The Murderous Cult of Roman Diana and Her Sword-Wielding Priests

From Artemis to Aeneas and a Founder of Modern Anthropology

The killing of Diana's priests took place at this gorgeous location
The killing of Diana's priests took place at this gorgeous location.

Hedda Gjerpen / Getty Images

In the US, the President has to retire after eight years in office, but at least they get to live after their second terms as President. Some of the ancient Romans weren't so lucky. In order to become the new priest of the Italian sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi), the incoming priest had to murder his predecessor to get the job! Although the shrine was located in a sacred grove and near a gorgeous lake, so applications for the position must have been through the roof...

Priestly Problems

So what's the deal with this sacerdotal situation? According to Strabo, Artemis's worship at the grove of Nemi - included "a barbaric ... element." The priestly turnover was quite graphic, for, as Strabo recounts, the priest had to be a freedom seeker who killed "the man previously consecrated to that office." As a result, the reigning priest (dubbed the "Rex Nemorensis," or "King of the Grove at Nemi") always carried a sword to protect himself against murderous interlopers.

Suetonius concurs in his Life of Caligula. Apparently, the ruler of Rome didn't have enough to occupy his twisted mind during his own reign, so he meddled in religious rites...Supposedly, Caligula got fed up with the fact that the current Rex Nemorensis had lived for so long, so the dastardly emperor "hired a stronger adversary to attack him." Really, Caligula?

Ancient Origins and Mythical Men

Where did this odd ritual come from? Pausanias states that when Theseus killed his son, Hippolytus - whom he believed to have seduced Theseus's own wife, Phaedra - the kid didn't actually die. In fact, Asclepius, god of medicine, resurrected the prince. Understandably, Hippolytus didn't forgive his father and the last thing he wanted was to stay in his native Athens, so he traveled to Italy, where he set up a sanctuary to his patron goddess, Artemis/Diana. There, he set up a contest for freedom seekers to become the temple's priest, in which they fought to the death for the honor.

But according to the late antique author Servius, who wrote commentaries on major epic texts, the Greek hero Orestes had the honor of founding the ritual at Nemi. He rescued his sister, Iphigenia, from the sanctuary of Diana at Tauris; there, Iphigenia sacrificed all strangers to the goddess, as recounted in Euripides's tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris

Servius claims that Orestes saved Iphigenia by killing Thoas, king of the Taurians, and stole the sacred image of Diana from her sanctuary there; he brought the statue and the princess back home with him. He stopped in Italy - at Aricia, near Nemi - and set up a new cult of Diana. 

At this new sanctuary, the ruling priest wasn't allowed to kill all strangers, but there was a special tree, from which a branch could not be broken. If someone did snap a branch, they had the option to do battle with the freedom seeker-turned-priest of Diana. The priest was a freedom seeker because his journey symbolized Orestes's flight westwards, says Servius. This ritual, then, was Virgil's source of material for the legends about the area where Aeneas stopped off in the Aeneid to find a magical plant and enter the Underworld. Sadly for these entertaining tales, neither probably had anything to do with the ritual at Nemi.

Issues of Interpretation

Aeneas and the enslaved priests came up again in modern studies of religion. Ever heard of anthropologist James Frazer's seminal work The Golden Bough? He theorized that Nemi was the spot where Aeneas went to Hades, as Servius suggested. The sacred sparkly in the title refers to "a bough, golden leaf and pliant stem" Aeneas had to grab in Book VI of the Aeneid in order to descend to the Underworld. But Servius's own claims were spurious at best!

This odd interpretation has a long history - well-chronicled by Jonathan Z. Smith and Anthony Ossa-RichardsonFrazer took these ideas and claimed that used the slaying-of-the-priest as a lens through which he examined world mythology. His thesis - that the symbolic death and resurrection of a mythical figure was the focus of fertility cults across the world - was an interesting one.

This idea didn't hold much water, but that theory of comparative mythology informed the works many historians and anthropologists, including the famous Robert Graves in his White Goddess and Greek Myths, for decades ... until scholars realized Frazer was wrong.

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Silver, Carly. "The Murderous Cult of Roman Diana and Her Sword-Wielding Priests." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Silver, Carly. (2023, April 5). The Murderous Cult of Roman Diana and Her Sword-Wielding Priests. Retrieved from Silver, Carly. "The Murderous Cult of Roman Diana and Her Sword-Wielding Priests." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).