Lake Nemi, Diana’s Temple, and Corrupted Truth

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Nestled in a volcano crater 26 kilometers (16 miles) south of Rome is a beautiful and placid lake called Nemi. Surrounded by a forest of trees, Lake Nemi was known by the ancient Romans as Diana’s Mirror. When the moon is full, the shimmering surface of Nemi reflects brightly and beautifully the full moon. Diana, according to the ancient Romans (8th century BC) was the goddess of the Moon, wild beasts, and of the woods.

The Romans believed Diana inhabited the forests around Nemi. They built the sacred Temple of Diana, called Diana Nemorensis, or Diana in Nemi’s Woods, on the northern shore of Lake Nemi.

Ruins of that Temple at Lake Nemi can still be seen today, but few people make the trip to see it, and fewer still understand the significance of what they see.

Some of the most fascinating and colorful stories of ancient Rome occur in and around Lake Nemi. That’s right, in Lake Nemi. Visiting Lake Nemi should be on your bucket list. If you ever travel to tour Rome, take a day trip to visit Lake Nemi, or better yet, stay at the city you see perched on the top of the hill in the above photo. That city, the modern city of Nemi, is only a quick train ride from Rome. Events that have occurred over the past three millennia around the lake and in the lake are stunning in scope.

Before I show you the importance of Lake Nemi, let me give you some context.

The Roman goddess Diana is the counterpart to the Greek goddess Artemis. I have written about Artemis and how much the Greeks believed in her powers. The Romans revered Diana as the Greeks revered Artemis. The two goddesses are often conflated.

The Roman goddess Diana

The Roman goddess Diana is the counterpart to the Greek goddess Artemis. I have written about Artemis and how much the Greeks believed in her powers. The Romans revered Diana as the Greeks revered Artemis. The two goddesses are often conflated.

If you know your ancient history, you’re aware that the Republic of Rome eventually replaced the Grecian Empire as the ancient world’s superpower. In 146 BC, Rome defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Corinth and made Greece a Roman province. After the death of the Roman Republic dictator Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Julius Caesar Octavianus (63 BC-AD 14) became the first officially recognized Emporer of Rome and received the title Augustus.

The Senate of Rome crowned Octavianus Caesar as Augustus (e.g, “Supreme Emperor”) of Rome in 27 BC. That event marks the official beginning of the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus reigned as the first Emperor of Rome until his death in AD 14. The name “Caesar” was Octavianus’ adopted surname. Augustus was Caesar’s title. Thus, Caesar (the) Augustus is the Roman emperor mentioned in Luke 2 at the birth of Jesus:

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of all the inhabited earth… Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the City of David, which is called Bethlehem in order to register along with Mary. While they were there in Bethlehem…she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger.” (Luke 2:1-7)

The reason Jesus grew up speaking Hebrew and Greek and not Hebrew and Latin is that the Roman world in which Jesus lived kept the culture of the Greek Empire (the language, the arts, the religion, etc.). Keeping Greek customs in a Roman-ruled world is called Hellenization. It’s no wonder that the Roman goddess Diana and the Greek goddess Artemis are often conflated.

However, the worship of the Roman goddess Diana and the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis had origins that extend to a much earlier time than the days of Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

This 6th century BC Roman Temple of Diana stood until the barbarians destroyed the city in the 4th century AD and subsequent Roman Christian emperors tore down the pagan temples. Today, if you visit Rome,  there is a short street named the Via del Tempio di Diana which commemorates the site of the ancient Temple of Diana. Part of the Temple’s original wall is located within one of the halls of the Apuleius Restaurant (it’s worth a lunch visit).

But here is the key point you need to remember:

Before the Temple of Artemis was built by King Croesus in Ephesus (550 BC) and before the Temple of Diana was built by King Servius on Aventine Hill in Rome (est. 545 BC), there existed a Temple of Diana in the sacred grove of trees on the northern shore of Lake Nemi. It was called Diana Nemorensis.
Diana Nemorensis, which means, “Diana in the Woods of Nemi” was a small, secluded, and sacred shrine. It predates the Temples the Romans built, evidenced by the fact “Diana in the Woods of Nemi” refers to a sacred grove of trees. Ancient worship of the gods took place in forests and groves, called a Lucus in Latin.

When in Rome, do as the Romans. Go to Lake Nemi, or otherwise known as Lucus Nemi.

The History of Lake Nemi and Diana Nemorensis

Aeneas Discovering the Sacred Bough
For over eight centuries, from the founding of Rome (753 BC) to the days of Empeoror Caligula, bizarre rituals occurred on the northern shore of Lake Nemi. Romans would make their way to the sacred grove to appeal to Dianna for conquests in combat, harvests in the hunt, and fertility in the fields.


The Roman poet Virgil (b. 70 BC) writes about Aeneas discovering the golden bough in the lucus of Nemi. Aeneas breaks off the golden branch from the sacred tree, giving to him access to, and power over, the underworld (Hades). In a merging of Roman mythology and history, Aeneas’ discovery of the sacred tree is the reason for Diana Nemorensis being deemed a sacred place of worship shortly after the founding of Rome (753 BC). 


When King Servius built the Temple of Diana in the city of Rome (est. 545), Romans had already been worshiping Diana in the forests around Lake Nemi for nearly 200 hundred years.

The rituals the Romans performed at Lake Nemi involved fertility rites in the woods, requesting fertility in their fields, animal sacrifices to Diana from hunters who seeking blessings on their hunts, and a host of other religious rituals for the purpose of invoking blessings on the people of Rome.

But of all the rituals involved with worship at the Temple Diana Nemorensis, the most famous of them all involved the King of the Woods (Rex Nemorensis).


A statue of Diana over Lake Nemi today

The King of the Woods served as the High Priest of the Temple of Diana. He was the only male among many females associated with Diana worship at Diana Nemorensis.

In the center of the grove of trees on the northern shore of Lake Nemi stood that large, sacred tree that contained the golden branches to the underworld. It was absolutely forbidden for anyone to break off a branch or bough (pronounced bow) of the tree. For once a branch was broken, he who broke it had declared his intention to fight the King of the Woods to death to become the next King of the Woods and the next High Priest of Temple Diana Nemorensis.

Some men wanted that job because of the fertility rituals which they involved themselves in with the priestesses of Diana’s Temple and the power it gave them over the underworld.

The King of the Woods (Rex Nemorensis) was mystically married to the goddess Diana. The rituals he partook in at Temple Nemorensis with the priestesses of Diana were sexual, symbolic, and sacred. The King had the power to restrain the underworld and invoke the blessings of the gods.

But the King never died of old age. He would die a violent death, to only be resurrected to new life in the form of another deified King (the one who defeated the previous King) and continue the sacred rites in Diana’s Temple.  

19th-century painting of Lake Nemi

The violent death ritual of the King on the northern shore of Lake Nemi is mentioned in ancient literature by Strabo (b. 63 BC), where Strabo calls it “sacred to antique religion.”  Strabo adds that the King of the Woods  “holds his reign by strong hands and fleet feet, and dies according to the example he set himself” (Strabo, Geographia V, 3, 12).

It was said by the ancient Romans that worshipers of Diana entering the sacred grove at Nemi would often see the King of the Woods, sword drawn, protecting the boughs of the sacred tree from any interlopers. The King, having himself once crossed the sacred line and broken the golden bough,  was constantly vigilant for the one who would come to break the branch and seek to slay him. Legend says the King of the Woods of Nemi often appeared wild-eyed, frantic, and restless, knowing that by death he entered his position as King, and by death, he would exit it.

The King of the Woods ritual was put to verse by British historian Thomas Macaulay.

The ghastly priest doth reign

The priest who slew the slayer,

And shall himself be slain.

One of Caligula’s pleasure boats on Lake Nemi

Even during the time of the Roman Emperor Caligula (12 AD – 41 AD), the ritual slaying of the King of the Woods in the Sacred Grove at Nemi was in effect. Caligula himself sent a slave into the woods to “break the bough” and fight the High Priest of Diana, a battle which Caligula’s slave won.

Caligula’s barges on Nemi were deliberately sunk after his assassination in 44 BC. For centuries there were rumors of huge structures at the bottom of Lake Nemi. Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, fashioned himself a new Emporer of Rome. Mussolini drained Lake Nemi and had Caligula’s barges brought to the surface and the ancient artifacts cleaned and displayed in a museum. During World War II, the museum at Nemi was destroyed, but one of the mosaics that decorated of Caligula’s Pleasure Boats eventually wound up serving as a coffee table in New York City.
When you go to the new and rebuilt Italian museum on the north shore of Lake Nemi, you can read about the history surrounding the lake.


Mussolini and Italian soldiers surveying Caligula’s barges in the Museum on Lake Nemi, pre-World War II

The Golden Bough

Sir Frazer based the thesis of his book on the rituals that occurred on the northern shore of Lake Nemi at Diana Nemorensis. Sir Frazer traces the common elements of the worlds religions, including fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat, and many other symbols and practices whose influences have extended to modern day to Lake Nemi. Frazer’s thesis is that ancient religions were basic fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king (the King of the Woods at the Temple of Diana). Frazer believes that mankind evolves from rudimentary animism or belief in magic, to a belief in personified deities of religion, and finally to modern scientific thought.

In other words, to Sir Frazer, the rituals of the Temple of Diana at Lake Nemi are a glimpse into the evolution of man by examining an ancient ritual that endured even into the classical age of western civilization. The barbaric King of the Woods ritual at Lake Nemi and other ancient sacred rituals continued at Lake Nemi long into civilized times (the Roman Empire) because Lake Nemi was especially secluded and especially sacred. The Temple of Diana at Nemi, for the sake of illustration, would be like your great-grandmother’s China. Don’t touch it. Be careful with it. Don’t give it away.

The Romans treated Lake Nemi in the same manner. It was a sacred place for them.

At Lake Nemi, according to Sir Frazer, we see the basis for belief in dying and reviving god (eg., King of the Woods), a solar deity who undergoes a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth (the King was married to Diana, queen of the earth’s harvest, and the Moon of the skies).  Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.
The Golden Bough scandalized the British public when first published, as it included the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection in its comparative study. Christians were furious that the Lamb of God was treated by Frazer as a relic of pagan religion. Frazer called Christianity “merely a perpetuation of primitive myth-ritualism,” and he wrote that the New Testament Gospels were “just further myths of the death and resurrection of the king who embodies the god of vegetation.” Due to the enormous backlash, Frazer excluded his discussion of Christianity in subsequent volumes.

Sir Frazer and Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton (Kneller Portrait, 1689)

People who study comparative religions all believe that religions around the world share common teachings and beliefs. For example, flood stories are found throughout the world, among all cultures and religions. Death and resurrection, afterlife, and the sacredness of fertility in field and homes are also common themes. 

Either this world is evolving from pagan beliefs in animism, magic, and religion to scientific thought, or as the great Sir Isaac Newton believed, this world is devolving in intellect and moving from true religion to a corruption of the Divine truth.

I take Newton’s position.

Many years ago I read Sir Isaac Newton’s The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, and I became convinced that the history of the world’s religions is best understood by seeing every religion, both ancient and modern, as a corruption of Divine Revelation. Newton is even clearer in his superb work The Original of Religions, where he shows that a loving Creator gave true religion to His creation in the form of Divine revelation, and all other religions are a corruption of the Divine through a fall into idolatry.

In other words, Greece and Rome corrupted the Divine revelation of God and began to worship the creation. 

Lake Nemi and Revealed Truth

A sacred tree.

The Regent (Rex) of the earth (mankind)

Mankind fails and falls into death.

Through thorns and thistles, the earth gives fruit.

Through mankind’s corruption, idolatry flourishes.

By blood, a new Kingdom shall rise.

By sacrifice, a new way is made

The Temple of Diana and Blood Sacrifice

The Love of God in the Gift of His Son

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever trusts in Him should not perish, but have life everlasting” (John 3:16). 

I could go on and on, but my point is that you must either believe mankind is evolving from pagan beliefs or that mankind is devolving from Divine Revelation into pagan beliefs.

I, like Isaac Newton, hold to the latter belief. And I look forward to seeing Lake Nemi where the former found its birth. 
Until then, I am quite comfortable with the belief that the ancient Greeks and Romans fell into the practice of idolatry because their forefathers had corrupted the Truth of the one true God which was passed down to the nations through the children of Noah. The nations, including Greece and Rome,  eventually fell into the practice of worshiping the creation rather than the Creator.


The Ruins of Diana Nemorenis on the northern shores of Lake Nemi today

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