The Rex Nemorensis and the Cult of Diana at Nemi

Diana of Versailles from the Louvre, 1st–2nd century CE.

The Rex Nemorensis and the Cult of Diana at Nemi

By Erin Schott


Even the hunter can become the hunted. This popular trope can be found across our modern films like Jurassic Park and Predator, but its origins lie in the ancient world. There is, perhaps, no better representation of this theme in antiquity than the myth of Actaeon. A Theban hero, Actaeon was once hunting in the forest along with his hounds when he came upon the goddess Artemis bathing. Enraged that the hero had seen her nude, the virgin goddess transformed the hunter into a stag, and Actaeon’s hounds tore him to pieces.

Actaeon seldom appears in ancient art, but the Museum of the Ships at Nemi houses a rare and compelling statue of the hunter in mid-transformation, sprouting the antlers and muzzle of a stag (see Fig. 1). It is fitting that this bust of Actaeon lies at Nemi because the ancient town was home to a famous cult of Artemis’s Roman equivalent: Diana. In fact, Nemi had such a strong affiliation with the huntress goddess that its inhabitants commonly called their nearby lake “Diana’s mirror,” due to its surface reflecting the moon’s image at night. 

Figure 1: Statue of Actaeon from Nemi, Hadrianic period

In the late nineteenth century, the forty-five sculptures from Nemi came into the holdings of the Penn Museum. The museum acquired these statues from the avid collector Lucy Wharton Drexel, and while many of them are fragmentary votives, one can easily identify them as depictions of Diana from the goddess’s distinctive hunting garb. For instance, one shoulder fragment from the acquisition lot seems to belong to a Diana statue because the subject wears the sleeveless chiton uniform of the goddess (see Fig. 2). Another fragment, this time of a torso, almost certainly comes from a Diana figure, as it portrays a woman with a cloak wrapped around her waist, prepared for the hunt (see Fig. 3). Although Diana was also a goddess of the moon, crossroads, and childbirth, the Nemi sculptures housed at Penn and in the town’s own Museum of the Ships portray the goddess primarily in her huntress capacity.

Figure 2: Shoulder fragment of a female deity, probably Diana, from the Penn Museum, ca. 60 BC

Figure 3: Torso fragment of a marble statue representing Diana from the Penn Museum, Hadrianic period

Nemi was a logical place to worship Diana in her capacity as a huntress because the town itself exemplified the trope of the hunter becoming the hunted. In one of the more bizarre ancient religious practices, a runaway slave called the rex nemorensis served as the chief priest for the cult of Diana at Nemi. According to tradition, any runaway slave could flee to Nemi and vie for the role of rex nemorensis. Before challenging the current ruler, the runaway slave had to pluck a golden bough from the grove of Nemi. The runaway slave and the current rex nemorensis would then fight to the death for the role of high priest. The tradition of the rex nemorensis offered the runaway slave a rags-to-riches opportunity of becoming king. However, it came at a cost: for the rest of his life, he had to fight challengers to the death in order to retain his position of power.

The golden bough in the rex nemorensis ritual has inspired ancient and modern authors alike. For example, in Vergil’s Aeneid, the Cumaean sibyl sends the Trojan hero Aeneas into a forest to see if he can pluck a golden bough, which will prove whether he is worthy to enter the underworld. The symbol appeared again almost two millennia after Vergil, when the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer wrote a book entitled The Golden Bough, in which he analyzed ancient magical cults, including the one at Nemi. An immensely popular piece of late nineteenth-century literature, The Golden Bough influenced writers from Yeats to T. S. Eliot. However, during the 1960s, scholars began to view The Golden Bough more critically. The anthropologist Edmund Leach accused Frazer of making “stylistic improvements” to sources so that their findings could better support his argument, while Marvin Harris said in his overview of anthropological theory that Frazer did not use any scientific framework to ground his ideas. The dearth of archaeological evidence for ancient mystery cults makes it nearly impossible to substantiate any of the claims advanced in The Golden Bough, and this has led to many of Frazer’s more eccentric proposals being discredited. Nowadays, for instance, scholarship has all but dismissed Frazer’s suggestion that the appointment of a new rex nemorensis symbolized rebirth and spawned fertility amongst Nemean cult initiates. 

Although Frazer claims to explain all the cult practices at Nemi in his book, the precise role of the rex nemorensis within the cult’s rituals to Diana remains uncertain. The word “rex” ascribes a certain kingly power to the chief priest, exemplifying the frequent overlap between politics and religion in the Roman world. The Roman historian Suetonius also tells a story that supports this interpretation of the rex nemorensis as a figure with political power. According to the biographer, the emperor Caligula felt threatened by the power of the rex nemorensis at Nemi, so he deliberately freed one of his slaves to challenge the high priest for his position. It appears that Caligula’s challenger was successful in his bid to become king because the emperor eventually received permission to place pleasure barges on Lake Nemi (see Fig. 4). In fact, Caligula’s pleasure barges are the very ships after which the Museum of the Ships at Nemi is named.

Figure 4: Pleasure barge from Lake Nemi

Although Caligula might briefly have enjoyed sailing his pleasure barges around Lake Nemi, the emperor, like the rex nemorensis he despised, faced an untimely demise. According to Suetonius, Caligula forced senators to run alongside his chariot, raped the wife of a prominent senator, and teased a member of his own guard by calling him “Venus.” Eventually, these cruel acts caught up to Caligula, and the guard that he called “Venus,” a man named Cassius Chaerea, formed a plot to assassinate the emperor. In 41 AD, the plot came to fruition when the emperor was stabbed thirty times by his guard. As a result, the emperor’s time cruising pleasure barges near the shores of Nemi came to an end, and his Julio-Claudian successors, afraid to associate themselves with Caligula, let his boats fall into disrepair. During twentieth-century excavations, these twin barges of Caligula were recovered from the bottom of Lake Nemi. Among their contents was a marble statue of the goddess Diana. While scholars have yet to decipher the precise rituals performed to Diana at Nemi, this cult to the goddess of the hunt provides a dire warning to those in power, be they religious kings or Roman emperors: anyone can become the prey.


Erin Schott (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and English. 


Reference List

Guldager Bilde, Pia. “Those Nemi Sculptures…” Expedition Magazine 40, no. 3 (1998): 3647.

Wood, Geoffrey. “Frazer’s Magic Wand of Anthropology : Interpreting ‘The Golden Bough.’” European Journal of Sociology 23, no. 1 (1982): 92–122.