Not far from the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum, at the foot of the Aventine Hill, the Baths of Caracalla are one of the largest and most fascinating monumental buildings of ancient Rome.
The baths (“terme” in Italian, from the Greek thèrmai, meaning “hot springs”) were a public bathing facility and also were one of the main forms of entertainment in Rome. People met here, chatted, relaxed. The baths weren’t only for bathing, sports and personal hygiene but were also places to meet, stroll and study.
As the name suggests, it was Emperor Caracalla who built them in the 3rd century AD in the southern part of the city. To bring water to the enormous construction, a special branch of the Aqua Marcia aqueduct was built, taking the name of Aqua Antoniniana, from the emperor’s family. The huge project was finished in only 5 years thanks to sophisticated technology and hundreds of slaves.
The Latin author Polemius Silvius called the baths of Caracalla one of the seven wonders of Rome.
This was the kind of risky and grandiose project that Roman architecture did so well: enormous vaulted ceilings, gigantic arches and openings, all together creating spectacular buildings of truly incredible proportions. They could hold up to 1600 people and the structures that survive today are still extraordinary, even if the fundamental element —water— no longer flows within them.
Even though huge and impressive, the baths were actually destined for mass public use of the population in the nearby neighborhoods. Emperors wanting to gain approval of the people would furnish the populace with structures for both entertainment and general hygiene and relaxation, like the baths. Entrance was free and available at any hour of the day or night.
The giant complex was composed of a huge central edifice, with the space between it and the surrounding fence occupied by greenery, with the most important halls in the center and the others arranged around them symmetrically. A raised and probably porticoed walkway followed the fence on inside. As in other imperial thermal establishments, entrance was through four doors that opened onto two spaces -probably dressing rooms - next to the huge pool.
Passageways and huge central halls were covered by enormous vaulted ceilings. Two rows of gigantic windows let in sunlight from dawn to dusk. The ceilings over the pools were decorated with colored glass tiles that, thanks to the light from the windows and above all, the reflections from the water, glittered and shone, creating a particularly suggestive atmosphere.
The bathing ritual was very similar to todays’ spas, beginning with the gymnasium and various exercises that could be practiced both inside and outside, then passing on to the laconicum, the Turkish bath. Right after came the calidarium with its hot water, the tepidarium, warm water, and the frigidarium, a cold water pool. The calidarium structure was overhanging and orientated in such a way as to make best use of the suns’ rays. The frigidarium, larger and richly decorated, was the final phase and which could be walked on either of two absolutely symmetrical sides. The baths finished in the natatium, the great pool.
There could be side effects, however: the continuous temperature changes that frequent bathers underwent, passing from hot to cold water in rapid succession, sometimes generated ear and nose pathologies, typical even today in swimmers, that could cause deafness or a deviated septum. Cranial studies of ancient Roman skulls have revealed some of these malformations.
The pools were fed by huge cisterns that could contain up to 80.000 cubic meters of water! To heat it, there were enormous underground ovens that spread heated air through the spaces under suspended floors. The ovens were fed with unbelievable quantities of wood and the Romans were sadly famous for having denuded huge tracts of forest land!
Underneath the floors were the service areas that allowed for management of the baths far from the eyes of its customers. The intricate complex of subterranean rooms, not visitable at the moment, offers an exceptional spectacle: the huge ovens and other structures, more than three meters tall, that heated the water, are perfectly preserved in this impressive underground labyrinth. It was down here that the largest sanctuary in Rome dedicated to the god Mitra was found, with its opening on the outside of the baths’ fence.
Over the course of years, the thermal baths were restored many times until they finally ceased functioning forever in 537, when Vitige, king of the Ostrogoths, cut the acqueduct that fed them during his siege of Rome.
The Baths of Caracalla are one of the rare cases in which it’s possible to reconstruct, at least partly, the original decorations. Written sources speak of enormous marble columns, pavements with colored stone from the Orient, mosaics of glass paste and marbled walls, painted stucco and hundreds of colossal statues, both in niches in the walls of the various rooms as well as in the most important halls and gardens.
15th century excavations brought to light the two huge granite tubs that are now in Piazza Farnese, besides numerous other works of art including the Bull and the Farnese Hercules, now in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, and the mosaic with athletes in the Vatican Musuems. Even the Columnn of Justice in Florence, is from the natatio of the Baths of Caracalla!
The only area that has yet to emerge from the excavations—and that remains almost a mystery—are the bathrooms (that, in other thermal establishments, are well visible). The fact that they haven’t been found doesn’t however mean that it was tough to find a toilet in ancient Rome: just as in Italy it’s obvious that, to find a toilet, all you have to do is go into a bar and order a coffee, for the Romans, all you had to do was look for a flock of servants waiting outside somewhere, holding their masters’ clothes!
Whatever we may think of “toilets” today, at the time of the Romans, it was one of the most important phases of the ritual of the baths: they were the place were all negative bodily fluids were released, and this according to a concept of privacy very different from our own: in a most social atmosphere, seated one next to the other, continuing to discuss and exchange opinions with the other clients; all within one of the most majestic and imposing locations of all antiquity.