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Bill Thayer

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Insula Tiberina

[image ALT: A view of the island in the Tiber at Rome, taken in about 1925.]

 p281  Article on pp281‑282 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Black-and‑white images are from Platner; any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer

Insula Tiberina: the island in the Tiber, included in the fourteenth region of Augustus, and now called isola di S. Bartolomeoa (Ill. 32; cf. also Ill. 37). It seems to be the end of the ridge of which the Capitoline hill is a part, and owing perhaps to the harder character of its tufa, the river did not cut it away entirely but divided and flowed on either side.  p282 It was often called simply insula, but was also spoken of by different names — insula Tiberina (Vitr. III.2.3; Acro Schol. in Hor. Sat. II.3.36), inter duos pontes (Plut. Popl. 8; Iustin. Martyr. apol. i.26; Aeth. 83, Riese; Chron. 145; inscr. BCr 1905, 231; FUR 42), insula Aesculapii (Suet. Claud. 25; Dionys. V.13), insula serpentis Epidaurii (Sidon. Apoll. Ep. I.7.12); and in the Middle Ages, insula Lycaonia (HJ 632, note 21; and esp. Besnier, 76‑87). It was also called simply insula (CIL VI.9824, 33864; Fest. 110).

The present length of the island is 269 metres, and its greatest width 67 metres. Tradition held that its nucleus was formed by the grain from the fields of the Tarquins, which was thrown into the Tiber in great quantities after the expulsion of the kings (Liv. II.5; Dionys. V.13; see Gaia). In 292 B.C. the serpent of Aesculapius, which, with the statue of that god, was being brought to Rome, left the ship and swam ashore on the island. A temple was erected to the god and the island was consecrated as its temenos, although shrines to other divinities (e.g. Iupiter, Faunus, Tiberinus, Semo Sancusq.v.) were afterwards built on it.1 In consequence of this legend of the serpent the island itself was made to resemble a ship. A stone platform was built round it, and upon this a wall was erected which in shape reproduced exactly the sides of a Roman ship (Ann. d. Inst. 1867, 389 ff.; Durm, Baukunst, fig. 537). A considerable part of the travertine stern can still be seen at the east end of the island (LR 19). An obelisk, fragments of which are in the museum at Naples, is thought to have represented the mast. We are not informed as to the time when this was done, but the remains of the walls point to the same period as that of the construction of the pons Fabricius (62 B.C.) and pons Cestius (70‑42 B.C.), and it is possible that the erection of these two bridges was part of the same plan as the building of the ship. Before the building of these stone bridges, the island was doubtless connected with the left bank by a wooden structure at least as early as the time when the cult of Aesculapius was established (cf. Liv. XXXV.21.5, where the flood of 193 B.C. is said to have destroyed 'duos pontes').

For a complete discussion of the history, topography, and antiquities of the island, see Besnier, L'lle Tiberine dans l'Antiquité, Paris 1902 (Bibl. Éc. Franç. fasc. 87); see also HJ 630‑638; Jord. I.1.402; DuP 59‑69; and for the discovery of remains, also LS III.246; iv.79, 164. For a restoration, D'Esp. Mon. II.144‑148; Fr. ii.97, 98; and for a medallion of Antoninus Pius (Cohen, Antonin, 17‑19) which perhaps represents it, see JRS 1911, 187‑195; but cf. Navalia.

The Authors' Note:

1 For a terra-cotta acroterion which probably came from an archaic temple on the island — it is too early in style to be attributable to that of Aesculapius — see HF 1510; JRS 1914, 189; Van Buren, Figurative Terracotta Revetments, 24.

Thayer's Note:

Platner's article is not as satisfactory as it could be, not even so much as mentioning, in connection with Aesculapius' snake for example, the very ancient caduceus carved in the island's stone prow. For good pictures of it, an aerial view of the island that is worth a thousand words, and about 20 more photos, see Fr. Felix Just's site.

a After the church of S. Bartolomeo toward the E end, or prow, of the island. Seventy years after the last edition of Platner, one now usually hears isola Teverina or isola Tibertina. In large part, this is ultimately a result of the wholesale return to names from Antiquity that was encouraged or official during the Fascist years.

These names, mind you, are moot: in or near Rome, this is the only island in the Tiber.

See also: another view (an engraving) in Platner this color photo of my own

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Page updated: 23 Aug 12