Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Baths of Caracalla: A Glimpse into the Ancient Roman Past

The Baths of Caracalla

By Sheida Aalami

“The baths, the wines and Venus corrupt our bodies, but the baths, the wines, and Venus are life” (Piramonte, 55). The above epitaph carved on a Roman tomb from the imperial age pays homage to the great importance the Romans placed on bathing. A crucial ritual of everyday Roman life, bathing was considered both a “luxury and a necessity” (Yegul, 30); Romans bathed for both hygienic and recreational purposes. There were two types of baths, the Thermae and the Balnae, with the former distinguished from the latter by their size and luxury. Contemporary and poet M. Valerius Martialis wrote of these lavish luxuries, describing “the richness of its multicolored marbles originating from distant quarries” (Yegul, 31). Martialis, or Martial, describes the rich greens, purples, and yellows, as well as the warm water, gentle massage, perfumed oils, and fresh towels that added to the sensuality of the bathing experience (Yegul, 31). This magnificent bathing was viewed as a basic need that “dignified human life” (Yegul, 32); Martial writes that his “simple tastes demand but modest things to sooth [his] path: good wine and food, a barber, and a bath […]” (Yegul, 32). Baths were so central to Roman life that the decline of urban life could be seen in the condition of the baths—a neglected bath signified a troubled economy. Thus, the baths were a central aspect in the life of a Roman citizen. They were a symbol of opulence and luxury, but a luxury that could not be forgone.

An artist's depiction of the sensuality and luxury of the bathing experience.
Artist unknown

Perhaps the most luxurious and best preserved baths in Rome is the Baths or Thermae of Caracalla. Although originally commissioned by his father, the baths were finished under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Bassianus, nicknamed Caracalla, in 235 A.D. Second in size only to the later Baths of Diocletion, the Baths of Caracalla occupy a 337 meter by 328 meter plot of land and cover more than three football fields. These massive baths could house 1600 people at one time, and saw between six and eight thousand visitors a day. The construction of the grandiose structure required over a million bricks, and the baths contained 252 columns. A new road, the via Nova Antoniniana, was built for visitor and supply access. To build such a large public bath, it is estimated that nine thousand workers were employed for five years (Piramonte, 13).

The baths water supply came from the aqueduct the aqua Nova Antoniniana. Pressurized lead pipes branched from the large water cisterns and supplied the bathing pools with water. Water was continually supplied to the cold bathing pools, while the hot bathing pools were emptied only periodically. The hot pools were heated by an underground heating system with fifty praefurnia, or massive wood ovens. To heat the hot pools, the wood ovens burned ten tons of wood a day. Subsequently, the underground level could house a seven month supply of wood, over two thousand tons.

Although unmatched in grandeur and splendor, the architectural layout of the baths resembles that of many public Roman baths. On the first floor of the thermal building was a central frigadarium (cold bath). The frigidarium was 58 by 24 meters across, and eight grey granite columns held up the ceiling of three cross vaults. The fridgidarium had four large pools, with two connecting to the natatio and two to the tepidarium. The architecture of the frigidarium has been replicated many times, and could be seen in both the Baths of Diocletion and the Bassilica of Massenzio. Also, the Chicago Railroad Station and the Pennsylvania Station in New York are exact replicas of the frigidarium’s architecture (Piramonte 24). Around the circumference of the frigadarium were two symmetrical palaestras (gymnasiums), the natatio (outside pool), the apodyteria (dressing rooms), the two-pool tepidarium (warm bath), and the seven-pool caldarium (heated pool). The natatio was an Olympic-sized swimming pool, covering a 50 by 22 meter area. However, the natatio was only one meter deep and was thus only used for recreational wading. The caldarium was a round room, covered with a large dome that was thirty six meters in diameter. Surrounding the caldarium were the laconic (saunas). Although uncertain, it is believed the top floor of the main thermal building was used for sunbathing and massages (Piramonte, 20). Separating the thermal building and the outer walls was a large public xystus (garden). Outside the garden were large unattached walls, containing water cisterns, two large symmetrical libraries, and an exedra arena used for philosophical debate.

Plan of the Baths of Caracalla
A: Apodyteria (Dressing rooms)
B: Paleastra (Gymnasiums)
C: Caladrium (Hot water bath)
D: Tepidarium (Warm water bath)
E: Frigidarium (Cold water bath)
F: Natatio (Outdoor bath)

One entered the main bathing complex and went into the apodyteria, where ornate wooden cabinets would have housed bather's personal items. Slaves and servants were employed to watch a bather’s things, as the baths were frequented by thieves. Although the order of movement through rooms was not fixed, a typical bathing ritual began with an oil massage and light exercise in the palaestra or natatio. Romans only practiced light exercise for preventative medicine purposes, and ended exercise at the breaking of a sweat. Suitable exercise included playing ball, wading, reading, strolling, and, for men only, lifting light weights. After a brief exercise a bather began to move through the bathing rooms. First, a bather enjoyed the warm tepidarium, following by the hot caladrium. The caladarium was incredibly hot, and bathers had to wear wooden sandals to prevent their feet from burning. Many bathers also enjoyed a therapeutic sweat in the laconicum. Hot bathing often ended with the application of various perfumed oils and a final visit and plunge into the cold frigidarim (Yegul, 38).

Men and women bathed separately, for Cicero had lamented of the immorality of men and women bathing together. Mixed bathing still occurred relatively frequently however, leading Hadrian to legislate against mixed sex bathing. Women bathed in the early morning hours and men in the afternoon. Men were given the more desired bathing time; the ideal bathing time was at two in the afternoon, after the Roman workday had ended at noon, bathers had enjoyed a brief siesta, and the baths were thoroughly heated. Regardless the time, most of the bathing ritual was spent in the hot and cold bathing rooms, the caldarium and frigidarium respectively. These were great halls that housed various performances and social activities in addition to bathing. Performances at the bath included those by “traveling jugglers, gymnasts, conjurers, jester, and musicians” (Yegul, 39). Many visitors also dined at the bath; more often a small tasting before dinner, but sometimes a more heavy and serious meal. For the Romans “to dine alone was something of a social disgrace” (Yegul, 39) so for many whose dining did not occur at the baths, a meal among excellent company undoubtedly followed. The baths were also used as social gathering places, with citizens meeting in the outer libraries or mingling in the large open garden. Regardless the specific ritual of bath activities, it is clear the bathing experience was a social and pleasurable one.

Contributing greatly to the pleasurable experience was the lavish artwork that decorated the Baths of Caracalla. In particular, excavations of the Baths of Caracalla are said to have produced the most sculptural remains of any ancient Roman baths (Piramonte, 37). Perhaps the most famous sculpture from the Baths of Caracalla is the Farnese Bull, discovered during excavations led by Pope Paul III Farnese in the mid-16th century. Sculpted from a massive block of marble, the sculpture depicts Amphion and Zethus tying Dirce to a bull to avenge Dirce’s ill treatment of their mother Antiope (Piramonte 38). Although attempts were made by many to remove the renowned statue from Italy, including French King Louis XIV, the statue has never left. Today the statue can be found in the National Archeological Museum of Naples where it has rested since 1826.

The Farnese Bull

Another famous statue found in excavations of the Baths of Carcalla is the Farnese Hercules. This towering 3 meter statue was found in the frigidarium, along with another statue of Hercules called the Latin Hercules. Various other statues and depictions of Hercules were found at the baths-- Caracalla and his family were known for their admiration of Hercules and adorned the baths accordingly (Piramonte 41). Replicas of these statues of Hercules, particularly of the Farnese Herculues, can be found in art galleries, museums, and personal collections around the globe.

Farnese Hercules

Pope Farnese did not limit his excavation to sculptures, however, and removed two large granite tubs from the frigidarium. These tubs were made into identical fountains that sit in the Piazza Farnese, in front of the Palazzo Farnese.

Fountain in Piazza Farnese. One of two fountains made from excavated tubs from the original frigidarium.
Photo by Anand Kaul

Sculptures were not the only marvelous artwork found at the baths, for the elegance and intricacy of the marble mosaic floors is unmatched in Rome. The floors of the main thermal complex were tiled in a detailed style called opus sectile intarsi, with “extremely varied and original motifs portraying the flavor and the notable richness and inventiveness of the time” (Piramonte 44). It is not an overstatement, therefore, to claim that the magnificence of the bath floors was a reflection of the magnificence of the culture, power, and preeminence of Rome. Remains of the marble mosaic floors remain today, with the floor of the eastern apodyteria remaining almost completely intact. Ornate marble mosaics also decorated the lofty 30 meter walls, and the upstairs was decorated with aquatic-themed mosaics including depictions of Cupid and the sea monster. Remains of these depictions can still be seen on the main level.

Second Floor Mosaic, Depicting Cupid and the Sea Monster
Photo by Sheida Aalami

Most famous of the wall mosaics were the athlete mosaics, found in a large scale excavation in 1824. These athlete mosaics were taken to the Vatican, where they can still be seen today in the Lateran Museum.

Famous Athlete Mosaics. Originally from the frigidarium, these mosaics can be found in the Lateran Museum at the Vatican.

Remains of the Eastern Apodyteria Mosaic Floors
Photo by Sheida Aalami

One of the most interesting and least known aspects of the Baths of Caracalla is the underground Mythraeum, discovered during a series of major excavations of the baths conducted in the early 1900s. Outside the entrance to the Mythraeum stood a grand statue of Aphrodite Anadiomene with inscriptions paying homage to an Egyptian god. Passing the statue one entered a large room with cross vaulted ceilings, black and white mosaic floors, and benches around the perimeter (Piramonte, 32). It was within this room that the secret practices of the cult of Mithras were held. Along one of the walls was a fresco of the god Mythra with a “Fregian head-covering and with a solar disc” (Piramonte, 32) characteristic of the god that still remains. The rooms’ main decoration, however, was a carved marble block that represented a snake from rocks—the rocks from which it is said the god Mithras was born. A large rectangular hole sat in the center of the room, which is believed by many scholars to be a hole for blood to drain through after a sacrifice. (Piramonte, 33) Upon initiation into the cult of Mithras, initiates were covered in the blood of a sacrificial bull. The presence of the Mythraeum below the Baths of Caracalla sheds much light on the religious beliefs of the patron, Caracalla, and his family. Caracalla and his family believed in “religious syncreticism” and blended belief in gods from various different cults (Piramonte 33). Thus, the inscription on the statue of Aphrodite to an Egyptian god, and the frescos and carving depicting devotion to the god Mithras are not paradoxical, but rather two parts of a whole that was Caracalla’s own blended religious view.

The patron from whom the baths get their name, Emperor Caracalla, lived a tumultuous life. From an early age Caracalla had an intense rivalry with his brother, Geta. When their father died, the empire was divided and Caracalla and Geta were to rule in tandem. Rome itself was divided in two, with Caracalla ruling the land west of the Palatine Hill, and his brother ruling the land to the east. Unsatisfied with this division and with memories of childhood rivalry persisting, Caracalla murdered his brother Geta. In an attempt to eliminate enemies and establish legitimacy as ruler of the whole empire, Caracalla ordered that friends and supporters of Geta be killed, and subsequently over one thousand disappeared. A military man, Caracalla sought refuge in the army. On numerous occasions, Caracalla raised taxes to increase financial support of the army and bestowed upon them many gifts. In an attempt to further legitimize his power and large military expenditures, and to appease the people, Caracalla built the public Thermae.

Bust of Emperor Caracalla

In general, baths and other public spaces were built by emperors as tools of propaganda to build public support. Admission to these public baths was very inexpensive—entrance to the Baths of Caracalla was at one point only two denari, the equivalent of half a cent. Often, to garner further support or appeasement, admission to baths would be free. People of all classes, emperors and plebeians alike, frequented the baths. Vespasian is said to have frequented a public thermae and played ball in the palaestra daily. With emperors and plebes bathing in the same waters, the public bath made a strong propagandistic statement. Although Roman society was certainly stratified, the baths created an illusion of an egalitarian society and garnered public support for an emperor.

Caracalla is remembered for his fratricide and personal instability—he believed that the spirit of Alexander the Great lived inside him (Piramonte 51). One should not forget the numerous advancements Caracalla made for the Roman Empire, however. Caracalla granted the Constitutiono Antoniniana in 212 A.D, giving all within the empire (excluding slaves) Roman citizenship. He debased the silver coin by twenty five percent, controlling inflation and stabilizing the economy. A large supporter and proponent of the army, Caracalla both defended and extended Roman borders.

The Baths of Caracalla were in use until 537 A.D, when the siege of Rome by the king of the Goths severed the aqueducts, cutting off the water supply to Rome. Housed in the southern part of the city far from the hiding citizens, the baths soon lost their importance. Before long, the baths fell to ruins. While the Baths of Caracalla may lie in ruins, what remains is the enormous feeling of magnificence the baths invoke—the superb art and lavish decorations of the baths were never matched. The Baths of Caracalla remain a testament to the paramount wealth and power of the Roman Empire and provide a powerful glimpse into the life of an ancient Roman citizen.


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