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Rome: Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla: most famous of all ancient Roman thermae, built between 211 and 224 by the emperors Caracalla, Heliogabalus, and Severus Alexander. The first part of this article can be found here.

This is one of two large bath tubs that were discovered in the bathhouse. They were made of Egyptian grey granite. In the sixteenth century, the concession to take away all valuable objects from the Baths of Caracalla was granted to the Farnese family, so that these tubs are now near the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, on the Piazza Farnese. The fountain has the shape of the Farnese lily. The Farneses owned other works of art, to which we will return in a moment., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

In 216 the main building was complete. Caracalla's distant cousin and successor Heliogabalus (218-222) erected the side-buildings, but it was not until the time of Severus Alexander (222-235) that the finishing touches were put on the structure. Beside the bathhouse, the complex was home to shops, an athletic track, sports fields, pleasure gardens, massage rooms, saunas, two reading rooms, a hair salon, perfumeries, cafeterias, music pavilions and a museum.

In addition to all of this, one of the side-buildings housed an underground temple to Mithras. Many modern publications also mention brothels, but this is because for a long time scholars saw a prostitute in every barmaid and masseuse. It says more about ancient historians than it does about the ancients themselves.

This is the access to one of the subterranean structures, where hundreds of stokers burned ten tons of wood every day to keep the water at the right temperature. The delivery of fuel was such an important task that Severus Alexander counted it among his personal responsibilities.

Of course there were latrines in the Baths of Caracalla. This is a chair from one of the toilets, with a remarkable decoration. Today, it can be seen in the British Museum in London.

The walls on the next photo are believed to belong to one of the two reading rooms of the complex. However, the rooms are situated next to a large water reservoir, and the author of the present article is not convinced that the engineers of Antiquity had already reached the level stupidity needed to build a library on such a risky place.

Returning from the park to the main building: it was decorated with mosaics and statues. Some of these can be seen today in the Vatican Museums, like the mosaic of the athletes above and the Torso of the Belvedere, which shows the Greek hero Ajax contemplating suicide. Several statues, which once belonged to the Farnese collection, were later given to the king of Naples, and are now part of the collection of the Museo archeologico nazionale in that city. They include a famous muscle-bound Hercules, which is a Roman copy of a work by Lysippus of Sicyon (372-306). Other well-known statues from the Baths of Caracalla are the "Farnese Flora", "the Tyrannicides", and the "Farnese Bull", a group that represents the punishment of a lady named Dirce, who was tied to a wild bull. These three statues are shown on the next pictures.

The "Farnese Hercules". National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
The "Tyrannicides". National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins. The "Farnese Bull". National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Farnese Hercules Tyrannicides
Farnese Bull
Belvedere Torso. Musei Vaticani, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.

The hundreds of visitors to the baths must have made a prodigious noise. An advisor to Nero, Seneca (4-65), describes the cacophony of a bathhouse in the provinces:
Just imagine all those voices, which make you begin to hate your own ears. When those musclemen work out by swinging around lead weights in their hands and exert themselves (or pretend to), you can hear them groaning. Whenever they exhale the air they have been holding in, you can hear it escape with a squeaking, squealing sound. Whenever you see a passive type who is content with a cheap massage, you can hear from the sound of the hand striking the shoulder if the hand was flat or cupped. A ballplayer running in to announce the score is the straw that broke the camel's back.

Then picture a troublemaker or a pickpocket being arrested and the man who likes to hear himself sing in the bath, and to that you can add those who plop down into the water with a loud splash. In addition to these people, whose noises are at least natural, you have to imagine the shaver who is continually shouting in his piercing voice in order to attract the attention of passers-by. He never closes his mouth, except when he is pulling out armpit hairs and lets someone else shriek in his place. Then there are the alcohol vendors with their varied cries, the sausage sellers, the pastry bakers and the barmen, each one praising his services in every possible way.

The din at the Baths of Caracalla must have been at least as bad. It is tempting to think that life in a city with so many bathhouses was healthy. This is a misconception, as can be seen from the writings of Aulus Cornelius Celsus (first century CE), who prescribed baths for people suffering from dysentery, fever caused by typhus and malaria, tuberculosis (in particular tabes dorsalis), paralysis, tumors of the liver, cholera, bowel disorders, diarrhea, worms and maggots, gonorrhea, rabies, boils, psoriasis, sprue, diseases of the eye and public lice that have attached themselves to the eyelashes. It was only in the second century that the emperor Hadrian hit upon the idea of reserving special hours in the baths for the sick. 

Finally, some pictures of the decorations of the wall and floors. (The ceilings were probably painted.) This is a piece of marble with floral motifs. Below it, the walls were covered with slabs of marble; the upper register was decorated with stucco.

Everywhere, the floors were covered with brightly colored mosaics. Others were black and white and showed maritime figures, like fish, sea horses, and erotes.

The colored mosaics were often abstract, and were made from all kinds of natural stone, like grey granite from Egypt, yellow marble from Numidia, green-veined marble from Carystus and green and purple porphyry from Sparta and Egypt. Anyone reclining in one of these baths would have experienced the vastness of the Mediterranean empire.

Later emperors, like Aurelian and Diocletian, have ordered repairs to the baths of Caracalla, and we know that the Ostrogothic king Theodoric also restored a part of the complex that had fallen into disrepair. The end came in 537, when Rome was besieged by Witigis and the water supply was destroyed.

A satellite photo can be seen here.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 3 July 2015
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