Tiber Island in ancient and medieval Rome

Margaret Angela Brucia, Fordham University


Whether formed from an alluvial deposit or from the erosion of a tufa ridge, Tiber Island existed at least as early as the eighth century BC. According to Roman tradition, however, the island was formed only in 509 BC, after the expulsion of the Tarquins. It is probable that this tradition arose from an early taboo placed on the island because of its location in living water and its association with primitive Italian chthonic deities. Though Tiber Island housed cults of the gods Tiberinus, Faunus, Jupiter (Jurarius), Veiovis, Semo Sancus, and Bellona, it is best known for the presence of Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing, whose temple was dedicated on the island in 291 BC. Historical tradition relates that Aesculapius, in the guise of a serpent, was imported by ship from Epidaurus, the god's major cult center in Greece. Though the island itself has been depicted through the ages as an architectural boat which commemorated Aesculapius' voyage up the Tiber, in reality its natural shape, enhanced by architectural elements, merely suggested this representation. The cult of Aesculapius on Tiber Island thrived among the upper and lower classes from its origin through the third century AD. From literary references and archaeological evidence, as well as from our knowledge of Epidaurus as a prototype cult center, we can posit the existence of specific structures on the island in antiquity: the Temple of Aesculapius; an abaton with an attached porticus; a well-house; the Temple of Jupiter; the Temple of Faunus; a shrine to Jupiter Jurarius; a shrine to Bellona. In addition the topography of the island and a study of ancient pictorial representations permit us to some conclusions about the orientation and relative location of these buildings. The cult of Aesculapius continued to flourish until the rise of Christianity and the decline of imperial power led to the neglect of public building and maintenance activity in Rome. From the fourth to the tenth century the island reverted to its primitive state of near abandonment and isolation. The Ottonian renaissance of the tenth century subsequently ushered in a new phase of architectural activity on Tiber Island. Otto III erected the Church of St. Bartholomew near the site of the early temple of Aesculapius. The Church of St. John Calybite, located in close proximity, was eventually incorporated into the facade of the sixteenth century Hospital of the Fatebenefratelli, which today dominates the island. Tiber Island has developed cyclically from an accursed place to a religious center dominated by the worship of Aesculapius. Next there followed a second period of decline and abandonment in the early medieval period, until the establishment of the churches and the sixteenth century hospital.

Subject Area

Classical studies|Archaeology|Middle Ages

Recommended Citation

Brucia, Margaret Angela, "Tiber Island in ancient and medieval Rome" (1990). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9025014.