Tag Archives: legends


Island of Healing: the Tiber Island

For those who don’t know, Rome has an island too. Yes, an island in the river Tiber, straight in the city center. Don’t be surprised…We have everything here! It is one of the most charming places in the city, always quiet except during raining season when it always risks to be flooded :-)
Of course, it’s story couldn’t be just normal, it’s Rome guys, it is indeed long and really interesting, starting from the very beginning, its origins … actually it’s an island made of a tuff core with alluvial ground on top….Boring, right? And that’s why we have a better story to tell about how this island was actually made…

isola tiberina

The Origins

According to the legend, everything started in 509 B.C. when the son of Tarquin the Proud, the last of the Seven Kings, raped the noblewoman Lucretia from Ardea, causing the revolt of the Roman people (well done guys!) and the overthrow and exile of his father, i.e. the end of the Roman monarchy. Destroying something that was own by the declined tyrant after the revolt it’s a must, hence Roman people gathered up the wheat from the king’s fields in Campus Martius (in a rural society harvest was the Wealth) and threw it into the river: spike after spike, this became the Tiber Island!


Time goes by and we don’t know how this heap of grain was used  until the year 293 BC when Rome was struck by a terrible plague. The Senators, in charge to protect the citizen of Rome, used the most suited solution in case of serious crisis… Emergency safety rules? Quarantine for the sick people? No way. They needed a super consulence for this serious issue. So they consulted the Sibylline Books, a collection of Greek oracular utterances purchased by the Tarquin himself by a sibyl :) The response was clear and … effective: built a temple dedicated to Aesculapius,  the Greek god of medicine and healing!
Anyway building a temple for a new god was something that needed a procedure: Romans sent a ship to Epidaurus, seat of the most celebrated healing center in the ancient world, to ask for the statue of the god. What they got was a snake, symbol of the god (hence supposed personification of him), who jumped on the boat and curled itself around the mast.
Once in Rome the snake slithered off the ship and went on the island:  a superstitious Roman couldn’t have asked for a better response! Indeed this was for sure the best position for an hospital as it was provided with a natural spring, running water and an insulation that offered a secure belt in case of quarantine: the snake apparently knew what’s what  :-)

In 298 BC the temple was inaugurated: the whole island was modeled with travertine structures to resemble a ship (few remains are still visible on the south side) and a obelisk was the mast.

prua isola tiberina

Around the temple were porches used as an hospital. Well, the snake knew where to built an hospital actually, but not exactly as an hospital works …
At that time the idea of healing was the incubatio: people went to temple and spent the night under the porches … while they were sleeping the god went around healing the people or leaving them prescriptions or drugs. Of course only if they had left an appropriate offer for him.



What Happened After the Romans?

Despite its efficiency in healing people (just kidding :-D) the temple landed up as all the pagan temples when the empire became Christian: closed and abandoned. We don’t know exactly what happened later. In the 10th century on the island, again due to the position,  a fortress was built by the Pierleoni family (a tower still exists). In the meantime the former temple of Aesculapius was turned in a church, that of St. Bartholomew. With the renovated sacralisation of the area the story of the healing water showed up again and a well was built to draw it. Unfortunately, due to the water pollution, instead of heal people it usually made them die, hence the well was closed with a grid that still exists!


The New Hospital

Anyway the position was too yummy for an hospital and a new one  was founded here in 1548  (12 centuries later) by the followers of St. John of God. It still exists with the name of “Fatebenefratelli” that means “Do well, brothers”. It sounds funny but indeed wasn’t an exhortation for the doctors: it comes from the sing-song that priests repeated during the money collection :-) Even though is really tempting the idea of seeing a continuity during the centuries in the way this island was used, as healing center since the very ancient time until today, probably this isn’t true. It seems that during the 5th century it was used as a prison…another place that take advantage of the insulation…not exactly as efficient as Alcatraz but a kind of :)

Teeth and Records

Since the beginning this hospital was renowned for its dentists. The most famous was the Florentine friar Giovanni Battista Orsenico: he owes his fame to the fact that he was able to extract the teeth by hand, without pincers and, mostly, pain. He practiced between 1868 and 1904 and collected ALL the teeth extracted in three boxes: in 1903 they were opened and it turned out that he owned 2,000,744 teeth, that means an average of 185 teeth for day! This lead the friar straight in the Guinness World Records: he still hold the record for the “largest collection of human teeth“! :)

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The Infamous Column

And finally the last story: what happened to the mast-obelisk that decorated the island? It seems that it fell down in the 16th century and was replaced by a column with a cross on top. It was known later as the Infamous Column as on it was put up the list of the “bandits who didn’t take the holy communion on Easter day” (Oh yes, this really was considered a crime!). One of those was the Roman engraver Bartolomeo Pinelli, famous for his lascivious life, who ended up in the list in 1834. As soon as he saw his name on the list completely freaked out, not much for having been held up as an unbeliever, but for having been defined a miniaturist instead of engraver! :) This column doesn’t exist anymore: it was broken hit by a chariot (on purpose?) and substituted in 1869 with the monument still visible today.

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Pictures Credits:

  • View of the Tiber Island – G.B. Piranesi, 18th cent.
  • Isola Tiberina  – CC BY 2.0 – Maurizio Sacco
  • Remains of the travertine prow – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • The Temples and Cult of Asclepius – Robert Thom
  • Well in the Church of St. Bartholomew – CC BY SA 2.0 – Mararie
  • Ignazio Jacometti’s “Guglia di Pio IX” – CC BY SA 3.0 – Blackcat



Portunus and Saint Mary of Egypt. Stories of Harbors and Prostitutes

As you may recall, my latest post was about Hercules and his temple in Piazza Bocca della Verità. Anyway in this place there is so much history than we need much more than just a post to discover all the marvelous stories! So today I want to tell you about another corner of this square, nearer to the banks of the river Tiber where, still nowadays, there is a Roman temple perfectly preserved, the Temple of Portunus.

The Temple of Portunus and the Ancient Harbour of Rome



Portunus, as the name says was the Roman god of harbors and doors (portus and porta in Latin): this was indeed the place of the first river port of the city. To be honest the very reason for the existence of Rome itself has to be search in this place: here is the Tiber Island, the most suitable spot to cross the river and natural confluence point of all the most ancient and important roads connecting the mountain region of central Italy with the coast.

The temple was built for the first time at the end of the fourth century B.C. but during the centuries was rebuilt many times…as you can imagine flooding were quite frequent here :)

As all the pagan temple it was abandoned when the Roman empire became Christian.  Anyway in 872 pope John VIII transformed the temple in a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. Why a female Saint in a port? Well, you’ll see soon that the story of this woman is connected in many different ways to ports and sea…

Why Saint Mary of Egypt?

According to tradition she was born in Alexandria in 344 – that is a port city, by the way; when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents house and began  a completely dissolute life, earning by begging or whoring.


After 17 years of this lively life she met a group of pilgrims who were going to ship for Jerusalem and thought: “Jerusalem, why not?…Oh no! I’ve no money to pay the trip… Oh yes, I’m a prostitute so …!”. Ok, maybe not exactly with this words and this thoughts but fonts much more religious than me say that she seduced the men.

Anyway when she arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre she couldn’t enter, stopped by an unseen force. And here begins her conversion: she prayed and finally decided to abandon the dissolute life and live as penitent. Well you should have already understood at this point that she was a girl of extreme decisions: not a simple conversion, may be not a life of prayers, no, she started a walk of penitence in the desert, and not for a month, no, FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, eating only grass. 47 years – and many kilos lost – later she met Zosimo, a monk of a Palestinian monastery, who described her as a thin (really?) woman and almost naked, covered only by her long white, woolly hair. What did she ask to Zosimo? Food? No way! She asked his cloak to cover her nudity so that she could tell him the whole story. A year later Zosimo came back to the desert and found her death and still cover with  his cloak. According to tradition, a lion dug her tomb with its claws.


The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt

This is the story of Saint Mary and maybe now you are more aware about why the church, near the river and  in a place frequented mostly by sailors and foreign people (do you remember the presence of Greeks?) was dedicated to a former prostitute.

This was much more than just a symbolic dedication. Here was probably the most important brothel of Rome, whose origins seems to begin in the ancient Rome. There are no certain proofs about it, anyway the presence of the port is a significant indication. But there is more: nearby is also set the myth of Acca Larentia.

Acca Larentia

We already met Acca Larentia as the wife of the shepherd Faustulus who found and raised the twins Romulus and Remus. In another version of the myth, she was a prostitute in Rome who (was she tired of her old job? Who knows) went to temple of Hercules and spent there the night praying the god to help her. The next morning when she came out of the temple met the man who later became her husband, an Etruscan rich man named Tarrutius … much more better than The Dating Game!


When the husband died she inherited all his properties that left to the people of Rome at the end of her life. To thank her, Ancus, the third king of Rome, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum and instituted the annual feast of the Accalia or Larentaria in her honor. Well, the Velabrum was exactly here, the valley between the Palatine hill and the river.

Prostitutes all-over the centuries

If the tradition about Larentia as a prostitute is true, looks like this tradition dates back to the Roman time, up to the Middle Age and, as shown by the presence of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt, until the modern era.

In fact since at least the 15th century, in the intent to restore the morality of the city of the Pope, the prostitutes of Rome were all relegated in a kind of ghetto, known as the “burdelletto“, the small brothel. Guess what? The chosen place was exactly this one, with the hope that the example of Saint Mary would help the lost women in their redemption!


Once again we have seen as things don’t change so much during the centuries :)

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Pictures Credits:

  • Temple of Portunus – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt – Russia, late 19th cent.
  • Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt – France, 15th cent.
  • Acca Larentia by Jacopo della Quercia (Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, Siena)- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Combusken
  • The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt – Giuseppe Vasi, 18th cent.





Greeks in Rome. The Ara Maxima Herculis and Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Just few days ago we celebrated Rome’s 2767th birthday. During this long, long period many things happened and changed. The city of the pagan gods became the cornerstone of the Christian  religion, kings, consuls, emperors, other kings, princes and presidents passed. Monuments were built and destroyed and then rebuilt again. Incredibly enough, some aspects remained pretty much stable over the centuries and, with this post, I would like to tell you a cool story showing exactly one of these things.

Our story starts with a legendary giant named Cacus who, according to the Roman tradition, had his den on the slopes of the Aventine hill, near the river Tiber.

The Giant Cacus

Kakos in Greek means “bad” that’s what the giant was. Virgil described him as a monster that was human and beast at the same time; around his house, the cave, the ground was always a red lake because of the blood of the people that he used to eat. To add some more horror, he used to preserve the head of the eaten ones and nail them to the entrance of his cave. I don’t want to imagine the smell of his breath :) … horrific! But actually the smell was just a pinprick: he was god Vulcan’s son and the main heritage he had from his father was the ability to breath fire. I hope at least that he used it to cook the human flesh :)


According to his name Cacus, the bad, used to terrified the people living in the village on the top of the Palatine hill. How and why this village was founded is another long story, enough material for another post, in the meanwhile take a look here. According to the legend, most of the people living in the Palatine village had Greek origins. Remember, we are still talking about a legend, but there are certain proofs that Greeks frequented this place at least since the 8th century B.C., if not before (that means before the foundation of Rome itself).

This was the frightful situation until Hercules, the Greek hero, landed  on the banks of the river Tiber. He was coming back to Greece after he had captured Geryon’s oxen (Geryon was another monster, living on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and this was the tenth Labour of  Hercules) and decided to stop here in Rome.

After the long trip the hero was tired – yes, also heroes sleep – and decided to take a nap near the place where he landed. Now it happen that this nap place was close enough to the cave of Cacus who, while Hercules was sleeping, stole some of the oxen – sometime human flesh could be stodgy …hence it’s better to have an alternative!

Cacus brought them into his cave by tugging by the tails. Because of this, the tracks were confused and when Hercules woke up and understood what had happened, couldn’t find the oxen. Anyway when the remaining oxen, free to graze, passed by Cacus’ cave, those that were inside started to moo, letting Hercules discover the thing. No need to say: Hercules killed Cacus and freed the oxen.

Despite the fact that he did it only for selfish reasons, people living around hit the jackpot and finally could stop to be afraid to become the dinner of some bad giant folk.

The Ara Maxima Herculis

To thank the hero, they built a sanctuary dedicated to him, the Ara Maxima Herculis. Well, up to here we are still in the mythological story, anyway the sanctuary actually existed. Many inscriptions, dedicated to Hercules, have indeed been found behind the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, proving that the Ara Maxima was exactly here.


The remains (or those believed to be the remains by the archaeologist) are still visible under the main altar, in the crypt of the church. They consist in a massive structure of tuff blocks dating at the 2nd century B.C. (the whole area around the Ara was completely rebuilt in that moment to prevent flooding, but for sure there was an older sanctuary). In the 15th century also the cult statue was found here and it’s now exhibited in the Capitoline Museums.


Because the Ara was built by Greeks, the cult kept Greek features until the imperial era: on the 12th of August, foundation day, an heifer was sacrificed – and then eaten by the faithful – by a priest who used to celebrate with the undressed head, a typical Greek custom. There were also sacred slaves belonging to the sanctuary (another Greek custom).

From Hercules to the Virgin Mary

As it often happened in Rome, after the end of the Roman empire and the arrival of the Christian religion, on the sanctuary a church was built, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Probably already in the 3rd century there was a church here, but the first confirmed tracks date from the 6th century. Around the half of the 8th century  pope Hadrian gave custody of the church to a group of Greek monks seeking for refuge from the iconoclastic persecutions. The monks were already settled here because the Greek community in Rome was there already: this bank of the river was called the Greek bank and the church was known as the Schola Graeca.


After the Greek monks, the church took the name of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, from kosmidion, ornament, referring the improvement carried out by pope Hadrian.

Why the Greeks, why here

There aren’t certain proofs that this place remains always the seat of the Greek community in Rome, anyway it’s likely for a very simple reason: here was the first river harbor of Rome and here was the place were the Greek merchants arrived a stayed. This was true for centuries, but also at the very beginning of our story: according to the historians the myth of Cacus recall the problems the first Greek merchants had on their arrival. The story of the oxen itself seems also to foreshadow the trade of cattle held here since prehistorical times and still in the imperial era: indeed this place was known as the Forum Boarium, the “cattle market“. This also due to the fact that here was the junction of all the main roads connecting mountains in the central  Italy with the coast, walked by shepherds since almost the 10th century B.C. In a marketplace the presence of a temple was not just a spiritual need: under the god’s protection and guarantee, merchants were free to make business…who could be so brave to cheat someone else under the eyes of Hercules?


So, the Greek presence in Rome, dates back to a long long time ago  and was still a fact in the early Christian era and in the Middle Age. And now?
Well, still today the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin follows the Melkite Greek Catholic rite: since the first construction of the Roman sanctuary this place is characterized by the Greek culture and still today, almost 3000 years later, it’s the same!

Last thing: the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is pretty famous because within the porch is the well known Mouth of the Truth…but that’s stuff for another post :)

If you liked the story browse for other Tales of Rome and don’t forget to follow my updates on Twitter and Facebook! And share this story!

Pictures Credits:

  • Santa Maria in Cosmedin – by Giuseppe Vasi, 1761
  • Hercules killing the fire-breathing Cacus – by Sebald Beham, 1545
  • Blocks of the Ara Maxima – CC BY SA 3.0 – Lalupa
  • Statue of Hercules in gilded bronze – Capitoline Museums
  • Santa Maria in Cosmedin – CC BY 2.0 – Jeremy Thompson

The Capitoline Hill, where “money” began

This story starts in the Archaic Roman Age when the Capitoline hill was Rome’s citadel , defended by walls, and her religious center: here was in fact the Temple of Jupiter, the king of gods. But here was also another temple dedicated to Juno.

Juno Regina, the first Desperate Housewife

She was the queen (regina) of Roman gods such as sister AND wife of Jupiter. In fact they both were Saturn‘s sons (Ju-piter, Ju-no…it’s not a coincidence :) )

Annibale Carracci, "Jupiter and Juno", 1597-1601

But Jupiter was a very bad guy and he had plenty of lovers: Roman mythology is teeming with stories about Jupiter’s loves and, of course, Juno’s jealousy …not so far from the modern soaps’ stories!
Anyway, Juno as queen was the female State protector and goddess of the female world, protecting all the most important events of a woman’s life such as marriage, childbirths and so on.

The Geese of the Capitoline Hill

The temple of Juno on the Capitoline hill was guarded by a gaggle, because geese were considered sacred to the goddess.
In 390 B.C., after a long siege, the Gauls tried  to conquer the hill but it was saved by the geese.
This is Plutarch’s tale about that event:

“About midnight a large band of them (the Gauls) scaled the cliff and made their way upward in silence (…) Neither man nor dog were aware of their approach. But there were some sacred geese near the temple of Juno, which were usually fed without stint, but at that time, since provisions barely sufficed for the garrison alone, they were neglected and in evil plight. The creature is naturally sharp of hearing and afraid of every noise, and these, being specially wakeful and restless by reason of their hunger, perceived the approach of the Gauls, dashed at them with loud cries, and so waked all the garrison (…) The defenders, snatching up in haste whatever weapon came to hand, made the best shift they could. (…) So the Romans escaped out of their peril. ”

Juno became Moneta

Obviously the Romans, very religious people, thought it was the goddess who awaking the soldiers saved Rome, and gave her the epithet “Moneta”, from the Latin verb “Monere”, “to warn”.

The Temple

Searching on the Internet you could read that according to tradition the temple of Juno Moneta was built in 344 BC after a war victory … How can it be possible if the episode of the Gauls happened in 390 BC? This appear to suggest the existence of an older temple, entirely rebuilt in 344 BC (and actually on the Capitoline Hill have been found some terracotta decorations of the temple dating at the 6-5th century BC and probably belonging to the older temple).
Anyway after the episode of the geese and the goddess’ new epithet this became known as the Temple of Juno Moneta.
And these are the few ruins still preserved belonging to the temple (believe me, they are!).

Tempio di Giunone Moneta

And finally the coins

In 296 BC Romans started to make coins and they needed a safe place to do it, hence they chose the temple of Juno Moneta (or a place immediately nearby), for two reasons: first it was in the citadel, so it was well protected by humans, second it was well protected by the goddess too, a kind of: “Don’t steal here or Juno’ll punish you!”.

denarius of juno moneta

Hence, because the mint was in the temple of Juno Moneta, the Romans began to call it the Moneta, and coins were named “moneta”after it … and this is the origin of the English words  “mint” and of course “money”!
In Italian we also have the same word, “moneta”, that means “coin”, but the bizarre thing is that for “mint” we use the word “zecca”, from an Arabic word: at least English, in this case, is closer than Italian to ancient Romans and their legends!

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Picture credits