Malaria in Ancient Rome. From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Malaria Plagued Rome and Greece

It seems clear today that malaria heavily plagued classical Rome and Greece (read this article out of many.)

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929,) a key figure in the archaeology and topography of ancient Rome, tells us about malaria in the city in his Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries, Houghton, Mifflin and C., Boston and New York, 1888 (chap. III., available on-line at LacusCurtius.)

“With regard to the site of Rome itself – Lanciani observes -, we can hardly believe the words of Cicero (De Represent., 2, 6,) in which he describes it as in regione pestilenti salubris, salubrious in a pestilential region, although the same observation is made by Livy, who considers it almost a prodigious fact that the town should prove healthy in spite of the pestilent and desert region by which it was surrounded (5, 54 – 7, 38.) They evidently refer to the state of things prevailing in their own age.”

The Goddess of the Fever

Many centuries before Cicero’s and Livy’s time, when Rome was at its beginnings, the virulence of malaria was much more severe, as it is attested according to Lanciani “by the large number of altars and shrines dedicated by its early inhabitants to the goddess of the Fever [called Febris, MoR] and other kindred divinities.” It seems that men were “imploring from heaven the help which they failed to secure with their own resources.”

At the time of Varro instead (116 BCE – 27 BCE) “there were not less than three temples of the Fever left standing – Lanciani continues – : one on the Palatine, one in the square of Marius on the Esquiline, one on the upper end of the Vicus Longus, a street which corresponds, within certain limits, to the modern Via Nazionale.”

The reason seems clear to me. From the last Etruscan kings onwards the local marshes had been drained and advances in the sewerage system together with a better hygiene had favoured a healthier sanitary condition.

Nonetheless scholars today think that the months from July to October were unsafe in Rome at whatever epoch; which is confirmed by Roman authors advising the population to leave the city during the hot season – which incidentally only the rich could do, with their wonderful country villas awaiting them during such unhealthy months. The populace instead, stuck in the city, died in the thousands each year because of malaria.

The Goddess Returns as Our Lady of the Fever

A stamp with Our Lady of the Fever, issued by the Vatican on March 12, 2002

When centuries later the Western Roman empire collapsed «Rome, almost annihilated by the inroads of barbarians, found itself in a condition almost worse than that of its early age, powerless to accomplish any work of improvement, and exposed again to the full influence of malaria.»

So «the inhabitants – Lanciani concludes – raised again their eyes towards God, built a chapel near the Vatican in honour of the Madonna della Febbre — our Lady of the Fever — which became one of the most frequented and honoured chapels of mediaeval Rome.»

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From the goddess of the Fever to the Madonna of the Fever.

Another indication of how the transition from Paganism to Christianity occurred in Italy and elsewhere.

Tabernacle by Donatello with at the centre a medieval fresco of the Madonna della Febbre

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