In the Roman Forum, some traces still remain of what was once the city’s medical district. An overlapping of Roman-era cults and modern-day practices, subject to transformations and reinterpretations over the centuries, has united the Forum’s architectural and sacred spaces, enabling the area’s historic association with the ars medica to live on.
FEBRIS, THE CRUEL GODDESS OF SICKNESS AND HEALING, AND SAINT FRANCES OF ROME, THE SAINT WHO CURED THE SICK
Once upon a time on the Palatine Hill, there stood an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Febris. Her cult, frightful yet salvific, was very dear to the Romans: goddess of fever and sickness, Febris was honored as “bringer of death”, but also “purifier and healer” of epidemics and malaria, which infested the countryside surrounding the city. She was worshiped during the Lupercalia, an ancient festival celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of the month called Februarius. Her cult’s celebrations culminated on the 14th, a day which the Christians would later consecrate first to St. Febronia and then to St. Valentine, patron saint of the febris amoris.
In the area where the aedes Febris may have been located, a different place of worship stands today, undoubtedly tangible and majestic: the church of Saint Frances of Rome, final resting place of its namesake’s tomb since 9 March 1440. Francesca Bussi de’ Leoni was a Roman noblewoman who devoted her life to the service of the poor. During the plague that struck Rome in the early 1400’s, and which took two of her own young children, Francesca opened her palace to the sick and risked her own life to care for them: for this reason, she is considered a protectress from pestilence. On 9 March, 2020, a day after the gates of our PArCo were officially shut in response to the medical emergency currently affecting all of Italy and beyond, the church bells of Santa Francesca Romana rang out to celebrate the saint’s feast day, the auspicious coincidence of the dates offering a glimmer of hope.
GALEN, CELEBRITY PHYSICIAN OF IMPERIAL ROME
Among the numerous historical figures who frequented the Roman Forum, Galen of Pergamon stands out, considered the founder of experimental medicine and one of the most celebrated physicians of the ancient world. Born in 129 AD, erudite in many fields and especially in Aristotelian philosophy, Galen eventually settled in Rome, where he quickly rose to fame—so much so that he was chosen as personal physician to the emperors Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus and Septimius Severus. In addition to holding packed conferences and performing “live” operations before crowds of onlookers, Galen wrote a myriad of treatises dedicated to specific areas of medicine, such as anatomy, physiology, prognosis and diagnosis, therapy, pharmacology, diet, etc. He kept his works in a “studio” located in the area of the Horrea Piperataria, or spice warehouses, recently discovered beneath the Basilica of Maxentius. The location, although prestigious and practical in the heart of ancient Rome’s medical district, wasn’t without its disadvantages: in one writing, Galen bemoans the loss of all of his manuscripts and physician’s tools in the disastrous fire that tore through the Forum in 192 AD, destroying the Horrea and the nearby Temple of Peace.
COSMAS AND DAMIAN, THE “THAUMATURGE” BROTHERS
The Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian is the most ancient church overlooking the Roman Forum: in 526 AD, it was consecrated by Pope Felix IV in a room of the ancient Temple of Peace, dedicated to the martyred brothers. Cosmas and Damian were two Roman physicians born in the eastern empire (perhaps Syria or Arabia), who offered their services without accepting any form of payment. For their great generosity, not at all common at the time, they were named “anargyroi”, the “silverless” or “unmercenary” saints. In 303 AD, they were arrested under the emperor Diocletian’s persecutions, but their holiness was so great that no method used by their persecutors succeeded in killing them: they were whipped and stoned, but remained unharmed; they were tied to a boulder and thrown into the sea, but miraculously survived; the fames of the pyre meant to consume them turned against their tormentors instead. Only the sword, finally used to behead them, managed to kill the brothers. From that moment on, the “thaumaturge” or “miracle-working” saints have been worshiped throughout the Christian world, being prayed to as protectors of doctors and pharmacists.
THE COLLEGE OF PHARMACISTS AT SAN LORENZO IN MIRANDA: RENAISSANCE ROME’S MINISTRY OF HEALTH
In addition to the protectress against pestilence, Saint Frances of Rome, and the “thaumaturge” brothers Cosmas and Damian, the Roman Forum is also kept under the watchful eye of the College of Pharmacists, the ancient Universitas Aromatariorum: in 1429, Pope Martin V entrusted them with the Collegiate Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, first documented in the 11th century, and erected within the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. At the time, the College of Pharmacists exercised the same powers and performed the same functions as those of a Ministry of Health, a guild or a university. The influence and wealth enjoyed by the College were such that, in 1602, the church was rebuilt and redecorated with the aid of some of the leading painters of the day, such as Pietro da Cortona and Domenichino.
The church was dedicated to San Lorenzo degli Speziali in Campo Vaccino (St. Lawrence of Herbalists in the Campo Vaccino/”Cow Pasture”), underlining the link between pharmacists —at the time known as herbalists— and the area where the church stood: that Roman Forum which had become a pasture for livestock after years of abandonment. In the photo one can see how the temple was readapted into a church: the height of the entry, much higher than the paving of the Via Sacra, shows how high the street level was before the 18th century excavations of the Roman Forum. Today the complex houses the Nobile Collegio Chimico Farmaceutico – Universitas Aromatariorum, which maintains academic and social functions and keeps a library, a collection of pharmaceutical art and an archive containing documents signed by Raffaello Sanzio.
JUTURNA, THE NYMPH WHO WANTED TO DIE
Visitors to the Roman Forum can also find a spring linked to a cult of health and healing: the lacus Iuturnae, dedicated to the nymph Juturna, goddess of fountains and springs, who was worshiped in proximity to these water sources. The waters of this spring were believed to possess curative and cleansing properties, and we know that structures were available around the spring to house the ill who came to take advantage of its beneficial properties by drinking of its waters or by the sheer virtue of being in its presence. As thanks for the spring’s restorative powers, partakers would then throw coins or other objects into its waters as offerings. Juturna, on the other hand, immortal nymph and divine healer, wished to share the fate of mankind and die along with her beloved brother Turnus, king of the Rutuli killed by Aeneas. Virgil, in the last book of the Aeneid, shares with us her dramatic story and her anguished lament against fate and against Zeus, who made her immortal.
Virgil, Aeneid, Book XII, 1302-1327
(John Dryden poetic translation)
“What can thy sister more to save thy life?
Weak as I am, can I, alas! contend
in arms with that inexorable fiend?
[…] O hard conditions of immortal state,
tho’ born to death, not privleg’d to die,
but forc’d to bear impos’d eternity!
Take back your envious bribes, and let me go
companion to my brother’s ghost below!
The joys are vanish’d: nothing now remains,
of life immortal, but immortal pains.
What earth will open her devouring womb,
to rest a weary goddess in the tomb!”.
Pulling her azure mantle up over her tear-stained face, the nymph plunged into the dark spring and disappeared.