Legend has it that after a great plague came to Rome in 293 B.C.E., a Roman Sibyl decreed that a temple dedicated to the Greek god of medicine and healing, Aesculapius, be built in Rome. The Romans sent an envoy to the Greek city of Epidauros, the birthplace of the god, to obtain a statue of Aesculapius for the new temple. When the ship returned to Rome and sailed down the Tiber, a great snake was seen swimming to Tiber Island. Since Aesculapius carried a staff with a snake wrapped around it (the precursor of the caduceus used as a symbol by today’s medical corps), this sighting indicated to the Romans that the god wanted his temple to be built on the island. So, there the temple was built.
Over the years, the site was intentionally altered so that the island itself came to resemble a ship. A smooth marble facing was placed along the slides of the entire island, making the island look much like a boat, including a prow and stern. These changes are still clearly visible today.
At one point, an obelisk was erected on the island, to resemble a ship’s mast.
With the spread of Christianity, the island underwent some changes. In 998, the Basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola was built over the remains of the temple of Aesculapius — just one of the many examples in Rome where a church was (intentionally) built directly over the remains of a pagan site.
While attempts were made to stamp out reminders of the pagan temples that once stood there, the island continued to be regarded as a center for healing. In 1584, a hospital was built on the island — and is still operating today.
Tiber Island is connected on both sides by bridges. One bridge leads from the Jewish Ghetto: at the start of the bridge one comes across a now very eroded four-headed statue.
Aptly enough, the bridge is known as the Ponte dei Quattro Capi (Bridge of Four Heads), but also as the Pons Fabricius. This is the oldest bridge in Rome still in it’s original state (for the most part). Cross this bridge knowing you are walking where millions have gone before you: it was built in 62 B.C.E.! The bridge leads past a medieval tower on the island.
Nearby is yet another of Rome’s little street shrines, one of my favorites: the Madonna of the Lamp.
In my last post, I noted these Marian shrines often replaced pagan shrines. Tiber Island demonstrates, once again, how the ancient past in Rome is always just below the surface.