Asklepios and Tiber Island

Figure 1: The clay body parts offered to Asklepios.

The Temple of Asklepios (an ancient asclepieion, meaning healing temple) was a temple dedicated to the Roman god Asklepios built in the 3rd century BC on Tiber Island, Rome. Rather than being of Roman origin, Aesculapius was later adopted from the Ancient Greek religion and based on the god Asklepios of healing and medicine. On this page, we will research the origins of the temple: why exactly the Romans decided to adopt the Greek god Asklepios and why the temple was placed on Tiber Island.

1. The cult of Asklepios
1.1 Religion in Rome
1.2 Why Asklepios?
2. Location and history
2.1 Origins
2.2 The temple
2.3 Villa Borghese
3 Tiber island, a tradition of healing
3.1 History B.C.
3.1.1 Genesis of Tiber Island
3.1.2 Arrival of the temple of Asklepios on the island
3.1.3 Other forms of worship on the island
3.2 History A.D.
3.3 The island nowadays
3.4 Geographical analyses of the temple

The cult of Asklepios

In Greece, there had been a cult for the god Asklepios since the 6th century B.C. Asklepios was worshipped in his healing temples. When ill people came to the temple of Asklepios, there was a certain ritual used for healing. The patient slept an opium-induced sleep there. The dreams were then recounted to the priests of the temple. These priests interpreted the dreams. If something referred to Asklepios (most commonly the usual symbols of the snake and the dog) the patient was told how to get healed.

If the healing went as planned, an offering was made to Asklepios. This offering consisted of a clay (terracotta) representation of the healed body part. In addition, the clay representation was red when the patient was a man, and white when the patient was a woman (figure 1).

Religion in Rome

In the beginning of Roman religion, the Roman gods seem to have had no personality or personal development. This changed over the years. There are multiple theories suggested for the 'deterioration' (or development and personalization) of early Roman religion. One of these is that the 'pure' religion was corrupted by outside influences (such as the Greek and Etruscan). Other sources suggest that Roman religion has been a combination of multiple religions from far back. [1]

At multiple sites (dating back to at least the fourth century BC), for example at the place where the temple once stood, offerings of terracotta models of parts of the human body have been found. This would be before or at the same time Asklepios first came to Rome. This suggests that there were multiple sanctuaries in the beginning of the Roman Republic where people could go to find a cure for a disease. This was at a time when the religion was still supposed to be 'pure', and it implies that people wanted to turn directly to the gods in search of help for their health and disease problems. There is no trace of the deities these sanctuaries were built for. This could mean that Asklepios was already present in Rome, or that he appeared in 300 BC to take over from a nameless Roman deity. What it does show is that out of a formal relationship (no contact with the gods) people wanted a more direct relationship with their gods. The first set of Roman gods appears to be quite small so it is highly probable that there was no specific healing god available in traditional Roman religion, which explains why a new god was required. This is what we were looking for, of which problem the temple for Asklepios (and the inclusion of him in Roman religion) was the answer to. [2]

In Rome, Asklepios was named Aesculapius. In Roman times, it was customary to pray to a god when one had a problem. If one wanted a safe voyage, it was believed to be necessary to pray and give an offering to Neptune (the Roman god of water/sea). It made sense to want a god of healing to pray and give an offering to when the plague was in town. Even if one didn't have an immediate issue, it was always safe to pray to a god anyway. People often prayed for help with health, for help with making decisions and for agricultural prosperity and personal safety. For all these issues, there were multiple gods. Asklepios was the one that was prayed to for health, Apollo for decision-making and prophecy, Ceres (the goddess of agriculture) for agricultural prosperity and so on. A city or town usually had one god they saw as 'theirs'. This one was revered on public religious holidays with great ceremonies. Apart from this, every household had its own deities who was worshipped by the entire family, including residing slaves and freedmen. If a woman married, she was often demanded to give up her household gods and accept those of her husband. Another god could be worshipped in special groups. A group could be devoted to one particular god. These people came together because they lived near each other, or because they all originally came from the same city, or for any other reason. This group could (extraordinarily) also be led by a woman, freedman or slave. [3]

Over the years, the Romans adopted many gods from other cultures. Some were actively imported (such as Asklepios), while others sneaked in by way of peoples living in the Roman Empire. The Romans thought this perfectly natural: as long as one worshipped the gods (Roman plus extras) in the usual fashion, it was fine. However, if one didn't make offerings and engage in the proper rituals, one was considered an atheist - one who disregards the ways of the gods. Note: the Christians, who didn't have offerings or other Roman ritual worship signs, were considered atheist and were prosecuted for it.[4]

Why Asklepios?

One question we wanted to answer was why the Roman imported Asklepios. Before 300 B.C., Roman gods seem to have had no personality and there was no active praying or offering. By the time of the pestilence, the Romans wanted to turn directly to the gods in search of help for their health and disease problems. Also there was no appropriate god of healing. Asklepios fulfilled these needs.

Location and history

The Temple of Asklepios was located on the southeast end of Tiber Island. Throughout the centuries, the island was also home to temples of Jupiter Jurarius, Faunus, Vejovis, Gaia, Tiberinus, Bellona, and Semo Sancus Dius Fidius.[5] Isolated from the actual city of Rome, the island was a good place to quarantine the sick and situate a healing centre.


Figure 2: statue of Asklepios with his staff

The Temple of Asklepios on Tiber Island was built in the 3rd C BC. The historian Livy wrote in the history Ab Urbe Condita about the origin of the Roman temple.[6] According to Livy, there was a terrible plague in Rome in 293 BC. The Roman Senate consulted the Sibylline Books and, heeding that advice, decided to send ambassadors to Epidauros in 292 BC.[7] The ambassadors were ordered to obtain a statue of the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asklepios. They returned in 291 BC. Livy is unclear on the subject of the statue itself and states that the ambassadors brought back a serpent, the symbol of Asklepios. Ovid elaborates on the subject of the serpent in his Metamorphoses, which describes that the Greeks were not certain if they should give the Romans a statue of their god.[8] One of the ambassadors had a dream in which Asklepios appeared before him and told him that he would send a serpent, which would represent him and his powers. Both Livy and Ovid write that the serpent escaped the boat on their way home and swam to Tiber Island to rest. The Romans saw this as a good omen and decided to build an asclepieion on the same spot the snake had decided to rest. This was also in 291 BC. Soon after the ship and the serpent arrived at Tiber Island the plague was over, though it is unclear whether this happened during or after the building of the temple. It is said that the Romans modelled the island to the shape of a boat in honour of the aforementioned happenings, including a rostrum, or ramming prow, and an obelisk to symbolise a ship’s mast. The obelisk’s foundations were found in the 17th century.[9] The Romans willingly adopted Asklepios, naming him Aesculapius.

The temple

Only an image of a serpent entwined around a staff, an asklepion (see figure 2), remains from the time of the original temple on Tiber Island. The asklepion is carved on what would have been the rostrum during the time the island was still decorated as a ship.[10] It is likely that the temple was built in an Etruscan style, seeing as Roman architecture was heavily influenced by their Etruscan neighbours during the 3rd century BC.[11] While there is no evidence that it was a part of the temple, archaeologists found a painted terracotta antefix in the Tiber near the temple, dating from the same era. Terracotta was traditionally used by the Etruscans to decorate their temples.[12] It is likely that also an Abaton, a building specific to Asclepion healing temples to isolate and shelter the ill during their sleep, was present on the island. While literature only explicitly refers to the temple itself, it is likely that the temple on Tiber Island was modelled after the temple on Epidauros, which also housed an Abaton for its patients.[13]

Villa Borghese

The Villa Borghese gardens in Rome also house a small temple dedicated to Asklepios (figure 3). While this temple is often referred to as a copy of the temple on Tiber Island, it was actually part of the English landscape garden commissioned in the 18th century by Marcantonio III Borghese (1730–1800). Marcantiono Borghese was also responsible for beginning the recasting of the Villa Borghese. The temple was designed and built in 1786 by the architect duo Antonio Asprucci (1723-1808) and Mario Asprucci (1723–1808) and the painter Cristopher Unterberger (1732-1789).[14] The temple could not have been inspired by the one on Tiber Island, as it would have been gone for centuries by the time it was built and no actual drawings remain. The temple holds a statue of the god Asklepios. There are several other statues on its roof, including one the god Apollo and several figures who are presumably Asklepios’ daughters and sons. There is no recorded motivation as to why Borghese and the brothers Asprucci decided to dedicate the temple to Asklepios. However, its central place in a pond in the Borghese gardens may very well indicate just how important the cult of healing remained in Rome throughout the centuries.

Figure 3: temple of Asklepios in Villa Borghese

Tiber island, a tradition of healing

Tiber Island, now called isola di S. Bartolomeo, was often called simply insula, but was also spoken of by different names: insula Tiberina, inter duos pontes, insula Aesculapii, insula serpentis Epidaurii and in the Middle Ages, insula Lycaonia. The island is 269 metres and its greatest width 67 metres.[15] The first mention of the island in literature does not occur until Livy (2.5.2-4) just before the beginning of the first century A.D.[7]

History B.C.

Genesis of Tiber island

One legend of origin of the island is that it was ‘formed’ after the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled in 510 B.C. Livy tells that his kingship ended because his son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped Lucretia, a married (to the uncle of Sextus) noblewoman known as a virtue. Around 510 B.C. she killed herself. The angry Romans gathered the grain of the fields of the Etruscan king, the Campus Martius, and threw this in the Tiber. This would not flush away and formed the foundation of the island. Another version of the story tells that the body of the king himself was thrown into the river. Mud and clay attached on his dead body and the island originated. [10, 16, 17] According to Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the rape by the Etruscan king's son and consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic.[8]

Arrival of the temple of Asklepios on the island

In ancient times Tiber Island was associated with negative stories and people avoided the island, because the worst criminals and the contagiously ill people were held there.[17]

Because of the story of the placement of the temple for Asklepios on the island, the whole island became identified with the legend. Therefore, the island was made to resemble a ship. A platform of stone was built around it and upon that a wall was erected which had the shape of a Roman ship. There is no information dating from the time this was done, but the remains of the walls refer to the same period as that of the construction of the pons Fabricus (62 B.C.) and pons Cestius (46 B.C.)(figure 4). It is possible that the erection of these two bridges was part of the same plan as the building of the ship. Before the stone bridges, the island was connected on the left side by a wooden structure about the same time when the cult of Asklepios was established. An Egyptian obelisk was placed to represent the mast (figure 4). Fragments are in the museum at Naples. [5, 8, 17]

Figure 4: Tiber Island in ancient times [11]

Other forms of worship on the island

Besides the temple for Asklepios, there were a number of other temples on the island. The most important ones are mentioned here.

The remains of a temple dedicated to Jupiter Jurarius ("guarantor of oaths") were found on the east side of the island on the site of St. John Calybite’s church.

Ovid says in his Fasti:

"Iuppiter in parte est: cepit locus unus utrumque iunctaque sunt magno templa nepotis (sc. Aesculapii) avo."

"Jupiter had his part [on the island], One place found room for both, and the temples of the grandson, [Asklepios], and the mighty grandfather were joined." [8]

There is discussion about whether or not Ovid refers to Vejovis, Roman god of healing, rather than Jupiter. It is unclear whether there were two temples, one for Vejovis and another for Jupiter.[19] Then there was a statue of Semo Sancus Dius Fidius, the god of trust (fides), honesty, and oaths that dates from 466 B.C. His cult is one of the oldest in Rome. Sancus was considered the son of Jupiter. Also a statue of Gaia, the goddess or personification of Earth in ancient Greek religion, the great mother of all stood there. This testifies to the use of Greek gods in early Roman culture. The Italian deity of the forests, pastures, and shepherds, Faunus (like the Greek god 'Pan'), was also worshipped on the island. Livy tells us that his temple, the only actual temple to this deity in Rome, was vowed in 196 B.C. Though Faunus’ temple was not dedicated until nearly a century after the importation of Asklepios, his presence at the island may be associated with the earliest religious activity on this site.[18, 19] At last, there were, for example, dedications to Tiberinus, river god, and Bellona, war goddess.

Figure 5: Fanciful 1561 map of ancient Rome, depicting the Tiber Island as a giant
floating ship with an obelisk mast[19]

History A.D.

Figure 6: Basilica san Bartholomeo
on Tiber Island

There is little about the history of the island between the beginning of the first century A.D. until the tenth century A.D. In 998 Emperor Otto III built a new basilica over the ruins of Asklepios temple which presumably had been abandoned when Rome became Christian. Otto III dedicated the basilica to his friend, martyr Adalbert of Prague. It is now called the Basilica di San Bartolomeo (figure 6). This name was later connected to the basilica. The basilica, which stands at the south end of Piazza San Bartolomeo, houses the holy relics of an eleventh-century well-head, made from a Roman column of white marble (figure 7).[20] The well-head depicts Jesus Christ, a crowned Otto III, and the two saints, Bartholomeus, the twelfth apostle of Jesus Christ, and Adalbert. Like Asklepios, whom he replaced on the island, Bartholomeus is, above all, a healer, associated with the cure of mental disorders and epilepsy. Tiber Island was chosen as the site for placing the basilica, because it was already a site of healing and according to some rumors, the emperor wished to have a clear view of the new church from his palace on the Aventine.

The spot of the well-head statue marks the place where suppliants would have drawn the ground water needed in the ritual practices of the cult of Asklepios. It is clear that this well continued to be used after the disappearance of the Aesculapian cult and the Christianization of Rome, since the builders of the church went to serious efforts in order to work around it. As late as the twelfth century, the tradition of healing through sleep-induced visions is also still strong on the island.[19]

Figure 7 – well-head statue in
Basilica san Bartholomeo [20]

The Tiber Island obelisk on the Piazza san Bartholomeo (figure 6) was either dismantled or collapsed some time shortly after Gamucci saw it in 1569.[19] The obelisk is replaced by a column with a cross upon it. This was destroyed in 1867 and replaced by an aedicule. This monument is decorated by four saints who are connected to Tiber island: Bartholomeus, Paulinus of Nola, Franciscus en John of God. Paulinus of Nola was a Latin poet and a convert to the Christian faith in the 4th century A.D. From the 11th century his bones rested as relics at the basilica. Paulinus' poems were highly regarded in the 18th and 19th century and used as educational models. Franciscus was a Catholic friar and preacher born in the late 12th century. John of God was born in 1495 in Portugal. He was a soldier but turned into a health-care worker in Spain. His followers later formed the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, see 2.3.

The island nowadays

There is not much known about the topography of the island between the start of the beginning of the first century A.D. till the sixteenth century. Especially because of the cult of Asklepios the island continued to be a centre of healing. This location for the temple is probably chosen for the isolated function it had in times of the plague. The tradition continued with the building of a hospital, founded in 1584. The hospital is still on the island and operating. It is staffed by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God or "Fatebenefratelli" (do-good brothers).[19]

In 1656, there was another plague in Rome. The Romans took advantage of Tiber Island’s natural isolation and used the hospital to isolate the infected from the rest of the city’s population. In June of that year, the rest of the island was evacuated of healthy people. The hospital has always been part of the Roman events: for the clashes of 1849 during the unsuccessful Roman Republic this was the main hospitalization place. Also during the Nazi occupation in 1944 the hospital was used for hiding and taking care of many Jews. Also in 1982 when people were injured by the attack to the nearby Synagogue, the hospital was important.[9]

Figure 8: Tiber island nowadays[11]

Geographical analyses of the temple

The other questions we wanted to answer was why the Romans decided to place the temple of Asklepios on Tiber Island. While there is no such recorded history regarding the placement of the temple of Aesculapius, there is a lot of written literature on the story of the snake and how it swam to Tiber Island by Livy and Ovid. Most likely both Livy and Ovid based their tales on legends and oral stories that had been passed from generation to generation rather than facts. Instead, a far more plausible explanation for the location of the temple can be found in more recent history. As mentioned before, throughout history (see 3.3. The Island Nowadays) Tiber Island has been used as a place of healing and refuge because of the natural isolation the island offers. The temple was built in a period of great pestilence and it is likely the Romans decided to build a temple of healing somewhere they could not only heal the ill, but also isolate them and not endanger the rest of the Roman people: Tiber Island.


  1. Beard, Mary, Religions of Rome. Cambridge. 1993. 10-14.
  2. Beard, Mary, Religions of Rome. Cambridge. 1993. 30-34.
  3. Edelstein, Emma & Ludwig Edelstein. Asklepios: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press, 1998. 442.
  4. Rives, James, Religion in the Roman Empire. Blackwell, Hong Kong. 2007.
  5. Claridge, Amanda. Rome. Oxford UP, Oxford. 1998. 226-227.
  6. Edelstein, Emma & Ludwig Edelstein. Asklepios: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press, 1998. 431
  7. Edelstein, Emma & Ludwig Edelstein. Asklepios: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press, 1998. 442.
  8. Ovid, The Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn. London: Penguin Classics, 2004. 592-636.
  9. "Isola Tiberna." Retrieved 8-10-2013. (
  10. "Tiber Island." Retrieved 12-09-2013. ( )
  11. Bruce, William Nolan (2004). "Resurveying the Religious Topography of the Tiber Island." Retrieved 8-10-2013. ( ) p 6-19, 25-60, 83-100.
  12. Ibid
  13. "Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus." Retrieved 12-09-2013. ( )
  14. Paul, Carole. Making a Prince's Museum: Drawings for the Late Eighteenth-Century Redecoration of the Villa Borghese. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute, 2000.
  15. Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
  16. Livy. Ab Urbe Condita.
  17. Besnier. L'lle Tiberine dans l'Antiquité. Paris 1902
  18. Ovid. Fasti (1.293-94)
  19. Holland (1961, p.192)
  20. Bruce, William Nolan (2004). "Resurveying the Religious Topography of the Tiber Island." Retrieved 8-10-2013. ( ) p 50-51.