Aesculapius and the Tiber Island

April 24, 2008 / Art & Archaeology
In The Early History of Rome Livy writes . . . When Rome was harassed by pestilence, (about 300 BC) a delegation was sent to bring the statue of Aesculapius (the Greek god of medicine) from Epidaurus (Greece) to Rome. They brought away with them a snake which had boarded the ship: the operative power of the god is known to exist in this snake. It went ashore on the Tiber Island, and there a shrine of Aesculapius was founded.

Tired of the non-stop bustle of the city? Head over to the Tiber Island, perhaps with some fresh bread, cold-cuts, fruit, and a bottle of wine for a unique picnic lunch. Sit on the steps under the trees by the “prow” of the island-ship (photo 1), built as part of the temple of Aesculapius, which was located below the current church of S. Bartolomeo.

Island-ship? Leave it to the Romans . . in 62 BC the Tiber island was landscaped into the shape of a ship to commemorate the return of the Aesculapius delegation, and has served as a place of worship and healing continuously since. A modern hospital occupies most of the island, which at one point also served as Rome’s leper colony.

Between your prosciutto e fichi (prosciutto and figs, a great combo!) you’ll notice Aesculapius’ symbol carved into the stone (photo 2) . . . a staff with a snake wrapped around it, symbol to this day of the medical profession. Will a picnic there heal you of all your ills? Probably not, but your feet will be thankful for the break, and thinking about Aesculapius, the legend of the snake, and his legacy in such a setting sure can’t hurt.

Kind thanks to Mott Groom for his valued contribution to this note.


by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

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