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Rex Nemorensis

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Title: Rex Nemorensis  
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Rex Nemorensis

Ruins by the shores of Lake Nemi, in an 1831 engraving

The rex Nemorensis (Latin, "king of Nemi" or "king of the Grove") was a priest of the goddess Diana at Aricia in Italy, by the shores of Lake Nemi, where she was known as Diana Nemorensis. The priesthood played a major role in the mythography of J.G. Frazer in The Golden Bough, whose interpretation has exerted a lasting influence.


  • Ancient sources 1
  • Ritual murder 2
  • The Golden Bough 3
  • Bibliography 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6

Ancient sources

The tale of the rex Nemorensis is told in a number of ancient sources. Ovid gives a poetic account of the priesthood of Nemi in his Fasti, Book 3 (on the month of March), noting that the lake of Nemi was "sacred to antique religion," and that the priest who dwelt there "holds his reign by strong hands and fleet feet, and dies according to the example he set himself."[1] The Latin name of the priesthood is given by Suetonius: "He [Caligula] caused the rex Nemorensis, who had held his priesthood for many years, to be supplanted by a stronger adversary."[2] That same passage indicates that by the time of the early principate the custom of choosing the office-holder's successor by combat had fallen into disuse.

The Greek geographer Strabo also mentions the institution: "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."[3]

Pausanias gives an etiological myth on the founding of the shrine:

Denarius depicting Diana Nemorensis, who was conceived as a triple goddess (diva triformis)[4]

In Roman mythology, Hippolytus was deified as the god Virbius; Artemis was the Greek name of the goddess identified with the Roman Diana. A possible allusion to the origins of the priesthood at Nemi is contained in Vergil's Aeneid, as Virgil places Hippolytus at the grove of Aricia.[6]

An alternative story has the worship of Diana at Nemi instituted by Orestes; the flight of the slave represents the flight of Orestes into exile.[7]

Ritual murder

Surviving lore concerning the rex Nemorensis tells the tale that this priest or king held a very uneasy position. Macaulay's quatrain on the institution of the rex Nemorensis states:

Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.

This is, in a nutshell, the surviving legend of the rex Nemorensis: the priesthood of Diana at Nemi was held by a person who obtained that honour by slaying the prior incumbent in a trial by combat, and who could remain at the post only so long as he successfully defended his position against all challengers. However, a successful candidate had first to test his mettle by plucking a golden bough from one of the trees in the sacred grove.

The human sacrifice conducted at Nemi was thought to be highly unusual by the ancients. Suetonius mentions it as an example of the moral failings of Caligula. Strabo calls it Scythian, implying that he found it barbaric. The violent character of this singular institution could barely be justified by reference to its great antiquity and mythological sanctity. The ancient sources also appear to concur that an escaped slave who seeks refuge in this uneasy office is likely to be a desperate man.

The Golden Bough

Diana in hunting boots, from a 2nd-century Roman mosaic

The Golden Bough, argued that the tale of the priesthood of Nemi was an instance of a worldwide myth of a sacred king who must periodically die as part of a regular fertility rite. While later anthropology is sceptical of Frazer's broad hypothesis, it had an extensive influence. As a consequence, the notion of a sacred king who must periodically be slain by his rival as part of a fertility rite is likely to be more familiar to contemporary readers than it was to the ancients.

In 1990, a radio programme entitled "The Priest of Nemi" was produced by Michael Bakewell and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, to celebrate the publication by Macmillan of the book "The Making of the Golden Bough" by Robert Fraser, itself timed to mark the centenary of the appearance of the first edition of Frazer's book.


  • Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1950, abridged edition)
  • Hornblower, Simon, et al. (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3d edition. 2003) ISBN 0-19-860641-9
  • Robert Fraser, 'The Making of the Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of An Argument' (Macmillan, 1990) ISBN 0-333-49631-0


  1. ^ Regna tenent fortes manibus pedibusque fugaces, / et perit exemplo postmodo quisque suo.
  2. ^ Nemorensi regi, quod multos iam annos poteretur sacerdotio, ualidiorem aduersarium subornauit, in Life of Caligula.
  3. ^ Strabo, Geographia V, 3, 12.
  4. ^ Horace, Carmen 3.22.4, where he identifies the diva triformis as Luna, Diana, and Hecate.
  5. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece II, 27, 4.
  6. ^ Vergil, Aeneid, book VII, 761 et. seq.
  7. ^ Servius on Aeneid, 2.116 and 6.136

External links

  • Blog of exhibition of Nemi material at Nottingham museum 2013
  • Nemi at Nottingham project
  • The Oleaster at the End of the Æneid by Julia Dyson
  • Lays of Ancient Rome by Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay from Project Gutenberg
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