake Nemi, where "among the groves of Aricia, in the midst of sloth and languor" he seemingly was oblivious to the civil war raging around him (Tacitus, Histories, III.36).

One of the grandest of these otia (leisure) villas was commissioned by Julius Caesar himself, whose older sister Julia (the grandmother of Octavian) had married Atius Balbus, a wealthy manufacturer of building tiles in Aricia who became praetor in 60 BC. But when Caesar saw it for the first time, "having laid the foundations of a country-house on his estate at Nemi and finished it at great cost, he tore it all down because it did not suit him in every particular," although it is curious that he would raze the house when he still was heavily in debt (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, XLVI). The villa had been constructed with money that Pompey had loaned to Atticus who, much to Pompey's irritation, then lent it to Caesar (Cicero, Letters to Atticus, VI.1.25 [February 20, 50 BC], who writes of the planning of a "palace near the sacred grove of Diana"). Caesar may have had some personal or political disagreement with his benefactor. Remembering Pompey's later death in Egypt after the Battle of Pharsalia (48 BC) and the repeated admonishment to those who greeted him that "I am Caesar and no king" (Suetonius, LXXIX.2), it may be that Caesar feared the symbolism of one rex having killed another.

Or the villa may have been torn down by Octavian, Julia's grandson, who no doubt was sensitive to Caesar's own death in 44 BC. As Augustus, he also may have thought such a palatial villa inconsistent with a reign that sought to instill more austere Roman virtues. Although it is not known by whom or exactly when, the archaeological evidence does indicate that the original villa was torn down and then rebuilt. The property itself likely remained in the possession of the Julio-Claudian emperors (Caligula would no doubt have boarded his imperial ships floating on the lake from there) until it was abandoned about AD 150, possibly due to the same earthquake that destroyed the sanctuary of Diana (no coins at least have been found dated later than the reign of Antoninus Pius, AD 138161).

Tiles and bricks stamped with the family name of Atius suggest to Bilde that the villa of Santa Maria (named after a chapel that once stood there) situated on the southeastern shore of the lake may once have belonged to Caesar. It could have been approached from the water, the level of which was more than thirteen feet higher in antiquity. From this perspective, the façade of the villa on its high terrace behind a long portico must have appeared all the more impressive. The embarkation point may have been the paved road that came closest to shore near the present-day Museo delle Navi Romane,  although a road did extend to the villa as well. In route, one then would have passed the two Nemi ships, which likely had been anchored where they later were found. 

"Some spots Nature has favoured, in others she has been overcome and yielded to the developer letting herself be taught new and gentler ways. Where you see level ground, there used to be a hill; the building you now enter was wilderness; where now you see lofty woods, there was not even land. The occupant has tamed it all."

Statius, Silvae (II.2)


"You would be charmed by taking a view of this country from the top of one of our neighbouring mountains, and would fancy that not a real, but some imaginary landscape, painted by the most exquisite pencil, lay before you, such an harmonious variety of beautiful objects meets the eye, whichever way it turns."

Pliny the Younger, Epistles (V.6)

Excavation of the villa at Santa Maria uncovered a portico with Doric columns that are virtually identical to those of the sanctuary across the lake, which suggests to Bilde that the villa deliberately emulated its appearance. Indeed, from a distance the extended porticoes of both buildings would have appeared quite similar.

The statue of Artemis (top) in the Glyptothek (Munich) is a Roman copy of a Greek original and dates to the first-century AD. The fresco of a Roman seaside villa is in the Pompeian Fourth Style and was found in the Villa San Marco at Stabiae, a resort town on the Bay of Naples. Pliny wrote that, after its destruction by Sulla during the Social Wars of 89 BC, Stabiae was "now a place of villas" (Natural History, III.ix.70). It was there that Pliny died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that also destroyed the town  (Pliny the Younger, Epistles, VI.16).

References: "The Roman Villa by Lake Nemi: From Nature to Culture—Between Private and Public" (2005) by Pia Guldager Bilde, Roman Villas Around the Urbs: Interaction with Landscape and Environment edited by Barbro Santillo Frizell and Allan Klynne; Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia (2007) by C. M. C. Green; "Caesar's Villa? Nordic Excavations of a Roman Villa by Lake Nemi, loc. S. Maria (1998-2001)" by Pia Guldager Bilde (2004), Analecta Romana Instituti Danici, 30, 7-42; "Rex Nemorensis" (1976) by C. Bennett Pascal, Numen, 23, 23-39; "What Was Scythian about the 'Scythian Diana' at Nemi" (January 2004) by Pia Guldager Bilde, The Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Black Sea Studies; Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship (1905) by J. G. Frazer; The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1922 / 1996) introduction by George W. Stocking, Jr.; "Traces of Women's Devotion in the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi" (2000) by Marja-Leena Hänninen, Nemi—Status Quo: Recent Research at Nemi and the Sanctuary of Diana edited by J. Rasmus Brandt, Anne-Marie Leander Touati, and Jan Zahle; "'Those Nemi Sculptures...' Marbles from a Roman Sanctuary in the University of Pennsylvania Museum" (1998) by Pia Guldager Bilde, Expedition, 40(3), 36-47; A Catalogue of Sculptures from the Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia (2002) by Pia Guldager Bilde and Mette Moltesen (Suppl. XXIX); Statius: Silvae (2003) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library).

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