A pilgrimage to Asclepius

Mondays are a bit tricky for the tourist craving her dose of historical sites in Italy. Most museums and archaeological sites are closed. Big Boy T (who, as he pointed to me, is 7 years and 1/3 rather than 7 years and a half) and I therefore went to visit one of the few sites that was open today – the magnificent baths of Caracalla – followed by a long walk along the Tiber river, and our train journey to the Vesuvius area, where we’ll spend the next two nights.

The Tiber Island

The Tiber Island

On our walk along the Tiber, we went for a small pilgrimage to the Isola Tiberina, which used to host the temple of the healing god Aesculapius. According to the historian Livy, in 293 BCE, a terrible disease ravaged the population of Rome. Religious officials consulted the sacred books (the Sibylline books) or the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and came to the conclusion that the Greek god of healing Asclepius should be imported to Rome from Epidaurus (Livy 10.47). There are more prosaic possible reasons for the import of Aslcepius – political upheaval and all that – but let’s just ignore those. The officials were unable to act upon the advice of the sacred books that year, but an embassy was sent the following year, and Asclepius (or Aesculapius for the Romans) was dutifully brought from Greece, in the form of a snake. According to Ovid in the Metamorphoses, the God himself chose his place of abode in Rome:

'Drugs' are still available on the Island. Note the Nutella ice cream at the bottom.

‘Drugs’ are still available on the Island. Note the Nutella ice cream at the bottom.

The serpent-deity has entered Rome, the world’s new capital and, lifting up his head above the summit of the mast, looked far and near for a congenial home. The river there, dividing, flows about a place known as the Island, on both sides an equal stream glides past dry middle ground. And here the serpent child of Phoebus left the Roman ship, took his own heavenly form, and brought the mourning city health once more

Ovid, Metamorphoses 15 (unusually, this is not my translation, but I have very little access to my usual work tools)

hospitalAesculapius could not have ‘chosen’ a better location for his sanctuary in Rome had he been forced to take it. The location of the Tiber Island is what historians of religion like to call ‘liminal’: it is neither here nor there. It is not really in Rome, and not really outside it. It is a good place for a ‘foreign’ god, and through the centuries, it has been a good place to isolate sick people. For the Tiber Island still very much remains a place of healing. It hosts no less than two hospitals: the hospital of the Fratebenefratelli and the Jewish hospital. It also has a charmingly old-fashioned pharmacy, and a beautiful church of St Barthelemew, a St who also specialises in healing.

The presence of a small Jewish hospital on the Island often remains unnoted

The presence of a small Jewish hospital on the Island often remains unnoted

Big Boy T and I, suffering from sore feet and mild fatigue, opted for some very modern drugs: coffee and sugar (in the form of a delicious cake). Gelati were also on offer, but we had – perhaps – over-indulged in gelati over the last two days and avoided those.



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1 Response to A pilgrimage to Asclepius

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol: #20 | Whewell's Ghost

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