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A Murderous Priesthood

Updated on September 20, 2015

'Those trees in whose dim shadow The ghastly priest doth reign The priest who slew the slayer And shall himself be slain.'

Macaulay's quatrain above refers to the priesthood of Nemi and its peculiar succession rules, documented by several ancient sources, which I re-imagine here.

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To Adeodatus, Greetings

By envisaging you: scion of a wealthy family, immersed in studies of philosophy and rhetoric in Athens, I feel certain you will be unsettled by this missive. But, having given this matter much thought, I came to the conclusion that you should know.

Athanasius is my name. I am your father.

Know then that I was born in Britannia, but spent my early youth in Germania, enticed there by the warlike ways of its people, who admired my prowess with sword and spear. I joined the Cherusci, headed by the great Arminius, under whose command years earlier a coalition of Germanic tribes had destroyed three Roman legions they had lured into the Teutoburg forest.

The Romans, as you well know, are not a people resigned to letting such a massacre go unavenged. Their new commander, Germanicus, returned to that fateful forest to bury the remains of fifteen thousand of his compatriots. He then launched a sustained, relentless, ruthless war against the Cherusci and his allies. The Romans eventually succeeded in recovering the lost standards of their three legions, and their honor and pride with them. I fought with Arminius’s army this long war that culminated in a battle near the Weser river, where Germanicus’s legions inflicted disastrous losses upon us at minimal cost to them.

I was taken prisoner, enslaved, and deported to Gaul. It was there I met Honoria, your mother, the only woman who could soften my hardened heart. She was personal maid to the mistress of the household to which I was sold, well liked by her because of her refined manners and fine looks. Your mother died giving birth to you. You were a handsome, healthy, and cheerful infant, and the mistress, herself a Briton and barren, adopted you. I was pleased for you, and I pleaded with your adoptive parents that I be sold to a patrician family in Rome, and that they should tell you, when grown up, that you were orphaned. Although far away, I managed to keep informed about your progress through life.

By then unencumbered, I set out to regain my freedom.

The manner by which I chose to do so will seem barbaric to you. Its origins reach deep into a dark, mythical past and remain ultimately mysterious. I expect you never heard of Nemorensis Lacus, which the locals call ‘Diana’s Mirror’. It is a volcanic lake deep into the thickly wooded Alban hills, twenty miles south of Rome. Diana, the divine huntress, goddess of the moon and of the underworld, roams its shores and the surrounding wilderness. On the northern side of the lake, beneath steep cliffs, rise the grove and sanctuary consecrated to the goddess.

In this grove there grows a tree whose branches can be broken off only by a runaway slave, who is thus entitled to challenge the incumbent priest in single combat. If he slays him he gains his freedom and will reign as the new Priest-King of the Wood: Rex Nemorensis. This is a priesthood of murderers.

I well remember when I reached the sacred grove after escaping from my slave quarters in Rome. It was a gloomy autumn night. A stormy heavens agitated the woods and ruffled the lake’s waters. Unopposed, I broke off an offshoot from the tree. I could see in the distance the rotund temple of Diana, and the dim glow of the perpetual holy fire tended by the Vestal virgins. I reached the priest’s dwelling. A female slave was serving him a meal. I threw the branch across the threshold. He came out soon enough: a stocky man, fierce, years older than me. We fought by the wavering light of torches, circling one another, brandishing our spears. The priest struck the center of my shield, but did not pierce it, and the point of his spear got stuck there. I sprang forward; my spear’s tip gashed his shoulder, but he remained standing, though stunned by the blow. I stepped back, seized a large stone lying upon the ground and hurled it with all my strength. It broke his shield and threw him down on his back. I finished him off with my gladius. The sacred grove had a new priest-king.

Thus began my reign, nine years ago. Many challenged me throughout these years, but I outfought them all.

The unusually long duration of my reign has now attracted the attention of that unspeakable youth, the Emperor, Gaius Caesar. I had seen him first when still a little fair-haired boy, Germanicus’s son, playing with his legionnaires on the banks of the Rhine, wearing undersized soldier boots which earned him the nickname Caligula: ‘Little Boots’. A devoted worshiper of Diana, he is a frequent visitor to her lake. On more than one occasion on moonlit nights I saw him from afar, arms outstretched, invoking the name of the goddess. He thinks himself divine, the appalling youth, and worthy of the goddess’s embrace.

He is quartered with his court on a cedar-wood barge over 240 feet long with purple sails, its prow sculpted and bejeweled, its decks paved with glass mosaics; marble sculptures, gold and precious stone ornaments are everywhere. This floating palace is the backdrop on which lavish entertainments, orgies, cruelties, and murder are enacted. I was summoned there a few weeks ago.

Caligula wasted no words when I was admitted to his presence. “So you are the king of the lake, Diana’s priest, aren’t you?” he said sardonically. “Your reign has lasted too long, Athanasius. You are too revered, too popular. And too rich: what with all the offerings of money and goods the pilgrims bring you as the guardian of the temple. This must have made you soft. I expect I shall be meeting a new king on my next visit here.” He dismissed me with a contemptuous gesture.

That was it, then. My execution had been decreed. How fitting: I owed my slavery to the father, my impending death to the son.

On my way out I was approached by an old slave, a friend. “The Emperor has ordered one of the best slave-gladiators from the Capua school to come and fight you to the death,” he said. “If he fails, he will send a better one, and so on until you are killed.” It was an honor, in a way. Capua’s gladiatorial school was the best in the empire. Spartacus was trained there, so many years ago.

The Thracian Attilius, the first gladiator to challenge me, was a murmillo, used to fighting the retiari in the arena: a colossus of a man, in loincloth and sandals despite the cold. He wore a crested helmet; his legs were protected by metal leggings, his arms and wrists by leather. Like me, he carried a gladius and shielded his body with a large scutum. It was a hard, bloody fight. I was slashed repeatedly, but in the end I managed to plunge my blade into his neck. I buried him in a mass grave along with all the others who had dared to challenge me.

I have thus survived yet another fight, Adeodatus. But I harbor no illusions. My wounds are not properly healed and have weakened me. Yet, I expect, someone is already on his way, and I know this procession will not end until I am dead.

I am ready to meet my end with equanimity. I have lasted longer than most of my predecessors. And dying by the sword is the proper way for a man such as myself to enter Hades.

If that essence of me that courses in your veins and nourishes your soul has not been entirely filtered out by your upbringing, it may help you to sense some of the dark passions that moved me, for which I offer no apologies.

But I hope and trust you will earn your livelihood peacefully, your hands wielding a stylus rather than a gladius.

I wish I could have known you, son. May the gods guard you.

Athanasius, Rex Nemorensis


Lake Nemi - J. R. Cozens (1752-1797)
Lake Nemi - J. R. Cozens (1752-1797) | Source

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