The god of medicine Aesculapius, known in Etruscan as Esplace and to the Greeks as Asclepius was a divinity of great importance amonts the Ancient Roman gods though he was in fact “imported”, suggesting that the Romans themselves felt that he was not actually with the from the very beginning. This deity was brought over to Rome from Epidaurus (Greece) on behest of the Sybilline books around 292BC on event of plague outbreak in the city.
A ship set off for the renowned medical centre with the mission of bringing back the deity but returned a couple of years later with a snake which had swum onto the ship. Snakes happened to be the symbol of Aesculapius (or Asclepius) and so it was assumed that this was a sign that the deity was with them.
Numerous Roman writers such as Ovid, Plutarch and Pliny amongst others relate how on return to the city the snake left the ship as it sailed up the Tiber river and swam to the Tiber Island which was henceforth considered to be sacred to the god of healing and a temple was built there in his honour.
Being outside the early city’s pomoerium (the sacred boundary marked by a furrow when it was founded) the Tiber Island was an ideal place to segregate or quarantine the sick.
Mythology of Asclepius / Aesculapius
Chiron tought Asclepius the arts of surgery and healing which he used to great effect, so much so that he was eventually capable of raising the dead. Zeus chose to strike him dead with a lightning bolt when he was angered, or at least concerned, by how the balance between the worlds of the living and the dead was being upset (or possibly angered by the fact that Asclepius had used his powers in exchange of money) .
Realising how Asclepius’ powers were in fact needed on earth he chose to partially undo the punishment by rendering Asclepius immortal and eternal by way of a constellation (Ophiucus, visible in early summer in the northern hemisphere).
Asclepius had seven children who represented the various aspects of medicine, such as clenliness and healing.
Further information regarding healing in ancient Rome may be found on our ancient Roman medicine page.