Normally, my television viewing isn’t especially high brow or educational. I don’t watch “Honey Boo Boo” or “The Bachelor,” but I am a big fan of “Project Runway” and “Masterchef,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Downton Abbey.” In short – I don’t often turn to the TV for intellectual stimulation.
The other night, however, I noticed that there were three one-hour specials on the Science Channel about ancient Rome, so I decided to tune in. On one of the shows – I think it was “What the Ancients Knew” – they talked about the history and construction of the Baths of Caracalla. The ruins can be seen today on Rome’s Celian Hill overlooking the Coliseum.
Now, if you are a European traveler, chances are you’ve run across the ruins of Roman Baths before, and not just in Rome, by any means. When the Roman Empire was at its peak, Romans not only conquered, but strived to impose the Roman lifestyle, upon citizens from the North of England, down through Germany, France, etc., and all around the shores of the Mediterranean.
And that included building baths for the locals.
I mean, I can see why. Can’t you just imagine the Roman invaders avoiding contact as much as possible with the unwashed masses? “For God’s sake, Octavius, can’t you get those peasants to lay rocks any faster? If we don’t get those smelly bastards in a bath soon, I’m heading back to Pisa,” a persnickety captain may have roared.
Now, I have wandered past Roman baths in a number of locales, but I have decided after seeing the Science Channel’s program that I would like to tour one with a knowledgeable guide. If I find myself in Rome again, I could choose from two of the most famous: the Baths of Caracalla or an even larger one right in the heart of Rome, the Baths of Diocletian.
Caracalla was actually built first during the reign of the notoriously nasty Emperor Caracalla in AD 217. At capacity with around 1,600 people, Roman citizens came not only to bathe, but to meet for business, hang out with friends, hook up with a prostitute, and to pursue a variety of other activities seemingly unrelated to having a scrub. The Baths of Caracalla were in use for roughly 300 years until the Goths invaded and messed up the plumbing. I kind of picture the guys in the commercial who say, “What’s in YOUR wallet,” wielding axes and clubs, having no clue of how comforting a warm bath would be after a day of pillaging. Stupid move, Goths.
Located near Rome’s central train station (which was very convenient for people coming in from the suburbs), the Baths of Diocletian was close to twice the size of Caracalla serving up to 3,000 people at a time. It was completed in 306 AD and had not only the traditional bath setup, but also libraries, gyms, art galleries and pretty much everything but a Starbucks. (Although, maybe there were coffee shops and that’s what inspired the cafes of the future?)
At any rate, your basic Roman Bath consisted of, at the very least, three rooms: the frigidarium (cold bath), tepidarium (lukewarm bath) and the calidarium (hot bath). Reading various descriptions, it sounds to me like people usually started out with kind of a steam bath or sauna-type experience, then visited the baths in sequence from hot to lukewarm to cold. Following a cooling dip in the frigidarium, they’d cannonball into an open-air pool called the natatio. If you could afford it, you’d finish off the experience with a caramel macchiatto and a rub down by a masseuse wielding a scented woolen cloth.
(Then there’s the question I think we’d all like answered: with all those people getting in and out of the water all the time, did they wear some early version of a swimsuit – or were they walking around naked? I’m just asking.)
I don’t know how often people actually visited the baths, but it seems to me that getting clean could take up the better part of a day. Especially if you were mixing in a little socializing or reading in the library at some point in the midst of all the sweating, dipping and washing. When did they work? Or was this mainly for wealthier folks who didn’t have to punch a time clock somewhere?
If you’d like to learn more about Roman baths, there are plenty of resources out there. I Googled, of course, and two really helpful sites were ROME.INFO and italyguides.it. I also found a site called historvius.com that has a great map pinpointing locations of ruins as well as a list of the top ten, best preserved baths you could visit in various countries. For more technical and engineering-type info, you might enjoy reruns of the shows about Rome on the Science Channel, as well.
As a bonus, if you decide to visit the Diocletian Baths in Rome, you’ll also get to see structures that were later built incorporating sections of the ruins, like the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Christian Martyrs that was designed by Michelangelo. Parts of the bath’s original main hall and the “octagonal aula” were integrated into the Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museum).
What would you like to see if you go to Rome? If you have an idea for my sixth reason to return to Rome, please post in the comments! Ciao!