Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Secrets of Tiber Island

Welcome back to Tiber Island.  It really does rather look like a ship, don't you think?  For reference that is the main Synagogue of Rome peeking over the trees on the far shore.

There is a modern stone platform around the island, just right for a nice stroll.  You access it by stairs near the bridge you can see above. This is the "new"  Ponte Cestio bridge that leads to the Trastevere side of the river. Built between 62 and 27 BC but it has had some work done in modern times.

After you check out the "ship" at the down stream side of the island it is time to wander a bit.  Here is the other bridge:

This is the more famous bridge, built by a fellow named Fabricus in 62   BC.  Unlike its slightly newer twin it is almost entirely unchanged.  It is also called the "Ponte dei Quattro Capi", or the bridge of the four heads.  This is because it has mounted on it a pair of ancient sculptures that each have four faces.  These are a sort of "double Janus" design that may have been intended to watch over an important four way intersection or alternatively a road and river intersection.  Although now mounted on the bridge they were actually found a short distance inland and their exact relationship to the bridge is speculative.  There used to be four of them but a pair have gone missing over the long years.

If you look up at the medieval buildings on the island you see something odd:

I could be mistaken but I think this is a "garderobe".  Basically an outhouse stuck onto the side of a building with, shall we say a "clean drop" below.  You see these often on castle walls.  Thankfully it appears to have been retrofitted with modern plumbing, but that foliage down below does appear pretty lush.

Heading back up top it is time to take a peek at the upstream end of the island.  This has been the site of a hospital since 1584.  I was a little uncertain as to where I was allowed to walk, but a sign that said "Pronto Succorso" seemed inviting.  I was able to puzzle out that it meant something along the lines of "Urgent Care".

Out back you find various jumbled up archeological remains.  Essentially their garden wall and the area supporting their trash bins are made of old Roman stuff.

And shockingly, back there among the odds and ends I found this:

This is a dedication stone to Jupiter Dolichenus.  This was an Eastern cult, originating in Turkey and seemingly related to Baal.  As they tended to do, the Romans shrugged, let people go on worshiping Dolichenus but added Jupiter to the name.  The Romans were certainly not monotheists but the concept of diverse names for different aspects of the same deity seems to me to be tiptoeing in that direction.

A few years back the excavators at Vindolanda were very excited to unearth an altar to Dolichenus. This god was often associated with the Roman military and his worship was often centered in military communities.  The stone above does not have all the classic features of an altar - it should have Dolichenus astride a bull for instance - but the slots in the top do make me wonder if there was a decorated screen on the top of it at some point.  And there is a little bit of sculpture work tacked onto the modern brick plinth that sort of looks like Dolichenus in a cap.  Perhaps a fragment of the altar iconography?

Sorry fellow Vindo excavators, in Rome it seems Dolichenus altars are no great shakes.  Just go looking out back by the bins.

As to a tentative interpretation of the inscriptions:  The upper one is rather long, but to summarize it says approximately:

IOM Dolicheno (Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus) for the welfare of the Emperor Septimius Severus, Caesar (Crown Prince) Caracalla, Julia Domna Augusta and the whole of the 'divine' household* dedicated by Marcus Valerius Valentinus an optio in the Praetorian Fleet at Ravenna. He did this himself with the soldiers of the fleet in the year of the two consuls:
AD196C. Domitius Dexter IIL. Valerius Messalla Thrasea Priscus


This shakes out to be:  "Placed under the orders of Caecilius Servilianus 3 days before the Kalends of July"**

As best I can determine this monument was unearthed during expansion work on the hospital in the 1930s.  More recent excavations have been better documented.  There is fabulous stuff in the storage areas under the hospital, alas not open to view.

I liked Tiber Island. It was right on the walking route from our lodgings on into town.  We crossed the ancient bridges every day.  It is a peculiar place.  Plenty of tourists, sure, but they are just streaming across it going to other places.  Step off the beaten path and it is a quiet refuge.  Locals are out for walks or fishing off the banks.  On the upstream end of the island I found a final enigma. Several messages similar to this, weighted down by rocks so that they would not blow away.  The translation here is, approximately:

"The waters surrounded  me.  The abyss swallowed me.  The weeds were twisted everywhere"

Kind of a creepy message actually.  But on a brilliant warm spring day in the Eternal City it just seemed to be another oddity on an island full of such.

*AD 196 was early enough that Caracalla's brother Geta does not get a mention.  They would later have an Imperial level falling out!

**Thanks to Catherine Jarvis for help with the inscriptions!


Weetabix said...

I don't want to bore you with praise, but I surely do love your blog.

Tacitus2 said...

Aw, shucks...
Anyway, great fun to write on any topic and Italy/archeology is The Big Candy Store for me.