As Ovid nears the end of the last book of his Metamorphoses, he has just told of the transformation of King Numa’s inconsolable widow Egeria into a spring. He still has some key moments in Roman history to cover before reaching Julius Caesar.
We next are taken through a short series of strange events which occurred during the early history of the city of Rome. First, an Etruscan was ploughing his fields when one of the clods was transformed into a prophet named Tages. Ovid then mentions the spear of Romulus, which was transformed into a tree on the top of the Palatine hill in Rome.
He moves on to the great early Roman general Cipus, who one day discovered that he had grown horns on his head. He was invited to become the King of Rome, but used a ploy to have himself banned from even entering the city. The Senate then gave him a plot of land outside the walls, commemorating his actions in a carving on the city’s nearby gate.
Ovid then gives his account of the bringing of the god Aesculapius (Asclepius) to the city, which at the time was suffering an epidemic of a fatal disease:
A dire contagion had infested long
the Latin air, and men’s pale bodies were
deformed by a consumption that dried up
the blood. When, frightened by so many deaths,
they found all mortal efforts could avail
them nothing, and physicians’ skill had no
effect, they sought the aid of heaven. They sent
envoys to Delphi center of the world,
and they entreated Phoebus to give aid
in their distress, and by response renew
their wasting lives and end a city’s woe.
While ground, and laurels and the quivers which
the god hung there all shook, the tripod gave
this answer from the deep recesses hid
within the shrine, and stirred with trembling their
astonished hearts —
“What you are seeking here,
O Romans, you should seek for nearer you.
Then seek it nearer, for you do not need
Apollo to relieve your wasting plague,
you need Apollo’s son. Go then to him
with a good omen and invite his aid.”
The Senate despatched a party to the port of Epidaurus in quest of Aesculapius, a son of Apollo. The envoy leading that mission had a dream one night, in which he saw Aesculapius beside his bed, holding a staff around which a snake was entwined. The god told the envoy that he would change into a larger snake, for the Romans to find and take back with them.
The following morning, the Romans gathered at the god’s temple, where they saw a large golden snake, which the priest told them was the god Aesculapius. The snake promptly slithered down to the port, where the Roman ships were berthed. It boarded one of them, so the Roman party set sail to take it back to Rome with them.
Ovid provides a long illustrated list of the places that they sailed past in their return journey, including a stop at Antium during bad weather. The ships finally sailed up the River Tiber to the city of Rome, where they were greeted by great crowds:
The serpent-deity has entered Rome,
the world’s new capital and, lifting up
his head above the summit of the mast,
looked far and near for a congenial home.
The river there, dividing, flows about
a place known as the Island, on both sides
an equal stream glides past dry middle ground.
And here the serpent child of Phoebus left
the Roman ship, took his own heavenly form,
and brought the mourning city health once more.
So Aesculapius the god ended the epidemic which had been killing so many of the citizens of Rome.
The short stories of strange happenings, including the transformation of Tages from a clod of earth, the turning of Romulus’ staff into a tree, and the horns of Cipus, seem to have escaped the attention of major painters, but the bringing of Aesculapius to Rome has been part of several intriguing paintings.
I have previously looked at depictions of Aesculapius more generally, from which I bring these, showing Ovid’s story.
When I first looked at Sebastiano Ricci’s The Dream of Aesculapius (c 1718), I couldn’t identify its literary reference. In the light of Ovid’s account here, it clearly shows Aesculapius, clutching his staff with snake in his right hand, appearing in the dream of the Roman envoy at Epidaurus.
Although Jules-Élie Delaunay’s The Plague of Rome (1869) is based on the account in Jacques de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, that refers in turn to the story told by Ovid here. A pair of angels were claimed to have appeared, one good, the other bad. The good angel then gave the commands for people to die of the plague, and the bad angel carried the commands out. At the upper right edge of the canvas, the anachronistic white statue shows Aesculapius, who was to be the city’s salvation.
A drawing attributed to Jacques-Charles Bordier du Bignon, Aesculapius Routing Death (1822), also appears to have its roots in Rome’s plight. Aesculapius has two staffs, with which he is despatching the ‘grim reaper’ of Death. The woman to the right of Aesculapius has been thought to be Ceres, as she is pouring out her breast milk to feed the starving, something not mentioned in Ovid’s account.
There are also general representations of the god with his trademark serpentine staff, such as Giovanni Battista Cipriani’s drawing of Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake, completed before the artist’s death in 1785.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.