At Large  September 10, 2021  Christopher Siwicki

Ancient Roman Baths: An Archeological Explanation

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The baths of Caracalla.

It is difficult to know at what point the inhabitants of ancient Rome considered their civilization to be in decline; but the loss of the city’s public baths, which had gone out of use by the sixth century AD, marked an inescapable change in the quality of life.*

Bathing was a staple, not a luxury. Bath buildings are one of the most frequently encountered types of structure at archeological sites across the Roman world, from the Middle East to Northern Europe. When Roman Legionaries constructed a fort in the mid-first century AD at the site of what would become the city of Exeter in South-West England, the first substantial, brick structure they built was a bathhouse.

Such buildings are often easily identifiable due to the specific arrangement of rooms, the inclusion of features such as pools, the presence of waterproof concrete, and the remains of hypocaust—a central heating system of raised and hollow tiles that allowed hot air from a furnace to circulate under the floors and through the walls.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The baths of Diocletian.

Although rural villas and large townhouses had private baths, bathing in the Roman world was a social activity. Even emperors, despite having their own lavish baths, might also visit public ones. Beyond mere relaxation and cleanliness, baths were a place to be seen, to conduct business, and to meet—the Roman poet Martial describes how a certain Menogenes would lurk in the baths, excessively and falsely complimenting people until he met someone who finally invited him to dinner.

The neighborhoods of Roman towns were served by bathing complexes known as balneae. These were either privately run or supported by the local authorities. The number of such establishments in each town varied, as did their size and quality. Pompeii in Southern Italy supported three main baths built between the second century BC and first century AD. While the colony of Timgad in North Africa had only half the population of Pompeii, it boasted eight balneae. The city of Rome reportedly had over 800.

Bathing involved more than wallowing in a pool. Many complexes were designed to allow the visitor to progress through the stages of a cleansing ritual based on medical knowledge of the time. This included people moving through rooms and pools that progressed from cold to warm to hot, and to then finish with outdoor exercise.

Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The baths of Caracalla.

Major ancient Roman cities also had larger baths known as thermae and the most magnificent of these were in Rome. Today, substantial remains of three enormous thermae constructed during the reigns of the emperors Trajan (AD 98-117), Caracalla (AD 198-217), and Diocletian (AD 284-305) can still be visited.

The baths of Diocletian stand in front of Rome’s main railway station and are now used to house the city’s museum of ancient inscriptions. In the sixteenth century, part of the central complex was converted by Michelangelo into the church of Santa Maria of the Angels and of the Martyrs. While it has been substantially altered, the expansive vaulted ceiling and granite columns, nearly fifty feet in height, are part of the original structure and allow for an appreciation of the remarkable interior spaces of such complexes (this building was a model for the old, now demolished Pennsylvania Station in New York).

Baths of Diocletian, now the Church of Santa Maria Degli Angeli e Martiri. Photo by Christopher Siwicki.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Baths of Diocletian, now the Church of Santa Maria Degli Angeli e Martiri.

Mosaic in the baths of Diocletian, detail. Photo by Christopher Siwicki.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

Mosaic in the baths of Diocletian, detail.

The best-preserved baths in Rome are those of the emperor Caracalla. They once occupied an area of over 100,000 square meters and could potentially accommodate up to 10,000 bathers a day. Operating such a complex was a feat in itself and required enormous quantities of wood for the furnaces to heat the pools and a continuous supply of water, which necessitated the construction of a new aqueduct.

The baths of Caracalla. Christopher Siwicki.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The baths of Caracalla.

The baths of Caracalla.
Photo by Christopher Siwicki.

The baths of Caracalla.

While the ruins mean it is possible to understand the vast scale of the baths, the concrete and bare brick remains do not reflect the richness of the original decoration. The floors and walls would have been covered with colored marble slabs and mosaic images, while the halls were lined with statues and over 250 marble and granite columns brought from quarries in Greece, Turkey, and Africa.

Communal bathing was a hallmark of Roman culture and a feature of daily living. The construction and resourcing of the vast bath complexes in the imperial capital represented the stability, economic power, technical knowhow, and logistical cohesion of the empire.

* The suggestion of the loss of hot and cold running water as a marker of decline in the Roman world is made in an interview with Professor Charlotte Roueché in an episode of the radio show ‘In Our Time’
About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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