The Rex Nemorensis

This week our guest blogger, Tom Oberst of the University of Exeter, takes us through what the ancient sources reveal about the mysterious and violent cult of the ‘King of the Grove’ at Nemi.

The temple beside the SpeculumDianae is one of the more conspicuous, tangible aspects of the history of the area. Yet, as so often is the case, it was the mysterious side that garnered so much interest in the late 19th Century. Sir James George Frazer wrote a monumental tome attempting to use these more mystical aspects to channel his universalist ideas about the progression of understanding from sympathetic magic via religion to science. His work was named The Golden Bough, a reference to a notorious cult, allegedly situated in the woods surrounding the temple in which the herm of Fundilia resided.

The Golden Bough by J. M. W. Turner, inspired by Virgil's Aeneid. Photo: Tate

The Golden Bough by J. M. W. Turner, inspired by Vergil’s Aeneid. Photo: Tate

This cult, now know as the cult of the rex nemorensis (lit. king of the grove), has not left any archaeological evidence of its existence except, arguably, the double headed herm, found in the Nottingham Castle Museum. The only real evidence we have for this cult are the numerous references in ancient literature. The archaeological data makes it quite clear that the temple was relatively popular, yet in literature the key words are the nemus or lucus (grove), usually described as sacred to Diana, but always located on the banks of Lake Nemi or near the ancient town of Aricia, modern day Ariccia. What this tells us is that there was something significant about the Arician grove, something that made Roman and Greek authors reference it in their prose and poetry, or use it as a topographical marker. Lake Nemi was clearly an important spot, Caligula relaxed on his floating palaces there, and Caesar had a mansion overlooking it (Suet. DivJul. 46), yet it consistently seems to be the surrounding woods that fascinate. I have complied a list of references I have come across to the grove or the cult of the rex nemorensis in my research on its thematic appearance in Latin epic poetry. There are surely more, unfortunately I have yet to come across them.

So what was this cult? Carin Green’s 2007 book, Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia, dedicates a whole chapter to this discussion which is excellent and well worth a read for a more in depth analysis of the sources (although I feel she is a little too liberal with her analysis of the literary data). There was a small group which lived in the woods surrounding Lake Nemi who were ruled by a priest king, the rex nemorensis. Strabo (5.3.12) tells us that the priest had to be a fugitive, which has led many to assume that the majority, if not all, of the inhabitants of the grove were also fugitives. We know nothing about their lifestyle, whether they lived in the grove, or used it for purely ritualistic purposes. What we do know about is the rex.

Double headed herm possibly depicting the Rex Nemorensis. Photo: figurine with Victorian excavation label. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Double headed herm possibly depicting the Rex Nemorensis. ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries. Photo: author’s own

The rex was part of a perpetual tragedy in which successor became succeeded in a bloody fight to the death. Sources differ about the nature of the rite but there they all agree that at some point, the rex carried a sword with him, and could be challenged by a fugitive for kingship of the grove. Servius, in his Fourth Century commentary on Vergil’s Aeneid, mentions the significance of a bough, a branch which had to be broken off in order to commence the challenge (A. 6.136). Despite the fact that Servius is our only source about the bough in this context it is one of the most well known features of this rite, thanks to Frazer and his dubious assertion that this bough is Vergil’s aureus, the ‘Golden Bough’ (6.136). Frazer’s reasoning is dubious because he claims that the aureas is the bough of the Arician cult, whereas Servius claims that it is merely an allusion. This blasé interpretation of sources is something one becomes accustomed to after reading a few pages of The Golden Bough. Ancient authors who are often overlooked are Ovid (Ars. 1.259-62; Fast. 3. 269-72), Pausanias (27.4), Servius (A. 6.136), Strabo (5.3.12), Suetonius (Cal. 35. 3) and Valerius Flaccus (2.300-5) who all mention a king, usually a priest to Diana, who wanders around the Arician grove carrying a sword, and explain that his successor was chosen through a murderous or sacrificial duel. Unfortunately they do not elaborate on how this duel was fought.

A second important extratextual clue our literary sources can give us is the dates in which they were written, or were written about. Our sources range from the 1st Century B.C. to the 4th A.D., which, although this is not conclusive proof of its actual longevity, does display the extent of its fame.

So there you have it! A brief outline of the elusive rex. There is a lot of conjecture out there about the rite’s practices, symbolism and participants, and I would advise erring on the side of sceptical if you go on to read the suggested ‘further reading’ (below), but I do hope I’ve whetted your appetite about one of the more fascinating characters of ancient Italy.

Suggested reading:

Alfoldi, A. (1960) ‘Diana Nemorensis’, AJA 64: 137-144.

Dyson, J (2001) King of the Wood: The Sacrificial Victor in Vergil’s Aeneid, Oklahoma.

Frazer, J. G. (1890) The Golden Bough, abr. Fraser, R. (1994) Oxford.

Green, C. M. C. (1994) ‘The Necessary Murder: Myth, Ritual, and Civil War in Lucan, Book 3’, CA 13: 203-33.

Green, C. M. C. (2006) Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia, Cambridge.

MacCormick, A. G. & Blagg, F. C. eds. (1983) Mysteries of Diana: The Antiquities from Nemi in Nottingham Museums, Nottingham.

Nemeton in the Medieval World

In part one of her special guest-post Dr. Kelly A. Kilpatrick from the Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, explained how the name ‘Nemi’ connects our sacred place with others across the pre-Christian world. In this second part she shows how this special place-name persisted in the Christian world: 

The previous post discussed the development of the pre-Christian functions and interpretations of nemeton sites. With the decline of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity across Europe, new and distinctive attitudes towards pre-existing nemeton places developed. Nemeton sites in post-Roman Gaul often became the focus of Christian missions. The poet Venantius Fortunatus (530-600) describes how the relics of St Vincent put the demons to flight at Vernemetis (Pompéjac) in the poem Basilica S. Vincentii Vernemetis:

Nomine Vernemetis voluit vocitare vetustas, quod quasi fanum ingens Gallia lingua refert. ‘The ancient wished to call it by the name Vernemetis, which refers, as it were, to a great shrine in the Gaulish language’. (Venanti, 12-13).

This place-name is also recorded in the Passion of St Vincent d’Agen as Reonemetum (a corruption of regione Nemeti/ Nemetum). A chapter heading from the Indiculus superstition et paganiarum, the only surviving document from a series of synods held between 741 and 747 concerning missionaries to Saxony and Frisland, also indicates that sacred forests (or  shrines in groves) were known as nimidas and still used in pagan worship. Sources such as Fortunatus and the Indiculus indicate that nemeton sites retained many of their pre-Christian characteristics, but with the adoption of Christianity, nemeton place-names, like many other pre-Christian religious sites, were modified to fit within the contexts of Christian ideology.

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Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

There are fewer records of nemeton place-names in medieval Britain and Ireland. Old Irish nemed, ultimately a derivative of nemeton, came to be applied in many different contexts within medieval Irish society. The most common use of nemed in early Ireland was in relation to the Church. In medieval texts this term eventually came to simply mean ‘a sanctuary’ (in some cases ‘glebe-land’), and it is frequently associated with cell ‘chapel’. The term also developed to form an abstract in Old-Irish law referring to a person with certain privileges and immunities. The best source for the medieval Irish interpretation and functions of nemed is found in O’Mulconry’s Glossary from the Yellow Book of Lecan (Kilpatrick, Appendix III).

The evidence for nemeton place-names in medieval England is appreciably greater due to the records in the Domesday Book (completed in 1086). The nemeton place-names (spelled in English as nymet) first recorded in Domesday are borrowings from Brittonic and are clustered in Devon, with one outlier in Gloucestershire. Nearly all of them survive today. In Devon they are located within the immediate vicinity of the Rivers Yeo, Mole and Troney, which were previously known by the name Nymet. C. E. Stevens suggested that Nymet was the name of a forest through which these rivers flowed. There is evidence of nemeton place-names in this area of Devon from the Roman period. Nemetostatio is very near Nymet Tracey and Nymet Roland. Similarly, the Romano-British name Nemetobala located at Lydney, Gloucestershire, was directly across the Severn from Nympsfield. It is ‘almost certain’ that the nemeton-element of Nympsfield is derived from its close proximity to the Uley Shrines complex .

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River Mole, Devon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The region with the largest concentration of place-names in nemeton is Scotland, where at least twenty-six have been identified. They are, however, poorly documented. These sites have often been labelled as pre-Christian religious centres, though it should be noted that there is ample evidence of early Christian activity within the vicinity of most nemeton place-names in Scotland, and a number are closely associated with place-names in cell ‘chapel’. Geographically, the nemeton place-names in Scotland (excluding Rosneath in Argyll) are found in the former region of Pictland, which suggests they are derived from a developed Pictish form of nemeton (Taylor, 152; Goldberg, 178). Whether the Scottish nemeton place-names are pre-Christian places of worship which developed into Christian sites in the Middle Ages or early ecclesiastical sites interpreted similarly to the medieval Irish definition−or a combination of both−requires further study.

Modern Nemeton pns in Devon and Cornwall

Nemeton place-names in Devon and Cornwall.

In Cornwall, the modern place-name Trenovissick (from earlier Trewarnevas) is of interest. The name is formed from Cornish tre ‘estate, farmland’ plus earlier *uer ‘great’, and *neved, and means ‘estate of the great sanctuary’.  It is likely that tre was later prefixed to an existing name *Uerneved.  The name would be identical to the Romano-British and Gaulish name Vernemeton, and if so, it may be a rare survival of an early nemeton site. The nemeton-based names that have survived in Cornwall are located within a particular geographical area.  They are also not far west of the cluster of English nymet place-names and rivers in Devon, near the earlier Romano-British Nemetostatio.

Scottish place-names in 'nemeton'.

Scottish place-names in ‘nemeton’.

The available evidence suggests that there was a sharp contrast between the survival and function of nemeton place-names inside and outside the former areas of the Roman Empire. It is clear that the manner in which this term was interpreted changed significantly from the ancient world to the medieval, especially with the adoption of Christianity. From the Late Antique period the element was typically associated with a pre-Christian sanctuary of some kind, and was possibly a place that housed a shrine. By the early medieval period the term had evolved Christian connotations, and came most commonly to be associated with the Church. Though the word nemeton was retained in the various Celtic languages spoken in the medieval period, from the early Irish usage it is clear the word evolved within a Christian context, though certain aspects of the original meaning were preserved.

Citations and Suggested reading:

Goldberg, M., ‘Ideas and Ideology’, in D. Clarke, A. Blackwell and M. Goldberg (eds.), Early Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 2012), pp. 141-204.

Kilpatrick, K. A., ‘A Case-Study of Nemeton Place-Names’, Ollodagos: Actes de la Société Belge d’Études Celtiques, 25, Appendix III.

Stevens, C. E., ‘The Sacred Wood’, in J. V. S. Megaw (ed.), To Illustrate the Monuments: Essays on Archaeology Presented to Stuart Piggot (London, 1976).

Taylor, S., The Place-Names of Fife, vol. I (Donington, 2006).

Venanti Honori Clementiani Fortunati, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Berlin, 1881).

 

Nemorensis Lacus

In this special guest-post, Dr. Kelly A. Kilpatrick from the Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, explains why the name Nemi is so special and how it connects our sacred place with others across the pre-Christian world: 

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Grove of trees
Photo: toimoiphotography.wordpress.com

The place-name Nemorensis Lacus, the Classical name of Lake Nemi, preserves the Latin term nemus ‘sacred grove’ (nemorensis being a Latin adjective of locality formed from nemus plus the suffix –ensis.). Latin nemus is a cognate of Celtic nemeton (‘sanctuary’ and often interpreted as ‘sacred grove’), an early term used to denote sacred space. The Celtic element nemeton is fascinating because of its long history and widespread distribution, from Hellenistic Asia Minor to contemporary Ireland. The term nemeton is attested in various forms in the Celtic languages (historical and modern):

Gaulish (νεμητον) nemeton/beside nimidas; Old Welsh niuet (nimet/nimed), Middle Welsh nyfed, Old Cornish *neved, Modern Cornish neves, Breton nemet besides niuet/nyuet; Old Irish (n. o-stem) nemed, Modern Irish neimed, and Scots Gaelic neimheadh.

Celtic nemeton is frequently translated as ‘sacred grove’, though as Jane Webster (1995: 448) points out, there is ‘little indication that it principally denoted such sites’. Place-name elements and their interpretations can evolve in different social and political contexts, especially where a term is used in multiple languages over a broad time-span—nemeton being a primary example (Kilpatrick 2010). Nemeton places recorded in ancient sources were locations of pre-Christian worship, whereas by the early medieval period in some parts of Europe pre-existing nemeton sites were Christianised and elsewhere new nemeton place-names were coined with Christian connotations. The remarkable longevity of this element—across languages, cultures and religions—indicates that the concept and spatial symbolism of nemeton must have been highly significant in early Celtic culture, and nemeton appears to have had several meanings in various languages at different stages in history.

Early nemeton place-names include the following: Δρυνέμετον/ Drunemeton/ Drynemeton (near Ankara, Turkey); Nemetacum Atrebatum/Nemetocenna (modern Arras, France); Αὐγουστονέμετον / Augustonemeton / Nemossos (Clermont-Ferrand, France); Nemausus (Nîmes, France); Tasinemeton/ Vernemeton (Klagenfurt, Austria); Rostro Nemavia (near Türkheim, Germany); Noviomagus/ Nemetae (Speyer, Germany); Nεμετόβριγα Nemetobriga/ Nemetobrica (Puebla-de-Trives, Spain).

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Ruins from Roman town Nemetacum Atrebatum (Arras, France)
Photo: closevents.com

The Ravenna Cosmography records a number of place-names with this element in Roman Britain, most of which are identified with Roman forts, temple sites or springs, including: Nemetobala (Lydney, Gloucestershire), Nemetostatio (Tawton, Devon), Medionemeton (on the Antonine Wall), Aqua Arnemetiae (the Roman springs at Buxton, Derbyshire) and Vernemeton (the Roman settlement at Willoughby, Nottinghamshire). The forms Vernemeton seen above mean ‘great nemeton (sanctuary or sacred site)’, and is more frequently attested from the Late Antique period.

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Altar found at Bath, England with inscription to Nemetona and Mars
Photo: © Roman Baths, Bath

There is also evidence of deity-names derived from the term, such as Nemetona, the eponymous goddess of the Nemetes tribe who lived in the region of modern Speyer, Germany. There are a number of inscriptions and dedications to Nemetona that associate her with the Gallo-Roman god Loucetius Mars.  The association with Mars is also paralleled on an altar from Bath, England built by a Treveran named Peregrinus.

Diana Nemorensis, one of the best documented grove goddesses was venerated at Nemorensus Lacus and her cult affords comparison with Romano-Celtic deities worshiped at nemeton sites. At Nemausus was an important sanctuary and sacred healing spring dedicated to the local deity from which it was named, Nemausus (itself a Celto-Ligurian name). Another example is the goddess Arnemetia, preserved in the Romano-British place-name Aqua Arnemetiae: her name means ‘before the sanctuary’. Arnemetia is also commemorated on an altar stone from Navio (modern Brough-on-Noe, Derbyshire), indicating a local cult-site to this goddess.

Classical writings such as De Bello Civili (also known as Pharsalia) composed by the poet Lucan (39-65 AD) and the Historia Romana of Dio Cassius  (c. 150-235 AD) supports the notion that groves were used by the Iron Age Celts for religious practices. The following excerpts from Lucan’s De Bello Civili, for example, describe a nemus in Gaul (near modern Marseille) that was cut down by Caesar’s troops:

There was a grove (nemus) from a bygone age, | never ravaged, | caging within its laced branches | dusky gloom | and icy shadows; | high above, the banished sun.  | Here no rustic Pan holds sway, | no powers of the forest—Silvani or Nymphs—| but, barbarous in its rituals, | a cult of Gods: | altars heaped with hideous gifts, | every tree around them splattered with human gore.

The God’s images, grim and | crudely fashioned, | started forth, rough-hewn, from felled trunks.  | The very earth, | the pallor of heartwood long since rotted | down to powder, left men | thunderstruck.  Divinities | consecrated in common shapes | can never cause fear | like this— | so much does it add to human terror | not to know the Gods we fear!

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Reconstruction of the Romano-Celtic temple, Roman town of Caerwent, Wales
Photo: http://education.gtj.org.uk/

Many of the early nemeton-names may have had their origins in grove worship, but with the establishment of Roman political rule, structures characteristic of Roman religion were introduced and adopted across the Empire. Surviving place-names and inscriptions such as altar stones also help us to visualize the evolution of this term, and suggests that nemeton sites adopted certain Roman religious customs. The prefix in the place-name Augustonemeton, for example, indicates that the imperial cult of the Roman Emperor Augustus was established at this site. Since nemeton is retained in the name it is likely to have been a pre-existing nemeton site.

Dédicace_de_Segomaros_(inscription_gallo-grecque)

Inscription from Vaison, Valcluse recording the construction of a ‘nemeton’
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

An important inscription was discovered at Vaison, Valcluse, which states that ‘Segomāros of Nemausus built a nemeton to the goddess Belisama’, and this implies the construction of some form of structure known as a nemeton.

Early inscriptions and place-name evidence suggests that the perception of nemeton may have altered within a Roman context, embedding the definitions ‘sanctuary’ and ‘shrine’ in the interpretation (though this certainly does not rule out the possibility that the Celts had pre-existing shrines at these sites). Therefore, the common application of ‘sacred grove’ to describe nemeton place-names, is not so straightforward. With the decline of the Roman Empire and the introduction of Christianity, new attitudes towards nemeton place-names developed.

Read the second part of Dr. Kilpatrick’s guest-post on how the nemeton name persisted into the Christian era. Keep up to date by following this blog or our twitter page.

Citations and Suggested reading:

Dio Cassius, Historia Romana, ed. & trans. E. Cary, Dio’s Roman History (London, 1925).

Green, M., Seeing the Wood for the Trees: the Symbolism of Trees and Wood in Ancient Gaul and Britain (Aberystwyth, 2000)

Green, M., Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers (London, 2005).

Kilpatrick, K. A., ‘A Case-Study of Nemeton Place-Names’, Ollodagos: Actes de la Société

Belge d’Études Celtiques, 25 (2010), pp. 1–113.

Koch, J. T., Celtic Culture (Oxford, 2006).

Lucani, M. Annaei, De Bello Civili, ed. D. R. Shackleton Baily (Stuttgart, 1998).

Richmond, I. A. and O. G. S. Crawford, ‘The British Section of the Ravenna Cosmography’, Archaeologica, 93 (1949), 1-51.

Webster, J., ‘Sanctuaries and Sacred Places,’ in M. Green (ed.), The Celtic World (London, 1995), 445-464.

Diana at Nemi

Diana Nemorensis: Origins of the Legend

Diana at Nemi

Diana as Huntress at Nemi. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Diana

The goddess Diana was the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Artemis. She was best known as the goddess of the hunt, nature and animals. Later, she also became known as goddess of the moon. She was the daughter of Jupiter (king of the gods) and Latona, and was the twin sister of Apollo (god of the sun).

In most depictions she is shown carrying a bow and arrows while wearing a small crescent moon in her hair. Her most sacred animals were deer, bears and hunting dogs. Diana was also the goddess of birth, even though she herself remained a virgin. Both animals and humans were protected by her and their fertility was Diana’s concern.

In trying to appease the goddess, young men and women offered the goddess votives to secure healthy and strong offspring. Amongst these votives could be various jewellery objects, statuettes and figurines either of the goddess or her devotees and figurines of animals. Votives offered to Diana quite often show a very strong connection with nature in all its manifestations, relating to her nature as goddess of the hunt and fertility. This can be illustrated by looking at the votive offerings found on site, which include human body parts like the uterus.

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Diana Nemorensis

Diana was known in different characters. One of her guises was Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi). The sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis was found on the northern shore of Lake Nemi and her cult was particularly violent. The Romans frequently adopted Greek divinities and merged them with their own, which resulted in several legends that refer to the origin of the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis.

One of the legends goes that there was a large oak tree to be found in her sacred grove at Nemi. It was absolutely forbidden to break off any of its branches (some say the mistletoe surrounding it). The only people allowed to do so were fugitive slaves. Breaking off one of the branches gave the slaves the right to fight the presiding high priest of the temple to the death. If the challenger won, he could take the place, adopting the title of rex nemorensis, king of the sacred grove.

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue of Diana Nemorensis on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The tale of the rex nemorensis is told in the ancient sources. Ovid’s description (Fasti Book 3) reads:

‘one with strong hands and swift feet rules there, and each is later killed, as he himself killed before’.

According to the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer, the rule of the sanctuary was that:

‘A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he himself was slain by a stronger or a craftier.’

Origins of the Legend

This bloody ritual could be explained as a variation on the story of Orestes, known in Greek mythology. Orestes (son of the king and queen of Mycenae, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) killed his mother and her lover to avenge his father. To purify himself the god Apollo sent him to Tauris. Iphegeneia, Orestes’ sister was the priestess of the local divinity, Artemis of Tauris. The cult of Artemis of Tauris was known for killing all the foreigners that came to shore.

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi.
Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

After tricking the king of the Tauric Chersonese to escape an unfortunate ending, Orestes fled with his sister to Italy. They took the image of the Tauric Artemis with them and the cult of Artemis of Tauris took hold in the woods of Nemi. This barbaric goddess was known for the bloody rituals taking place in her sanctuaries; every stranger who landed on the shore was sacrificed on her altar.

The ritual in Nemi can be interpreted as a milder form of this gruesome practice. However, the goddess still could only be appeased properly with human blood. The death of the rex nemorensis or his challenger had to be violent, ‘as the spurting blood from the loser was meant to fertilise the surrounding ground’, as Ludovico Pisani argues.

Another tradition, again of Greek origin, explains the existence of the first rex nemorensis. According to the Aricians, the priesthood would have been held by Hippolytus. Hippolytus, after being unjustly killed by his father, was resurrected by Asclepius (the god of healing, Aesculapius in Latin) with the aid of Artemis. He was named Virbius (twice man) and went on to become a king, devoting a place of worship to Artemis. Diana was also called Virbia, which helps to explain the connection between her perceived healing powers and those of Virbius, who became a minor deity himself.

Celebrating Diana at Nemi

Diana was honoured at Nemi by an annual festival on August 13th (which, incidentally, is also our Twitter guru Fundilia’s birthday!) called Nemoralia. Burning torches were carried in a procession around the lake, known as Speculum Dianae (Diana’s Mirror). Those whose prayers had been answered would attend wearing wreaths of flowers, in order to fulfil vows made to the goddess. Hounds were honoured out of respect for Diana’s role as the goddess of the hunt. The day is also known as servorum dies festus, as it was holiday for slaves.

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Ruth Léger, researcher, University of Birmingham

Don’t forget, ‘Romans’ FREE event on 5th August 2013 when standard admissions tickets are bought http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=5569&eventId=5868

Lake Nemi

Lake Nemi, or Lago di Nemi as it is known in Italian, can be found in the Lazio (Latium) region of central Italy. The lake itself occupies a volcanic crater, overlooked by the modern town of Nemi and close to the ancient town of Aricia. The area is known for its astounding beauty, surrounded by the groves from which Nemi takes its name and the Alban Hills. As such, it has served as inspiration for a number of Romantic artists, such as John Robert Cozens (below).

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Lake Nemi, John Robert Cozens, 1777-78, Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum 2013

Now more famed for its delicious strawberries, this location was once a haven for Romans escaping the stifling heat of the city in summer. Only 16 miles south of Rome, many took advantage of the more temperate climate offered by the lake’s environs. The towns and villages of the Alban Hills were populated with luxury holiday villas, perhaps even including one belonging to Julius Caesar.

The lake was also host to Emperor Caligula‘s ships . Although these pleasure barges were destroyed during the Second World War, surviving objects indicate that the ships were both technologically sophisticated and lavishly furnished with statues and marble.

The Mirror of Diana

The area surrounding this lake was also home to a sacred site dedicated to the goddess Diana. For this reason, the lake was known to ancient poets such as Servius as ‘speculum dianae’, or ‘the mirror of Diana’. The cult of Diana Nemorensis (as legend has passed down to us) was a particularly brutal one, involving the ritual combat and murder of the priest of Nemi by his successor. This story is intimately tied to the landscape, as the challenger made his intentions clear by offering a branch from the grove around the lake.

The excavation by Lord Savile in 1885 unearthed the remains of a temple on this site. Little remains of the building, as the wooden parts of the structure have been destroyed by time. However, models of Etrusco-Italian temples found at the site give an impression of what Diana’s temple would have looked like. The excavation also yielded many votives, objects offered to Diana in return for her support.

Look out for upcoming blog posts on the mythology surrounding the site, the excavations and the votives found at Lake Nemi!