By Pat Hirst Volunteer Guide

Salus populi suprema lex

(let the health of the people be the supreme law) …

This was the motto of the black country town where I grew up, which was rather ironic considering it was full of foundries, belching chimneys, and surrounded by coal mines. Still, I suppose the powers that be had the right aspirations for the local population.

In ancient Rome, the goddess Salus was the personification of security, prosperity and well-being of both the individual and the state, publicly and privately. When used as a proper noun, the word ‘Salus’ refers to the goddess herself, while the common noun ‘salus’ means security, so the two are closely linked.

Who was Salus?

Salus was the daughter of Aesculapius, the demigod son of Apollo and the human princess Coronis. Aesculapius was the Greek god of medicine and healing, and Salus’ role was to feed and care for her father’s snakes, and also to act as his assistant. Snake venom was considered by some to be beneficial*, and their ability to shed and regrow skin was a sign of rebirth and renewal.

*Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, allegedly took a daily concoction of known poisons to give him immunity from poisoning - a fate that befell his father. Whether this worked we don’t know, but he readily shared this information with everyone. Did this forestall any poisoning attempts in the belief it was true, and futile to try? Unfortunately, the recipe to his success died with him.

On coins - minted between 1st century BC and the 4th century AD, Salus is often depicted sitting with a snake either curled around her arm, or the arm of the chair. Indeed, she first became associated with Aesculapius with a coin minted in 55BC by Acilius. The inscriptions associated with Salus usually specify the wellbeing of the Emperor (Salus Augusti), the soldiers (Salus Militum) or the state (Salus Republicae). She often holds a patera (a shallow dish), from which the snake is feeding. Occasionally, she is seen holding ears of grain, a sign of prosperity. Occasionally, Salus is holding a steering oar in her left hand , taken to indicate her role in guiding the emperor to a healthy life. However, this image really relates to Fortuna, goddess of fortune, and the personification of luck, which could be either good or bad. So it’s best to be careful when asking ‘luck be a lady tonight’!

Salus Semonia, is referred to in only one inscription of year 1AD, mentioning her in the last line (line seventeen), and was identified by German scholars Georg Wissowa, Eduard Norden and Kurt Latte as a deity. There is consensus among scholars that this line is a later addition and cannot be dated with certainty. The Romans honoured Salus with temples, shrines, baths, statues, festival days, games, offerings, and coins to keep her on their side. Through her, they recognised that good hygiene is essential for good health and wellbeing. Her temple in Rome still stood in the 4th century AD, despite being hit by lightning twice, in 276 and 206BC, and damaged by fire in 1st century AD before being restored.

Temples and Festivities

Although she was considered to be a minor goddess, in 302BC a temple (Salus Publica Populi Romani), was dedicated to Salus during the Samnite wars by the censor C Junius Bubulcus Brutus on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, which was the scene of circus games and the annual sacrifice of a cow (the Augurium Salutis) on the nones of August (5th) - her natalis or ‘birthday’. It was to ascertain the acceptability of prayers (said by the priests) for the preservation of the community, and was followed by vows made to Salus Publica to preserve the fortunes of the people, the magistrates and the generals. Around 180 BC sacrificial rites in honour of Apollo, Aesculapius, and Salus took place there (Livius XL, 37). Later, during the Empire, the Arval Brotherhood (a college of senior priests) used to make annual sacrifices for the welfare of the Emperor to the Capitoline triad of major deities (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) and also to Salus Publica on her festival day, 30th March. As well as honouring Salus, offerings were made to Pax (goddess of peace), Condordia (goddess of harmony), and Janus (god of doors). This god is usually depicted with a face on both sides of his head and is more often associated with the turning of the new year - looking both forwards and backwards. This Brotherhood prayed and made offerings to Salus not just for the safety of the city of Rome but also for the health and fertility of the entire Roman community, including its animals and farms (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 52).

According to Pliny, there was a statue to Salus in the temple of Concordia. Ovid (Fasti, book 3) refers to her with the title Salus Romana. Towards the end of the republic, the Augurium Salutis was often not honoured because it could only be observed in a period when there was no warfare. This was because any discord or disharmony was considered an ill omen, and if the people were ‘joyful’, it was considered to be a good sign. Indeed, the magistrates were so relieved they allowed themselves to be ridiculed, albeit not so much as to cause great offence! It was attempted in 63BC, and finally revived by Augustus (Dio 37.24-25, 51. 20.5).

In the empire, Salus appeared as both Salus Publica and Salus Augusti, the latter because it was thought that during the imperial era, the well being of the Emperor was equated with the well being of the whole of Rome itself. When Romans made sacrifices to Salus, they were not asking for the salvation offered by Christianity in the after life, but for the safety of the here and now, especially for the Emperor, since his health reflected the health of the population as a whole. So, during the empire, offerings to Salus became a test of political loyalty, for not joining in with the celebrations was tantamount to rejecting the Emperor’s authority and this could lead to the loss of one’s own salus - death. The celebration continued until paganism was replaced by Christianity towards the end of the 4th century.

Salus Publica, the public face of Salus, safeguarded the fertility of the community, and was closely associated with Hygeia, the Greek goddess of hygiene, which is where our word hygiene originates. In private, many of the more wealthy households had a lararium (a small shrine or altar) dedicated to Salus, and daily offerings of salt were made (dispensed from a salinum, a small vessel) to ensure her continuing protection of the health and well being of the family. Salt ensured purity and good health, and a simple libation of grain and salt was commonly regarded by the Romans as the earliest form of offering to the gods before animal sacrifices replaced it. In the early days, it was thought that the gods were satisfied with mere vegetable offerings (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 154). In her role as goddess of prosperity, she was invoked by farmers at sowing time to ensure a successful harvest later in the year, so prosperity wasn’t just for monetary wealth, but covered the whole spectrum of the meaning of the word, including health, successful harvests and livelihoods.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.  


Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith Encyclopedia Mythica neptunesdolphins under Gods, Practices