A terrible plague afflicts Rome. Medicine does nothing to prevent it, and the citizens are tired of performing funerals. They decide to ask for divine help, so they travel to Apollo’s temple. Apollo calls out, telling the Romans to look for his son, Aesculapius, and ask him to heal them. The Romans sail to Epidaurus, the city where Aesculapius lives. They approach the Grecian Senate and ask them to part with their god, saying that Apollo gave them his blessing to take Aesculapius to Rome. The Grecian Senate defers the decision to the following day.
Although humanity has developed since the universe’s creation to possess tools, cities, inventions, politics, and institutions, they still require help from the gods. The Roman plague proves that there are some tragedies and natural disasters too extreme for humans to solve on their own, and therefore establishes the continual importance of the gods, even in the contemporary world.
That night, Aesculapius comes to one of the Romans in his sleep and says he will go to Rome, and to look for him the next day in the disguise of a serpent. The next day, the Grecian Senate is still undecided. They go to Aesculapius’s temple and ask him for a sign as to whether he should be sent to Rome or not. Aesculapius appears in the form of a giant snake and announces his intent to go to Rome. Afraid and amazed, everyone bows before the snake. Aesculapius slithers from his temple, across the city, and on board the Roman ship. The Romans sacrifice a bull in thanks, then set sail for Rome.
Instead of stealing Aesculapius from the Greeks and instead of the Greeks just handing him over, the Romans and the Greeks ask Aesculapius to choose which city he wants to protect. Aesculapius chooses Rome of his own accord, an action which seems to sanction Rome as the greatest city in the world. Also, Aesculapius’s preference shows that Troy’s fortunes have come full circle: they were defeated by Greece, but now they have established Rome—a city favored over Greece by the gods.
Aesculapius lays his head on the prow of the boat and watches as they pass all the places of history. Aesculapius deboards the ship at Apollo’s temple where he stays for a while. Then Aesculapius boards the ship again and they continue on to Rome. The Roman citizens gather to greet him as the ship emerges and light incense on altars dripping with the blood of sacrificed animals. Aesculapius deboards the ship and makes his home on a nearby island. He ends the Roman plague.
Aesculapius’s passage to Rome seems to cap off all the changes that have taken place in the world over the course of the Metamorphoses, ending with the transformation of Troy through defeat into Rome. While on the ship to Rome, Aesculapius watches all the historical places pass him by, creating a grand finale for the changes that have shaped Rome.