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Part XII – ‘What could be worse than Nero, but what could be better than Nero’s baths’

There were hundreds of baths across ancient Rome. Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls explore the remains of the Baths of Nero and Baths of Trajan.
In a hot, cramped, dusty, and noisy city, the ability to get really clean must have felt like a sublime treat. If you’ve been to a Turkish bath today, you might have an idea. The sequence of warm and hot rooms, getting a sweat on, maybe having a massage and a cold plunge or shower, that’s what Romans like to do when they bathe. And they really like to bathe. By one late antique catalogue, about 900 balneae or private bathhouses existed across the city as well as the great imperial public baths or thermae, so it’s something that’s really embedded and ingrained into the Roman mindset. The idea of what a city is.
And bathing becomes a sort of symbol of Romaness, something the Romans are very keen to export in bathhouses all over the empire. I’ve even been to little bath houses in the forts on Hadrian’s Wall on the border between the empire and the wilds of modern Scotland. Roman emperors, building on their bread and circuses regime in the city, wanted to offer wonderful, spectacular bathhouses to win the affection and gratitude of the populace on a stupendous scale. So when the emperors came to power, starting with Augustus, they sponsored the construction of great bath houses, and over the next couple of centuries, these got bigger and bigger and more and more lavish, until they reach, as you’ll see, a truly spectacular scale.
The first public bathhouse in Rome was built by Agrippa, the son-in-law and lieutenant of the emperor Augustus. He built it in conjunction with his aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo of 19 BC, because of course, you need a lot of fast-flowing, clean water to get the maximum effect from the pools and fountains in these bathhouses. Here we can see, sticking out of the wall on this side street, half of what would once have been a large vaulted dome. The central round room in this magnificent bathing space. But splendid as this Baths of Agrippa is, when you compare it to later Roman bath houses, it starts to look relatively small.
Other emperors, following Augustus and Agrippa’s lead, created greater bathhouses of their own. Just around the corner from here are the remains of Nero’s bathhouse. As the witty poet Martial said, ‘what could be worse than Nero, but what could be better than Nero’s baths?’ These baths were regarded as a really spectacular, luxurious amenity for the first century AD city.
Now, not much survives on the surface today, but there are some clues. If you look at the line of the street here, you can see that there’s a rise. It’s not a natural hill. This is a great mound made by the collapsed walls and vaults of this bathhouse, over which modern Rome has been built. So the rise in the street here is really a sign that once this huge bathhouse stood on the spot. And around and about this area just to the west of the Pantheon, there are occasional reminders that a mighty public bathhouse once stood here. These beautiful granite columns, for example, once part of the bathhouse.
And just around the corner, this magnificent marble basin, still a working fountain today, is thought to have come originally from one of the rooms of Nero’s baths.
Later emperors took this concept and they ran with it. Next to the Colosseum, the emperor Titus built a little bathhouse. But above that at the start of the second century AD, on the Esquiline Hill, the emperor Trajan terraced out an enormous bathing platform, and on it, he put the first really mature, extensive Roman imperial bathhouse.
These huge brick and concrete remains are what’s left of Trajan’s bathhouse up on the Esquiline Hill. The imperial bathhouse with a model of bathhouse architecture really gets established and finds its classic format that it then retains for a couple more centuries. These days, this huge expansive area is laid out as a park, with remains of the bathhouse like this one popping up here and there. But if we use the map or our mind’s eye to join these together, we get a wonderful picture of what a bathing establishment on this scale would have been like.
What they did was, Trajan and his architect Apollodorus, take the Esquiline Hill, level off the top of it, and push out a huge terrace towards the Colosseum, overlooking the Colosseum valley where Nero’s hated palace and boating lake once stood. There’d be a central bathing block, a huge open air swimming pool, and around it, great halls, marble columns soaring up to vaulted ceilings, glass mosaic, water in the pools beneath, rippling and giving back their light. Statues everywhere. A really opulent environment for bathing. Rooms of different temperature, hot and cold, cool and warm, so you can bathe in whatever environment suited you. And that’s just the bit in the middle.
Around that, occupying all of the park in which we now stand would be an outer wall, a perimeter zone, and in there, you’d have trees, ornamental gardens, groves, statues, lecture halls, libraries even, space for athletics and sports. And in the substructures beneath the platform, shops where we know the Romans liked to do their Saturnalia shopping, the equivalent of Christmas shopping. So right here in the heart of the city, overlooking the Colosseum and forming a kind of leisure zone within the city is a space where you could meet friends, have a relaxing bath and massage, get a snack, drink of wine.
You have inscriptions about people up here playing ball and listening to poetry and philosophy in the courtyard a whole day out right here in the heart of the city.

The Romans loved to bathe. They built numerous public and private bathhouses, large and small, across the ancient city and throughout the empire.

Join me on my next guided tour around the ruins of some of these bathhouses including Nero’s luxurious thermae – so spectacular it led the poet Martial to exclaim ‘what could be worse than Nero, but what could be better than Nero’s baths?’

As you watch the video, you may like to think about the following discussion points.

  • Why was bathing so important to the Romans?

  • What innovations or techniques do you think the Romans used to construct and maintain their bathhouses?

Share your thoughts in the comments area.

You’ll hear more about why Nero was so hated later this week, when we take a detailed look at the Colosseum.

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