That Island in the Tiber

Every single day, tourists find themselves staring at the the middle of the Tiber River, Tiber Island Iwhere they see this. Determined to figure out what it is, they immediately set out across one of the bridges to check it out … and they end up confused and disappointed, because on the surface it doesn’t seem to be much of anything.

What a shame that they’re not touring Rome with a good guide! These visitors who opt to see the city on their own are missing out on the fascinating, very ancient history of this special part of Rome.In ancient times, Tiber Island was the site of a major temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Roman historical accounts tell us that during a plague, the Romans wanted to erect a shrine to this god, so they sent a delegation to Greece to obtain one of the “sacred snakes” kept in his temple there. The snake sailed back to Rome with them, but then slithered off the ship and disappeared.

After a frantic search, the snake was found coiled up on Tiber Island–and the Romans interpreted this as a sign that Asclepius wanted them to construct a temple to him on that very spot. So they did, and during ancient times it was a major place of pagan pilgrimage for people suffering from illnesses and other medical problems.

The appearance of  Tiber Island back then was quite dramatic, because the Roman architects who managed to construct a huge marble temple on this not-so-solid ground had a clever idea: they combined the need for a solid foundation, with the natural boat-shape of the island, and the result was what appeared to be a gigantic marble ship! Reconstructions of ancient eyewitness accounts look like this:

Tiber Island 3

The temple and its ship-foundations are gone now, of course, although there are still a few blocks of the original marble in the bottom of the buildings that currently stand in their place.

Tiber Island IIWith the advent of Christianity, the worship of Asclepius naturally fell out of fashion; but in the minds of Romans the connection between “Tiber Island” and “medical assistance” endured. In the 1500’s, St. John of God founded a religious order of brothers, dedicated to medical assistance to the poor–and he established his first hospital right here on Tiber Island. Known as the Brothers Hospitallers, these men treated the sick of the Christian world, in the very same place where the pagans came for medical help in the pre-Christian era.

A Catholic church replaced the temple (no surprise there), and so the original purpose of Tiber Island was “baptized,” so to speak. Today, there is still a hospital on the island, and in fact its buildings take up the vast majority of the space there.

Now Tiber Island makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? There is a wonderful historical continuity here, which you would never be able to figure out on your own. But if you tour Rome with us, we’ll fill you in on intriguing sites like this one, enabling you to appreciate fully the rich history of this ancient city.