Although most Romans shared a similar pantheon, throughout the Roman Empire there were many different cults and religious groups that focused their attention on a specific deity or deities. One of these cults was the Cult of Diana in Nemi, Italy. They focused their attention on the goddess Diana Nemorensis, who was the goddess of hunting, fertility, childbirth, and the moon. The Cult of Diana at Nemi, Italy provided services, both spiritual and practical, to its practitioners. Information, care, and support were provided along with religious guidance and the opportunity to ask for Diana’s aid more directly in her sanctuary. The Cult of Diana at Nemi provided religious guidance and practical aid to men and women alike, and the support given to Diana’s practitioners increased their wellbeing significantly.
The deities that were worshipped by cults and religious groups across the Roman Empire were often created by merging Ancient Greek gods or goddesses with a deity local to the cult or religious group’s location. The goddess worshipped by the Cult of Diana at Nemi in Italy, Diana Nemorensis, was one of these deities formed by blending a Greek goddess with a local deity. Diana Nemorensis was a combination of the Greek goddess Artemis and the local Italian goddess of the woods.
The Sanctuary by Diana’s Mirror
Both men and women worshipped at the temple, and people of all social classes were able to worship and ask Diana for help. Inscriptions and dedications found at the sanctuary suggest that there were many wealthy aristocrat patrons, as well as Roman emperors and their families (280 Green). Despite the amount of wealthy patrons, people of any social class were welcome. Green explains that although it was common for temples and sanctuaries to require a donation in the form of money or a votive, Diana’s sanctuary did not require it. “Yet Diana would have accepted even the poorest as a suppliant, without requiring pay. Ovid says a much (and implies that this was unusual, and specific to Diana’s sanctuary)… ‘When the piper plays on his curved horn before the Mother of the gods, who denies him the coins of a small fee? We know nothing of the sort happens by the authority of Diana; yet her prophet has what he needs to live.’” (Green 281) Despite the fact that votives and donations were not required to receive Diana’s help, worshippers who were able to provide something often did, leading to the cult itself not having trouble with finances.
The Cult of Diana’s place of worship was a temple about eleven miles outside of Rome on the shores of Lake Nemi, often known as speculum Dianae, or Diana’s mirror. The lake is situated inside of a crater and is surrounded by forests. The temple itself was built around 300 BCE, although the site had long been a place of worship before the temple was built. It is estimated that the site on the shores of Diana’s mirror was an established place of worship since the archaic period, and some of the offerings found at the site are thought to date back to the early seventh century (10 Green).
Depicting Diana Nemorensis
Despite the fact that women were not given positions of power and often did not have authority over themselves, Diana, a woman, was highly revered by both men and women. Her influence extended over both male dominated and female dominated areas. For example, Diana was the goddess of hunting despite the fact that hunting was not something that women were usually allowed to participate in. On the other hand, Diana was also the goddess of childbirth, an activity that only women could participate in. Although even goddesses were under the authority of a man, Jupiter in the case of Diana, they were given much more freedom in their actions and were more respected than a mortal Roman woman.
One way that Diana was depicted was through the image of the Triple Diana. The Triple Diana, also known as Diana triformis, consists of Luna, Diana, and Hecate (134 Green). Diana was the goddess of many things, and the Triple Diana is an idea that represents the various aspects of her. Luna in the Triple Diana was the goddess Diana in her form as the goddess of the moon, the hunt, and childbirth. This aspect of her was particularly important for women, especially because the mortality rates were high for women giving birth. Additionally, the moon was considered to be symbolic of the cycle of life. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, life follows a similar pattern with “…birth, death, growth, and decline.” (136 Green) This coin not only demonstrates the idea of a trinity in the Triple Diana, but it also shows how far reaching Diana was in the Roman pantheon. Due to her relation to frequent and notable events in a person’s life, such as childbirth, her presence was valued enough to be included on money. Although the Cult of Diana at Nemi focused on Diana specifically, many more people outside of the area surrounding the sanctuary and cult valued her and asked for her aid in many aspects of their life.
A common way for people to worship Diana was to offer her terracotta votives, or an offering for a specific vow, in the form of wombs and swaddled infants found at the sanctuary (137 Green). One of Diana’s abilities as the goddess of childbirth was to aid women in giving birth. These votives were given to Diana as a way for the practitioner to ask for her help in surviving childbirth and having a healthy baby. These votives were often aligned with the intentions of the practitioner offering them. For example, if a woman wanted help in childbirth giving a votive directly pertaining to childbirth such as a womb or baby would be the most fitting for the situation. These votives demonstrate the practice of giving some kind of offering to Diana in exchange for her help. Although an offering was not necessary for Diana to aid her worshippers, many practitioners did give gifts if they were able to.
The Rex Nemorensis
The members of the cult itself provided advice and care to the people who came to Diana for help. An example of this is how priests would give advice to hunters and pregnant women about how to effectively hunt or give birth, respectively. At the head of the cult was a man known as the Rex Nemorensis, or the king of the wood (11 Green). The ritual of becoming the Rex Nemorensis was especially violent, involving a battle to the death between the current Rex Nemorensis and any man who wanted to challenge him. In order to challenge the Rex Nemorensis there were a few requirements that had to be met. Firstly, the challenger had to be a fugitive slave. Green presents a passage written by Strabo, a first-century BCE geographer, to describe the Rex Nemorensis. “‘For a runaway slave is established as priest after he has slain with his own hand the man previously consecrated to the priesthood. As a result, he is always armed with a sword, looking around for attacks, ready to defend himself.’” (153 Green) The Rex Nemorensis was the only person allowed to carry weapons on sanctuary ground in order to be able to defend himself from wild animals or potential challengers. If a challenger meets the requirement of being a fugitive slave, he then needs to take a piece of mistletoe growing on a sacred oak tree. Only after this is he allowed to challenge the Rex Nemorensis to a duel to the death (163 Green).
While women were not given positions of power in the cult, they were able to make donations and appear on dedicatory inscriptions. The names of wives of distinguished men and other distinguished women were found on these dedicatory inscriptions in the sanctuary (280 Green). Despite the lack of women in power, the cult did provide services for women, specifically pregnant women and women trying to conceive.
Fertility and Childbirth
As Diana was the goddess of fertility and childbirth, many women visited the sanctuary to ask her to help them in conceiving or to aid them in childbirth. Terracotta votives in the form of wombs and swaddled infants were discovered at the sanctuary, and it is believed these were given to Diana when asking for help with childbirth. As childbirth often led to the death of the mother, Diana’s sanctuary was a place for women to go for advice and care regarding pregnancy. The sanctuary even gave advice on how to care for pregnant animals such as dogs and livestock (137 Green). Information for pregnant women was incredibly valuable, especially because women of any social class could go to the sanctuary for help. While a wealthy woman may have midwives and other people who specialized in childbirth available to give advice and guidance during childbirth, a poor woman may not have access to the same information or aid. Additionally, while a wealthy woman might be able to hire servants to help her maintain the household while pregnant, a poor woman would not have access to the same resources and may not have the same opportunity to reduce daily stress.
Diana the Huntress
Additionally, a person might seek help from Diana in her form as a huntress. This was not limited to hunting game, however, and also included following personal pursuits such as finding love or fulfilling career aspirations (122 Green). Similar to the troubles concerning fertility and childbirth, the priests at the sanctuary also provided “…knowledge, skill, and tools to succeed in the hunt (whether for animals or other men).” (Green 125) This help would be incredibly valuable, especially because many peoples’ livelihoods and whether or not they would go hungry depended on how successfully they were able to hunt animals. Diana provided protection for people from many different walks of life and for many different situations. The priests at her sanctuary provided advice and help to the people seeking Diana’s help, leading to many people wanting to frequent the sanctuary and participate in the cult.
The Cult of Diana at Nemi, Italy focused their attention on the goddess Diana Nemorensis, who was the goddess of hunting, fertility, childbirth, and the moon. The idea of Diana is a combination of the Greek goddess Artemis and the Italian goddess of the woods local to Nemi. Both men and women worshiped her and asked for her aid, although only men were given positions of power in the cult. Despite this, the Cult of Diana at Nemi provided valuable resources to women, particularly pertaining to childbirth. Information, care, and support were provided along with religious guidance and the opportunity to ask for Diana’s aid more directly in her sanctuary. People of all social classes were welcome, and the sanctuary and cult would offer her aid to anyone regardless of whether they were able to provide an offering or votive. Diana had many forms, and the Triple Diana encompassed the idea that Diana, although she was one goddess, could take three different forms depending on the needs of the practitioner. As she aided women in childbirth and in fertility, she also aided hunters in hunting animals and navigating the wilderness. The Cult of Diana at Nemi provided religious guidance and practical aid to men and women alike, and the support given to Diana’s practitioners increased their wellbeing significantly.
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Schultz, C. E. (2006). Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic. Univ of North Carolina Press.
Skovmøller, A., & Sargent, M. L. (2013). Painted portrait sculpture from the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi. Tracking Colour. The Polychromy of Greek and Roman Sculpture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. Preliminary Report, 5, 9-35.
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