In the center of the Tiber River, the Tiber Island, or Insula Tiberina in Latin, has always been a place connected to the founding of Rome. Legend says that it was created when Roman citizens expelled Tarquinius Superbus , or Tarquin the Proud in Latin. Citizens through the wheat sheaves they had stolen from the the king into the river. Supposedly, the dirt and the silt accumulated around the wheat in the river and formed the island. Another legend says it was built on the ruins of an ancient ship. However, these are just legends as the island was present as a crossing place for the Tiber since prehistoric times. It is the world’s smallest inhabited island, being only the length of three football fields.
It became a place of healing in the the third century BCE. According to Roman historian Livius, in 293 BCE Rome was hit by a plague and none of their doctors could find a cure. After consulting the Sybilline books, they sent a delegation to the Greek city of Epidaurus, site of the largest shrine to Asclepius, the god of healing. The priests there sent the Romans home with a symbolic representation of Asclepius, which was a sacred snake. They carried the snake home, but their boat ran aground at Tiber Island. The snake escaped unharmed curled around a tree branch. The delegation decided the snake had selected the island as the site for a temple to Asclepius, which was constructed in 291 BCE. The temple was complete with a pit full of snakes sacred to the god, which were fed and attended by priests. The island became so entwined with the journey and temple, it was remodeled to resemble a ship. Travertine marble was added to the banks in the mid to late first century to more closely resemble a ship and an obelisk was erected in the middle to symbolize the ship’s mast. Although the island was most identified with Asclepius, there were other shrines to Roman gods as well. By the second century BCE, there were shrines to Jupiter Jurarius, Semo Sancus Dius Fidius, Gaia, Faunus,Vejovis,Tiberinus, and Bellona. Faunus was said to protect women giving birth, and to this day the hospital on the island has a well respected maternity ward.
Next to the temple was a large portico, where a strange diagnostic practice was put into play. Patients were subjected to being in the cold and without food for several
days so they could be purified. This was called the “incubatio” and after they were admitted to the hospital had to recount their dreams to the priests for interpretation. After Roman times, this practice was abandoned, but the hospital still exists on Tiber Island. The “Fatebenefratelli”, which means “do well or do good, brothers”, was established in the 16th century to serve pilgrims, the poor and the sick. “Fatebenefratelli” was the litany which the monks of the Order of St. John Calibytis, who founded the hospital, would sing as darkness fell. The island served as a place of quarantine for plague victims and other sick people. The Temple to Asclepius was replaced by the Basilica of St Bartholomew on the Island during the Middle Ages as well.
The island was also called “between two bridges” by the Romans as the island served as a center point for several bridges. The Fabrican is Rome’s oldest bridge, built in 62 BCE. It was enhanced by a medieval tower, the Torre dei Caetani, in the 10th century. On the opposite side is the Cestium bridge, which connects the island with the Trastevere neighborhood. It was built in 42 BCE. There are remains of another bridge, which has long since gone. The Aemilian bridge was built in 179 BCE, and rebuilt in stone in 142 BCE. It was the first stone bridge in Rome. However, it did not survive the Tiber’s currents and floods was destroyed in 1598. It is called Ponte Rotto (broken bridge) and there is only one surviving arch still showing.