BMCR 2007.10.49

Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia

, Roman religion and the cult of Diana at Aricia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xxviii, 347 pages, 8 pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521851580. $75.00.

Table of Contents

The cult of Diana flourished for more than a thousand years, from the Bronze Age to the second century C.E., in the landscape of Aricia about 11 miles from Rome. Green’s book examines the various archaeological and literary evidence for Diana’s Arician sanctuary and its cult. The purpose of the book is to analyse the many aspects of the cult and to rethink traditional views and arguments in the light of recent theoretical insights and new material evidence unearthed since Wissowa’s authoritative exposition of the cult in Religion und Kultus der Römer (1912), not to mention Frazer’s much disputed treatment of the subject in The Golden Bough (1911-15).

Green’s book has a clear structure and is divided into three parts. The first one treats the archaeological evidence of Diana’s sanctuary as well as her representation in art and literature. The excavations of the site are examined, especially those of the sanctuary on the shore of Lake Nemi, which lies in the crater of a small, extinct volcano. (The lake appears almost round and the Romans called it speculum Dianae, the mirror of Diana.) The various sources are placed in the cultural context of Latium and Rome, with focus on religious and political rivalry between Rome and Aricia. Green distinguishes sharply between Roman and Latin religion and identifies Diana as a Latin goddess of hunters worshipped long before the Artemis type came to Italy. Along these lines, the book deals with the (supposed) problem of how to reconcile the many faces of Diana: the moon goddess, the hunting goddess, the goddess of the underworld, the healer, the guardian of women in childbirth, the guardian of the roads, etc.

The second part of the book comprises a discussion of the qualities and errors in Frazer’s and Wissowa’s interpretations of Diana’s cult and of the ritual of the rex nemorensis, the fugitive slave priest-king who possesses the golden bough, and who kills his predecessor and is killed by his successor. Green reproduces in an appendix the fourth-century grammarian Servius’ commentary on Aeneid 6.136, one of the disputed sources about the rex nemorensis, and offers a new translation of the passage, as well as useful discussion of particularly philological problems. Furthermore, the second part of the book seeks to reconstruct various relations between Diana’s Arician cult and the mythical figures Orestes and Iphigenia, Virbius, Hippolytus, and Egeria.

The third part of the book aims at establishing Diana’s relationship with her worshippers, especially concerning the goddess’ healing function. Contrary to the view of several modern scholars on ancient medicine and healing, Green convincingly shows that healing sanctuaries, far from being indifferent to medical theory, were at the forefront of medical developments. Practical medicine was mixed with religious conduct in the context of the sanctuary and the priests were the agents of the god or goddess, who was the ultimate source of the healing knowledge. Or, as Green concludes: “The goddess would seem, on the face of it, to have combined the various skills of family practitioner, psychiatrist, and veterinarian” (p.236).

Green stresses that the strange and violent ritual of the rex nemorensis stands well within the parameters of Roman and Latin kingship. According to this point of view, the rex nemorensis at Aricia remained a constant reminder of the nature of early Latin monarchy and of the relationship between marginalized men (fugitive slaves, criminals, exiles, foreigners) and the exercise of monarchical power. The rex nemorensis, as well as Orestes and Hippolytus, is thus interpreted as the cultic representation of the meaning of exile, flight and escape, and as an integral part of the religious identity of the Arician cult of Diana.

As an example of the religious significance of the rex nemorensis, Green proposes a special interpretation: according to Ovid, the area around the Arician sanctuary had become a very popular retreat from the city, with villas springing up everywhere. Julius Caesar, among others, appreciated the beauty of the place and commissioned a villa to be built at Nemi. According to Suetonius, however, when Caesar saw the new villa, he had it destroyed because it had not met his expectations ( quia non tota ad animum ei responderat totam diruisse) (p. 27). Green explains this act with reference to religious symbolism involving the rex nemorensis and Caesar’s victory over Pompey. According to Green, the ritual of the rex nemorensis was still the central symbol of the sanctuary and therefore “Caesar, the fugitive and challenger who had fought Pompey, the ruling (if not reigning) Roman, to the death, could not have a villa overlooking the sanctuary and hope that his enemies would fail to use the symbolism of this other rex against him” (p. 28). Even though Caesar’s religious attitude is a matter of some modern scholarly dispute, it is tempting to call Green’s interpretation religious overkill. First of all, we do not know for sure if Caesar’s villa overlooked the sanctuary at all. Secondly, why not believe Suetonius in this matter? He explicitly refers to the story as one example among several of Caesar’s appreciation of beauty and comfort. In addition, he emphasizes that Caesar was broke and deep in debt at the time, information that makes the story even more significant. If we consider the fact that the villa was therefore built with money lent by Pompey to Atticus, who then lent it to Caesar (much to Pompey’s irritation) (Cicero, ad Att. 6.1.25) the destruction of the villa could be seen as a manifestation of personal-political conflicts, rather than as coming out of fear (from a religious perspective) of a villa with a view of the sanctuary. If, of course, Suetonius’s story is true at all.

The book focuses on the religious “experience,” “belief,” “commitment,” or “devotion” of the worshippers (e.g. pp. 7, 81, 108, 283, 286). One could therefore have wished for just a brief comment on the relevant theoretical discussion of the question of religious belief in relation to the (crucial) importance of performing ritual in Roman religion. A few remarks explaining the author’s view on these matters would have been instructive in dealing with, e.g., the worshippers of Diana the healer. At Aricia there were springs for good water, pools for therapeutic bathing, and votive testimonials in abundance testifying to Diana’s effective assistance to human beings, as well as animals, in need. Nevertheless, as Green herself remarks, albeit in a note (note 4 p. 285), the inscriptions concerning e.g. Asclepius at Epidaurus indicate that skeptics were common in these situations. Could this not confirm the view that it was accurate performance of ritual (sacrifices, votives etc.) rather than the religious belief or disbelief that was the touchstone of such religious contexts?

The book gives a vivid picture of the sacred topography of Aricia, including the crater, the woods, the lake, the springs, the caves, the theater, the baths. Vivid, too, is Green’s attempt to reconstruct Diana’s cult and the temple with the golden roof, her priest with the golden bough, her representation of the golden moon etc., not to mention her significance to Augustus as he was inaugurating his own golden age. Green seeks to establish the Arician cult’s history during more than a thousand years and “to construct a complete portrait of this goddess” (p. xx). This kind of synthesis is of course always left open to both methodological and theoretical objections, involving critical considerations of the character of the source material in general and of modern theories of Roman religion in particular. Green relies, for instance, very much on fourth-century Servius, without really discussing the problems involved in using such a late source. Likewise, elements of ritual, myth, and philosophy from different periods and cultural contexts are sometimes mixed uncritically in the reconstruction, smoothing over the gaps in our knowledge, in order to present an even surface.

Expressing her gratitude towards Wissowa’s and Frazer’s excellent works, Green quotes Bernard of Chartres’ famous apophthegm (p. xv): “we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.” And she stresses the conclusion of the maxim: “we stand on the shoulders of giants to see better and farther than they.” Green offers an engaging and comprehensive examination and interpretation of the archaeological and literary evidence for Diana’s cult. Having her feet planted on such scholarly shoulders, she certainly makes one see farther and better, with new perspectives on the important interplay between ancient religion, politics, and society as a whole. So never mind, that, when it comes to the art of scholarly speculation, Green’s right foot sometimes seems to slip from Wissowa’s solid shoulder and seek footing on Frazer’s golden but more fragile bough.