In the ancient world, a person traveling southeast from Rome along the Appian Way toward Aricias would eventually see a rectangular temple of the goddess Diana, which was situated to overlook the nearby Lake Nemi. In charge of this temple was one of the most peculiar priests of the ancient world—the rex Nemorensis or “King of the Grove.”
Several ancient scholars wrote about these bizarre priests, including Suetonius, Ovid, Pausanias and Servius. According to the accounts of these men, there could only be one King of the Grove at any given time. This king lived in luxury—before it was destroyed in the 2nd century, the temple of Diana at lake Nemi supposedly had a golden roof, an artificial terrace, abundant masterful sculptures, a bath, a granary and even a small theatre. Yet, despite the beautiful scenery and the impressive title, the position of King of the Grove was a job that most people would not want.
According to the ancients, there were specific requirements that a person needed to meet before they could become a King of the Grove. The first step was to be enslaved and then escape, for only an escaped slave could become King of the Grove. After escape, the runaway slave needed to successfully reach the temple of Diana at Lake Nemi. Once at the temple, the true initiation began. There were no understudies, apprenticeships or seminaries at the temple—these priests of the goddess of the hunt had a different process for succession.
When the claimant to the priesthood worked up enough courage, he would supposedly break off a branch from a sacred oak tree on the temple compound, thereby warning the current King of the Grove that a new contender had arrived. With the breaking of the bough, the hunt began. The ancient sources were vague on which hunting tactics the claimant would use, be it a duel or ambush, but the only way the escaped slave could become the new priest of the temple was to kill the reigning King of the Grove. Either way, it was not an easy task, for the hunted priest had once been the hunter. The Kings of the Grove intimately knew how succession worked in the temple of Diana, so they were constantly watching new arrivals with a paranoid eye and always had a weapon on hand. Nevertheless, no matter how careful they were, the Kings of the Grove would inevitably fall to new successors, either because of mistakes or age. With that baptism by blood, the successful contender would don the title of King of the Grove and spend the rest of his life warily watching for broken branches in the sacred grove.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Mosaic depicting the goddess Diana, c. 2nd century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.