It’s easy to sometimes take modern medicine for granted. We don’t have to visit an oracle or priest to diagnose an illness. And popping to a pharmacy is often just as helpful as sacrificing a chicken to read its innards. In the UK, we have the NHS. The ancient Romans had Aesculapius.
But who was this god? He doesn’t appear in as many stories as Jupiter, Venus, or Neptune.
Please note: I know there are two variations of his name, Aesculapius and Asclepius. The former is his Roman name, the latter is Greek counterpart. We’re looking at Roman gods, so I’ll be sticking to Aesculapius.
Just to make things even more confusing, Aesculapius is associated with Vediovis/Vejovis, another God of healing. Vejovis is sometimes identified with Apollo…though in the Greek origin story, Apollo is Asclepius’ father.
Who needs soap operas when you have the gods?!
The Inevitable Origin Story
I’m looking at Aesculapius as a Roman deity. But the Romans imported him from Greece following years of plague in Rome.
In 292 BC, the Romans sent an envoy to Aesculapius’s temple in Epidaurus. He returned with a sacred snake. It left the boat at Tiber Island so the Romans founded their first temple to Aesculapius.
For Jaehyun Kim, the ability of the Romans to moreorless “steal” Aesculapius from Greece proved Rome’s primacy in the ancient world.
But he ends up with the same origin story either way. Aesculapius is son of Apollo and Coronis. In some stories, she’s a nymph. Other stories say she’s a mortal woman. Myths are many things but they’re rarely consistent.
Apollo sent a white raven to her as a guardian. Instead it passed on the bad news she’d been unfaithful while pregnant with our hero. Apollo’s twin sister Artemis, goddess of hunting, shot Coronis. So great was Artemis’s fury that the raven turned black, since it brought bad news.
Artemis also removed Aesculapius while Coronis lay on a funeral pyre. Apollo gave him to Chiron the Centaur, who raised him and taught him all he knew about healing.
Aesculapius and Healing
Aescalupius also discovered various cures and learned about the healing properties of plants. According to some legends, his healing prowess grew to the extent he could even bring the dead back to life.
In the Greek myths, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt for these abilities. Apparently the father of the gods thought his healing prowess muddied the line between mortal and god. So necromancy is frowned on…even if you’re a god.
Temples to Aesculapius doubled as hospitals. Knowledge of the healing arts passed from father to son. If you wanted to be healed, you’d take a pilgrimage to the temple. Once there, you’d make sacrifices, offer prayers, and donate money. Temples were usually built near wells with healing powers, or on hills outside a town.
Other deities with the ability to heal existed in Roman mythology but many favoured Aesculapius due to his talent as a physician. So you might pray to another god to be healed, and they’d healed you if they felt like it. Aesculapius took his role more seriously and many believed he actually cared about humans.
Not to mention the sacrifices or payments demanded by other deities. If you visited a temple to Aesculapius, you’d go to sleep and ‘dream’ his instructions. A priest interpreted whatever you dreamed and prescribed a ritual to help cure you.
Ancient Greece was fascinated by medicine but ancient Rome saw doctors as little more than craftsmen. Jaehyun Kim explains that’s why it’s difficult to find a Roman equivalent to Aesculapius. While Jupiter has Zeus, and Minerva has Athena, they didn’t have a specific medicine-based god. So they just Latinised his name and imported him wholesale.
The Rod of Aesculapius and the Caduceus
Our hero is associated with the Rod of Aesculapius, a sceptre or staff entwined with a snake. The legends are very specific about the species of snake. It’s an Elaphe longissima. Indigenous to southern Europe and totally harmless, many lived in his temples. Snakes represented healing and rejuvenation in ancient cultures. Some people even thought they could sniff out herbs.
By contrast, the Caduceus, the winged rod, is the symbol of Mercury.
Some think the link between Mercury’s Caduceus and medicine dates to the 7th century AD. Alchemists became linked with the “hermetic arts” (Hermes is the Greek version of Mercury). When alchemy expanded to include medicine and pharmacology, people adopted the Caduceus as a medical symbol.
The Rod of Aesculapius is the better choice due to its association with actual healing. After all, the god kept medicine in the family.
Two of his daughters are Hygieia (goddess of health) and Panacea (goddess of the universal remedy). You might recognise their names! Hygieia gave her name to the word ‘hygiene’. While a panacea is a solution for all diseases and difficulties.
Here’s Aesculapius and Hygieia.
The original Hippocratic Oath started with the line, “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Aesculapius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…”
The God in Roman Britain
According to Roman Britain, six altar stones to Aesculapius exist in Britain. He shares two with Fortuna and Hygieia. They’re in Chester, Overborough, Maryport, Winchester, South Shields, and Lanchester. The altar at South Shields was a gift to the god from Publius Viboleius Secondus.
Joan P. Alcock notes the popularity of Aesculapius among soldiers, which explains his presence at forts like Chester (2011, p. 247). Doctors also, unsurprisingly, favoured him.
When the cult of Aesculapius spread throughout the Empire, his shrines turned into spas. It’s not surprising these spas used thermal springs.
That said, in Britain, you’d more likely encounter Aesculapius in one of the Roman military hospitals. One was discovered at Chester, but despite being in a military outpost, it provided care for the sick, not injured soldiers.
The tendency of his priests to prescribe diet changes or more exercise make Aesculapius a herald of today’s healthy eating culture!
Over to you! Had you heard of Aesculapius before today?
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Alcock, Joan P. (2011) A Brief History of Roman Britain: Conquest and Civilisation, London: Constable & Robinson.
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