The Theater of the Sanctuary

il re del bosco
If you arrive in the village of Nemi along the busy and noisy Via Appia Nuova (no more than thirty kilometers from Piazza San Giovanni, almost in the center of Rome), and look down the lake in an unpredictable silence, perhaps you will remember the fairytale vision of a painting by William Turner (The Golden Bough), where a group of young people dance in a circle on the edge of a small body of water while a female figure, not far away, exhibits a twig, as an agreed signal, a secret message.

Coming down on foot, even the most stubborn of dreamers will have to admit the changes in the environment that have been caused by building devastation since Turner's time. Yet one is struck by the beauty of the landscape, and the suggestion is stronger remembering the very strange story that for centuries, at least until the first century AD, had this scenario.

A few meters from the shore of the lake, inside the Shrine of Diana (of which the ruins are visible), men fought in a duel to obtain a religious charge. Those who wished to take over from the priest of the Sanctuary, called King of the Wood (rex Nemorensis), had to challenge him by trying not only to physically overpower him but to kill him. And he himself would be eliminated, sooner or later: in fact, the mandate lasted for life, because it had to be regained with every new challenge. In this way, a murderer, destined to be assassinated, became responsible for religious rites not for "spiritual" merits but on the basis of the ability to defeat and suppress an adversary. A ceremonial only seemingly absurd and incomprehensible.

The King of the Wood could not weaken and age, because he represented the energy of nature; therefore if he had died, not only would he had given way to a younger and more vigorous man but also he would have sacrificed his own blood, offering it to the goddess.

Diana, who took over an archaic Italic deity, was considered the protector of pregnant women and newborn babies. Solar goddess, dispenser of healings and benefits, but also lunar and dark, inspirer of infernal curses: thus, she was a changing, multifaceted divinity, difficult to define, a contradictory synthesis of various supernatural creatures. She used to hunt her preys in the woods of Nemi, accompanied by Egeria, the nymph of the spring near the lake, she had no qualms about punishing with death the unwary young males who ventured along the paths to attack on her virginity: that’s what the legends say. And when the Romans began to identify her with Artemis, the goddess "imported" from Greece who did not disdain human sacrifices, her familiarity with blood increased dramatically. In fact, Igino, librarian of the emperor Augustus and author of a collection of myths and legends of his times, writes that at some point the cruelty of those rituals «became unwelcome».

The priesthood claimant, usually a runaway slave who had nothing to lose and thus tried to seize the opportunity to improve his condition, snatched a mistletoe branch from an oak tree and presented himself to the challenge. Mistletoe (around Lake Nemi precisely the so called Loranthus europaeus grows) is a plant that develops directly from the trunk of trees: semi-parasite, it feeds itself of the nymph of the tree which "hosts" it but it is equipped with chlorophyll; therefore, by performing the photosynthesis, it has a partial biological autonomy. Suspended on the trunk between the earth and the sky, dependent on another vegetable yet in a certain independent way, it has always been given a great symbolic meaning. "The King of the Wood was the embodiment of the spirit of the oak tree," writes James Frazer in his famous and voluminous essay titled like Turner's painting (The Golden Bough), entirely dedicated to the brutal duel. Showing the mistletoe branch, "the golden bough", meant taking on the responsibility of representing the most massive and long-lived tree, that is, the energy of nature, to sacrifice himself or the adversary to Diana, thus providing for the fertility of the earth and the health of the people. 

Svetonius, the great Roman historian, testifies that this dark ceremony was still in force in the time of Caligula, that is, in the 1st century A.D.: since the rex Nemorensis was judged too old, the emperor had ordered a young slave to go to the Shrine of Nemi to commit the ritual murder and take over from the priest in charge. (It is possible that the duel became, at a later time, only a staging performed by actors.) Initially (but it is a beginning that is lost in the mists of time), this happened in an unspecified point of the forest around the shore, perhaps in the clearing itself where the Shrine of Diana was built (between the 5th and 4th century BC). Later, a small theatre was built inside the Shrine itself which became the final seat of the rite.

But how can we know for sure that the famous duel for the succession of the King of the Wood took place there? First of all by simple deduction, since the small theater was reserved for the various rites that took place in the Sanctuary; first and foremost, as a result, the deadly clash between the two would-be priests. Moreover, there is also important archaeological evidence: inscriptions, depictions on marble... findings that are preserved (let’s say, forgotten) in the warehouses of the Roman National Museum of Palazzo Massimo (Largo Villa Peretti 2, Rome) and documented in the archives of the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Lazio. A confirmation of what I am saying, very authoritative, comes from Dr. Giuseppina Ghini who was for many years responsible for the Superintendent of Archaeological Heritage of Lazio, and dedicated numerous essays to the Shrine of Nemi.

The theatre was unearthed between 1924 and 1928 by an Italian archaeologist, Ettore Gatti, and soon after it was buried again. A few decades later, just above that priceless archaeological treasure, a house was built that everyone can see descending from the village along a dirt road, via Tempio di Diana (Temple of Diana street): therefore, the steps of the semi-circular cavea of about 28 meters in diameter were built on which sat the devotees, the frescoed walls, the dressing rooms with mosaics, the niches for the statues , the nymph...

It is not currently possible to know whether the building is clearly abusive or in compliance with urban planning laws by means of amnesties and prescriptions acquired over time but it should have not been certainly built there. The Superintendence made complaints, there are maps of the theater and of the entire Sanctuary performed with millimeter precision: with the necessary checks by the competent authorities, this could be enough to decide the expropriation, proceed with demolition and restoration.

But on this certainly sensational event, silence reigns supreme. I've been dealing with this issue for a few years. Journalists do not want to have any trouble, they do not even write an article in the parish newspaper, out of laziness or perhaps because they do not realize (out of pure ignorance) how fascinating and scandalous the history of the theater of the Sanctuary is; the mayors of Nemi just look the other way (also because if we talk about that building abuse, who knows how many others would emerge); and archaeologists who are aware of the situation, give up, convinced that it will be impossible to demolish the house. The cultural associations in the area which should know, organize visits to the Sanctuary, but when the groups of visitors pass a few meters from the house, nobody ever screams: «The theater of the duel of the King of the Wood is down there!».

It is that kind of typically Italian mix of ignorance, skepticism, cowardice and love for quiet living. Yet there is nothing to fear, not even for the house owner, a certainly peaceful and above all educated person, as for years he has been pleased to keep the theater under his feet, pursuing the most valuable and sophisticated building abuse in the area.

I would like to point out that in the world Nemi's duel is very famous because of Frazer's book. There is no university student of cultural anthropology faculties, especially Anglo-Saxons, who is not obliged to read and study it; certainly it is recommended in archeology and literature faculties (not to mention Turner's painting, made by the author with precise references to Lake Nemi and rex Nemorensis). Many people would be interested in the news, namely that now we know the exact place where the duel of the King of the Wood took place (even if hidden by a modern building). Someone should let them know.

Some time ago, some excavations were carried out in the territory of the ancient Crustumerium (disappeared at the beginning of the fourth century BC), just outside Rome, between via Salaria and via Nomentana, by the Institute of Archeology of Groningen (Holland) in collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendence of Rome. No doubut that it was an interesting research, (tombs and caves have been unearthed) but do we want to compare this archaeological site with the duel theater? Why was it done at Crustumerium but not at Nemi's theater? I understand: the house. Which even manages to prevent the existence of this important archaeological site from being discovered, studied and simply being known.

Looking at the plan of the theater, one realizes something that confirms and increases the intent to bring to light what is currently buried and forbidden to each of us. The auditorium was built to have the lake itself as the backdrop to the scene on which the challengers fought and, later, the interpreters recited the rite. Anyone who has spent a summer evening on the shore of Lake Nemi can understand how wonderful it would be to see shows in the restored theater.

Moreover, it would be a tourist resource, an archaeological asset to be added to the others already known and usable around the lake: the Sanctuary as a whole, the ancient artificial emissary, "Caesar’s villa", the findings contained in the Ship Museum ... The charming village of Nemi, perched on the edge of the primordial volcano, completes a set of great charm and beauty. By the way, I want to mention the words that Stendhal writes in his Roman Walks: «I consider the village of Nemi the headquarters of Beauty in Italy». A sentence that in Italy is apparently unknown or ignored: this is a small "finding" as well, something precious to bring to light. To verify the citation, see the original text (Promenades dans Rome, Gallimard 1973, on page 658).

Perhaps it is possible to remedy easily: maybe the theater is not buried by a pour of concrete but it is the basement of the house. Most probably now stock of fruit, Castelli’s bottles of wine are stored in the area where rex Nemorensis’ blood flowed.

In the spring of 2017 the bed of Lake Nemi was explored in search of a Roman ship, the mythical (and non-existent) "third ship" of the emperor Caligula. (In the thirties of the last century, the first two real ships, were brought back to the surface and placed in the Museo delle Navi Romane, but in the summer of 1944 they burned, for reasons still to be clarified). 

To verify the situation of the theater it’s not necessary to use sophisticated instruments as in the useless investigation in the lake. It is enough to knock on the door, go and see.
I don't want to feel so outraged; it would be perfectly useless, I understand that. Of course, it's really a shame because it is an invaluable archaeological and cultural asset, buried and hidden from the citizens of Nemi and anyone who has been interested in the enigmatic, fascinating story of the duel of the King of the Wood.

Roberto Varese