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Temple of Aesculapius

Temple of Aesculapius

This temple was dedicated on the Tiber Island on January 1, 291 B.C. After a plague in Rome in 293 B.C., ambassadors were sent to the city of Epidaurus in Greece (a well-known center for healing). They were supposed to bring back the image of the god Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, who had a large sanctuary in the town. When the ambassadors returned to Rome, they brought not the image but a serpent, the symbol of the god. The serpent abandoned the ship upon arrival in Rome and swam to the island. This was taken as a good omen. The entire island was consecrated to Aesculapius and a temple to the god was built on its southeast end.

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 2-3.

The temple of Aesculapius erected on the island in the Tiber soon after 291 B.C. In consequence of a pestilence in Rome in 293 an embassy was sent to Epidaurus in 292 to bring back the statue of the god Aesculapius. This embassy returned in 291, bringing not the statue, but a serpent from Epidaurus that, on reaching Rome, abandoned the ship and swam to the island (Liv. X.47; XI. ep.; Val. Max. I.8.2 in ripam Tiberis egressis legatis in insulam . . . transnavit); Ovid. Met. XV.736-741; Plut. q. R. 94; Plin. NH XXIX.72; de vir. ill. 22). According to another tradition the first temple was built extra urbem, the second in insula (Plin. NH XXIX.16; Rend. Linc. 1917, 573-580; AJA 1919, 431). The whole island was consecrated to Aesculapius (see Insula Tiberina), the temple built, and dedicated on 1st January (Ov. Fast. I.290-292; Hemerol. Praen. Ian. 1; CIL I2 p305; Fast. Ant. ap. NS 1921, 83). It was usually called aedes, but also templum (Val. Max. I.8.2; Ov. Fast. I.290; de vir. ill. 22; Plin. cit.), fanum (Liv. XLIII.4), and Ἀσκληπιεῖα in Greek (Dionys. V.13). Besides being the centre of the cult and of the sanatorium that developed on the island (Fest. 110), this temple, being outside the pomerium, was also used as a place for the reception of foreign ambassadors, as those of Perseus in 170 B.C. (Liv. XLI.22), and for such meetings as that between the senators and Gulussa (Liv. XLII.24). From a reference in Varro (LL VII.57 equites pictos vidi in Aesculapii aede vetere et ferentarios adscriptos; Urlichs, Malerei vor Caesar 10) and some inscriptions (CIL VI.6, 7, 12) it appears certain that the first temple was rebuilt or restored towards the end of the republic; perhaps when the pons Fabricius was built in 62 B.C. the first temple was decorated with frescoes (Varro, loc. cit.; Liv. XLIII.4). It is altogether probable that there was further restoration during the empire, perhaps under Antoninus Pius (HJ 144), but there is no direct evidence therefore (cf. Besnier, L'Ile Tiberine 176, 191-192; JRS 1911, 187-195).

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    105. Tiber Island and the Temple of Aesculapius. Commentary.

    Although nothing of the Temple of Aesculapius remains to be seen, the Tiber Island preserves several interesting reminders of its ancient past. The hospital that dominates the island today is a reminder that this was the ancient city's center for healing and home to the healing god Aesculapius (a more approachable divinity, or hero, than Olympian Apollo). Sanctuaries to Aesculapius (the Greek Asklepios) were typically located on the edges of a city, for both hygienic and symbolic reasons; here, the Tiber's only island provides a similarly marginal area close to town. There are also remains of some travertine embankment walls that gave the downstream end of the island the shape of a ship, reflecting the origins of the snake-god's arrival in Rome by boat, as described by Livy [105.2] (a longer poetic account of this arrival can be found in Book 15 of Ovid's Metamorphoses). These ruins, on the north side of the island's “stern,” can be seen from the bridge downstream of the island, where one can also make out the image, carved in a travertine medallion, of a snake coiled around a staff, the icon of the god and a fore-runner of the medical profession's icon today.

    The Pons Fabricius leading to the island from the left bank is the best preserved of Rome's ancient bridges. The Pons Cestius, connecting the island to the Transtiber, has been largely rebuilt in modern times.

    105. Tiber Island and the Temple of Aesculapius. Sources.


    When Rome was suffering from a plague, ambassadors traveled to Epidaurus [in 293 BC] to transfer the cult statue of Aesculapius to Rome. They came back instead with the snake that the divine power of the god himself was said to inhabit. In Rome, the snake left the ship and went ashore at the island in the Tiber, where the Romans then founded the temple to Aesculapius.

    Livy, Summary Book 11


    Marcus Ulpius Honoratus … set this memorial up to Aesculapius and Hygieia, in return for his own health, his family's, and his doctor's, Lucius Julius Helix, who, alongside these gods, has taken expert care of me.

    ILS 2194 = CIL 6.19

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