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.»


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

68 thoughts on “Malaria in Ancient Rome. From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

  1. This is one more demonstration that men’s religious beliefs originate in a deep past and have evolved since then into what we have today. When you take a good look at the various present religions you see the likenesses between them and you perceive the common origins.
    The founding myths are universal and have been adapted to each period and to the mental and scientific development of the species.
    An old saying “scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar” can be modified to “scratch a modern religious person and you will find a Pagan”.


    1. I have read the book you advised me Paul (‘The Pagan Christ’ by the Canadian *Tom Harpur*) according to which all religions seem related to one another.

      This post simply describes a small case in the complex process that brought the Roman religion to become the Christian religion. Such connection with Paganism I believe to be stronger among Catholics than it is among Protestants, I wrote it here many times.


      1. Protestants used to be Catholics, they still observe the same Holydays and have carried over the equinoxes and solstices celebrations and Hallow’een is even more of a celebration in Protestant areas than in Catholic places.
        And what about St-Valentine/Eros/Apollo?


        1. In fact many things coincide. Some holidays, altho maybe not all of them.
          I don’t know much about St. Valentine vs Eros and Apollo.

          I wanted to add that the possibility that all religions are related doesn’t of course mean that there are no differences, also within Christianity itself.


          1. The longer you blog, the more you get stubborn Paul 😉

            The whole picture, whatever it is, counts, but as they say the devil is in the details.


  2. The longer you read mythology of all types the more parallels you catalog. I wish more work were done in psychology on the religious instinct, the feature of consciousness that leads people to create cosmologies and deities. It is simplistic to say that everything is done from a desire to explain “why it thunders.”

    Certainly we are a neotenous species and our bodies, not just our minds, remember a period of early consciousness when every protector and most threats wore a human face, often the same face. But there also is the element in religion of a quest for meaning, a word whose meaning is itself tough to define (back to that Catastrophe of the Infinite Regress that I keep finding everywhere). I take the contiguity of Gods as something of a given, but I scratch my head a lot about the welding together of the quest for significance with often glib and childish folktales, or pleas for a supernatural bailout.


    1. My Greek roots failed me on “neotenous” so I scrambled for a dictionary. You did give a massage to my little grey cells (Hercule Poirot). Jesus reportedly said, pointing to children:” If you do not become like one of them you will not enter the realm”, or something to that effect. That must be a reference to that neotenous characteristic you invoque.


      1. You’re going to keep on tweaking me about children, aren’t you Paul?

        I concede neoteny (Aldous Huxley did a fascinating treatment thereof in After Many A Summer) but I still will run a mile to get away from a child.

        In the matter of religious thinking, it’s a liability. Humans spend so long in helpless dependence on their parents that habits of thought are laid down which yield all the angry, punitive or capricious parental gods of history (for most of history, parents have been barely out of childhood themselves). We can thank the whole upright-posture gambit of primate evolution, which dictated a narrow birth canal at the same time the brain got big and unwieldy, so that humans have to be born practically as embryos compared to many mammalian species (watch a colt or calf struggle to its feet, an accomplishment which humans take 18 months or so to mimic).

        Oh, I have a real bone to pick with evolution about this.

        But the higher mysticisms bypass this silly familial projection upon the Absolute or Ineffable, and those fascinate me.


        1. Sledpress you have misinterpreted my intervention. I was not tweaking you but, through the quote mentioned, was reinforcing your neotenic theory.
          I’m old, but I believe having or not having children is a woman’s call and I respect that.


  3. @Sledpress

    You raise topics that even big philosophers can only blabber about.

    I wish more work were done in psychology on the religious instinct, the feature of consciousness that leads people to create cosmologies and deities.

    Whether it is something (such instinct etc.) that will be forever part of Man, or, on the other hand, just a state of conscience corresponding to a (more primitive?) phase of our evolution (which will progressively disappear, as it is actually happening in many parts of the richer world) – it is a dilemma that many have.

    And in fact as for the quest for a general meaning – some are turning to religion, to god or gods, but others to philosophy and / or science, or art, ie outside any … sacred sphere.

    I don’t know if what is ‘sacred’ makes sense, if it is … real (?) but the higher mysticisms, how you call them, do fascinate me too quite a lot, as it is attested by the frequent presence of religious matters in this blog.


    1. Animism — that sense that there is a consciousness in everything — seems like a universal (Heraclitus, “everything is full of gods” — I love that phrase.) And even the most evolved intellect is not immune to what Freud called a sense of the “heimlich” in the sense of haunting, though he kept dragging the discourse back to reproductive organs. Jung, who was the only psychologist of stature to spend much time on the subject, seemed to hit the mark more often.

      People may get beyond the belief that they need a particular object or fetish, but the compression of a huge amount of the seen and unseen universe into some small material symbol is just about universal too. As is a sense of the sacredness of objects, occasions or places. Eliade made some remarks about the substitution of rewarding fiction for religious narrative in post-religious societies. But given the incredible power religion exerts in the world, the whole area of inquiry needs way more air and light — at least enough to detach people’s sense of the sacred from the need to make everyone else share a given form of it.

      And mysticism per se, as practiced by for instance Yogis? People tinkering with psychedelics and quantum physics (sometimes both at once) seem to have come closer to capturing what the mystics were after than any mythology can do at this stage of evolution. I am waiting for sanity and objectivity to return to research on consciousness, but I will probably wait a while.


      1. I think you’re right. In many cases, religion, mysticism can take totally different forms, not recognizable at first glance. As for myself, literature (non religious), there including poetry, I can feel it is often a substitute for prayer.

        I should consider these things better. And maybe read some Eliade. Even the charismatic figure of some leaders certainly may have a religious significance for the masses.

        In our country Berlusconi has unfortunately been like idolized (now I hope he is less). I’m not kidding. “Meno male che Silvio c’è” (Thank God that Silvio’s here) is a song sung by many young women and men in his party. Which makes me shudder.


        1. I still say that spirituality, call it counciousness or mysticism if you wish, is not to be confused with religiosity or idolatry which is another form of religion.


          1. By ‘idolized’ I meant that his person was / is somehow seen as sacred by some. I agree I need some ordering in such concepts.


          2. I think the confusion and confabulation of the two is the source of a majority of human problems — the human mentality longs for the mystical experience but is easily lured into the ersatz transcendence of surrendering itself to any old charismatic lure. Jung liked to say that if you chased God out the door he would come in the window, or words to that effect, and ideological cults of personality are a perfect example.


  4. I always enjoy the articles, Man of Roma, but also your comment threads. Fascinating stuff, thought-provoking, dizzying.

    Sledpress, how did you accumulate such a vast knowledge bank about so much?


      1. And by the way I usually feel completely faded by people like MoR and Zeus who are so well-read in politics, philosophy and history that I sometimes hardly dare to comment, so I am going to go strike a few poses now… thank you.


        1. Sled, Cheri is right. You are amazing and very profound. It is an honour and a pleasure to have you comment or read your writings over at your blog. And do not over evaluate me. I only wish I had more time to interact more. Thing is I cannot stay in front of a screen for too long. I just don’t think it right to spend what is left of my life in this way lol 🙂


          1. This is an important topic, screen time.

            I try to limit myself to 1 hour in the morning with coffee and then again at night for about 30 minutes.

            Other than that, I like to read, walk, spend time with friends and family.


        2. I don’t even try to compare myself with any of you. I’ve appreciated the help that MoR, Sledpress, and Zeus have given me on some of my topics for school.
          Tremendous tutors, all of you.


        3. @Cheri

          More time I spend before a screen, Cheri, not only because English is not my mother tongue. Thank you for spurring me towards moderation.
          And yes, also because of the person who praised us, I see our chests puffing with vainglory 🙂


  5. Hello Man of Roma,
    I think Schopenhauer said we can satisfy our need for mysticism/transcendance through the beauty of art, especially music. As you say with poetry, too. Isn’t this helpful from a man who believed life to be bleak and brutal? Wonderful discussion, thanks.


    1. Thank you Geraldine and welcome here.

      I think Schopenhauer was right. At least it works with me. Originally music was the most important to me. Now also literature, poetry and history are.


  6. I share so many of your uncertainties, Sledpress, but you express them so beautifully, compactly and comprehensively and with such learning, intelligence and authority I have nothing to say, except:

    “… I am waiting for sanity and objectivity to return to research on consciousness, but I will probably wait a while.”

    What is the research that possessed the sanity and objectivity you refer to, and what is the sanity, objectivity and research you await? (Please.)


    1. Hate to intrude, but it seems to me that for man it is easier to study rocks or flowers with a certain degree of objectivity (and sanity?) than it is to study himself, ie consciousness etc.


      1. Indeed MoR, indeed. Since man is more than an assemblage of molecules and electrical connexions, studying him is akin to studying wind or electricity. You see and feel the manifestations but what is the essence?


        1. Indeed Paulus. And things are maybe more complicated because it is the only instance when ‘he who studies’ and ‘he who is studied’ coincide.


    2. Well, for about five minutes, people with some intellectual credential and as few preconceptions as they could manage were looking into the question. I am thinking of the work Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huxley et. al. were doing at midcentury. None of them were perfectly sane or objective, of course, but the general trend was one of open-minded experimentation, to find out what could be learned about the mind by (at least temporarily) deconstructing it. Before American law stamped on Leary’s research with a panicky moratorium, a good deal of observation had accumulated about use of psychedelics to dissociate sensory data from the “filters” of bias and belief we accumulate over time, and identify what those filters are with a view to changing them, if desired. It was as far from the random reckless use of psychoactive drugs that occurred later as the conscientious use of anesthetics and sedatives is from needle parks.

      The legal harassment and disruption that intervened pretty much guaranteed that no one would ever be able to continue the investigation safely and methodically. But from what I’ve read of Leary, John Lilly, Fred Alan Wolf (an astrophysicist whose work on quantum physiology fascinates me) and several others, we lost a potentially powerful source of information about how the mind works and what constitutes a “religious” experience in terms of the human nervous system.

      I think it frightened a lot of people to imagine that such a phenomenon could be correlated with synapses and brain regions. I don’t think anything we can do would extinguish the numinousness of such experiences but it would be a great thing if we could detach it from cruel strictures, the need to persecute nonbelievers, fear of hell and similar inconveniences.


      1. I naturally take your word on this, Sled, but I still wonder in principle about the accessibility of an explanation for consciousness. I take it we talk about the same thing.

        All right, for navel watchers say, like Mr. Crotchety, they may be aware of the fluff, but he is aware of being aware of the fluff and aware of being aware of being aware of the fluff …

        What, though, is this tool awareness? It is always just out of our reach, especially when it examines itself. Without it there is no choice, no creativity, no conscience. no language. Even if one is a dyed-in-the-wool determinist, awareness of determinism is still there.

        Please help.


        1. Ah Britannia, are you by any chance asking Sledpress to shed light on one of the most obscure topics – consciousness, awareness – unsuccessfully debated for ages by philosophers, psychoanalysts, psychologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists blah blah?

          My blog is blabber land, but is there any subtle reason for asking her the way you are asking?

          🙂 😯 🙂

          😯 🙂 😯


          1. Of course I don’t find you rude. If you think you are, more of the same please.

            I have much nostalgia for your time here MoR. As you know, I’m an ancient Briton.

            Not only that, The City of London is a pale imitation of one of your city states. You’ve never claimed royalties.

            So you must be permitted the indulgences of an old man – and we all know how old.


          2. Richard, you well know that if I were gay I would marry you right now.
            And pls don’t worry. We are planning to come back en masse. And, incidentally, now that I know your Mayor better (through his book on ancient Rome) I’m sure he’ll greet us with all his charm and good nature.


        2. I’m scared to death what will follow anything I say, after all this matrimonial banter (but peccate fortiter). And I’m not actually the kind of materialist that hopes to reduce consciousness to a sort of Rube Goldberg device. (I did say “correlated.”) In fact I think it is exactly because of the fact that it is not easily reducible that research can’t be left at the mechanistic level that has prevailed for the last few decades, in which medical researchers clumsily clout the living brain with this or that molecule and hope to create a meaningful change.

          I’m an old Colin Wilson fan (= “potted phenomenology”). Characterizing consciousness is a bit like Simonizing seals, it always slips away, but that shouldn’t stop our trying to understand anything we can about it. There exist people with only twists of brain tissue who have differentiated and complex personalities. Quanta at times seem to behave teleologically, and what the hell is going on there? But consciousness has to at least operate through our mammalian brains and that’s another fine mess. I think it’s going to end up being some sort of phenomenological Copenhagen interpretation, neither a ghost nor a machine, but both.

          I ought to shut up now.


          1. Except dammit I wandered off my point — which was that the hallucinogen research, like some contemplative disciplines, required the complete involvement of the brain’s owner in understanding the stream of perception and interpretation. Unlike some of the current medical attitudes about consciousness and brain function (“here, take this Prozac and you will be happy”) which I think are crude and reductionist.

            OK I am going to go shower.


  7. @Sledpress

    Pls don’t be scared by us. Especially by Richard. He is totally innocuous.

    I am not qualified but it’s part of blog fun to speak randomly of whatever one likes.

    I think it was wrong to legal harass such mind & drug experiments at Harvard (unless they involved students.) Timothy Lear and Richard Alpert were both teachers at Harvard I remember.

    I nonetheless generally believe that exploring consciousness via introspection has the weakness of non escaping preconceptions, lack of objectivity and so forth. And I don’t think empowering drugs can help either. People kept saying in the 60s that ‘trips’ varied greatly from person to person, and, in a person, from trip to trip etc.

    For example, American behaviourist psychology – which I personally find a bit too rigid – traditionally considered the concept of consciousness (and the method of probing it via introspection) as irrelevant to scientific investigation, right for the difficulties of conducting objective experiments.

    I first heard of Timothy Lear and Richard Alpert from a group of Californian youths during my so-to-say bohemian days in Trastevere, Rome, at the end of the 60s. I speak of my experiences with these people *here* and *here*.

    Which of course brings us to the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece which, according to many scholars, were meant to elevate man’s consciousness from a human sphere to a divine (and immortal) one (while to the Olympian religion the soul died after death, or sort of.)

    Sophocles and Pindar for example chant (more or less):

    ‘Happy are those who die after being initiated in Eleusis since in the after life they will find life and not death.’

    Cicero more pragmatically speaks of the Eleusinian benefit of letting us die with a better hope.

    What was then so special in Eleusis? A lot of things, but much has been speculated about a famous potion, called kykeon or κυκεών, that was drunk at the apex of the Eleusinian experience.

    Many scholars (see the *entheogenic theories* regarding the mysteries) think the potion contained psychedelic agents that brought into “revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications” which could possibly change a person’s life since such drugs are known to have long-term psychoemotional effects.

    I confess I distrust such drugs and don’t much believe in their revelatory power. I also believe them to be extremely dangerous for our balance.

    It is well known that mescaline ‘left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness’ for years (see a Sunday Times *article* about it).

    “They followed me in the streets, into class – said Sartre – … they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.”


    1. There are doubtless people who shouldn’t do these kinds of experiments — I may be one of them myself — but I think, from what I’ve read of Leary’s work and others of the era, that valuable things were learned about how much of what we “know” about who we “are” is open to question. No exploration is without danger and some people who explore new territory pay a price, but that hasn’t discouraged people from going into uncharted parts of the globe or taking long chances in medicine.

      I will explore the links you provide in my free moments later.


      1. I agree that danger and exploration are often linked. I was only speaking for myself. And, like you, I am definitely not the kind of person that should go into such experimentations.

        In case you can provide some link to the usefulness of such experiments, I’ll gladly read them.


        1. The texts I had uppermost in mind were some essays that Leary published under the title “The Politics Of Ecstasy.” If I can find some of it online I’ll pass links on.


          1. OK, *here*. I think the “Seven Tongues Of God” essay at best outlines the beginning of an inquiry process that was not allowed to continue, but it suggests lots of possible insight from controlled and examined use of “entheogens.”


  8. Following MoR’s links regarding consciousness and onward to the Wiki entries fills you with overwhelming sadness.

    The roots of this are twofold. First, the hallucinations and delusions: aberrations either chemically induced or the result of failure to recognise the limitations of human thought. Second the wielding of a legal sledgehammer to crack a nut.

    The paradoxes of consciousness enhance life. They are not hard to perceive, artificial aids are unnecessary and there is a total absence fanciful invention.

    What strikes you in particular in the writings is the loss of potential and the dessication of experience. True, it is a presumption to include Sartre in this very personal and hastily conceived assessment.

    The legal issue is an entirely separate one and represents a clash between misplaced idealism and the shortcomings of a civilisation. A fourfold tragedy.


    1. I wish I understood a word of what you are saying Richard. What writings are you talking about?

      In case you refer to my writings, Richard, which you might consider too shallow or faulty for whatever reason, there is one good simple antidote: not reading them.


          1. Don’t worry Richard. Vent what you like. Fortune has given me heavier blows I assure you. And I am probably very shallow.
            Only, when talking to non mother tongues, pls try to write in ways easier for us to understand.


    2. Sartre’s crabs actually strike me as kind of charming. And I notice he said that one day he became bored and banished them; in other words, he flexed some mental muscles and learned to control his perceptions.

      The question that raises is — how many of our other less quaint “perceptions” are as illusory as the lobsters?

      Some people may not need drugs to entertain these questions and conversations like this may be evidence for that. Others will not be able to maintain any objectivity under the influence of drugs and should never go there. The one thing I never understood about Leary was his about-face from controlled experimentation with careful observation and meticulously stated goals to promoting the cause of random “turn-ons.” But I think “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut” had a lot to do with this. The moral equivalent of bomb-throwing by someone persecuted beyond all sense or patience, possibly.

      Certainly at most times and places that people have used drugs in a socially sanctioned way, it has been with careful control of person, occasion and intent by experienced people who had an “institutional history” with the substances (hence the offense of Alcibiades).


      1. In my view, Sledpress, one should be allowed to carry on experiments such as those Leary was working on. The only problem is the influence he had on youth. Youth must be protected because of its fragility. I don’t know much about it, but this might be one reason why he was stopped at Harvard. Possibly not the only reason. Maybe our English lawyer can help us.


        1. According to Leary one big stumbling block he encountered was that the US Department of Defense wanted to enlist him for research on how LSD could be used in covert intelligence work and mind control. He rejected the idea completely. Soon after his research was found to be “dangerous.” I fear this seems quite probable in the hysterical America of the 1950’s/early 60’s with its “Us and Them” mentality.

          The thing that surprised me about Leary’s autobiography was its clarity and sharp-minded coherence. It was not the rant of a man with his mind melted by drugs, or deluded into considering himself a prophet. It was clear that he had been at least somewhat mischaracterized.

          I went to one of the druggiest schools in America and came out without using a single one other than an occasional beer or whisky, so I am a witness that much drug “enlightenment” or “insight” is just dumb. But then, so are many “religious” experiences. I remain deeply fascinated by what some drugs may reveal about both the noblest and lowest ecstasies available to the human nervous system, even if the climate right now makes it foolish for anyone to continue investigating.


  9. OK MoR, you seem to have set foot into another “New Decameron” (Inside joke, friends). Two subjects are awfully delicate to handle, sex and drugs, even under the guise of studying conciousness.
    These two can alter even the sturdiest efforts to attain conciousness since no one ever maintained a true north bearing “en perdant le nord”, as the French saying goes.
    I have never tried drugs, and do not intend to start at my age, but I have seen people under their influence and unless you consider delirium as an enhanced state of conciousness, I found them rather devoid of it while in their vapors (I would not have trusted the Pithy). Same goes for alcohol and overdoses of sex. The last two I did experience…long ago.
    I must admit that I am weary of Leary and company. They may have been unduly repressed but they could have gone a bit overboard also.


    1. Exactly Paul. It is like Decameron season 2, we both know what we mean.

      I say aloud here that I am not writing to defend drugs. Quite the contrary. I think they are very dangerous. All of them (alcohol included, though delicious.) I too believe, like Richard, that artificial aids (to be happy or have fun, or to so-to-say enhance consciousness etc.) are unnecessary, often pernicious.

      I simply don’t see what’s the big deal about all this and I sometimes find English difficult to understand.


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