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Rome: Baths of Caracalla

Model of the Baths of Caracalla. Museo nazionale della civiltą romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Baths of Caracalla: most famous of all ancient Roman thermae, built between 211 and 224 by the emperors Caracalla, Heliogabalus, and Severus Alexander.

Among the most splendid monuments of ancient Rome is the building known as the Thermae Antoninianae, or, as we call them, "the baths of Caracalla", shown on the first photo as a model in the Museo nazionale della civiltą romana. Today, the roofs have collapsed, the walls have fallen down, the statues have been removed, and the decoration is gone, but yet, the ruins belong to the most impressive remains of Antiquity. A satellite photo can be found here, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Caracalla. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.

A bust of the emperor Caracalla, from the Altes Museum in Berlin. He was a son of Septimius Severus, succeeded his father in 211 and was to reign until 217. In the late second century, the role of the Senate had diminished and the Severan dynasty was sometimes looking for support among others classes of Roman society, like the equestrian order and the inhabitants of the big cities. For them, the new baths were built, not far from the Via Appia, so that every visitor of Rome would immediately see them. Workers labored more than ten years on the enormous bathhouse after the sovereign first ordered its construction in 212.

This picture shows one of the entrances: coming down from the hill known as "Little Aventine", you needed these stairs to enter the complex. You can see that the complex was near a hill. Approximately thirteen thousand prisoners of war from the Scottish campaign of Septimius Severus had to be used to level the building site. In addition, some six thousand tradesmen were engaged every day in the actual construction, which required no fewer than twenty-one million bricks.  To make the ornamentation six hundred marble workers required 6300 m³ of marble.

The complex consists of the real bathhouse -here you see its northwestern wall- and a park that surrounded it, which was created by Caracalla's successors Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander. Water was brought to the bathhouse by a new branch of the Aqua Marcia aqueduct, which was called Aqua Antoniniana. One arch survives and is now, incorrectly, called Arco di Druso.

The central building of the complex measured 214 by 114 meters and consisted of four levels, two above ground and two below. It is not difficult to be impressed by it even today: the imposing ruins are still thirty meters high. This picture show the northern hall (basilica thermarum; 50 by 20 meters). Here, visitors entered the bathhouse.

Some archaeologists believe this hall was used by athletes and was some sort of gym. A strong argument for this interpretation is this mosaic, which once graced the hall and shows all kinds of athletes. It was discovered in 1824 and is now in the Vatican Museums.

The bathhouse was symmetrically built along a northeast-southwest axis. This is the eastern hall, which is the mirror image of the northern basilica thermarum. Visitors who entered the city from the southeast and wanted to clean themselves after their trip entered the baths here. They could hire a slave who took care of their belongings. There were lockers too, although they had no locks. We know from a bathhouse in Pompeii that you did not have to remember the number of your safe, but an erotic picture.

Throughout the ages moralists have wondered whether or not the Romans engaged in mixed bathing. The answer is that mixed bathing was officially "not done," but few seemed to care. Cicero and Pliny the Elder complained about this practice, and the emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Severus Alexander banned it. However the fact the ban had to be repeated merely proves that it was ignored, as the Roman authorities lacked the means to make sure such rules were followed. The poet Martial regarded mixed bathing as an expression of a liberal morality, and most Romans must have felt the same way.

Some sixteen hundred people at one time could use the cold baths, tepid baths, hot baths, steam baths and the open air bath, which was the size of a modern, Olympic-sized swimming pool (50 meters in length). Here you can see it. After your visit to the gym, you could relax over here.

As was usual since the age of Trajan the building was constructed in such a way that the visitors could easily walk from one facility to another. This is the main corridor between the two halls. To the right was the swimming pool; in the center of this corridor was the cold bath, and if you went to the left, you would go to the tepid and warm baths.

The entrance of the tepid bath, where most people spent most of their time. The epitaph of one Tiberius Claudius Secundus says Balnea, vina, Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra; sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus, which means that "Baths, wine and sex spoil our bodies; but baths, wine and sex make up life."

The tepid bath again, seen from the south. The two large piles once supported a vault (with a diameter of 34 meters) that covered the hot bath, which we must imagine to the left. The foundations of six other piles have been discovered but can hardly be seen. The hot bath was flanked by two steam baths. (Until the 1980's, the area between the piles was used as the stage for opera performances.)

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© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 8 August 2010
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